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'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
The first question you must answer as you approach your IDP draft this year is how badly you want J.J. Watt this year. I felt the question was critical enough to warrant its own feature, which you can read here.
If you spend draft capital on Watt, you'll probably want to wait until well in your draft to target another defensive end. If not, it's a tougher call this season on whether to add an elite linebacker or defensive end. I think the middle linebackers tiers are muddier and full of players with more uncertain floors than usual, and there's a strong argument to make sure you've rostered an elite linebacker. Still, the relative advantage an elite defensive end brings has me leaning toward prioritizing this position. More on that in the IDP Perfect Draft feature coming soon.
Tier 1 - Elite DL1
I understand the argument that Watt deserves his own Super Elite tier. I expect him to be drafted at least two rounds before another IDP -- at any position -- is even considered. I love J.J. Watt. But it is highly unlikely he'll outpace the defensive end group by as much as he did in 2012. 49 non-sack solo tackles, 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defensed are superhuman totals. If you feel he's a must roster, make sure you consider how far you're willing to go to get him before your draft begins. I'll be happier waiting 5-7 additional rounds for value elsewhere in the Elite tier, which is why I'm leaving Watt listed with the other 50-12 potentials.
I've moved Ware into my elite tier. I still have concerns about his durability as a lineman, but he's looked better this preseason than he has in years. I think the addition of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will benefit Johnson. I think his tackle counts will trend back up this year and he's a clear top four value for me right now. Pierre-Paul carries some risk, particularly early in the season, but should again be an elite fantasy end this year.
Tier 2 - Elite DL1 Upside
I'm conflicted on Hardy. He finished in the pocket much better last year, is surrounded by a great front seven and is in a contract year. But I'm not fully convinced that he's an elite tier player yet. I'm splitting hairs, though. He's still a top ten defensive end. I've dropped Williams out of my elite tier. Though he's only played a handful of snaps this preseason, many of them were from a two point stance. There's still some risk he'll be a late re-classification to linebacker.
Tier 3A - DL2 with DL1 Upside
- Derrick Morgan
- Calais Campbell
- Michael Johnson
- Geno Atkins (DT)
- Rob Ninkovich
- Robert Quinn
- Anthony Spencer
- Justin Tuck
- Corey Wootton
Morgan should catch your attention here. He was credited with only 6.5 sacks last year. But he played over 900 snaps and looked fully recovered from the knee issues that had previously plagued him. Pro Football Focus credited him with nine sacks and, more importantly, 21 quarterback hits and 42 hurries. On a per snap basis, Morgan was disrupting the pocket on nearly 15% of his pass rush snaps. If Morgan can continue that pace and convert a small number of those hits and hurries to sacks, the 24-year old former first round pick will become a fantasy DL1.
Tuck and Wootton shouldn't be drafted into a DL2 roster spot right now, but I like the upside/floor combination for each and have them separated from the large DL3 tier on my board. On a straight rank list, all three would be toward the back end of the mix of players in the 3A-3C tiers.
Tier 3B - High Variance DL2
All four players in this subset of the third tier have Elite DL1 upside. But I'm not certain of each player's floor and that makes me nervous recommending any of them as an anchor DL1. I like Avril in Seattle, but his tackle numbers have not been consistent enough to earn him the benefit of the doubt. The Leo role won't buoy his tackles and his snap count could suffer if Chris Clemons rehabs his ACL more quickly than expected.
Tier 3C - High Floor DL2
This is a tier I've long used to lump players I think have 30-6 floor but aren't likely to hit a 40-10 ceiling. They were players I'd be comfortable slotting as my DL2 in most weeks if I had to do so, but not elated about it.
Tier 4 - DL3 with Matchup DL2 Value
- Cliff Avril
- DaQuan Bowers
- Adrian Clayborn
- Fletcher Cox
- Corey Liuget
- Brian Robison
- Henry Melton
- Nick Fairley (DT)
- Ezekiel Ansah
- Olivier Vernon
- Kroy Biermann
- Derek Wolfe
- Jason Babin
- Chris Clemons
- John Abraham
- Andre Carter
- Darnell Dockett
I'm still waiting for a couple members of this group to distinguish themselves. Bowers and Clayborn have the most upside, with Ansah not far behind. Vernon and Biermann are also looking like 600+ snap players based on their team's preseason depth chart. Cox and Liuget are just outside the 3C tier above.
Tier 5 - Redraft Watch List
There are other defensive ends (and the defensive tackles in the tier to follow) that will get consideration in my top 60 rankings. This group includes those players with the highest single game and season long upside. I've moved Jordan out of my rosterable tiers despite a good first preseason game showing. He's again been slowed by his shoulder and Vernon is clearly ahead of him for base defensive snaps opposite Wake.
- Kyle Williams
- Michael Brockers
- Phil Taylor
- Michael Bennett
- Gerald McCoy
- Cullen Jenkins
- Jason Hatcher
- Marcell Dareus
- Star Lotulelei
- Vince Wilfork
- Linval Joseph
These players could be viable DL3 in deeper leagues but are probably best left on waivers unless you're in a league that has a required defensive tackle lineup slot.
- Quanterus Smith (ETA 2014, DL1 ceiling)
- Cornellius Carradine (ETA 2014, DL1 ceiling)
- Datone Jones (ETA 2013, DL2 ceiling)
- Damontre Moore (ETA 2013, DL1 ceiling)
- Jamie Collins (ETA 2013, DL1/LB3 ceiling)
- Margus Hunt (ETA 2013-2014, DL1 ceiling)
- Devin Taylor (ETA 2013-2014, DL1 ceiling)
- Malliciah Goodman (ETA 2014, DL2 ceiling)
- Tyrone Crawford (ETA 2014, DL2 ceiling)
- Cornelius Washington (ETA 2014, DL1 ceiling)
- Cliff Matthews (ETA 2013, DL2 ceiling)
- Lavar Edwards (ETA 2014, DL2 ceiling)
- Jared Crick (ETA 2013-2014, DL2 ceiling)
- Michael Buchanan (ETA 2014, DL2/LB4 ceiling)
- Malik Jackson (ETA 2014, DL2 ceiling)
Only Jones is currently worthy of consideration in redraft leagues but he's not rosterable yet. Deep dynasty leagues should consider rostering through the Hunt/Taylor/Goodman mini-tier but the majority of this group should remain on watch lists until a snap count of 400+ is assured.
More from Jene Bramel:
Combined Rookie Draft Board 1.0 - May 5
Reading the Defense: Linebacker Draft Preview - April 16
Reading the Defense: Edge Player Draft Preview - April 8
Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [Post Free Agency] - April 2
Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [Post Free Agency] - March 26
Reading the Defense: Defensive Free Agency Review - March 19
Reading the Defense: Defensive Free Agency Running Blog - March 12
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