Rank lists and cheat sheets that list players without context are deceiving. Looking at a rank list accompanied by projections helps show relative differences between players (i.e. the difference between the DL3 and DL4 is much higher than the difference between the DL4 and DL9) but will still leave you blind to upside and floor expectations, confidence that a player will hit that projection and other important considerations.
Using tiers allows you to lump and split players in context. Putting your positional draft board into tiers forces you to decide when you're willing to draft a high risk – high reward player like Lawrence Timmons before you're on the clock. Using tiers can keep you on the right side of draft runs, alerting you to situations when you can wait to move on a position (e.g. there are five linebackers about equal on your board) and target value elsewhere or when you must shift gears and draft a position sooner than you expected (e.g. only one WR2 remains before a steep drop to your next tier).
If you choose to use tiers, make sure you test them in a mock draft to crystallize your thoughts and make sure you'll stick to them in the heat of the draft and keep yourself from second-guessing yourself and taking lots of time when you're on the clock.
In recent seasons, I've advocated bucking the long-held IDP trend of drafting linebackers early and often in favor of securing at least one (and possibly two) of the small number of elite defensive ends. It's still a viable strategy, but one that must be revisited this season.
More owners and leagues are buying into the draft-elite-defensive-ends-before-elite-linebackers approach, squeezing some of the value from the strategy. More importantly, though, is the depth of the top defensive lineman tiers this season when compared to 2009-2011. Instead of four to six truly elite prospects and another four to six with strong upside, 2012 features at least 15 very attractive fantasy targets.
I still favor targeting an elite defensive end over an elite linebacker this season, but 2012 will be a season to stock up on offensive talent without fear of falling behind at any IDP position.
Jason Pierre-Paul Jared Allen Trent Cole Mario Williams
Pierre-Paul and Allen are in their own mini-tier of fantasy dominance here. I prefer Pierre-Paul (beyond elite solo tackle upside, better supporting DL cast, still approaching his prime age seasons, etc.) but Allen is a close 1a. Cole is a near lock for another 45-10 season and deserves elite consideration. After ending the past two seasons on injured reserve with sports hernias and a torn pectoral muscle, it's easy to forget that had 26 sacks in 2007 and 2008 and 44 between 2007 and 2010. Surrounded by talented linemates, he belongs a half tier above the group to follow.
Unlike past seasons, I am not standing on the table advocating that you must draft a player from this tier. If you strongly feel that you must anchor your IDP lineup with an elite defensive end, reach for Pierre-Paul (knowing you'll be giving up at least a tier at more than one offensive position to do so) or wait and snipe Williams a round or three later.
Near Elite DL1
Justin Tuck Julius Peppers Osi Umenyiora Jason Babin Elvis Dumervil Cameron Wake Chris Long Jabaal Sheard Cliff Avril Kamerion Wimbley Calais Campbell Terrell Suggs*
Here's why you shouldn't panic when your leaguemates – who have finally learned what you knew four seasons ago – start moving on the stud defensive ends early. There are 12 players in this tier (including the injured and in fantasy limbo Suggs) and all of them have elite fantasy upside. Even if you disagree on the upside of some of these players, you can be certain that at least one you like will still be on the board four to six rounds after Pierre-Paul and Allen are drafted.
If Tuck looks fully recovered from the multiple injuries that nagged him in 2011, he'll move into the elite tier. Peppers, Babin, Dumervil, Umenyiora, Long, and Avril are elite pass rushers subject to weekly variance due to lower solo tackle numbers. Any of them could crack the top five with a 15+ sack season, but I'm not willing to project those numbers for anyone not named Pierre-Paul this year. Dumervil is the most likely of that mini-tier to break the 35-10 mold.
Expect your leaguemates to be a little wary on Wimbley and Wake or forget that they're DL-eligible altogether. It's possible you may be able to draft one or both many rounds after Chris Long and Justin Tuck and get similar or better production. If you're in a big play league, you can combine these top two tiers.
If you're not now convinced about the depth at the defensive lineman position this year, you will be after considering the players ranked between DL15 and DL25.
Elite DL2 w/ Top 12 Upside
Charles Johnson Chris Clemons J.J. Watt Justin Smith
The riches continue.
