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Reading the Defense: Defensive Back Tiers [Early July Update]

How to approach the defensive back position during your draft

WHY TIERS?

Rank lists and cheatsheets can be deceiving when they're presented without commentary. Our rankings have been vastly improved by adding staffer comments, but it can be hard to see the all-important context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's critical to know where a significant drop-off in fantasy value occurs. A simple rank list can't tell you if the DL4 is closer in value to the DL10 than the DL3. A cheatsheet can't tell you if the ranker feels the LB10 is a boom-bust play with LB2 upside and LB40 downside while the LB11 has a much narrower range of expectation.

That's where tiers are helpful.

Using tiers allows you to lump and split players in context. Using tiers can help keep you on the right side of draft runs. Seeing that you have five linebackers of equal value left on your board might prompt you to take a player at another position. Noting that there's only one wide receiver left before a major drop in value will show you when you must draft a position sooner than expected. A tiered draft board keeps you from making panicked decisions while on the clock.


HOW TO USE THE TIERS

Note 1: These tiers are based on 2015 expectation in a balanced IDP scoring system. I stopped producing dynasty rankings years ago when it became clear I weighted the current season significantly more than future years. In deeper dynasty leagues, I'll save a roster slot for a strong developmental prospect but will otherwise use these tiers as my primary roster philosophy. I'm also including a separate dynasty stash tier at the end of each positional article.

Note 2: I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts later in the offseason). Early in the offseason, I'll deviate from the Rotoworld depth chart when I'm reasonably certain a positional change is coming that Rotoworld will reflect later in the offseason.

Note 3: I'll add a ^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvv for those players who have dropped since the previous tier release. For reference, you'll be able to see the earlier versions of these tier articles within the IDP article list, but the trend column should help you see where player movement is happening within the tiers at a quick glance. I'll also be including an ADP column later this summer. The ADP number will be an average of our FBG rankings, the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings, and ADP data from drafts at MFL.

Finally, the date on this article represents the last time the tiers were updated. Each update will be published as a stand-alone article. Make sure you are viewing the most recent tier article by checking the complete IDP article list here.

That's a long, but necessary, introduction to the important stuff. Thanks for bearing with me.


STRATEGY THOUGHTS

Ten years ago, the defensive back position used to be one of my favorite areas to rank. Offenses were straightforward, base defenses were stable and teams rarely platooned players. If you had a working knowledge of the coverages a team preferred to run and the skill sets of the secondary, you could make smart, consistent bets on which players were likely to see the most statistical opportunity.

Unfortunately, the league isn't simple anymore.

According to ProFootballFocus data, an average of 70 safeties and 83 cornerbacks have played at least 500 snaps over the past three seasons. The trend toward heavy subpackage use isn't new information and shouldn't be surprising to any fan of defensive football, but it's still striking to see 153 defensive backs per season averaging 30 snaps per game.

The defensive line and linebacker groups have significantly fewer players reach that plateau, with around 100 players each.

Not all of those snaps are created equally. Game situation, down and distance, personnel and surrounding cast have much more to do with the fantasy upside of any given snap than ever before. Free safeties moving to the slot, strong safeties moving to linebacker and non-starters moving into a key tackling role on subpackage downs are becoming more and more common. It's become very difficult to project yearly and weekly tackle numbers for defensive backs.

And that's changed my roster philosophy for defensive backs over the past 3-5 seasons. I now believe that there are two main tiers for DB-inclusive leagues. The first tier includes the players I believe have Elite DB1 potential -- 80+ solo tackles or 60+ solos with elite peripheral coverage stat (FF/INT/PD) upside. The second tier includes everyone else.

It's also important to have a short memory. If an "Elite DB" isn't performing as such, move on. It's okay for your defensive back roster spots to remain fluid all season long.

I'll still be lumping and splitting players into tiers in this feature. But realize that every single defensive back that could see 40 or more snaps in a given week belongs somewhere in the matchup cloud. You're probably thinking, "Come on, Bramel. That's almost 200 players." Yup. Get used to it. Nickel and dime corners and hybrid nickel safeties may hold just as much fantasy value as a starting cornerback or safety.

Scouting IDPs is as much about scouting opportunity as talent. The paradigm has changed. We've adapted to front seven rotations and nickel linebacker specialists in recent seasons. It's time to do the same with the defensive backs.


