Most fantasy owners are used to drafting off a simple ranking of players, but that can mask underlying differences that exist between players. For example, two players may be ranked right next to each other on a cheatsheet but there could be a wide gap in the expected production for them. In that case, you would probably want to draft the higher-ranked player a full-round earlier than the lower-ranked player. Similarly, there may be a large group of players with very similar projections that are bunched together on a ranking sheet. It may seem that a player ranked 10th is much more valuable than a player ranked 15th, but if only a few projected points separate them then they are roughly equivalent in value. Rather than force yourself to pick one, it may be best to focus on another position and then come back to this position in the next round since you’re likely to get a player of nearly identical value.
Grouping players into distinct tiers or buckets provides additional context that allows a drafter to make more informed decisions. The projections we offer at Footballguys also help a lot in this regard, but those are still static projections that may not fully indicate the range of likely outcomes for a player. For example, two players may be projected with similar numbers but one may have significantly more upside and/or a higher floor than the other. Those types of risk vs reward decisions are inherent in any fantasy draft. While drafting the safe players will typically help you build a solid team, you often need to take some chances and hit on some players who significantly exceed their preseason expectations to win.
Rankings are typically helpful in ordering players within the same position group, but tiers can help you figure out which position to take as you move through a draft. If you see a large group of linebackers that are all capable of putting up LB1-type numbers but only one defensive lineman likely to put up elite numbers, it’s obviously wise to grab the lineman and assume at least one of the linebackers will be there for your next pick. This helps you maximize the value of your picks, and is a strategy that all strong fantasy players likely use to some extent.
How To Use The Tiers
- These tiers are based on expected performance for the 2018 season in a balanced scoring system. While dynasty owners always need to consider long-term outcomes to some extent, the upcoming season is most critical for player value.
- Positional classifications can differ depending on what your league-hosting website uses. For consistency, I will rely on the official Footballguys player classifications. For the most part, these should match up well with the major sources that exist online but there could be differences. Assigning edge rushers to linebacker or defensive end is the main area that causes issues here as the classification can have a huge impact on fantasy value.
- Look for an asterisk (*) next to players that have added value in big-play scoring systems. There is a lot of scoring variability that exists among IDP leagues, so if your league places added value on big plays (i.e., sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, etc.), this information should help you identify some key targets in each tier.
SAFETIES TIER 1: THE ELITE
These are the players clearly stand out from the rest among all defensive backs. They should all post 80+ solo tackles while adding in some big plays to leave them nearly as productive as some of the top linebackers. Given the great depth at defensive back, you can usually wait until late in your draft to fill out these roster spots. If you decide to take a safety early, however, these are one of the three you’ll want to target. Landon Collins could see a subtle drop-off as the Giants move to a new scheme, but he is just a year removed from a 100-solo, 5-INT season and likely has the highest upside of this group. Keanu Neal a big hitter with a knack for forcing fumbles but doesn’t offer much else in terms of sacks or interceptions. Reshad Jones has the longest history of consistent success but makes few big plays and therefore has the lowest upside in this group.
SAFETIES TIER 2: LOW-END #1
- Kevin Byard, TEN (* big play bonus)
- Budda Baker, ARI (* big play bonus)
- Harrison Smith, MIN (* big play bonus)
- Jamal Adams, NYJ
- Sean Davis, PIT
- Micah Hyde, BUF (* big play bonus)
- Jordan Poyer, BUF (* big play bonus)
- Jaquiski Tartt, SF
This group has more variability than the players in the elite tier so they have a lower floor but they can likely be safely relied on as every-week starters. All have the potential to hit 70 or more solo tackles with a number of big plays that can lead to huge scoring weeks. Kevin Byard broke out with eight interceptions last year and the upgrades at corner should keep him very active. Budda Baker is an excellent young all-around safety who could push for the lead in tackles on his team. Harrison Smith is an elite talent who makes up for low tackle numbers with his big-play instincts. Sean Davis may see more time in coverage this year with the signing of Morgan Burnett and drafting of rookie Terrell Edmunds. The Bills tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are relatively interchangeable and should benefit from playing behind a young linebacker group with a favorable stat crew. Jaquiski Tartt is the one player in this group who doesn’t yet have a proven track record but he looked very promising before suffering a broken arm last year.
SAFETIES TIER 3: SOLID #2
- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, GB (* big play bonus)
- Adrian Amos, CHI
- Derwin James, LAC (rookie)
- Morgan Burnett, PIT
- Barry Church, JAX
- John Johnson III III, LAR
- Bradley McDougald, SEA
- Kurt Coleman, NO
- Tyrann Mathieu, HOU (* big play bonus)
- Malcolm Jenkins, PHI
- D.J. Swearinger Sr Sr, WAS
- Antoine Bethea, ARI
- Justin Evans, TB
- Shawn Williams, CIN
- Eric Weddle, BAL (* big play bonus)
- Eric Berry, KC (* big play bonus)
- Kenny Vaccaro, TEN
- Tony Jefferson, BAL
- Eddie Jackson, CHI (* big play bonus)
- Devin McCourty, NE
The depth at the position becomes quickly apparent as you move into this tier as all of these players are separated by less than one point/game in terms of their expected production. There are a number of free safeties in this group who won’t play up in the box very often so their solo tackle numbers may suffer but they offset that with interceptions. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Berry, and Eddie Jackson fall into that category. The group also includes some excellent run stoppers who will be more reliable from week to week but may not put up many huge games. This group includes Adrian Amos, Morgan Burnett, Barry Church, Tony Jefferson, Antoine Bethea, and D.J. Swearinger Sr.
