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 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 2019 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. I’ll highlight some dynasty stash options in a separate tier that you can focus on if you are less concerned about 2019 and want to focus on 2020 and beyond.
- 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.
- Will add an asterisk (*) for any 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.
DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 1: ELITE OPTIONS
- J.J. Watt, HOU (* big play bonus)
- Aaron Donald, LAR (* big play bonus)
- Danielle Hunter, MIN
- Joey Bosa, LAC
- Myles Garrett, CLE (* big play bonus)
- Calais Campbell, JAX
J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald could likely break out into a separate tier at the top as some of the best defensive players in league history, but the other players in this group have the potential to outscore them. Hunter is still only 25 years old and coming off a 50 solo, 14-sack season. Joey Bosa missed the first half of 2018 but was close to a sack per game average once he returned to the lineup despite seeing limited snaps. Myles Garrett is a former #1 overall draft pick who should improve on a 13.5 sack season given the improvements that have been made around him. While he lacks the upside and youth of most other options here, Calais Campbell has an excellent chance to post another 50-solo, 10+ sack season.
DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 2: HIGH-END STARTERS
- Demarcus Lawrence, DAL (* big play bonus)
- Cameron Jordan, NO (* big play bonus)
- Frank Clark, KC (* big play bonus)
- Dee Ford, SF (* big play bonus)
- Justin Houston, IND (* big play bonus)
- Carlos Dunlap, CIN
- Trey Flowers, NE
- Melvin Ingram III III, LAC
- Everson Griffen, MIN (* big play bonus)
These are the value picks among DE1 options if you are willing to wait and take a player a step below the elite. This group includes some of the best pass rushers in the league, but they carry slightly more risk and therefore come at a discount. Demarcus Lawrence and Cameron Jordan make up two of the safest options here though as both have finished top-10 at their positions in each of the past two seasons. Frank Clark is the focal point of a rebuilt Chiefs defense after breaking out with 14 sacks in Seattle a year ago, but his career-high is just 35 solo tackles. Dee Ford was shipped out of Kansas City after posting similar numbers, but there are some durability and health concerns for him. Justin Houston is another Chiefs castoff who should make a nice fit at defensive end for an aggressive Colts defense, although he also hasn’t topped 10 sacks since 2014. Carlos Dunlap and Trey Flowers are a couple of reliable options who may not pile up sacks but have a strong enough all-around game to provide high-end DE2 numbers. Melvin Ingram III III and Everson Griffen each took a step back last year for different reasons, but both have top-10 upside and should benefit from having elite options playing opposite them.
DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 3: RELIABLE STARTERS
- Olivier Vernon, CLE (*big play bonus)
- Akiem Hicks, CHI
- Cameron Heyward, PIT
- Nick Bosa, SF (* rookie)
- Jonathan Allen, WAS
- Marcus Davenport, NO
- Brandon Graham, PHI
- Jabaal Sheard, IND
- Jerry Hughes, BUF
- Sam Hubbard, CIN
- Ezekiel Ansah, DET (* big play bonus)
- Josh Allen, JAX (* rookie)
- Clelin Ferrell, OAK (* rookie)
- Michael Bennett, NE
- Derek Barnett, PHI
- Robert Quinn, DAL
If you missed out on the first two tiers, you could still put together a pretty solid starting pair of defensive ends from this bunch with most likely to finish among the top-30 at the position. Nearly all of them have the upside to hit 35 solo tackles and 10 sacks if everything goes their way, but that is likely a best-case scenario and most will come up short of that level. There is a nice mix of established veterans and talented young players in this group, including the top-3 rookies in this year’s class. While Bosa projects to be a similar player to his brother, he will miss the preseason with an ankle sprain and has durability concerns. Olivier Vernon will get a fresh start as a 4-3 defensive end in Cleveland opposite Myles Garrett. Akiem Hicks and Cameron Heyward both rank among the best 2-way 3-4 ends in the game. Nick Bosa will miss the preseason with an ankle sprain but can hopefully be ready for the season opener. While players like Brandon Graham, Jabaal Sheard, Jerry Hughes, Michael Bennett, and Robert Quinn are known commodities, there is untapped upside and some breakout potential for players like Marcus Davenport, Sam Hubbard, Ezekiel Ansah, and Derek Barnett.
DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 4: TOP BACKUPS
- Stephon Tuitt, PIT
- Za’Darius Smith, GB (* big play bonus)
- Leonard Williams, NYJ
- Yannick Ngakoue, JAX (* big play bonus)
- Charles Harris, MIA
- Kawann Short, CAR
- Gerald McCoy, CAR
- Cassius Marsh, SEA
- DaShawn Hand, DET
- Romeo Okwara, DET
- Carl Nassib, TB
- Adam Gotsis, DEN
- Takkarist McKinley, ATL (* big play bonus)
- Vic Beasley Jr Jr, ATL (*big play bonus)
Consider this the DE3 tier, who will mostly make up your backup options in leagues that require 2 starters at the position. This is an interesting mix of pass rush specialists with limited tackle production who will have added value in sack-heavy scoring systems, and interior players who should be more consistent from week to week with limited upside. Za’Darius Smith, Yannick Ngakoue, Romeo Okwara, and both Falcons players are examples of the first group as 30+ solo tackles may be overly optimistic but each could reach 8+ sacks. In contrast, players like Stephon Tuitt, Leonard Williams, Cassius Marsh, and DaShawn Hand all figure to post around 30+ solos with 5 or 6 sacks. With the Panthers moving to a 3-4 base defense this year, Kawann Short and Gerald McCoy lose some value with the reclassification to defensive end.
DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 5: QUALITY DEPTH
- Solomon Thomas, SF
- Henry Anderson, NYJ (* big play bonus)
- Trent Murphy, BUF
- Arik Armstead, SF
- Derek Wolfe, DEN
- Mike Daniels, DET
- Kareem Martin, NYG
- Shaq Lawson, BUF
- Shelby Harris, DEN
- Deatrich Wise Jr Jr, NE (* big play bonus)
- Emmanuel Ogbah, KC
- Chris Wormley, BAL
- Taco Charlton, DAL
There isn’t much to get excited about in this group, but these are players who are likely good enough to be on a roster in deeper leagues. Some are former high draft picks who haven’t quite lived up to their potential yet, while others are veterans who have shown flashes yet haven’t been able to string together several good seasons in a row. When injuries and bye weeks start to hit, these are some of the best options to consider as short-term fill-ins since they should see enough playing time from week to week to finish among the top-60.
DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 6: DYNASTY STASHES
- Breeland Speaks, KC
- Bilal Nichols, CHI
- Arden Key, OAK
- Tyquan Lewis, IND
- Kemoko Turay, IND
- Ben Banogu, IND
- L.J. Collier, SEA
- Rasheem Green, SEA
- Zach Allen, ARI
- Dre'Mont Jones, DEN
- Chase Winovich, NE
- Maxx Crosby, OAK
This tier is filled mostly with rookies or other young players with untapped potential who may still need another year of development. Breeland Speaks and Bilal Nichols are both overshadowed by teammates with bigger names but they still have room to grow. Other players like Arden Key or Rasheem Greene were disappointments a year ago but shouldn’t be written off just yet. The Colts have been collecting a talented group of young pass rushers and one or more of them should be able to carve out a key role relatively soon.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE TIER 1: ELITE OPTIONS
In most years, there isn’t enough separation at this position to justify paying a premium for one of the top players off the board. This year is unique though as both players at the top belong in a separate tier of their own and belong among the top-10 in leagues that group all defensive linemen together. Jones is a former 2nd-round pick who broke out last year to post 15 sacks while playing primarily 3-4 defensive end. He will slide inside to tackle in the Chiefs new 4-3 base, which should give him a boost in value given the lack of depth and high-end production at the position. DeForest Buckner has finished with 44 or 45 solo tackles for three straight seasons so that gives him a steady floor. If he can come close to replicating his 12-sack season a year ago with the help of some improvements to the team around him, he should remain among the most valuable IDPs in the league.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE TIER 2: HIGH-END STARTERS
- Kenny Clark, GB
- Fletcher Cox, PHI (* big play bonus)
- Denico Autry, IND (* big play bonus)
- Damon Harrison, NYG
- Jurrell Casey, TEN
While these players are a cut below the elite tier, they are still high-end starters at the position and likely to finish right around the top-5. Kenny Clark already has 3 seasons in the league but is still just 23 years old and already among the very best at his position. Fletcher Cox is one of the most talented interior pass rushers in the league and is coming off a 10-sack season while averaging over 50 snaps per game. Denico Autry flew under the radar during his time in Oakland before exploding for 9 sacks in 12 games as a Colt last year. Damon Harrison is an elite run defender who puts up tackle numbers each year that are more common to see from a linebacker than a defensive tackle. Jurrell Casey may still be classified as a defensive end in many leagues, but he becomes near-elite as a tackle due to his consistent 2-way play.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE TIER 3: QUALITY STARTERS
- DaRon Payne, WAS
- Geno Atkins, CIN (* big play bonus)
- Larry Ogunjobi, CLE
- Grady Jarrett, ATL
- Linval Joseph, MIN
- Ed Oliver, BUF
- Quinnen Williams, NYJ
- Sheldon Rankins, NO (* big play bonus)
This is a group that carries more risk than the others but still has a chance to produce as a #1 defensive tackle this year. DaRon Payne posted excellent numbers as a rookie and figures to be on the field a lot again this year. Geno Atkins remains an excellent interior pass rusher at 31 years of age, but he has also seen a clear drop in his tackle production. Larry Ogunjobi played an incredible 930 defensive snaps last year and the Browns have upgraded the players around him. Grady Jarrett signed a big contract extension and should continue to post reliable numbers each week. Linval Joseph doesn’t offer much help as a pass rusher but he excels against the run. Ed Oliver and Quinnen Williams are two of the most talented rookies we’ve seen at the position since Aaron Donald and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them both finish among the top-10 at the position right away.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE TIER 4: TOP BACKUPS
- Sheldon Rankins, NO (* big play bonus) (injury concern)
- Ndamukong Suh, TB
- Vita Vea, TB
- B.J. Hill, NYG
- Maurice Hurst, OAK
- Jarran Reed, SEA (6-game suspension)
- Sheldon Richardson, CLE
- Matthew Ioannidis, WAS (* big play bonus)
- Malik Jackson, PHI
- Javan Hargrave, PIT
- Dalvin Tomlinson, NYG
- Michael Brockers, LAR
As usual, the top backups is a mixture of proven veterans whose careers may be winding down along with some young players that could climb the ranks. Sheldon Rankins broke out with 8 sacks last year but suffered a torn Achilles in the playoffs that could force him to start 2019 on the PUP list. Ndamukong Suh will join his fourth team this year following a move to Tampa, but he remains a high-floor option. Vita Vea, B.J. Hill, and Maurice Hurst are all 2nd-year pros that should be able to improve on the solid rookie seasons they put together. Jarran Reed surprised everybody with a 10-sack season last year but he’ll have to serve a 6-game suspension to start 2019. Sheldon Richardson and Malik Jackson are big names who should fit in well with their new teams. Matthew Ioannidis may not be as talented as many others in this group but he posted 7.5 sacks in 9 games last year.
Good luck in your drafts. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.