Applying Tier Based Strategies To Your Draft
By Jene Bramel
August 15th, 2011

Sigmund Bloom and I will again be writing a series of articles on positional tiers this year. We include some thoughts on how to apply those tiers to your draft, but the series focuses mostly on a discussion of why players slot into their respective tiers. Since working the tiers into your draft strategy is the reason we do them, it's not surprising that we get lots of questions and requests to expand on putting the tiers into practice.

I thought I'd use a recent draft as an illustration of how I use the tiers in my pre-draft planning and while the draft unfolds.

The IOP Invitational

The IOP Invitational began drafting in early August. It's a combined offense-IDP redraft league with a scoring system that I designed to give all positions nearly equal weight and force drafters to consider multiple positions at any point in the draft. There are six offensive starters (QB, RB, 2 WR, TE and a RB/WR/TE flex) and eleven defensive starters (DT, 2 DE, 3 LB, 2 CB, 2 S and a defensive flex from any position and 34 total roster spots. It's a PPR league, with a yardage/PPR bonus for TE, 4pt per TD for QB, and a set of defensive scoring rules that favors big plays (sacks and coverage stats) over tackles, though tackles remain important.

You can see all the league parameters and follow the draft here.

Predraft Planning

Most of your predraft planning will go into producing the tiers. As you'll see in our positional series, we think it's important to use a combination of statistical projections and gut feel on a player's ceiling and floor. Those numbers and ranges then get applied to the scoring system and lineup/roster needs.

It's no secret that the key to winning fantasy leagues involves scoring more points than your opponent, but it sometimes gets overlooked that you work to do that by scoring more points at as many positions as possible by as many points as possible. Player A may score 100 more points than another, but still be less valuable than Player B at another position if the drop from Player B to the others at that position is much wider than the drop from Player A to the others at his position.

That's why the predraft tier process is important.

Predraft Planning for IOP

I setup a Draft Dominator file for the league, then tweaked the projections for some players toward their upside and others toward their downside (a personal preference) to better reflect my tiers and began studying the relative values of each position.

It's quickly evident (I designed the scoring system this way, so it better have been) that this isn't a league where 15 running backs, a small handful of wide receivers and a couple of quarterbacks should be drafted in the first two rounds. The elite at nearly every position (QB, RB, WR, TE, DT, DE, LB and arguably S) were under consideration in the first round, with even the 1.01 pick wide open with possibilities.

Six running backs, one wide receiver, two quarterbacks, one defensive tackle and two defensive ends were reasonable picks in the top half of the first round based on the VBD values generated by the Draft Dominator file. There was also a very reasonable argument that the elite TE, LB and safety tiers should also have been considered among that cross-positional tier of first round potentials.

More specifically, I felt that the drop from Jamaal Charles to someone like Rashard Mendenhall was significant enough to warrant a major VBD separation. So, too Vick/Rodgers v Brees/Manning, Andre Johnson v Roddy White, Justin Tuck and Trent Cole v Terrell Suggs and Jared Allen. Some of those drops were subtler than others, but they were there.

Looking further down the draft board, I also felt that the second and third tiers of running backs were deeper than usual (and, further, that I really liked a lot of the younger RB3 talents) while I wasn't very excited about most of the WR3 and WR4 upside targets. I felt that a top five tight end was a priority given the PPR/yardage bump at that position. On the defensive side, I generally prefer to get an elite DE (shallower DE1/DE2 tier) than an elite LB (deep LB2+ tier and good LB3+ targets) and this league setup clearly supported that strategy.

Those decisions are made by examining your tiers and the differences in point values between them - both inside their position and across positions.

The 1.06 Selection

While I'm prepared to be flexible during the draft, I'll usually script a "most likely" draft plan (or two) before making my first two or three picks. I might decide that the RB tiers are so deep later that I'll forego a little added value in a top RB in favor of a WR in the first and second round. Or I may realize that I'd be comfortable grabbing a top QB or TE (or both) a little early so that I can attack deeper tiers at other positions in the mid-rounds while not worrying about a higher-priced backup at the position behind my top starter.