SAFETIES TIER 4: TOP BACKUPS
- Glover Quin, DET (* big play bonus)
- Clayton Geathers, IND (injury risk)
- Marcus Maye, NYJ (* big play bonus)
- Montae Nicholson, WAS
- Patrick Chung, NE
- Jahleel Addae, LAC
- Justin Simmons, DEN (* big play bonus)
- Vonn Bell, NO
- Mike Adams, CAR
- Jabrill Peppers, CLE
- Jeff Heath, DAL
- T.J. McDonald, MIA
- Lamarcus Joyner, LAR (* big play bonus)
- Malik Hooker, IND (* big play bonus)
- Rodney McLeod, PHI
- Jessie Bates III, CIN (rookie)
- Darian Stewart, DEN
- Erik Harris, OAK
- Earl Thomas, SEA (contract holdout) (* big play bonus)
With the assumption that most leagues start two safeties, you should aim to get at least two and preferably three players from the tiers above. If you miss out, however, there’s no need to panic as you can still build solid depth with players from this tier. These players will be more matchup-dependent and carry more risk but will likely be startable for much of the year. Some players to target here that could have added upside are younger players like Justin Simmons, Vonn Bell, Marcus Maye, Montae Nicholson, and Erik Harris (who appears to have beaten out Karl Joseph in Oakland). If you are looking for a safer option, consider veterans like Jahleel Addae, Glover Quin, Mike Adams, T.J. McDonald, or Jeff Heath. Earl Thomas has the talent to be ranked higher but he remains out in a contract dispute and could be traded.
CORNERBACKS TIER 1: THE ELITE
- Marshon Lattimore, NO
- Ronald Darby, PHI
- TreDavious White, BUF
- Jalen Ramsey, JAX
- A.J. Bouye, JAX (* big play bonus)
- Marcus Peters, LAR (* big play bonus)
- Kyle Fuller, CHI
- Josh Norman, WAS
Cornerback is an extremely deep position and there tends to be a lot of variability from year to year as their value depends heavily on interceptions that are difficult to predict. Fantasy owners, therefore, place added emphasis on corners who post more consistent tackle numbers as that added reliability allows you to start them just about every week without looking at matchups. If your league combines cornerbacks and safeties to together, the top corners are still probably no higher than tier 3 so you’ll probably want to load up on safeties first.
Marshon Lattimore and TreDavious White has remarkable rookie seasons in 2017 and should remain at the top of the scoring list due to their all-around games. Ronald Darby missed much of last year to injury but is a physical corner who plays in a favorable scheme. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are two of the best cover corners in the league and benefit from a great pass rush up front in Jacksonville. Marcus Peters is the one player in this group who probably won’t hit 50 solo tackles but he is a very aggressive playmaker in a great situation. Josh Kyle Fuller bounced back last year and ranked among the leaders in terms of tackles and passes defended. Josh Norman isn’t as feared as he was in Carolina so he should see more passes thrown his way and improve on his 0-interception total from last year.
Cornerbacks TIER 2: STRONG STARTERS
- Darius Slay, DET (* big play bonus)
- James Bradberry, CAR
- Robert Alford, ATL
- Casey Hayward, LAC
- Shaquill Griffin, SEA
- Quandre Diggs, DET (playing strong safety)
- Trumaine Johnson, NYJ
- Xavien Howard, MIA (* big play bonus)
- Janoris Jenkins, NYG (* big play bonus)
- Dre Kirkpatrick, CIN
- Trae Waynes, MIN
- Kendall Fuller, KC
- Denzel Ward, CLE (rookie)
- Jalen Mills, PHI
- Adoree' Jackson, TEN
- Logan Ryan, TEN
This group makes up the bulk of the remaining players who should be considered safe to start every-week without worrying too much about the matchups. They include some of the top cover corners who are asked to shadow opposing #1 wide receivers in the league like Darius Slay, Casey Hayward, Xavien Howard, Trumaine Johnson, and Janoris Jenkins. One player to pay extra attention to here is Quandre Diggs in Detroit since he still has cornerback eligibility but is likely to open the year as the starting strong safety. Shaquill Griffin also should be productive in taking over for Richard Sherman in Seattle given all the turnover they have had on defense. Trae Waynes isn’t particularly strong in coverage but makes up for it with his excellent run defense. Denzel Ward was a top-5 draft pick who will be tested early and could quickly join the ranks of the elite like Lattimore and White did a year ago. The Titans added Malcolm Butler this offseason which raises some questions about who will start between Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson, although both figure to see plenty of snaps in the nickel packages.
Cornerbacks TIER 3: TOP BACKUPS
- Malcolm Butler, TEN
- Terrance Mitchell, CLE (* big play bonus)
- Stephon Gilmore, NE
- Eric Rowe, NE
- Byron Jones, DAL
- Artie Burns, PIT
- Byron Maxwell, SEA
- Jamar Taylor, ARI
- Ahkello Witherspoon, SF
- Buster Skrine, NYJ
- Jimmy Smith, BAL (4-game suspension)
- Xavier Rhodes, MIN
These players stand out slightly among the large group of backup cornerbacks, but the reality is they aren’t a whole lot different than the players who will be available on the waiver wire throughout the season. Many astute fantasy owners are comfortable picking up waiver wire options to start each week based on the most favorable matchups. Consider these players as matchup-dependent with a chance to emerge as every-week starters. Terrance Mitchell appears to have emerged as the starter opposite Denzel Ward in Cleveland after a productive 2017 in Kansas City. With Malcolm Butler now in Tennesee, Eric Rowe takes over opposite Stephon Gilmore as Jason McCourty disappointed in training camp. This group also includes several shutdown corner types who should see plenty of targets like Artie Burns, Xavier Rhodes, and Jimmy Smith (once he returns from suspension). Jamar Taylor is an intriguing option here since quarterbacks rarely throw towards Patrick Peterson.
Good luck in your drafts. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.