Rank lists and cheatsheets can be deceiving when they're presented without commentary. Our rankings have been vastly improved by adding staffer comments, but it can be hard to see the all-important context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's critical to know where a significant drop-off in fantasy value occurs. A simple rank list can't tell you if the DL4 is closer in value to the DL10 than the DL3. A cheatsheet can't tell you if the ranker feels the LB10 is a boom-bust play with LB2 upside and LB40 downside while the LB11 has a much narrower range of expectation.
That's where tiers are helpful.
Using tiers allows you to lump and split players in context. Using tiers can help keep you on the right side of draft runs. Seeing that you have five linebackers of equal value left on your board might prompt you to take a player at another position. Noting that there's only one wide receiver left before a major drop in value will show you when you must draft a position sooner than expected. A tiered draft board keeps you from making panicked decisions while on the clock.
Note 1: These tiers are based on 2014 expectation only and I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts later in the offseason). I will include a separate dynasty stash tier at the end of each positional article.
Note 2: The date on this article represents the last time the tiers were updated. Make sure you are viewing the most recent tier article by checking the complete IDP article list here.
THIS IS THE FINAL UPDATE OF THIS FEATURE (late august)
The majority of IDP drafts – due to their length – have already started. Those that haven’t will likely be completed this weekend. So, this will be the last full update of the trend and ADP columns. I will make adjustments to these tiers through the final week and weekend of the preseason as we learn final decisions on depth charts and roles within each team’s defense. Check back as often as you like. I will no longer update this page after Sunday, August 31. Look for new tier articles sporadically during the season.
I've added a column to address trends inside and throughout the tiers. I'll add a ^^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvvv for those players who have dropped since the previous tier release (July 5). For reference, I'm going to preserve the earlier versions of these tier articles, but the trend column should help you see where player movement is happening within the tiers at a quick glance.
I've also included an ADP column. The ADP number (snapshot taken on August 18) will be an average of our FBG rankings (top 80), the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings (top 90) and ADP data from all drafts after July 1 at MFL (top 35).
THE BIG PICTURE
Ten years ago, the defensive back position used to be one of my favorite areas to rank. Offenses were straightforward, base defenses were stable and teams rarely platooned players. If you had a working knowledge of the coverages a team preferred to run and the skill sets of their secondary, you could make smart, consistent bets on which players were likely to see the most statistical opportunity.
Unfortunately, the league isn't simple anymore.
83 cornerbacks and 64 safeties -- 147 defensive backs -- played at least 500 snaps in 2012 according to ProFootballFocus. That number increased again in 2013, with 88 corners and 73 safeties (161 defensive backs) seeing 500 or more snaps. That's an average of more than five players per team seeing at least half of their defense's available snaps.
The defensive line and linebacker groups have significantly fewer players reach that plateau, with around 100 players each.
Not all of those snaps are created equally. Game situation, down and distance, personnel and surrounding cast have much more to do with the fantasy upside of any given snap than ever before. Free safeties moving to the slot, strong safeties moving to linebacker and non-starters moving into a key tackling role on subpackage downs are becoming more and more common. It's become very difficult to project yearly and weekly tackle numbers for defensive backs.
And that's changed my roster philosophy for defensive backs over the past 3-5 seasons. I now believe that there are two main tiers for DB-inclusive leagues. The first tier includes the players I believe have Elite DB1 potential -- 80+ solo tackles or 60+ solos with elite peripheral coverage stat (FF/INT/PD) upside. The second tier includes everyone else.
It's also important to have a short memory. If an "Elite DB" isn't performing as such, move on. It's okay for your defensive back roster spots to remain fluid all season long.
I'll still be lumping and splitting players into more than two tiers in this feature. But realize that every single defensive back that could see 40 or more snaps in a given week belongs somewhere in the matchup cloud. You're probably thinking, "Come on, Bramel. That's almost 200 players." Yup. Get used to it. Nickel and dime corners and hybrid nickel safeties may hold just as much value as a starter.
Scouting IDPs is as much about scouting opportunity as talent. The paradigm has changed. We've adapted to front seven rotations and nickel linebacker specialists in recent seasons. It's time to do the same here.
I think it's worth separating the safety and cornerback tiers. They're two different animals. Some safeties derive the bulk of their value from playing in coverage, but most are going to live and die in fantasy lineups on the strength of their tackle efficiency against the run. I consider peripheral stats -- forced fumbles, interceptions, sacks and passes defensed -- but there's more variance in those numbers for most safeties. I build the framework of the safety tiers from tackle expectation.
TIER 1 - ELITE SAFETY
This tier is deep this year. More spread offenses mean fewer linebackers on the field to compete for tackles and more secondary opportunity. Though the in-the-box strong safety isn't back in vogue, the glory days when fantasy owners had multiple 80-100 solo tackle safeties to choose among have returned.