I can't argue convincingly for these players as a potential top-eight fantasy defensive lineman, but all four have a very high floor and DL1 upside in any given week. Johnson should be better after surgery to fix a shoulder that limited his run defense last year and the likelihood that he'll face more pass drops this year. I may have Watt a tier too low. If you feel he has seven- to nine-sack upside, move him into the near elite tier.
DL2 Grab Bag
Jeremy Mincey Adrian Clayborn Robert Quinn Carlos Dunlap John Abraham Mark Anderson Ndamukong Suh (DT)
In recent seasons, the back end of the DL2 tiers was full of question marks with a so-so ceiling and small percentage chance of hitting. Not this year.
Any of these players could finish in the Top 15 or better. Mincey was the DL8 in 2011 (albeit in a contract season). Clayborn had 7.5 sacks as a rookie. Quinn's pressure numbers look elite when prorated over 850+ snaps. Dunlap may not have made a Pierre-Paul like leap yet, but he's still just 23 years old. Suh is still an elite defensive tackle capable of a 40-8 season. Even if you're in a very knowledgeable league, you'll be looking at this tier as your DL3.
Still think you should draft Julius Peppers over an offensive player in the eighth round this year?
DL3 w/ Top 25 Upside
Andre Carter (unsigned) Michael Bennett Derrick Morgan Greg Hardy Will Smith Andre Branch Michael Johnson
There's a deep list of fantasy depth and rotational lineup targets below, but I want to highlight these six players separately as high upside DL3 options.
With Da'Quan Bowers sidelined with an Achilles injury, Bennett could see 800 snaps. He could have 40 solos and eight sacks in that role. Like Dunlap, the talent is there for both Morgan and Johnson to break out. Branch isn't the same player Jabaal Sheard is, but he'll have similar opportunity and could be another rookie surprise.
DT1 w/ DL3+ Value
Haloti Ngata Marcell Dareus Ahtyba Rubin Geno Atkins
Along with Suh, these four are the cream of the defensive tackle crop this season. They should be your priority targets if you play in a league that has a separate starting lineup slot for defensive tackles and are worthy of rostering as a rotational DL2 body.
Darnell Dockett Frostee Rucker Matt Shaughnessy Lamarr Houston Kyle Vanden Bosch Brian Robison Bruce Irvin Courtney Upshaw Pernell McPhee Lawrence Jackson Israel Idonije Chandler Jones Ray Edwards
There are still many attractive targets available as we drop into the DL30-DL40 range. Rucker, Shaughnessy, Irvin, and McPhee could all jump a tier or more by August.
Draftable in DT-Mandatory Leagues
Kyle Williams Cullen Jenkins Fletcher Cox Richard Seymour Tommy Kelly Tyson Alualu Karl Klug Jurrell Casey Corey Williams
I'm not a fan of drafting more than one defensive tackle, but I'm listing a handful of high upside plays if you miss out on the Top 5 listed above. Brodrick Bunkley, Christian Ballard, and Cam Thomas are also interesting names to consider very late in your drafts.
Speed Dial Free Agent Targets
Cameron Jordan Brandon Graham Shea McClellin Kroy Biermann
These four players are expected to see 400 or more snaps already. If there's an injury that thrusts them into a near full-time role, move on them early and let them establish a trend on your roster rather than waiting until they do and having to compete for them later.
It's great to have an elite linebacker anchoring your IDP lineup. But you don't have to be among the first owners to draft one to do so.
D'Qwell Jackson, London Fletcher, James Anderson, NaVorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson, Curtis Lofton, Pat Angerer, Nick Barnett, Daryl Washington, Stephen Tulloch, Desmond Bishop, and Sean Weatherspoon finished in the Top 15 in FBG scoring last year. I highlighted six of them as values to target after 10-12 linebackers were taken in your draft in last year's Perfect Draft article.
You should strongly consider using a similar strategy this year.
