Defensive Back Tiers
By Jene Bramel and John Norton
August 10th, 2012

Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and the rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It naturally lends itself to helping you make good strategic decisions during your draft. The process helps you stay on the right side of runs, shows you which positions can be sloughed a round longer than you thought or need to be targeted early. Perhaps most importantly, tiering and then running a few mock drafts leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and will keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.

This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position this summer, including IDPs, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB again this year and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Jene Bramel: 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 generally not interested in spending a draft pick 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.

John Norton: I agree with Jene here for the most part. There are only a few defensive backs that can be counted on to produce year after year. I also tend to leave this position go until pretty late in the draft but I do like to make sure I get at least one sure thing from the top ten. After that I will identify a few guys who I strongly believe will outplay their ADP and grab 2-3 of them late to fill out my roster. I can usually count on at least one of these guys to hit and can be aggressive on the waiver wire early to replace any who don't.

Bramel: Elite DB1

  • Tyvon Branch
  • George Wilson
  • Eric Berry
  • Kam Chancellor
  • Roman Harper
  • Branch may belong in a tier by himself this season with the way he's likely to be used by new coach Dennis Allen and the questionable surrounding cast in the back seven. Wilson may not be as consistent this season as the Buffalo front seven improves, but he's still an elite option.

    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.

    Norton: I can't argue with the list here. The only addition I would probably make is Morgan Burnett. Packers safeties have a long history of strong and consistent production dating all the way back to LeRoy Butler. Based on that and the plethora of big plays that come from the Green Bay secondary, I believe Burnett is a safe bet to put up similar numbers to those that made him a top five DB last season.

    If Eric Berry proves to be all the way back from last year's injury he could push Branch for that top spot but at this point Branch is a bit more safe.

    The scheme change and improvement up front could have some effect on George Wilson but I believe is will weigh much heavier on FS Jairus Byrd. Wilson is not necessarily an elite player but is a very good one in a great situation.

    Bramel: Near Elite DB1

  • Eric Weddle
  • Morgan Burnett
  • Jordan Babineaux
  • Bernard Pollard
  • Antoine Bethea
  • Mark Barron
  • These six 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. Don't be concerned about the news that Charles Woodson will see safety snaps in Green Bay. That happened last season and shouldn't affect Burnett's upside.

    Norton: I might be missing the boat here but I just don't like Weddle as much as most people. He is a little too inconsistent for me both from year to year and week to week. His seven interceptions last season were five more than any other year of his career and I don't think he can repeat them. Weddle totaled four or fewer tackles in nine games last season.

    I was very impressed with Pollard down the stretch last season and his history shows that the production was not a fluke. He is a great fit in a Ravens scheme that takes full advantage of his strengths.

    Bethea is much like George Wilson in that he is a good player that is going to be in a great situation.

    Bramel: High Floor DB2

  • Patrick Chung
  • Antrel Rolle
  • Darian Stewart
  • Quintin Mikell
  • T.J. Ward
  • Troy Polamalu
  • Earl Thomas
  • William Moore
  • 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 I would rank later. Ward was a major disappointment last season, but I think he represents good value after 12-15 defensive backs come off the board.

    Norton: I love Chung for his upside and if he can stay healthy he is a very safe bet to put up at least strong DB2 numbers. Rolle has less upside because he doesn't make a lot of big plays, but he was the league's second leading tackler among defensive backs last year and has averaged 79 solo stops in his two years with the Giants.

    It is pretty rare that Jene and I totally disagree on a player but there are a whole slew of DBs I would put ahead of T.J. Ward and William Moore. In fact I don't believe Moore is even draftable. Both of these guys were huge disappointments last season to say the least, and I just don't see anything that has changes enough about their situations to make me expect things to be drastically different this year. Ward should bounce back and be more productive than he was last season but unless D'Qwell Jackson gets hurt, I don't see him as much more than depth with DB3 upside. The Falcons also expected a lot more out of Moore last season. If he doesn't step up it would be no surprise to see him lose his starting job to veteran free agent addition Chris Hope at some point this season.

    Bramel: DB2+ Capable Cornerbacks

  • Jason McCourty
  • Charles Tillman
  • Charles Woodson
  • Cortland Finnegan
  • 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.

    Norton: I think DeAngelo Hall belong in this tier. He consistently gives us 60+ tackles with enough passes defended and big plays to finish among the top 10 corners in four of the past five seasons. We could do much worse for a third starter.

    Bramel: Training Camp Watch List

  • Taylor Mays
  • Brandon Taylor
  • Harrison Smith
  • I think these players could join the tiers above by mid-August, but I'd like to see them in camp and a preseason game or two before putting them into my draftable tiers.

    Norton: Add Sean Jones to this list. He has been productive wherever he has gone and will likely come out of camp as the Lions starting SS.

    Bramel: Draftable in CB-Mandatory Leagues

  • Lardarius Webb
  • DeAngelo Hall
  • Devin McCourty
  • Alterraun Verner
  • Patrick Peterson
  • Antoine Winfield
  • Brandon Browner
  • Darrelle Revis
  • Brent Grimes
  • The preseason watch list behind this group is deep. There's 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. The first couple of preseason games should identify a handful of good targets to add to the above list.

    Norton: When putting together my teams I look for consistency first. The linebacker position is deep enough for us to land 3-5 guys that we can count on just about every week. The DB position gives us a lot fewer of those guys. For that reason I like to be sure and land 1-2 of the top 15 to start every week and will gamble with matchup and/or big play potential each week to fill my starting lineup. I can tolerate a near bust week now and then from a second or third DB so long as that guy is going to give me more big games than bad ones. What really helps me on draft day is that most owners will let 3-4 of those top 15 guys slide out of the first 20 drafted nearly every time. Do your homework and know who those guys are.

    Hope you enjoyed this installment. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by e-mail at bramel@footballguys.com or norton@footballguys.com.

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