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: 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 DL tiers this season when compared to 2009-2011. Instead of 4-6 truly elite prospects and another 4-6 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 Williams had 26 sacks in 2007 and 2008 and 44 between 2007 and 2010. Surrounded by talented line mates, he belongs a half tier above the large group that follows.
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.
John Norton: I see Pierre-Paul and Allen on a tier all by themselves at the top. They are so far ahead of the rest that if you can land one of those two, it might be worth that sacrifice at another position. I love Trent Cole because of his great consistency (40+ tackles and at least 8 sacks in 6 consecutive seasons) and agree that he is an elite player, but I see both Cole and Williams as the top of an unusually deep second tier.
Bramel: Near Elite DL1
Justin Tuck Julius Peppers Cameron Wake Jason Babin Elvis Dumervil Chris Long Jabaal Sheard
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 eight players in this tier that hold elite upside and seven more in the tier to follow with DL1 ceilings. 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 4-6 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 my elite tier. I love Cameron Wake and believe that he's one of the more underrated pass rushers in the league. He's shown the ability to be an elite all-around defensive end. He may be in my top five by the end of August. Sheard may also be underrated in this tier.
Peppers, Babin, Dumervil, 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.
If you're not now convinced about the depth at the DL position this year, you will be after considering the players "ranked" between DL10 and DL25.
Norton: I am on board with the players in this tier but would have them in a little different order. Wake clearly has the potential to blow up but I think he is also the biggest risk of the group. He has been a linebacker his entire career, including all of his three years as a starter for Penn State. NFL history is littered with players who were unsuccessful in the transition between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. This is true for both 4-3 ends moving to outside linebacker (see Jason Babin) and 3-4 linebackers moving to end.
While I recognize his ability as a pure pass rusher, Wake is only 250 pounds and will have to prove that he can stand up versus the run before I can put him ahead of the other guy on that list. Based on his production over the past two seasons, I would have to put Babin right in there behind Cole, Williams and Tuck on this tier, with Dumervil right on his heels. In defense of Dumervil's tackle production, he was on pace for just over 38 tackles last season had he not missed three games. In fact, he really didn't get up to speed until after the Broncos week six bye. If he can stay healthy I will be surprised to see him fall short of 40 tackles and 12 sacks.
Bramel: Elite DL2 w/ Top 12 Upside
Cliff Avril Charles Johnson Calais Campbell Osi Umenyiora Kamerion Wimbley Chris Clemons J.J. Watt Justin Smith Robert Quinn Adrian Clayborn Jeremy Mincey Mark Anderson John Abraham
The riches continue. In recent seasons, the DL2 tiers were full of question marks and players with a so-so ceiling and small percentage chance of hitting. Not this year.
I think every player on this list has a chance to be an every-week DL1 and we're 23 players deep. It's even more ammunition for my argument that you should avoid investing an eighth or ninth round pick in Peppers, Babin, Long, etc. over an offensive player this year.
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. But the possibility of more 3-4 base defensive snaps in Carolina drops him out of the near elite tier. I may have Watt a tier too low. If you feel he has 7-9 sack upside, move him into the near elite tier. Mincey was the DL8 in 2011 (albeit in a contract season).
Quinn and Clayborn are prime candidates to make a Year 2 leap. Clayborn had 7.5 sacks as a rookie. Quinn's pressure numbers look elite when prorated over 850+ snaps. Both are in line for 800+ snaps this season and both remain in favorable schemes despite coaching changes. If Quinn projected to better run support and tackle numbers, he'd be at least a full tier higher. Given their current ADP, prioritize drafting one of them as your high upside DL3.
Expect your leaguemates to be 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 Long and Tuck and get similar or better production.
Norton: The difference between Wimbley and Wake is that Wimbley has been successful as a 4-3 end before. This will not be a new position for him. I really like this guy as a great value pick who will be available much later than he should be in most leagues. Justin Smith is kind of like Trent Cole when it comes to stellar consistency. He is not going to give us double digit sacks but we can count on him to push the 50 tackle mark and give us 6-8 sacks. His ceiling is not as high as some of the other on this tier but we know exactly what we are getting.
Anyone who has read my Eyes of the Guru column knows how much I like J.J. Watt. That said, there is still a chance that he was a one year wonder and the recent elbow injury could be a factor; especially early in the season. I love Charles Johnson's potential but his situation there in Carolina scares me a little. Mincey may not have the motivation of a contract year this time around but the addition of Andre Branch could go a long way toward keeping offenses honest with their blocking schemes. I really like his production as a run defender.