Desmond Bishop D'Qwell Jackson Colin McCarthy Patrick Willis Derrick Johnson James Laurinaitis Daryl Washington Sean Lee NaVorro Bowman
I think this is a very tight group this year. The shine has come off Willis' fantasy star with the emergence of Bowman but Willis remains an elite target. Bishop had 91 solos in just 13 games. McCarthy and Washington have a strong chance to top 100 solos this year. Jackson has the highest upside in the group, but durability concerns keep him from ranking as the clear overall top linebacker prospect this year. The biggest risk on this list is Bowman. I think his chances of repeating his 110 solo tackle performance are slim. It won't be surprising to see him ranked in the top five, but I'd be hesitant drafting him before anyone else in this tier.
As the summer progresses, I expect to tease out a small handful of the next 20-25 players into a Near Elite LB1 tier. For now, I'm breaking the always large LB2 tier into four separate tiers to highlight the depth of the position and the relative meaninglessness of the rank list between LB10 and LB30 in most seasons. When you lump the players in this way, you're better able to fashion a roster you like. If you prefer upside and can handle lots of weekly variance, err on the side of risk-reward players and rush linebackers. If you'd rather bank sure points out of your LB2-LB3-LB4 lineup slots, stick to the high floor and elite prospects with fewer question marks.
Think of the next four tiers horizontally. In a straight rank list, these groups would be mixed together based on likelihood of hitting their ceiling, injury risk, etc.
Elite LB2 w/ Top 10 Upside
Ray Lewis Pat Angerer Paul Posluszny Curtis Lofton Brian Cushing Lawrence Timmons Sean Weatherspoon Donald Butler
I'm not convinced that Angerer is an elite talent. His upside depends on how he adjusts to the hybrid scheme and what is role is in both base and nickel packages. Butler is a lock for the prospective near-elite tier – and possibly the elite tier – if he wins a nickel job this year. The Falcons have said that they'll primarily play 4-3 on base downs, but it they morph toward a 1-gap 3-4 Weatherspoon will be the main beneficiary. And don't dismiss Timmons despite his poor statistical 2011. He'll be very good value if he lasts into the LB15-25 range.
High Floor LB2
Nick Barnett DeMeco Ryans London Fletcher Brian Urlacher Chad Greenway Stephen Tulloch Karlos Dansby Lavonte David
Unless Kelvin Sheppard wins a nickel job, Barnett is the Buffalo linebacker to own. Ryans should have a bounce back season as the every-down middle linebacker in Philadelphia. David wasn't the first-team weakside backer in the first OTAs in Tampa, but it'll be a major upset if he's not the every-down starter by the end of August.
Jerod Mayo Jon Beason Erin Henderson Rolando McClain Luke Kuechly Perry Riley Mason Foster Kavell Conner Bobby Wagner Wes Woodyard / D.J. Williams
This is the group to watch if you like to draft dangerously. Every player on this list has 92-100 solo tackle upside and a higher ceiling than most of the players in the high floor tier. At least one of them will move into the TBD near elite tier this summer. But each of them has a sizable question mark. The Panthers are still determining how and where to deploy Beason and Kuechly. Riley and Conner look like every-down weak inside linebacker locks, and will move higher when that's confirmed. Foster's situation is tremendous, but he'll need to greatly improve his on-field play before I'm willing to draft him in the Top 20. Wagner is already taking first team snaps at middle linebacker in Seattle. If he holds off Barrett Ruud and wins a nickel job, he will also move out of this group.
DeMarcus Ware Von Miller Aldon Smith
These are the only 3-4 rush outside linebackers that I'm comfortable starting in my LB2 or LB3 lineup slot every week regardless of matchup.
That puts us over 35 players deep at the linebacker position in June that I think have 90+ solo or 14+ sack potential. Unless you're in a very strong league, you should be able to draft four of these players without reaching. I'll be keeping this tier sheet and the Perfect Draft article – which will have recommendations for the best value targets based on current ADPs – updated all summer.
LB3 w/ Top 25 Upside
Michael Boley David Hawthorne Brandon Spikes K.J. Wright Kevin Burnett David Harris Stephen Nicholas Lance Briggs
Like last season, the depth at linebacker stretches into the LB3 tiers. All of these players should win an every-down role for their respective teams and could put up seven or eight solos in any given week. Spikes continues to intrigue me, but he's not been durable enough to recommend drafting as more than a LB4. Don't sleep on Nicholas. He'll likely be the LB5 on many of my rosters this year.
