Although the majority of my leagues are dynasty-IDP formats I don't do dynasty rankings. Barring an unforeseen event, I don't have the time for at least another 2-3 years. But it's by far one of my favorite realms of this hobby. This week's column features some of my team-building philosophies and current tiers patterned after my ideas.
Whether you're in a startup league or you've inherited a team, these strategies are common across the dynasty landscape. You can usually identify which method is closest to what you're doing. There are hybrids of these blueprints as well as other strategies. I'm only naming the ones I use or consider.
The Sell-Off: Stockpiling as many 1st and 2nd-round picks as possible in exchange for your veteran starters or youth that others value more. A variation of this also strategy includes trading players at the later stages of their prime for ascending talents that haven't broken through. I've seen the entire gamut of outcomes with this blueprint. In one league there's an owner that has compiled a dream team that has outscored us by 200 points thus far. I'm also in a league where an owner has at least 3-4 first-round picks every 2-3 years because he's either too impatient with his players' development or he's made bad picks and going back to the drawing board. Some of the best owners I know do execute this blueprint well. They generally have a few anchor players on the roster to help this turnaround happen within a year or two.
Win Now: The most practical owners I know treat dynasty leagues like re-draft leagues with the exception of a few minor, but important considerations such as the value of rookie draft picks on the open market, the perception of older players on the open market, and finding ways to continually infuse talent onto your roster.
Slow Builds: The most idealistic blueprint. It's difficult to hit on enough rookie picks that remain injury-free and develop within a 2-4 year period to create a roster solely from a few draft classes where you haven't stockpiled 6-8 picks within the first two rounds. There used to be a strong appeal to organically grow a great roster mostly from the assigned draft picks and the waiver wire, but it also requires a certain amount of arrogance to do it this way in competitive leagues. Those who try eventually learn it was tragic hubris. Not that there aren't successful slow builds, but they're less common in my leagues.
IDEAS, TECHNIQUES, AND PLANS I USE
Three-Year Windows: I view my team in the scope of a three-year window. As each year passes, I'm continually updating whether that player still has a three-year window or less than a three-year window. I no longer view Peyton Manning, Steve Smith or Marshawn Lynch with a three-year window. Manning and Lynch may have 1-2 years left. Smith is done after 2015.
Whenever I assess my team, I look at players from this perspective and it helps me determine the makeup of my team and the type of blueprint I want to use.
Paying a Premium on QBs: Although I have learned a lot as an evaluator of talent over the past 12 years and it includes the quarterback position, I don't like drafting rookie quarterbacks unless I have a desperate need or a strong belief in his value compared to his draft position. Quarterback selection and development in the NFL is rife with problems. There are too many factors that can ruin a prospect: too much punishment, coaching and scheme changes, and a lack of focused development on core technical and conceptual issues in favor of enabling the player's limited, but game-changing athletic skills in the present.
Successful starting quarterbacks tend to have the longest careers. I'd rather pay Bentley prices for Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers or the tier below that includes the likes of Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. It's safe and sensible.
I know what I'm getting. I can also limit my depth chart to 2-3 QBs and save room for the positions that comprise most of a starting lineup. And I'm not using up a high draft pick every 2-3 years that I'd rather reserve for other positions because of the up-and-down nature of passers that haven't reached the tier of the options above.
Anchor Players: A premium QB is an anchor player. So is a RB1, WR1, elite (top 3) TE, DE1, or ILB/MLB1 (and possibly an elite OLB in sack-heavy leagues). I determine my anchor players and player windows at the end of each season or before the trading window opens for the next. The more anchor players I have, the better. For most scoring rules, here is my order of priority for anchor players (and the amount of players at the position that generally keep on my rosters in parenthesis):
- QB (2-3): As I mentioned above, the fewer I need on my depth chart, the more room I have elsewhere. They also last.
- TE (1-2): For the same reasons as quarterback. If the scoring gives a premium for tight ends then I'll increase the allotment to 3-4 players.