Bramel: DL3 with Top 20 Upside
Carlos Dunlap Michael Bennett Derrick Morgan Matt Shaughnessy Greg Hardy Andre Branch Michael Johnson
Dunlap may not have made a Pierre-Paul like leap yet, but he's still just 23 years old. This could be the season that he earns 700+ snaps and plays with consistency on all downs. Unlike last season, however, there are too many better options to consider him more than a risk-reward DL3. Still, Dunlap's upside puts him at the top of this tier in the hopes that he'll be given the snaps he needs to smooth out his variance curve. If he's getting those snaps during the preseason, he'll move up alongside Quinn in the tier above.
Many players in this tier project to 750+ snaps. That would have been unheard of in the DL25-DL30 range in recent years. With Da'Quan Bowers sidelined with an Achilles injury, Bennett will be a full time player. Like Dunlap, the talent is there for both Morgan and Johnson to break out. All three have 40-8 potential. Branch isn't as talented as Sheard, but he'll have similar opportunity and could be another rookie surprise. And I still like Shaughnessy. I'd rank him in a higher tier based on talent, but needs to stay healthy and earn a higher percentage of his team's snaps.
Norton: I have Shaughnessy at the top of this tier. In 2010 he started just eight games but finished among the top 20 defensive linemen with 43 tackles and 7 sacks. The shoulder injury ended his 2011 very early so he has had plenty of time to fully recover. This is a guy that Richard Seymour recently called "the best run stopping defensive end in the NFL." I don't know if I would go quite that far but I will say that this guy reminds me of a young Jason Taylor. He would be a steal as your third DL.
Both of the Cincinnati guys on this tier have good potential but I fear the possibility of a rotation. The Bengals lost some players up front but added some quality veteran depth as well. The potential of Dunlap and Johnson will be directly tied to their level of opportunity. While I agree that Derrick Morgan has enough potential to belong in this group, I tend to be a little pessimistic about him. He was given plenty of opportunity last season but failed to step up. Maybe that was due to the serious injury that ended his rookie season very early in 2010 and maybe not.
Bramel: DT1 w/ DL3+ Value
Ndamukong Suh Haloti Ngata Marcell Dareus Ahtyba Rubin Geno Atkins
Suh is still an elite defensive tackle capable of a 40-8 season, but he'll (and the Lions' defensive staff) will have to show they can adjust to how offensive lines handle him in the run game before he can be projected to 40+ solos reliably. There may be other tackles worthy of DL3 or better roster status, but I'll focus on these five in my drafts, especially as priority targets in leagues that separate defensive tackles into a separate position.
Norton: Suh has the talent to be the top interior lineman in the fantasy game but after last season I am pretty skeptical. My mind goes back to others interior linemen who have had great box score success early in their careers only to fade quickly. Kevin Williams is a prime example.
Bramel: Rosterable Depth/DL4 Targets
Darnell Dockett Frostee Rucker Brian Robison Chandler Jones Bruce Irvin Terrell Suggs Courtney Upshaw Lamarr Houston Muhammad Wilkerson Kyle Vanden Bosch Pernell McPhee Lawrence Jackson Israel Idonije Jared Odrick Ray Edwards
This is a long list of depth targets. In most standard league setups, against average competition, you may not reach this tier during the draft. If you do, the top five names on the list are a half tier above the rest.
I'll be paying very close attention to Jones' progress during camp. Early reports have the Patriots morphing toward a 4-3 front, with Jones in a RDE role that I feel is his best fit. He'll have to win enough snaps to put up numbers, but he's the most likely of the group to jump tiers in the next update.
Rucker will get his first chance at a high percentage of snaps and could be a solid, but not spectacular bye week replacement. Irvin and Upshaw could also surprise, even in rotational roles.
Norton: I like both Lawrence Jackson and Jared Odrick in this tier as late round sleepers. Jackson is a former first round pick (Seattle 2008) and has been very productive in his part time role as the Lions third end. He could be a big surprise if given a bigger role. Odrick may not put up big sack totals but should be a stout run defender with the potential to reach the 40 tackle plateau. He managed 6 sacks as a 3-4 end last season and could do most of his damage as an inside pass rusher in nickel situations.
Bramel: Draftable in DT-Mandatory Leagues
Kyle Williams Cullen Jenkins Fletcher Cox Richard Seymour Tommy Kelly Antonio Garay 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 five 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 might already have a chance at 400 or more snaps. 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 leaving them on the free agent list until they do and having to compete for them later.
Norton: Add the Raiders Desmond Bryant to this list. He was listed as a tackle last season but ended up playing a lot of end after Shaughnessy was injured. In 10 starts he went 30-5-5. Bryant clearly outplayed LaMarr Houston and could figure significantly into the Raiders plans this year.