Priority Depth / Matchup Targets
Thomas Howard Mathias Kiwanuka Daryl Smith Kelvin Sheppard Dan Connor Mychal Kendricks Rey Maualuga James Anderson Aaron Curry Keith Rivers
We're now getting into the LB40+ / replacement level range. In this part of the rank list, I like to separate the players I think could break out into a bigger role than expected or that are capable of a predictable LB2 performance against a matchup. These 10 players have my attention in June. Darryl Sharpton, Bradie James, Takeo Spikes, DeAndre Levy, Jasper Brinkley, Joe Mays, Jameel McClain, Akeem Ayers, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Quincy Black, and others aren't far behind.
Rosterable Rush OLBs
James Harrison Tamba Hali Connor Barwin Clay Matthews Robert Mathis Justin Houston LaMarr Woodley
My bias is to limit my exposure to rush outside linebackers in balanced scoring systems (our Footballguys.com default). I think these players are worthy of a roster spot in leagues that go 50-60 linebackers deep, but I'd plan on using them as bye week or matchup starters only.
Training Camp Watch List
Zach Brown Melvin Ingram James-Michael Johnson Akeem Dent Nate Irving Demario Davis Nick Perry Dont'a Hightower
Any of these players could claim a significant role in camp and work themselves into enough playing time to warrant consideration by August.
The defensive back position sees more year-to-year turnover than the defensive line and linebacker positions. Many casual IDP owners draft from the previous year's finish, which vastly overrates fluky seasons and ignores emerging talents. And there's always lots of depth on the waiver wire, particularly early in the season.
For those reasons, my defensive back tiers are very shallow. I'm not interested in the huge group of players that could be safe DB3 lineup options. You can cycle those players off the free agent list at any time of the season. I'll have them on my rank list, but they won't be on my draft list. I'd rather draft an upside RB6 or WR7 and evaluate them until I absolutely need a DB3 starter.
George Wilson Eric Berry Tyvon Branch Roman Harper Kam Chancellor
With the exception of Berry, every player on this list was available well after 20 defensive backs were drafted in the season they broke out as elite fantasy players. If one of them is still on the board after you've exhausted the top tiers at defensive line and linebacker and the upside tiers at running back and wide receiver, I'd pull the trigger. Otherwise, wait and draft from the tiers to follow.
Near Elite DB1
Morgan Burnett Eric Weddle Bernard Pollard Antoine Bethea Mark Barron
These five players may not have the elite ceiling of the five above, but they aren't far behind. It will be interesting to see where Barron's ADP is in August, but I'd be comfortable targeting him as my DB1 if the others are drafted earlier than I can get to them.
High Floor DB2
Patrick Chung Jordan Babineaux Antrel Rolle Darian Stewart Quintin Mikell T.J. Ward Troy Polamalu Earl Thomas
Everything is relative with the defensive back position. I'm not arguing that any of the above players are locks for every-week DB2 value, but they're likely to be more consistent (or have a better shot at DB1 upside) than those listed in the next tier. Ward was a major disappointment last season, but I think he represents good value after 12-15 defensive backs come off the board.
DB2+ Capable Cornerbacks
Jason McCourty Charles Tillman Cortland Finnegan Antoine Winfield
That's it. There's around 25 players that I'd save a roster spot for right now in leagues that combine the cornerback and safety positions. There are another 30-40 (minimum) I'd consider plugging into my DB3 slot in Week 1, but none so valuable that I'd roster them before then. You can check my rank lists to see how I feel about those players at any given time this summer.
Training Camp Watch List
Taylor Mays Jaiquawn Jarrett Brandon Taylor Harrison Smith
I think all four of these players could join the tiers above in August, but I'd like to see them in camp and a preseason game or two before putting them into my draftable tiers.
Draftable in CB-Mandatory Leagues
Lardarius Webb DeAngelo Hall Devin McCourty Patrick Peterson A.J. Jefferson Brandon Browner Terrell Thomas
The preseason watch list behind this group is deep. Aaron Williams and Dre Kirkpatrick are most interesting to me right now, but I have a working list of 30 names that I think have CB2 or better potential worthy of cycling through my lineup until I find one that I'm not willing to release.