I don't see much difference in the floor of any player on this list. The top six players have 100 solo upside if their situations break perfectly. I'm not sure that's the case with Bernard Pollard and Mark Barron, but I think both are much safer options than those in the next tier.
|Eric Weddle||<>||DB3||Rock steady DB1, competition for tackles remains weak|
|Jonathan Cyprien||<>||DB8||Strong rookie debut, high tackle opportunity again in 2014|
|Harrison Smith||<>||DB1||46 solos in eight games last season, MIN linebacker group still weak|
|Kenny Vaccaro||<>||DB9||All around stud, Saints' linebackers without sideline-to-sideline range|
|Barry Church||<>||DB2||May not repeat 105 solos but could come close w/ Dallas linebacker mess|
|T.J. Ward||<>||DB4||Woodyard gone, Trevathan hurt, seeing nickel snaps in box as LB|
|Bernard Pollard||<>||DB10||Good fit for Horton scheme, should see bump in big play numbers|
|Mark Barron||<>||DB11||Made push toward 80 solos (16 game projection) last year, still improving|
TIER 2 - ELITE SAFETY UPSIDE | HIGH FLOOR DB2
There isn't much difference between the end of the top tier and the beginning of this second tier of safeties. That makes the safety group deeper than it's been in many seasons. I moved Jones down to the top of this tier due to his suspension, which might push his August ADP down enough to make him tremendous value in the later rounds. Tyrann Mathieu moves up on the strength of reports that he'll avoid the PUP list.
|Reshad Jones||<>||DB22||Suspended first four games, elite upside when returns|
|Earl Thomas||<>||DB6||One of best tackling centerfielding safeties in NFL, big play numbers boost overall value|
|Eric Berry||<>||DB5||Still hasn't taken advantage of hybrid nickel LB role but high floor value with upside|
|Tyrann Mathieu||<>||DB17||May be limited early but strong signs he will be on active roster in Week 1|
|Stevie Brown||<>||DB15||Healthy, running with starters in OTAs with no depth chart competition|
|Donte Whitner||<>||DB24||Home stat crew to bump assist counts, could be elite tier safety|
|D.J. Swearinger Sr||^^^^||DB26||Talent is there, opportunity for big tackles behind Cushing and Reed|
|Roman Harper||<>||DB20||Just outside elite tier, too much tackle compeition from Kuechly and Davis|
|Tyvon Branch||<>||DB14||Recovered and back in prime role but competition for tackles is higher than ever|
|Antrel Rolle||<>||DB12||Elite upside tougher sell with Giants moving Thurmond to the slot|
|Antoine Bethea||<>||DB28||With Bowman out, likely to see enough opportunity to top 70 solos|
|Kam Chancellor||<>||DB16||Competition for tackles everywhere and assist-happy stat crew hurts upside|
|Morgan Burnett||<>||DB7||OTA depth chart suggests he'll play SS full time, has added big play value|
|William Moore||<>||DB18||High floor mix of tackles and big plays but questionable ceiling|
TIER 3 - WEEKLY STARTERS WITH UPSIDE
This year's group of safety prospects is so strong that I've added another mini-tier to separate those players I like enough to roster now from those that will likely have starting fantasy value in three DB leagues but are only matchup cloud options for me.
|Ryan Clark||<>||DB39||Play slipped last year, weak WAS linebackers could leave good opportunity|
|Mike Mitchell||<>||DB37||Timmons and Shazier rangy enough to limit ceiling, should be high floor play|
|Matt Elam||<>||DB25||Will improve this year, but competition for tackles limits ceiling|
TIER 4 - MATCHUP SAFETY CLOUD
Extend this tier to the nth degree if you like, especially in deeper leagues. This group consists of the players I think are most worthy of an early season roster bet.
|Malcolm Jenkins||<>||DB34||Role in PHI won't be much different, every-week play if tackle numbers there|
|Charles Woodson||<>||DB32||Unlikely to repeat tackle numbers this year given return of Branch and improved front seven|
|LaRon Landry||<>||DB13||Durability questions abound, more competition for tackles this season|
|Da'Norris Searcy||<>||DB29||Could see more opportunity with Alonso out for season|
|Calvin Pryor||^^^^||DB27||Prime spot for production in aggressive NYJ scheme but not starting yet|
|T.J. McDonald||<>||DB30||Rams were experimenting with subpackages without him, but looking like every-down player again|
|James Ihedigbo||<>||DB42||Fundamental linebacker group could hurt ceiling, but strong weekly floor|
|Troy Polamalu||<>||DB49||No longer has range to ensure big plays, better athletes in back seven limit tackles|
|Jairus Byrd||<>||DB19||Role in NO great for big play safety, high variance DB2 option|
|Aaron Williams||<>||DB31||Looks locked in at free safety, above-average tackler for coverage safety|
|Eric Reid||<>||DB36||Too much competition for tackles, but may have DB3 floor with some upside|
|Devin McCourty||<>||DB44||If big play numbers down, will quickly drop out of matchup cloud|
Deone Bucannon and Calvin Pryor are down in this tier for now. Both are rotational players currently, but will become full time players at some point this season. If you have the roster space in redraft leagues, stash them now so you won't have to fight over their DB2+ upside later. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix fits that profile as well, but won't have the tackle upside of Bucannon or Pryor. I'd also watch the depth chart in Chicago; I still think Brock Vereen has DB2 value when he moves into the lineup.
