Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fantasy Football Rankings: Kickers and Defenses


When it comes to fantasy football kickers, I have one rule: wait until the last round. Unless the league requires you to draft two kickers for some stupid reason, in which case wait until the last two rounds and then drop one immediately. A few guys will be drafted earlier than that, so I know I'll never get the "studs" at the kicker position. It's okay. Typically, a kicker who finishes in the top five in fantasy points one year does not duplicate their success. Neil Rackers, Robbie Gould, Rob Bironas ... there are endless examples of kickers who came out of obscurity and led the NFL in kicking points, and then the very next year fell back into the middle-of-the-pack. The so-called sure things, names like Vinatari and Akers, are just as likely to finish in the top half in points as the bottom half. Simply said, there is no predicting kickers. It's all random; it's 99% luck.

There are, however, four guiding principles I use when drafting a kicker, which sometimes prove useful and sometimes do not. I would be happy to share them with you:

1) Good offense. The most obvious rationale when drafting a kicker is that if the team scores a lot of points, the kicker scores a lot of points. This is what compels the ESPN experts to rank New England's Gostkowski #1.

2) Indoor games. It's so much easier to kick on turf instead of grass, especially with no wind. Guys who play half their games indoors almost always have a higher accuracy percentage; on a related note, kickers who play outdoors and in the cold (New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh) usually have a tough time in two or three snowy home games.

3) Favorable schedules. I like kickers who play against divisions with weak defenses. Or, I like to drop kickers from week to week and play against crummy defenses, especially in a dome. Of course, I typically overthink the matchup and end up with a splendid two extra points.

4) Good kicker. It seems obvious right? But all too often I end up drafting a kicker who can't kick the freaking ball through the uprights from 45 yards on a semi-windy day. What good are FG attempts if they can't make them??

*One last note: don't ever draft a kicker unless you're sure they will be the starter. The only thing more annoying than a quarterback controversy is a kicker controversy. So that leaves out a few teams, including the high-scoring Saints.

So allow me to quickly roll through my hastily thought-out kicker rankings. I used five levels for categorizing: great, good, decent, average, and shit. But remember, like I said earlier, it doesn't matter who you draft; you just cannot predict kickers.

Tier One: Good Kickers Who Play Lots of Indoor Games

1. Kris Brown, Houston.
11 indoor games, good offense, great kicker.

2. Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis.
11 indoor games, great offense, good kicker.

3. Jason Elam, Atlanta.
9 indoor games, great offense, decent kicker.

4. Ryan Longwell, Minnesota.
11 indoor games, decent offense, average kicker.

5. Neil Rackers, Arizona.
10 indoor games, good offense, inconsistent but sometimes great kicker.

Tier Two: Great kickers on Great Offenses; Outside Games

6. Stephen Gostkowski, New England.
Best offense in the NFL, great kicker, only 3 indoor games.

7. David Akers, Philadelphia.
Great offense, great kicker, only one indoor game.

8. Nate Kaeding, San Diego.
Great offense, great kicker, no indoor games.

Tier Three: Everyone Else...

9. Mason Crosby, Green Bay.
Good offense, decent kicker, cold weather games.
(It doesn't matter if I want Crosby or not, Crazy Keith always ends up with Crosby. It's just a fact.)

10. Rob Bironas, Tennesee
Shit offense, great kicker, only a few indoors.

11. Jason Hanson, Detroit.
12. Josh Brown, St. Louis.
10 indoor games, shit offenses, decent kickers.

13. Nick Folk, Dallas.
Good offense, good kicker.

14. Robbie Gould, Chicago.
15. John Kasay, Carolina.
16. Joe Nedney, San Francisco.
Decent offenses, good kickers.

17. Lawerence Tynes, New York Giants.
Good offense, Scottish kicker. I mean, decent kicker.

18. Matt Prater, Denver.
Decent offense, average kicker.

19. Shayne Graham, Cincinnati.
Shit offense, good kicker.

20. Josh Scobee, Jacksonville.
21. Ryan Lindell, Buffalo.
Average offenses, average kickers.

22. Josh Reed, Pittsburgh.
Good offense, good kicker, shit stadium.
(Check this out: this guy got a demeanor for "Criminal Mischief" at a local convenience store this past winter when their bathroom did not have any paper towels and he proceeded to flip things over and scream at the clerk. Sounds like a real winner.)