As the 1.06 pick approached, I decided that I'd try to get away with passing on an elite DE until the second or third round (depending on whether the league decided to treat IDPs as second class fantasy players despite the relative value) and that I preferred a top RB to Andre Johnson. I also felt that my middle of the round pick would keep me immune from losing out on a TE in my top two tiers.

That suggested a script that would give me a top five running back, a top five defensive end and the best available value (QB, RB, WR, DE) in the third round.

So, although my board listed Vick, Rodgers, Foster, Peterson, Johnson, Rice, Charles, McCoy, Johnson, Clark, Gates, Witten, Finley, Suh, Tuck, Cole, Willis and Landry as worthy picks, I had already eliminated a few positions from consideration due to the conclusions I made when considering the later tiers and my draft position.

I expected to be put to a decision on the top RB on my board, the top DE and Suh at 1.06.

The first five picks were:

1.01 - TE Jason Witten
1.02 - RB Arian Foster
1.03 - RB Adrian Peterson
1.04 - RB Chris Johnson
1.05 - DE Justin Tuck

That provided a number of important pieces of information. This was indeed not going to be like any other draft. The owners knew the scoring system and weren't afraid to draft to it. I needed to decide how badly I wanted an elite TE versus one of my top five defensive ends. If I went RB here, it could mean that I'd lose out on one of those two desired commodities.

In the end, I decided that Ray Rice was too talented to pass up. The combination of Rice's elite upside and high floor compared to the backs in the second and third tiers, combined with knowing that I'd be able to slough running backs until I felt one made sense as a flex carried the argument. I nearly went with Suh, who was arguably the biggest relative advantage on the board at any position before the draft started, but decided that he'd have to hit his ceiling again this year to make him worth the risk.

The pick: Ray Rice

Note: Matt Waldman took Witten with the 1.01 pick. Here's his post in the Shark Pool explaining his process and decision.

The 2.07 Selection

Three defensive ends, two quarterbacks, two running backs, two wide receivers, two tight ends and Suh went after my 1.06, thinning out my elite tiers significantly. Most of the positions were now into tiers that were either deep enough to pass (QB, RB, WR, LB) or that I was not yet ready to consider for at least 2-3 more rounds (DT, CB, S).

Though this is a spot where some would argue that a talent like MJD or Roddy White or Patrick Willis would be too good to pass up, the tier process helps (and sometimes forces) you to hold true to your draft board and not miss the correct value pick in the heat of the moment.

My tiers put two players in flashing neon as elite talents in positions of high relative value: TE Jermichael Finley and DE Charles Johnson. Though Vernon Davis and Julius Peppers belong in the discussion, I have both Finley and Johnson with higher ceilings and, though Finley's health has to be a concern, higher floors.

Both players were nearly equal in relative value and I was reasonably comfortable with being forced to reach for a player in the next tier at either position (Jimmy Graham or Owen Daniels, Matt Shaughnessy or Carlos Dunlap) if necessary.

Though the tier process coldly redirected me from the more traditional RB pick or high profile LB pick, there's still room for some art and meta-strategy in the draft.

I know that I'm probably higher on Johnson than some of my colleagues. There's a slim chance I get him in the third round. I know that Finley absolutely won't last until the third. Finley has a higher chance at a truly elite season, despite the durability risk. Finally, there's a much better chance that Peppers will be there (if I take Finley and Johnson gets sniped) than Davis (if I take Johnson).

The pick: Jermichael Finley

The 3.06 Selection

Though many talented players fly off the board, including Davis two picks later at 2.09, my calculated gamble pays off and Johnson was still on the board for me here.

With my tiers still deep at QB (Brees, Brady, Rivers and Romo available), RB (MJD, McFadden, Mendenhall and a handful of third tier backs I like available), WR (Jackson, Jennings, Wayne and others available) and LB, Johnson made for an easy pick.

The pick: Charles Johnson

Now, it's time to re-evaluate.

I have an anchor RB and need to start only one. I have an elite option at TE in a system with significant scoring bonuses at that position and a draft that may begin reaching for the second and third tier prospects in coming rounds. And I have an elite DE in a position where a stable weekly option is a major relative advantage.