|Deone Bucannon||<>||DB38||Only seeing subpackage snaps for now, will start in time, priority add when he does|
|Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||<>||DB52||Should be matchup cloud worthy long term, was third safety in OTAs|
|Brock Vereen||<>||DB59||Saw time with first team, but not consistently, will take over soon|
|Lamarcus Joyner||<>||Will see rotational snaps and slot duty, upside limited behind Laurinaitis and Ogletree|
|Shamarko Thomas||<>||DB80||Steelers signed Mitchell, but long term value still there|
|Terrence Brooks||<>||Should move into starting role alongside Elam soon|
|Jimmie Ward||<>||To play slot corner this year, safety may still be his long term position|
Historically, you could do well at cornerback by grabbing the most physical players or trolling for Tampa-2 starters. That's not the case any longer.
What I tend to favor now is:
- A physical corner who will shed blocks and defend the run.
- A confident corner with good ball skills.
- A versatile corner who plays outside, then slides into the slot in subpackages.
- A decent corner playing opposite a stud cover corner.
- A corner who plays more zone coverage than man coverage.
- A corner for a team likely to see above-average passing attempts.
- A corner playing for a team likely to see high tackle opportunity with weak front seven tacklers.
The more criteria a player fits, the more attractive they are to me. For example, Charles Tillman arguably fits lines 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7. Justin Gilbert should fit 1, 2, and possibly 4 and 7. It's not always predictive. There will be players who finish in the top five who do not fit the criteria well. Minimal investment, a short memory, trend analysis and some film study will help you navigate the week-to-week variance here.
HIGH FLOOR CB1
If you look at this shallow list of three and think that you aren't comfortable investing or trusting in any of them, I'm right with you. I've nearly deleted this tier in both tier installments thus far. There will undoubtedly be corners who top 70 solos and/or 20 passes defensed, but I think this will be a season to start by streaming corner until you have one putting up consistently strong numbers.
|Jason McCourty||<>||DB41||Tackle numbers dropped last year, could rebound if TEN offense improves|
|Charles Tillman||<>||DB21||Durability may be issue, should be productive when healthy|
|Prince Amukamara||<>||DB45||Broke out with 70 solos last year, secondary sees more chances due to LB inconsistency|
BEST CB MATCHUP CLOUD BETS
I listed 45 players on my initial spreadsheet of those cornerbacks I felt could have rosterable value early in the season. These 12 made the cut as best bets. There's no reason to panic here. Checking matchups and moving quickly on early season breakouts will serve you better than filling your roster with three unknowns before opening weekend. You should be using those spots to stash upside linebackers and defensive ends whose situations could break big in training camp.
|Tramon Williams||<>||DB35||Will start, in contract season, strong run defender with elite coverage upside|
|Chris Harris Jr||<>||Off PUP and back with first team, strong two way player|
|Jason Verrett||<>||DB71||Rehab progress could have him ready for camp, more competition with Flowers signing|
|Justin Gilbert||<>||DB62||Will be slot corner early, possible perfect storm of talent and opporutnity|
|Bradley Fletcher||<>||DB73||Numbers there last year, has always fit profile of strong fantasy corner|
|Lardarius Webb||<>||DB46||63 solos and 23 passes defensed last year, strong run defender|
|Alterraun Verner||<>||DB50||Competition for tackles goes up in Tampa, but favorable skill set for fantasy points|
|Desmond Trufant||<>||DB68||Could benefit from move to 3-4 if pass rush improves|
|DeAngelo Hall||<>||DB23||Old reliable dropping off some but mix of tackles and big play always strong|
|Stephon Gilmore||<>||DB85||Still thinks he projects to good fantasy combo of physical run defense and coverage|
|Richard Sherman||<>||DB33||High variance play with big play upside|
|Janoris Jenkins||<>||DB48||Could be next DeAngelo Hall ~ gambler who still puts up consistent fantasy numbers|
If your rosters are deep enough to allow a third or fourth cornerback, consider stashing one of these five players. Their time could come sooner than later. There are many other young corners to watch. For a full list of rookies I'm watching closely, see my combined draft board feature.
|Kyle Fuller||<>||DB105||Behind Tillman and Jennings for now, compares favorably to successful fantasy corners|
|Bradley Roby||<>||DB86||May not start immediately, will eventually play opposite Talib and be targeted often|
|Darqueze Dennard||<>||DB108||Physical talent who may prove to be every-week fantasy option soon|
|D.J. Hayden||<>||Big and physical with good ball skills, still having durability problems|
|Stanley Jean-Baptiste||<>||Needs to improve technique, good fit for NO scheme if he works out|
Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here.