23. Mike Nugent, Tampa Bay.
24. Phil Dawson, Cleveland.
Shit offenses, decent kickers.

As far as I can tell, everyone else is either involved in some kind of position battle or is so a fat bald guy named Sebastin, so the rankings will stop here. The most important thing to remember with kickers is this: don't draft them until the last round. Don't be cute and draft Gostkowski while everyone else is grabbing this year's Steve Slaton and Eddie Royal.

Let's move on straight away to my rankings for Fantasy Football 2009 Defenses!

Defense/Special Teams Rankings

DSTs are almost as difficult to predict as kickers, and have the same annoying tendency where the guys who finished at the top last year end up near the bottom the following year. Look at the Vikings and Chargers; they were the consensus top two defenses last fantasy season, and neither ended up being a respectable starting option. Injuries can really take a toll on fantasy defenses, and turnovers and sacks can be totally unpredictable. And sometimes the experts are just flat out wrong; a few years ago I drafted the Dolphins defense, pre-ranked as a top five choice. I dropped them after several weeks of ineptitude, and they finished dead last among fantasy defenses. Dead last. They were projected to be a top five defense. How does that happen? That would never happen with any other position. Last year I reached and selected the Vikings in the sixth round, thinking the addition of Jared Allen plus being in the Lions and Bears division would give them a sure-fire elite defense. I was wrong. This year's sure thing looks like the Steelers, who have all their studs back for another year and play their home games on a field of mud to ensure that opposing offenses can't move at full speed. (Pretty cheap if you ask me, but whatever.) The Steelers will probably be taken in the fifth or sixth round, which is a bit too early for me, and besides picking a sleeper defense is something I pride myself in.

Last year I had the Bills and Titans both pegged as sleepers, and ranked as 7 and 8 respectively. I drafted the Bills, adhering to my draft board, but dangit if I had just picked the Titans I might have won the whole league. At least the Bills weren't all that bad, although they sat the bench while the Vikings stunk it up so the whole DST thing didn't really work out for me last year. But the important thing is, I called the Titans as a sleeper, and for that I take great pride.

This year there are a number of obvious great defenses: the Steelers, Giants, Eagles, Ravens, etc. What I'm more concerned with is value. Finding a great defense in the very late rounds, when most of the experts' top 10 defenses are long gone. I like the Bills again, and I love the Redskins, and I think the Bears and Patriots are being undervalued and should make a good bargain. The hard thing about predicting fantasy defenses, and the reason everyone always gets it wrong, is this:

There is tons of luck involved. Turnovers, sacks, touchdowns- sometimes they are just as much about being in the right place at the right time as being a great player. The ball bounces right into your hands, or the quarterback throws it right to the safety, or the running back trips over his own feet and fumbles. It happens all the time. You can have an elite shutdown corner, a ball-hawking safety, a great pass-rushing DE or a run-stuffing DT or a brilliant chase-and-tackle linebacker, and none of that has anything to do with why Dan Orlovsky ran out of the back of the end zone last October. Sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes Sage Rosenfels fumbles three times in the last five minutes of the game, but don't credit the Colts defense for that. That's why so much of my rankings are based on intangibles, rather than roster; who you play against and where is just as important as how good you are. It's also why matchups are so important for DSTs. No defense could stop the 2007 Patriots, and no defense could do poorly against the 08 Lions. My rankings are going to try to reflect not only talent but opportunity, and hopefully blend the two together beautifully into a tapestry of brilliant foreshadowing. Without further ado, my rankings:

Tier One: Studs

1. Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's rare that I pick last's year #1 to be this year's #1. The experts try to do it at every position, which makes me guffaw. But certain exceptions should be made. Adrian Peterson is one. The Steelers defense is the other. They still have all their studs (Harrison, Woodley, Polumalu, Hampton, Farrior, Smith) and they still play home games on that muddy pit called Heinz Field. They love low-scoring games, and dictate their offense around long, time-consuming drives. That's why they had the fewest points allowed and yards allowed in the NFL last season, and why they're likely to do it again. They should rack up the sacks and turnovers once again, and they usually score a few times a year on punt returns. Oh yeah, and they get to play the Browns and Bengals twice and the Lions once. They are definitely a worthy #1 overall defense, the question is how soon is too soon to draft them? I'd wait until at least the seventh round, but that's just me.

