Rank lists and cheatsheets can be deceiving when they're presented without commentary. Our rankings have been vastly improved by staffer comments in recent seasons, but it's hard to see context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's important 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 -- with or without commentary -- 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 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.
These tiers are based on 2013 expectation only and I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts). I have included a separate dynasty stash tier and discussion at the end of each positional article.
THE BIG PICTURE
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 their 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.
83 cornerbacks and 64 safeties -- 147 defensive backs -- played at least 500 snaps last year according to ProFootballFocus. The defensive line and linebacker groups had 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 then ever before. 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 more than two 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 value as a starter.
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 here.
Tier 1 - Elite Safety
Tier 1A - Elite Safety Upside / Every Week Starter
Though the middle classes of safeties (and cornerbacks) can still be hard to define, the elite players are still reasonably easy to identify. Find a talented player with a relatively poor surrounding cast and a safe depth chart slot and you have a reliable every week starter. There will still be some week-to-week variance in this crew, but they are the safest of the bunch.
Tier 2 - DB1 Upside
I like the players in this tier, but won't pay a price to get them. I expect Bell, Ward, Clark, Elam and Landry will all earn ADPs near the top twenty overall defensive backs. I'd rather take one of the elite tier players and wait to see what else falls to the later rounds.
Tier 3 - The Best of the Matchup Safety Cloud
- Antoine Bethea
- Patrick Chung
- Roman Harper
- Rahim Moore
- Malcolm Jenkins
- Duke Ihenacho
- Danieal Manning
- Dawan Landry
- Troy Polamalu
- Matt Elam
- Kenny Vaccaro
- Shawn Williams
- T.J. McDonald
- Earl Thomas
- Devin McCourty
- Antrel Rolle
- Jairus Byrd
- Eric Reid
- James Ihedigbo
- Chris Clemons
- Brandon Meriweather
- Dashon Goldson
- Reggie Nelson
- Michael Huff
- Charles Woodson
The top half of this tier should be very good, but likely high variance. The rookies (Reid, Vaccaro, and Williams) are unknowns with some upside. I might be underrating Meriweather and Chung if they can stay healthy.
Historically, you could do well at cornerback by grabbing the most physical players or trolling for Tampa-2 starters. That's not necessarily the case any longer.
What I tend to favor now is:
- A physical corner who will shed blocks and defend the run.
- A confident corner with good ball skills.
- A versatile corner who plays outside, then slides into the slot in subpackages.
- A decent corner playing opposite a stud cover corner.
- A corner who plays more zone coverage than man coverage.
- A corner for a team likely to see above-average passing attempts.
- 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. For example, Charles Tillman arguably fits lines 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7. Dee Milliner should fit 2, 4 and possibly 7. 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.
CB1 with DB2+ Potential
- Charles Tillman
- Jason McCourty
- Cortland Finnegan
- Morris Claiborne
- Patrick Peterson
- Stephon Gilmore
- DeAngelo Hall
- Joe Haden
- Dee Milliner
Matchup Cornerback Cloud
- Cortez Allen
- Tim Jennings
- Richard Sherman
- Brent Grimes
- Chris Harris
- Lardarius Webb
- Leon McFadden
- Janoris Jenkins
- Johnthan Banks
- Brandon Flowers
- Bradley Fletcher
- Greg Toler
- Josh Robinson
- Brandon Carr
- Leon Hall
- Vontae Davis
- Xavier Rhodes
- Antoine Winfield
- D.J. Swearinger (ETA 2014, Elite DB ceiling)
- Shamarko Thomas (ETA 2014+, Matchup Cloud + ceiling)
- Brandon Taylor
- J.J. Wilcox (ETA 2014, Matchup Cloud + ceiling)
- D.J. Hayden (ETA 2013, CB1/DB2+ ceiling)
- Tyrann Mathieu (ETA 2013, Matchup Cloud ceiling)
- Dwayne Gratz (ETA 2014, CB1/DB2+ ceiling)
- Duron Harmon (ETA 2014, Matchup Cloud ceiling)
- Phillip Thomas (ETA 2014, Matchup Cloud ceiling)
- Antonio Allen (ETA 2013, Matchup Cloud ceiling)
- Janoris Slaughter (ETA 2014, Matchup Cloud ceiling)
- Markelle Martin (ETA 2014, Matchup Cloud ceiling)
Swearinger should be stashed immediately in all but the most shallow roster dynasty leagues. The rest can be observed closely unless and until you've got room in a deep dynasty league.
More from Jene Bramel:
Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [First 2015 Update] - March 4
Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [First 2015 Update] - February 24
Welcome, RB19. The NFL Will See You Now: The Combine Medical Exam - February 18
Reading the Defense: Coaching and Scheme Changes - February 10
Gameday Injury Expectations: Week 16 - December 21
Sunday IDP Notes: Week 16 - December 21
Inside the Injury Report: Week 16 - December 18
Reading the Defense: Week 16 - December 17
Monday Injury Rounds: Week 16 - December 15
Gameday Injury Expectations: Week 15 - December 14