- MLB/ILB (6-8): As our staff has discovered, scoring of tackles depends on the conservative/liberal nature of the stats keepers covering the team for the seasons. It's also hard to find tackling machines on the waiver wire and some of the best have careers that last almost as long as QBs and TEs.
- DE (3-6): The optimal depth chart amount is 3-4 for me, but durability and variability rarely allow me to be at the lower range. That said, I find that I can field a contender most years with one DE1 or multiple 2s/3s in a rotation if I'm strong elsewhere.
- WR (6-8): Career length tends to be strong, but it's a position that's easiest to acquire through the draft, trades, and free agency.
- RB (4-6): An elite runner is a most-prized commodity, but most leagues I'm in only allow 1-2 starters so 4-6 backs is more than enough to account for a position with high injury rates, shorter careers, and scheme and offensive line changes that render many of them less useful in any given season.
Cyclers: I know that some of my IDP colleagues argue that defensive back isn't just a position that one can cycle through free agency week-after-week, and year-after-year, but I tend do so with success. The exception is older or established safeties. I like to keep old safeties like Charles Woodson, who, for the past 3-5 years has defied the predictions of fantasy analysts that his reign of production is coming to an end "this year." I keep 3-4 corners and safeties on my squad at any given time.
About the Tiers: I love tiers because the order of the players within them aren't concrete. There's no single answer that fits all scenarios. Some players are better options for owners where they value a swing-for-the-fence mentality. Look at the Vernon Davis trade. The former 49ers' production isn't anywhere near the top tier of players at his position and he's old enough that one could make an argument that Travis Kelce, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Greg Olsen and Rob Gronkowski are more valuable. But the Broncos are in "Win-Now Mode" and Davis is a cheaper option due to his age and lack of production. He's also the only tight end who, as an athlete, blocker, and receiver is in the same sentence as Rob Gronkowski despite the fact he hasn't consistently played to Gronkowski's production. Think about this point as you read through these tiers of backs.
Win-Now Premium RBs: These players have at least two years left of a three-year window and can afford you to keep a minimal number of passers on your depth chart on a win-now team with a true window of contention.
Tier 1-A (Players I'd pay a mid-to-high first-round rookie pick and/or a starter to acquire)
- LeVeon Bell: Dodging an ACL tear this weekend keeps Bell atop my rankings. Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson are arguably better physical specimens, but Bell's combination of athletic and conceptual talents and his versatility puts him in their tier. He's at the top because of the quality of the Steelers' surrounding talent.
- Todd Gurley: Eddie Georgia looks like the same back he was with the Bulldogs. He's on a team that lacks A-1 surrounding talent, but the play of Foles and Austin has it trending in the right direction even if St. Louis needs much more on offense to become a viable contender.
- Adrian Peterson: If Peterson were two years younger he'd be ahead of Gurley on my list. The Vikings back is the No.5 fantasy back this year on a team that has spare parts for an offensive line. I believe Peterson can play at this level until he's 32-33 and Minnesota's surrounding talent is greater than St. Louis. If you can pay significantly less to get Peterson compared to Gurley and you're a contending dynasty squad, make the deal.
- Doug Martin: I stood on the table all spring and summer for fantasy owners to take Martin as a mid-round gem in re-draft leagues. I cited Dirk Koetter's belief in Martin, the interior of the offensive line holding up better than projected, and Martin returning to the physical condition of his rookie year. He looks great and at age 26, he has another 3-4 years worth of top-five fantasy production in his legs. I believe he'll stay in Tampa Bay and meld with a promising offense led by Jameis Winston. If not, look for him to land with a contender. Seattle would be a fantastic fit if they don't buy into Thomas Rawls as Marshawn Lynch's replacement.
- Mark Ingram: It took a while for Ingram to perform as I expected when I studied him at Alabama. After the fist three years, I grew skeptical it would happen. Signed through the end of 2018 to a team that is transitioning to a more run-oriented offense--and that transition is a slower one with Drew Brees at the helm and a young and raw defensive unit. Ingram is finally healthy and I'm optimistic that the Saints finally feel comfortable to feature him.