2. Philadelphia Eagles.
The only concern I have with Philly is that they play six games against tough division opponents. But it's not all about who you play; a good defense is a good defense. In fantasy football you want an aggressive defense, and nobody's more aggressive than the Eagles. They blitz like crazy, they sack like crazy, and they force turnovers like crazy. Asante Samuel is an excellent cover corner and Trent Cole is a good pass rusher and they have playmakers all over. Hopefully they can trim back the yards and points allowed this year.

3. Washington Redskins.
I'll keep saying it until somebody listens to me: they are this year's Titans. Run the ball, stop the run. They won't give up many yards or points and Haynesworth opens up the rest of the D for sacks and big plays. I don't understand why nobody is making a big deal of the Skins D. In basketball, if you add a top 10 player in the NBA, say Chris Paul, everyone's going to freak out and say you're suddenly an elite team. Why isn't it the same in football!? And don't you dare tell me Haynesworth isn't a top 10 player. He might be incredibly expensive, but he's worth every penny if he plays as good as he played last year. The scary thing is ... the Redskins finished fourth in fewest yards allowed last year, without Haynesworth. Look out guys.

4. New York Giants.
That's three NFC East teams in a row. So much for worrying about facing those tough offenses. I think the good defenses in the divison outweigh the good offenses. The Giants have studs on the D-line with Uminyora and Tuck, playmakers all over the secondary, and crazy depth. The big concern is the departure of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (now with the Rams), who was probably the mastermind behind their success.

5. New York Jets.
Second best cornerback in the NFL: Darelle Revis. One of the best linebacking duos in the NFL: David Harris and Bart Scott. One of the best nosetackles in the NFL: Kris Jenkins. What's not to like here? New coach Rex Ryan is a notorious blitzing fiend from his Baltimore days and should add some aggression to a talented Jets defense. Two other intangible reasons to like the Jets D: they emphasize running the ball and running the clock on offense, and six of their final eight games should be in cold weather. That's a lot of things to like. They have sleeper written all over them. All the Jets need is for Sanchez not to stink and they're talking playoffs. (Playoffs?? PLAYOFFS?? DONT TALK ABOUT ... PLAYOFFS??? )

6. Baltimore Ravens.
I love and hate them at the same time. I hate that their old, I hate that Rex Ryan left them and took Bart Scott with him, and it's scary that they lost both starting cornerbacks (McAllister and Rolle). I love that they still have the best defensive playmaker in the NFL (Ed Reed) and the most murderous linebacker (literally) in Ray Lewis, plus sackmaster Terrell Suggs, and I really love those four games against the hapless Browns and Bengals. They're good, but I bet they'll be inconsistent.

Tier Two: Former Studs Who Can Now Be Bought At A Bargain
7. Minnesota Vikings.
8. San Diego Chargers
Last year's top choices have both slipped in the rankings, but are still better than average. They each have balance and depth and stud playmakers, as well as sack-specialists. Both teams struggle against the pass, however, which consequently means they give up too many points and yards, even in their respectively easy divisions. The Vikings are better because you simply can't run against them.

9. New England Patriots.
Their defense stunk last year, which is great news for this year's fantasy draft, because it means you can draft them pretty much whenever you want. They've still got a killer defensive line and good young LBs led by Jerod Mayo. Their glaring weakness last year was in the secondary. They added Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden, and rookie Ken Chung to address the problem. That should be enough. One of my cardinal rules when drafting a fantasy defense: trust great coaches. The Patriots certainly have one.

10. Chicago Bears.
Similar to the Patriots in that no one will be after them early even though they used to be a powerhouse. I actually think adding the irrevocably inept Rod Marinelli as defensive line coach will help the Bears achieve more sacks. Sort of like the Morninwhig phenomenon: terrible head coach makes a decent assistant coach. The linebackers are good, but not great, and certainly overrated, and the secondary isn't wonderful. The best thing Chicago's got going for them is the fact that these are DST rankings, not just defense rankings; Devin Hester is still the best return man in the world.

11. Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jags are kind of like the Steelers, in that they love to grind out the clock and dominate time of possession and play low-scoring, field-position type of games. That helps their fantasy defense. Mathis is an elite cornerback and they have two young DEs who can rush the passer, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. If the rest of the defense can avoid being burned, Jacksonville might be one of the best values this year. Pretty much no one will draft them after last year's debacle, but I attribute that to growing pains as they adjusted to losing their stud DT and were no longer able to stop the run. They won't be a top-five unit this year for the same reason, but they might be a consistently startable unit.

