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A tier-structured approach is the optimal way to draft a fantasy football team. The blind following of numerical rankings - and the lack-of-substance quibbling over “why is this player ranked over this player” - removes the needed context, nuanc, and detail that comes with understanding how a player fits onto your roster and in what fashion they accumulate fantasy points.
Several analysts here at Footballguys put out positional tiers that can optimize your draft day strategies. Ari Ingel continues to pump out his training camp tiers. The venerable Sigmund Bloom accompanies his tiers with descriptive titles that truly help illuminate what type of asset you’re investing in, rather than a “this guy or that guy” debate.
In advance of putting out a write-up on NFL.com, I released a cheat sheet with my own tiered rankings on Friday. Natural responses inquiring about a player’s numerical ranking expectedly flowed in. Interestingly enough, some of the same players asked about were some of those tiering the rankings gave me best clarity with I how I view them...some good, some bad.
Derek Carr, QB
The Raiders quarterback has an aggressive QB5 ADP on Fantasy Football Calculator and comes in at QB8 in our Footballguys consensus ADP. With that in mind, his place in my fifth tier at QB16 looks like a painful slight.
The appeal to Carr is obvious; he’s one of the league’s top young signal-callers manning an offense with two great wide receivers. His 2016 season was a strong one, as he finished as the QB9 despite leaving early in his 15th game with a gruesome leg injury. Carr’s 1.1 interception rate shows just how efficient and careful he was this past season. Clearly, drafters expect him to take another step in 2017 fresh off signing a massive contract extension with Oakland.
However, there are warts to pick in Carr’s outlook as a pure, every week QB1 as a fantasy player. There’s no doubt that Carr offers enticing spike week potential as a score. In 2016, he finished inside the top-eight at the position in seven of his 15 games. With Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper returning, along with Oakland’s well-fortified offensive line, Carr should once again offer that brand of big-game appeal.
On the other hand, while many quarterbacks bring in some form of variance to their weekly scoring, Carr’s are particularly troubling. He finished outside the Top 20 at the position in three weeks last season, and all three came against the Chiefs and Broncos (who he only played once). Kansas City and Denver not only boast stout pass defense units but they also suck opponents into low-scoring games with their brand of offense. Oakland might be more interested in playing that style itself, or at least the move to bring in Marshawn Lynch would have you assume as much. The Raiders finished 15th in run play percentage last season and it’s fair to project them for a small step forward in that regard, especially if you believe the team continues to improve and continues to win games.
Overall, none of this speaks as a detriment to Carr’s fantasy value. Another QB1 finish is well within his range of outcomes, which is he’s in a tier that includes my QB11 (Winston) and QB12 (Manning). However, his placement in this tier does call into question whether there is much wisdom in spending a single-digit round pick on Carr as a fantasy passer.
Ameer Abdullah, RB
Ameer Abdullah’s fifth-round ADP (Fantasy Football Calculator) feels like wistful dream of what we wish would be true. On the surface, it doesn’t appear that I’m out on Abdullah’s RB27 cost in our Footballguys consensus ADP sorter, considering he’s the RB30 in my tiers. It’s when you examine what he’s placed around that the lack of appeal becomes clear.
Other players who accompany Abdullah in the eighth tier of my rankings include Eddie Lacy, Rob Kelley, Doug Martin and both Jets backs. Abdullah and Martin are the only two backs I’d project to hold their team’s starting job in all their eligible games. Yet, the fact that Abdullah projects out in the same range of players on such tenuous ground like Kelley and Lacy is telling.
Abdullah’s issues are the same as they’ve always been, and they aren’t injury issues. Is he the Lions desired option in scoring position or the primary pass catcher? The latter is an easy “no”. While the Nebraska product is capable and even dangerous as a receiver, Theo Riddick remains on the roster and there is absolutely zero reason to expect him to cede receiving duties to Abdullah. Riddick averaged over five catches per game the past two seasons and has that role cemented. The proposition of Abdullah earning some work in scoring position is a softer, but still likely “no”. In 18 NFL games he has just three touches inside the 10-yard line and still loses goal line work to Zach Zenner in practice.
The appeal to Abdullah is that he’s one of the last likely locked-in starters to leave the draft board. However, if he’s mostly a between the 20’s back that doesn’t maintain a passing game role, his margin for error on a weekly basis is extremely thin.
Amari Cooper, WR
Fantasy owners are clearly drafting Amari Cooper, once again, as if this is the year he takes over as the clear No. 1 wideout in Oakland. Michael Crabtree out-targeted him in each of Cooper’s first two seasons, so this is clearly a hopeful projection. In my view, it’s certainly within the range of outcomes. On the surface my ranking of Cooper at WR9, it appears my stance is clearly that he will, but in the context of tiers, the truth is it doesn’t really matter.
While an outstanding talent and a clearly excellent player, as a fantasy player Cooper has been a high-ceiling, low-floor fantasy player on a weekly basis to this point. Last season, Cooper enjoyed four massive games where he finished inside the top-10 wide receivers in half-point PPR scoring. He posted another three weeks inside the top-24. However, he didn’t crack the top-35 in any other week.
I certainly believe that Cooper is simply too good to not stabilize his weekly scoring. Supposing it doesn’t, however, his placement in Tier 3 makes all the sense in the world. The players in this group like Dez Bryant, Allen Robinson, Doug Baldwin and more all project to push for low-end WR1 numbers on the season, but each brings likely weekly volatility. We know that’s Cooper’s history, as well.
The wide receiver position is perhaps helped more by any other than tiering, not just because of the in-group comparisons, but also comparing tiers to what follows or precedes it. The position is filled with players who accumulate counting stats in such differing fashions with a mix of low aDOT and slot receivers existing alongside deep threats and split-ends. The Tier 3 of wide receivers filled with volatile, but high-ceiling wideouts comes before a group of mostly high-floor players like Demaryius Thomas, Stefon Diggs and Larry Fitzgerald. If any of those players out-scored the wideouts in Tier 3, because they succumbed to their volatile ways more often than not, it would not be surprising.
The way I believe in drafting fantasy teams, I’m always going to be okay taking on a more volatile asset in the hopes that they approach that high-weekly ceiling enough to help me win weeks. If that’s not your style, that’s where the tiers come into play. Feel free to move past Amari Cooper in search of more secure players in the following tiers. I won’t be doing that, though.