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Reading the Defense: Defensive Back Tiers

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 2016 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 seasons. In deeper dynasty leagues, I'll save a roster slot for a strong developmental prospect but otherwise still use these tiers as my primary roster philosophy. A separate dynasty stash tier is included 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). 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 UP for those players making a move up in my tiers and DOWN 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.

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.

Many more defensive backs average statistically relevant snaps per game than defensive linemen and linebackers.

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. Hopefully, you've grown accustomed to that over the past 2-3 seasons.

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 onto a player you hoped to stream who becomes 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.

It wasn't quite as impressive as a typical J.J. Watt season, but Reshad Jones was far and away the second most valuable IDP last year. He averaged over three points per game more than any other defender -- including Deone Bucannon. The addition of Kiko Alonso will make it very difficult for Jones to put another 107 solo (136 combined) tackle season, however.

PLAYERTRENDCONTEXT
Reshad Jones UP Challenged Watt for most relative value among IDPs last year
Landon Collins   Rock solid tackle production as a rookie behind NYG revolving door at LB
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix   Overtook injured Burnett for stud value in GB behind weak ILBs
Eric Weddle   Scheme independent and should remain valuable in BAL
Morgan Burnett UP Great numbers despite calf injury last year, seeing time as hybrid nickel backer
Barry Church   May be more variance here if Lee remains healthy all year
Tyrann Mathieu UP Now off PUP, 80 solos and 16 passes defensed in 14 games before ACL injury
Antoine Bethea   Was on DB1 pace again last year before chest injury, expected to start

HIGH VARIANCE SAFETIES | WEEKLY DB1 UPSIDE

I like this group this year better than most. Ordinarily, I reserve this tier for players w/ DB1 upside, but a DB3 or worse floor. This year, I think the weekly floor is closer to the DB2 range. That means the safety group is deeper than usual.

I think it's likely 2-3 players from this tier will move up as their situation solidifies in camp. I think Kenny Vaccaro is close already, as I'm not particularly high on James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker. Ibraheim Campbell is set up for a monster season. Every name on this list has 80 solo tackle potential.

PLAYERTRENDCONTEXT
Kenny Vaccaro   Closer to statistical ceiling last season
Ibraheim Campbell UP  All-around talent likely to start at SS behind transitioning LB unit
Harrison Smith   Should bounce back this year but LBs good enough to limit upside
Corey Graham   Unlikely to repeat 90 solos but still has 75+ solo upside
Clayton Geathers   Will start at SS for Indianapolis but significant competition for tackles
Kam Chancellor   Stat crew unfavorable but still has weekly value
Karl Joseph   May start slowly early this season but likely to improve each week
Johnathan Cyprien   Racks up tackles but competition much stiffer this year
Malcolm Jenkins   Caution here; tackle opportunity will plummet w/ loss of Kelly pace

BEST EARLY SEASON STREAMING SAFETIES | WEEKLY DB2 UPSIDE

Conversely, I'm not as excited about this group as the group above. These are the players I feel are mostly likely to surprise as stick as more than bye week replacements on your roster. This list is short and just not inspiring. You should be adding them to your roster before the season starts in only the deepest leagues.

PLAYERTRENDCONTEXT
Rashad Johnson   Won't approach ARI numbers but weak TEN ILB group could preserve value
Patrick Chung   Stat crew bump important but tough to project big behind NE linebackers
Tashaun Gipson   Tackle opportunity will be much different in JAX
T.J. Ward   Value increasing with DEN using him as nickel linebacker
Ron Parker   Rare FS who makes enough tackles to sustain some weekly value
Jahleel Addae   Best chance to take advantage of depth chart void left by Weddle

Monitor Closely

Calvin Pryor and Keanu Neal will likely move into a higher tier before the regular season begins. I like the upside of the others, but see no reason to prioritize a roster spot for them.