Tier Three: The New Studs
12. Buffalo Bills.
I've already confessed my love to the Bills defense enough times over the past two seasons that I'm getting sick of it. I'm only rating them 12th best defense to show that while I would be willing to draft and own them in a 12 team league, I don't trust them to definitely be an elite defense. Stroud, Schobel, Maybin, McGee, Posluszny... they do have a lot of stud players. Let's see if they can put together a 16 game season instead of just a 6 game season like the player last year.

(Even though you shouldn't need to draft any defenses out of the top 12, I'm going to go ahead and rank them all just for the fun of it)

13. Green Bay Packers.
I was obsessed with the Packers D for a while until I stumbled across something unsettling: their switch to the 3-4 scheme involves moving stud defensive end Aaron Kampman to outside linebacker. Moving your best player to an entirely different position? Doesn't this seem like an idiotic idea? The hope is that Kampman will be a pure enough athlete to seamlessly switch positions and if he does the entire defense benefits like crazy. It makes sense. Sort of. But is it feasible? I have my doubts. Still like the Pack D, but not as much anymore.

14. Houston Texans.
Just like the real-life Texans, the fantasy DST Texans are hyped up as a sleeper every season but they always disappoint. Mario Williams is a sack-stud. DeMecco Ryans is an awesome linebacker. Okobi is a rising star at DT. The Texans are pretty easy to beat through the air, though, and that will probably be their downfall.

15. San Francisco 49ers.
Same story as Houston. Everyone loves to pick them as a sleeper, everyone's always wrong. What the 49ers have is the best linebacker in the NFL and a defensive minded coach, and young talent on the line and in the secondary. What they don't have is a history of playing well, which could lead to a lack of confidence and another lousy season. But being in the NFC West, and having a player as dynamically awesome as Patrick Willis, I can't drop them any lower than 15. Maybe they should be higher. Time will tell.

16. Miami Dolphins.
Joey Porter and the Dolphins overachieved last year and then shook things up in the secondary and added a few rookies who they plan on starting and it all makes it pretty hard to trust them, even if they are led by the genius Bill Parcells.

Tier Four: If You're Desperate ... Or If You're Stupid

17. Dallas Cowboys.
They have one of the NFL's best defensive players, DeMarcus Ware, but that's about it. Last year they had a ton of sacks (59) but didn't do much of anything else. Expect more of the same, but with less sacks. They've got a tough schedule and a dofus coach.

18. Detroit Lions.
Come on, you knew I wasn't ranking the Lions dead last like every other expert. (Yes, I just referred to myself as an expert; if those bozos can call themselves experts so can I.) Look at the facts: added Grady Jackson to bolster a terrible rush defense; added Buchanon, Henry and King to make a horrible pass defense more mediocre; added Peterson and Foote to a linebacking crew that lacked the ability to read plays and make tackles; added a defensive minded head coach and got rid of a super-idiotic head coach; drafted a stud at free safety; finally have a legitimate return man in Dennis Northcutt; cut Travis Fisher; still have Ernie Sims; play against turnover-machines Cutler and Favre twice each;
play against the low-scoring Rams, Seahawks, Bengals, Browns, Ravens and 49ers; plus, most importantly, they are due. You can't be the worst team in the NFL two years in a row. I'm probably not going to draft the Lions, but if they remain a free agent, I'll give them a shot. They're going to be good.

19. Indianapolis Colts.
Nothing against the Colts defense; Bob Sanders and Dwight Freeney are exceptional players. It's just that the Colts style doesn't behoove good fantasy numbers for their defense. The offenses scores fast and scores often. They play on turf. And most of all, they run a Tampa-inspired cover 2 scheme, which basically means they employ small, faster players instead of players who, say, are able to stop the run. So the Colts get toasted on the ground game year after year, and although the Tampa 2 architect is out of town, all his old players remain and are still too small to stop the run. They are one of those defenses who are much better in real life than they are in fantasy.

20. St. Louis Rams.
The classic example of a great coach with minimal talent to work with. I trust Spagnuolo to turn them around and the turnaround will start on the defensive end. Breakout season for Chris Long and I bet a couple guys I've never heard of will make names for themselves too. Sleeper alert.