My predraft preparation and tiers now remind me of a few things. I'm not sure I want to risk QBBC this year if a QB in the top tier falls. It's okay to let a second tier RB slide, even if he presents attractive value, in favor of a third tier RB2+ prospect a few rounds later. I've already decided to make an extra second tier WR prospect a priority over the RB position. I should consider another DE stud if it makes sense. And it's time to start watching the top linebacker tiers and be ready to move on at least one of my LB2+ upside targets at any point in the next 3-7 rounds.

The 4.07 Selection

My tiers were pretty wide open at this pick. I liked Brees a little better than Brady, Rivers and Romo. MJD and Gore were tempting, but not enough to move on them as a luxury pick in a start-1 RB league yet. Jackson, Jennings, Bowe, Marshall, Bryant and Lloyd were in a good sized group at WR. The draft hadn't yet made linebacker a priority and I wasn't ready to anoint Mathis, Dunlap, Umenyiora or Shaughnessy as a must have DE2 (though Dunlap was intriguing).

I narrowed the decision to Brees, Rivers, Jennings and Jackson. I nearly went with the WR, but decided I'd rather have the cream of my second tier in Brees, who I have ranked third overall, and wait to see what developed at RB/WR/LB in the next 2-3 rounds.

The pick: Drew Brees

The 5.06 Selection

(It should be noted here that the Draft Dominator would suggest that the quarterbacks and wide receivers taken in the mid-4th through 5th rounds do not represent the greatest value on the board. However, it can be hard to force the software to consider that a draft might veer off on a positional run in its drop values and VBD calculation. It's also hard to program in a measure of upside and downside with just a single projection and fantasy point number. Some of the picks in this range look like reaches in the VBD model, but are easily defensible.)

MJD was still on the board at 5.06. Running backs figured to slide in this setup, but those who went DE or QB early were clearly rewarded later. Even with durability concerns, he stood out starkly on my running back board. But the strategy suggested by my overall tier board (to target an upside RB2 with the elite RB1 already rostered, to err on the side of multiple top 25 wide receivers in the PPR flex setup) was still indicated here with only one of my top tier WRs still available. And with at least ten potential LB1 values still on the board, the WR was the easy pick.

The pick: Vincent Jackson

The 6.07 Selection

The mini run of good RB values finally happened between my fifth and sixth round picks, and it included one of the players I had highlighted as a high upside RB2, Mark Ingram. Again, this is where the tier process helps (as does the middle of the round pick) provide clarity. Instead of feeling forced to jump on the back end of the RB run, the draft board shows that tier is still deep (Hillis, Mathews, Bradshaw, Greene or Turner available at the time). The tier process gives you the perspective to consider other, and possibly better, value options.

If you suspect that you won't be able to pass up taking a player in a still-deep tier because of his upside or a gut feeling, then he belongs in the tier above. Just be prepared to deal with the consequences of drafting a player at what you feel is his absolute ceiling when you meddle with the tiers in that way. There are times when that decision is right (for me it was very right with Terrell Davis and Carl Pickens way, way back in the day and Ray Rice a couple of seasons ago) and times when it blows up your draft (there are too many names to list here when it went very wrong for me, as I like to draft on the edge of the upside curve).

The draft board looked essentially the same at this pick as it did the last. Had MJD fallen this far, I would not have passed again. But I'm still influenced by the lack of depth in the late WR3 and WR4 tiers and the continued good depth at RB and LB on my board. Though my tier of high upside WR2 remains relatively deep (Bowe, Bryant, Williams and Colston), it's thinning quickly and I did not want to get shut out by getting greedy with a DE or LB here. Though I like Colston's floor and think Bowe can remain a top ten receiver, I'm extremely high on Bryant. As noted in the last paragraph, my personal draft strategy almost always involves shooting for the highest ceiling within a given tier.

The pick: Dez Bryant

The 7.06 Selection

Only one running back came off the board between picks, validating the argument that reaching early in a tier doesn't pay. Four more linebackers were drafted, however, and there were now 14 total drafted. The draft had reached the point I consider its sweet spot for linebacker value.