PLAYERTRENDCONTEXT
Calvin Pryor   Should be more productive in Bowles' scheme, strong camp would help
Keanu Neal   Moves into every-week starting value if wins SS job over Ishmael
Shawn Williams   If more in-the-box than interchangeable,will have DB2+ upside
Rafael Bush   Flashed w/ Saints, could have value in DET
T.J. McDonald   Disappointing 2015 included injury, now disappointing offseason
Aaron Williams   Cleared after neck surgery, could be streaming option
David Bruton   Early leader to start at strong safety in WAS

DYNASTY STASH

Recommended for deeper dynasty rosters only, this group isn't likely to impact your 2016 fantasy roster without an injury or unexpected depth chart surprise.

PLAYERTRENDCONTEXT
Jaquiski Tartt   Proved to be productive w/ Bethea injury back to reserve role
Darian Thompson   Likely to start at FS behind unclear linebacker group
Sean Davis   May see slot snaps this year w/ potential for more in future
Byron Jones   Moving to safety and worth monitoring on watch lists
Miles Killebrew   Hybrid LB/S prospect w/ wide open depth chart in DET
Vonn Bell   Will push Vaccaro and Byrd for playing time soon
K.J. Dillon   Needs to show some coverage ability to win job in future
T.J. Green   Athletic but raw as defender, great upside if he hits

CORNERBACK TIERS -- FUHGETABOUTIT

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. The days of Charles Tillman and Ronde Barber are long gone. The reign of Antoine Winfield and Richard Marshall are wistful memories of yesteryear.

Today, I'm no longer certain it's worth spending much time on cornerbacks at all.

Here's what I used to profile and favor:

  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 fit, the more attractive he was to me. You could be reasonably certain a player who fit many of these categories would have a chance at 65 solos and 10+ passes defensed. Those players still exist, but their statistical upside has cratered.

There have been five cornerbacks to top 65 solos in the past three seasons. Combined. And it's not a who's who of expected talent. Last year, Antwon Blake. In 2014, Jason McCourty and Johnathan Joseph. In 2013, Prince Amukamara and Josh Wilson. Twenty total corners over the past three years topped 60 solos.

Contrast those numbers with 2012 -- six corners with 70 or more solos and 13 with 60 or more solos. In 2011, there were two corners with 80+ solos and ten with more than 60.

It's a horrible statistical trend. And it's not a fluke.

For the past three seasons, you've read a different version of the same introduction above. More and more defensive backs are playing significant snaps as offenses spread their personnel across the field. The slot cornerback should be considered a "starting" defensive player. Dime packages have replaced nickel defenses as the standard passing down subpackage. When I first started tracking tackle opportunity and nickel data a decade ago, teams passed more than they ran about 45% of the time. It's now pushing 60-70%, with defenses playing subpackage defenses 80% of the time or more in some games.

Last year, my final cornerback tier article highlighted ZERO "Cornerbacks w/ Every Week DB1 Value." I just didn't lead in with an extended rant like this year. I listed 20 players I thought had a projectable floor. The vast majority of them didn't reach that marginal 55 solo plateau.

This year, I believe you should forget about the position altogether in your drafts. Don't draft a single cornerback. Use your final picks on linebacker and defensive end upside shots. Stream your corners during the season based on matchup. Roster and start players against bad quarterbacks who will have to throw the ball often. Re-evaluate every week. Should you stumble onto a player who resembles Charles Tillman or Antoine Winfield and puts up multiple consistent weeks in a row, stick with him. Otherwise, move on.

If you must draft a corner, look at players who primarily draw slot duty or who sometimes see snaps at safety. Antrel Rolle and Tyrann Mathieu would have fit this mold in the past. Sometimes, you were lucky enough to see them listed at cornerback. For now, I'm not certain I see anyone I'd feel comfortable enough to push. Maybe Jalen Ramsey or another hybrid with size like Damarious Randall who look to see most of their snaps at corner will fit that mold by the end of training camp.

I don't think cornerbacks are the IDP equivalent of kickers yet. But until the trend settles or we find new ways to value the best corners, you should consider a similar roster strategy.

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.