21. Arizona Cardinals.
They ranked in the top half of DSTs last year, but mainly because they scored six defensive touchdowns. That’s one of those luck kinds of things that doesn’t usually repeat itself. Rodgers-Cromartie is a great player but Dockett looks to be holding out or at least not playing wholeheartedly, and the rest of the NFC West is about to catch up with them this year.

22. Tennessee Titans.
Here's my advice for the 2009 Titans defense: laugh at whomever in your league is stupid enough to draft them. They had one great fluke year, and then they lost their coach and best player. Not just their best player, but one of the best defensive players in all the NFL. They won't be able to stop the run this year, or slow the pass, and their offense will be much worse too which makes their defense worse. If anyone in your league is unaware of the Haynesworth not being on the Titans this year, or doesn't even know who Haynesworth is, hope that they draft Tennesee with the hope that they will be a top-five defense once again. Then laugh at them.

Tier Five: Maybe Next Year
23. Seattle Seahawks.They would possibly be ranked dead last if not for drafting Aaron Curry. I think he'll come in and dominate right away. (He might be the only rookie drafted in the top 10 who I say that about.) The rest of Seattle is not special at all.

24. Kansas City Chiefs.
For a while I had the Chiefs pegged as a major sleeper. They have so much young talent (Dorsey, Johnson, Jackson) and some veteran linebackers (Vrabel, Thomas) and the assassin who took down Tom Brady last year (Pollard.) I like their offense and their team overall this year, but I can't rank their defense higher than 25 until the young talent actually starts to produce.

Tier Six: Don't Even Think About It

25. Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta is an offensive team, and they figure to get in as many high-scoring shootouts as they can. That's bad. Besides that, they have almost no talent on defense (comparatively to the rest of the NFL). That's even worse.

26. Oakland Raiders.
As you may have heard, the Raiders have the best defensive player in the NFL, Nnamdi Asomugha. He shuts down half the field and makes their pass defense one of the best. But opposing teams will run all over and throw at everyone except Asomugha and dominate the Raiders as usual. Poor guy needs to get on a new team. Hey Nnamdi, I hear the Lions are accepting applications.

27. Carolina Panthers.
I just don't like them this year at all. Julius Peppers may have signed a 1-year tender (by the way, what the heck is a tender? Do you get a mental image of a guy signing a real soft piece of paper and rubbing it softly on his face while some man in a suit whispers 'Tender. Tender.' Because I do.) but that doesn't mean he's going to play this year. Even if he does play, I doubt he will play well. He hates them and doesn't want to be there. And he's their whole defense.

28. Denver Broncos.
Similar story to the Raiders, except Champ Bailey isn't quite as good as Asomugha, and the Broncos are even worse against the run. (Notice how three of the worst overall defenses are in the AFC West? Gotta make you love the Chargers even more).

29. Cleveland Browns.
At least they have Shaun Rogers, in case they want to get some really stupid penalties at inopportune times. But on a serious note, as bad as the Browns probably will be, they have a small slight chance at being okay. They play in the lowest-scoring division and on a crappy field and have the league's second best return man (Cribbs.) What they don't have in talent, they more than have in opportunity.

30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
How the mighty have fallen. They lost Derrick Brooks, fired Jon Gruden, and let genius defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin slip out of town. Ronde Barber is like 45 years old by now (though he still has that great smile!) and they have the pleasure of facing three very good offenses twice a year. On the positive side, Aqib Talib is very good and has a really cool name.

31. New Orleans Saints.
Their defense has kept them out of the playoffs for a couple years in a row and been really terrible. They have a few good players (Grant, Will Smith, Vilma) but for some reason they can't get anything done. It's probably a mental thing with them and they desperately need a new attitude or a new leader or a complete overhaul or something. So what did they do this offseason .. they signed Jabari Greer to play cornerback! Uh, who?

32. Cincinnati Bengals.
Doesn't get any worse than them, even with their easy division. They suck. They are awful. They were so much worse than the Lions last year, but we got all the attention for sucking because of our 0-16 record, but if we player the Bengals we would have been 1-15. Yeah our defense was worse statistically and almost broke records of futility, but that's not because we were less talented than them. It was poor coaching. Actually, it was hideous coaching. This year that changes. But the Bengals could be coached by Gordon Bombay himself and it would not matter. They are the worst.

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