HIGH FLOOR ELITE SAFETIES | DB1

Unexpectedly elite fantasy options present themselves in the early weeks every year. If you're aggressive on the waiver wire in the first month, you can often stumble into a player you planned to stream who has made themselves too valuable to dump back on the free agent list. Still, if these elite options remain available after the best offensive depth and highest DE/LB upside is gone, snap them up. They are the best combination of upside and floor on the board this season.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Morgan Burnett <>   Aligns in box more frequently than Clinton-Dix; unknowns persist at ILB
Reshad Jones <>   Averaging 83 solos per 16 games over past three seasons; capable in coverage
Eric Weddle <>   All-around stud w/ questionable ILBs; unhappiness w/ contract will pay dividends
T.J. McDonald <>   Was Fisher’s in-the-box safety last year and should be again
Harrison Smith <>   May not have 100 solo upside but has 70 solo floor & strong coverage profile

HIGH VARIANCE SAFETIES | WEEKLY DB1 UPSIDE

Target these players late in your draft if you miss out on the elite options. There will be more DB3- weeks from this group than the one above, but the majority of this group are likely to be solid every week fantasy starters.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Antrel Rolle <>   May not see slot snaps to push him into elite tier but still very good
Barry Church <>   Steady production but possible increase in variance w/ return of Sean Lee
Landon Collins <>   Should see lots of time in the box behind average linebacker group
Tyrann Mathieu <>   Will be back playing full time but stronger competition for tackles than 2013
Michael Griffin <>   Loads of opportunity again this year; solid ball skills will help
Charles Woodson <>   Do not expect 80 solos again; careful not to overdraft
Johnathan Cyprien <>   Numbers didn’t suffer with Telvin Smith in lineup
Kenny Vaccaro <>   Huge disappointment poss injury related; PFF recorded 19!! missed tackles
Earl Thomas <>   Two seasons with ~70 solos now; coverage value gives him elite weekly upside
Calvin Pryor <>   Should be used to his strengths around the box this year
Antoine Bethea <>   Steady vet who should benefit from increased opportunity and questions at ILB
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix <>   Able to put up 63 solo last year; coverage stats should improve
Rashad Johnson <>   Looks likely to remain base strong safety over Bucannon for now
Da’Norris Searcy <>   Productive when plays; should get every-down chance in TEN
Kam Chancellor <>   My favorite NFL safety but opportunity and home stat crew kill his floor
Deone Bucannon <>   59 solos in 700 snaps last year; vaults up list if wins every-down job

BEST EARLY SEASON STREAMING SAFETIES | WEEKLY DB2 UPSIDE

Target these players in deeper leagues as early season DB3 lineup options. Do not hesitate to stream any of these players on and off your roster unless you can identify a clear cause (talent, opportunity, scheme) for a strong early season performance.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Mike Adams <>   ILBs not as rangy as you think; coverage upside in passing shootouts
Robert Blanton <>   Steady last year but competition for tackles steep
Jeron Johnson <>   Leading contender for high opportunity job w/ stat crew upside
James Ihedigbo <>   Quietly strong run defender last year w/ big play upside
Donte Whitner <>   Floor decent due to assist heavy stat crew but nothing special
Tyvon Branch <>   Needs to prove he’s in form; must compete w/ Johnson for tackles/big plays
Malcolm Jenkins <>   Inconsistent and now stuck behind two elite rangy ILBs
Shamarko Thomas <>   Inexperienced but opportunity in the box gets him listed
Devin McCourty <>   Hard to project behind stud front seven but coverage upside remains
Ron Parker <>   Huge 2014 but tough to repeat if Johnson and Branch in formReggie Nelson
Bradley McDougald <>   Oft praised by Lovie but depth chart littered w/ options in TB
T.J. Ward <>   Has yet to blossom into consistent tackler in DEN despite favorable role
Jairus Byrd <>   Returning from injury but should have weekly upside v good matchups
Rahim Moore <>   Will have more coverage than run responsibility but HOU ILB are ugly
Duke Williams <>   Likely to see every-down run support duty and has coverage value
Dashon Goldson <>   Veteran could end up most productive DB in WAS

PRESEASON WATCH LIST

Watch these four names carefully through August. Those in deeper leagues should consider flyers on Pleasant and Swearinger. Both will move into rosterable tiers with a favorable change in their expectation.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Eddie Pleasant <>   Could win every-down box safety role behind questionable ILBs in HOU
D.J. Swearinger <>   Claimed by TB ahead of more fantasy-friendly teams; Bucs like McDougald
Eric Berry <>   Recovery from lymphoma progressing; may not be every-down player if he’s cleared
Mark Barron <>   Filled subpackage role for STL well but not in line for full time duty