Every year, the consensus top linebackers are drafted 2-6 rounds before identifiably ascending talents. Every year, LB2 targets with LB1 upside like Stephen Tulloch and Lawrence Timmons in 2010, Curtis Lofton and Derrick Johnson in 2009 and Jerod Mayo in 2008 are readily available after 12-18 linebackers have been drafted. This year, guys like Desmond Bishop, David Hawthorne, DeMeco Ryans, Nick Barnett, D'Qwell Jackson, Rolando McClain and Thomas Davis fit into that "possible LB1 at LB2 prices" tier. I almost always wait until 12-15 linebackers are drafted and focus on other positions, then grab two or three from that tier and remain very competitive in relative value.

Marques Colston was a very strong consideration as the last WR2 value on my board. But, though we're just 14 linebackers deep and only one player on the above list is off the board, I decide to get a head start on the tier in a league that could start as many as 48 linebackers each week.

The pick: David Hawthorne

The 8.07 Selection

After my seventh round pick, two more of my upside third tier running backs went off the board (Bradshaw, Turner). Marques Colston was still standing out as a top 15 WR. Four solid linebackers and two of my upside DE targets were also taken, thinning the tiers at two other valuable positions.

The league parameters (PPR, start just one running back, start at least three linebackers) suggested going in a different direction here, but I wanted to ensure I got a running back out of my upside tier. With multiple teams (including Matt Waldman at the coming turn who had yet to draft a back) potentially drafting a back before my next pick, I (reluctantly as you can see in my draft comments) decided to take the back.

The pick: Ryan Mathews

The 9.06 Selection

I was nearly gifted Colston, who slid all the way to 9.05 as the 22nd WR off the board. Shonn Greene remained available from my upside RB2 tier, but he wasn't a strong consideration after taking Mathews at 8.07. Ray Edwards and Cliff Avril stood out as the lone remaining risk-reward DE1 targets, though the DE2+ tier remained relatively deep. My LB2+ tier had further dried up, with just a couple of good targets remaining.

In another close decision, and one influenced with the knowledge that the majority of teams picking between my next picks were linebacker needy, I decided filling my LB2 slot was the higher priority.

The pick: DeMeco Ryans

The 10.07 Selection

There was a twinge of regret while waiting for this pick as both Edwards and Avril were drafted. Despite your best efforts, there are times when a top tier at a position you've prioritized gets cleaned out before you can get to it. When that happens, resist the urge to reach into the next tier too early. Despite my preference for a strong DE2, there were no defensive ends worth considering here.

As expected, five linebackers went after my ninth round pick, four of them in my LB2+ tier, leaving only Nick Barnett and Thomas Davis in that group. (Recent news has pushed Daryl Washington well into the LB2+ tier since the time this pick was made. He was on the radar here, but not yet a serious consideration. Had I known then what I know now, he'd have been an easy pick in this spot.)

Anquan Boldin stood out as a solid top 25 WR alongside Barnett and Davis as strong LB2+ values. Shonn Greene remained on the board, too. Still, none of those players were guaranteed to provide a major relative advantage at their lineup slot (Boldin/Greene as an offensive flex, Barnett/Davis as LB3).

I turned my attention to the safety position, where only two players had been taken and where I'd decided that an elite safety (there are six on my board) would provide a major relative advantage. Only three of those six elite safeties (and now arguably two with LaRon Landry struggling in his recovery from an Achilles injury) have a floor comparable to that of the LB2 candidates on my board. And only one of those three was still available.

The pick: T.J. Ward

We could carry this process through the next few rounds, but that should give you an idea of how you might employ the tier-based approach to generate a blueprint before and during your draft.

Watch for the positional tier series over the next couple of weeks to see how Sig and I sift through talent, opportunity, upside considerations and risk management to set up our tiers.

Thanks as always for reading. Questions and comments are always welcome in the discussion section below or by e-mail and Twitter (@JeneBramel). Best of luck in your draft this month.

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