DYNASTY STASH

Recommended for deeper dynasty rosters only, this group isn't likely to impact your 2015 fantasy roster without an injury or unexpected depth chart surprise.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Ibraheim Campbell <>   May supplant Whitner sooner than later; could be hybrid nickel LB option
Clayton Geathers <>   Upside in IND when he’s ready to take over
Shawn Williams / Derron Smith <>   Bengals ready to move on from Nelson/Iloka
Jaquiski Tartt <>   Size and speed to be Chancellor clone but will need extensive seasoning
James Sample <>   Broken arm in OTAs may have cost him starting job this season
Cedric Thompson <>   Room for value in MIA in time

CORNERBACK TIERS

Historically, you could do well at cornerback by grabbing the most physical players or trolling for Tampa-2 starters. That's not the case any longer.

What I tend to favor now is:

  1. A physical corner who will shed blocks and defend the run.
  2. A confident corner with good ball skills.
  3. A versatile corner who plays outside, then slides into the slot in subpackages.
  4. A decent corner playing opposite a stud cover corner.
  5. A corner who plays more zone coverage than man coverage.
  6. A corner for a team likely to see above-average passing attempts.
  7. A corner playing for a team likely to see high tackle opportunity with weak front seven tacklers.

The more criteria a player fits, the more attractive they are to me. But it's not always predictive. There will be players who finish in the top five who do not fit the criteria well. Minimal investment, a short memory, trend analysis and some film study will help you navigate the week-to-week variance here.

This season, I see two elite talents and a long list of solid streamable options.

CORNERBACKS W/ EVERY WEEK DB1 VALUE

I love Prince Amukamara and he's still very attainable after missing half of last season with injury. I think McCourty will still hold value this season, but he's not too far ahead of the players listed in the streaming tier.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Prince Amukamara <>   Over past two seasons projects to 75 solos/16 games; elite two way CB
Jason McCourty <>   Model of consistency at inconsistent position

ROSTERABLE CORNERBACKS W/ PROJECTABLE FLOOR

There's no reason not to take shots at upside early in the season, even in leagues where you are required to start two cornerbacks. Every owner is dealing with variance at this position. I'll routinely swing and swing again at talent and opportunity in players like Fuller, Hayward and Verrett. The key is to move quickly in and out of your shares. If they start slow, don't hesitate to move on. If they shows signs of life later, don't wait for them to establish a trend before putting them back on your roster.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Chris Harris <>   No longer underrated and should still see lots of slot snaps
Casey Hayward <>   Now full time and could be elite fantasy option immediately
Kyle Fuller <>   Doesn’t get Tampa-2 bump anymore but will be consistent all-around threat
Leodis McKelvin <>   At some risk of demotion in time but will start season opposite Gilmore
Cary Williams <>   Move to Seattle will only help and good tackling mentality should fit in
Joe Haden <>   Teams don’t shy away from him as much as you’d think
Jason Verrett <>   Rookie year derailed by shoulder surgery; excellent skill set opposite Flowers
Buster Skrine <>   Still projects to slot with NYJ and has quietly been Richard Marshall 2.0
E.J. Gaines <>   Successful opposite Jenkins last season and could be again
Charles Tillman <>   Looks likely to start but new scheme and surrounding cast may limit him
William Gay <>   High floor option who won’t kill you in any week
Alterraun Verner <>   Still valuable outside the high volume TEN defense
Byron Maxwell <>   Can handle CB1 duties in PHI and volume is attractive
Bradley Roby <>   Now listed at safety but don’t be shocked if re-classified and plays slot
Xavier Rhodes <>   Like his fantasy profile but this is more projection than reality for now
Johnathan Joseph <>   70 solos last season likely an anomaly but useful streaming option
Jerraud Powers <>   Worth a look opposite Peterson at home v solid WR
Orlando Scandrick <>   Not much upside here but worth keeping on your streaming shortlist

DYNASTY STASH

This is a really strong group of rookie corners. All of these players will get an extended look and many have a primo rookie corner profile. 

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Eric Rowe <>   Should eventually be a stud w/ all-around game
Damarious Randall <>   Surprised GB planning to use him at CB but gives him big upside
Kevin Johnson <>   Good profile especially if he starts opposite Joseph next year
Jalen Collins <>   Scouting report is strong and opportunity could come soon
Marcus Peters <>   May be best pure corner in class but fantasy profile questionable
Senquez Golson <>   Opportunity in PIT will come quickly
Trae Waynes <>   Good prospect without strong fantasy profile
D’Joun Smith <>   May be some time before he can fulfill fantasy promise
Ronald Darby <>   Could have good value opposite Gilmore soon

Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here