- Lamar Miller: Another "better late than never" scenario, I expected Miller to break out in 2013. If the Dolphins front office can hire a permanent coach who understands that his coordinators' need schemes that balance simplicity with sophistication, Miller has displayed the talent to thrive. I'd prefer Matt Forte short-term if Forte lands on a contender, but Miller's a safer player you can acquire now.
- Matt Forte:The knee injury this weekend is a minor one for Forte, so there's no impact to my ranking of one of the best backs of the past 10 years. I love Forte's vision, balance, and versatility, but I am worried about his future with John Fox at the helm. This year appears to be a situation where Fox rolled with what he has. I'm not sure Forte will remain in Fox's plans when his contract expires in 2016 and is there a contender in need of an all-around back for a short window? Maybe the Colts if they ditch Gore. Maybe the Patriots if they see Forte as Corey Dillon to Dion Lewis' Kevin Faulk. Possibly Kansas City if it thinks Jamaal Charles' second ACL tear at age 30 is a bad sign. If one of these scenarios occurs, I'd rank Forte here. Right now, I wouldn't negotiate for him until the dust settles with his free agency.
- Eddie Lacy: As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy and in Green Bay, the Packers offense will throw first. Lacy has one more year on his contract and if he can't stay healthy and production from this point on, he could be looking for a new gig in 2017. Seems ludicrous, but that's the demanding nature of the market at the running back position. If you have the makings of a great team and you need a running back to bring that trophy home, you could do worse than Lacy. You could also do a lot better.
- Chris Ivory: I like what Ivory has to offer as a player more than Eddie Lacy. Not by a lot, but I feel it strong enough to say it. I value Ivory's agility and power. Lacy has these qualities, but not with the same functional versatility to bounce outside as Ivory. Despite last week's debacle in Oakland, Ivory still has 2-4 years of RB1-potential in his body. The question is whether the Jets agree and award Ivory a new contract in 2016 to work behind a good offensive line. If so, I'd bump Ivory over Lacy. If not, there iffy nature of the market place for mid-career RBs could drop Ivory much lower than his current spot.
Tier 2-A Starters (An early-to-mid second-round rookie draft pick and/or a starter):
- Devonta Freeman: It's unusual to have the No.1 fantasy back in re-draft leagues this low in a set of dynasty tiers, but hear me out. Tevin Coleman is the player that Falcons want as its future starter. They tried to ramrod him into the starting lineup to begin the season. They loved his speed and intensity and I believe the starting nod only came at the expense of Freeman getting hurt late in the preseason. Atlanta hoped it could give Coleman a boost of confidence as the starter "in name" while using Freeman enough in a committee role to create a balanced split. The Falcons scrapped that plan after the Coleman injury and Freeman's excellent play. I think Freeman is a vastly more refined runner and receiver for the zone scheme than Coleman. If Coleman wasn't this coaching regime's pick I would have Freeman in the top tier ahead of Doug Martin because of the fact that he's young and he's under contract until the end of the 2017. But unless Coleman meets my worst projections rather than my best, Atlanta will do its best next summer to create a committee or make Coleman the lead back. I project a committee and it makes Freeman drop to a projected dynasty RB2.
- Dion Lewis: New England is one of the few teams that does a great job with using specialists in its schemes. The worst-case scenario for Lewis is that the Patriots view him as a better Danny Woodhead/Kevin Faulk and they limit Lewis to a scat back role. I'm an expect the worst-hope for the best kind of fantasy manager, which is why Lewis is not higher on this list. Even so, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick should be around for at least a 2 more years and the 25-year-old Lewis just signed a contract that ends in 2018. If you can get Lewis from a fantasy owner who doesn't feel comfortable rolling with a small back in New England's offense despite the production, grab the former Pitt star.
- T.J. Yeldon: Here's a player whose placement in my tiers is much higher than his fantasy production. Yeldon has a refined understanding of the game, better physical skills than those who soured on all Alabama backs after Trent Richardson ever believed, and this Jaguars offense is trending upward. The AFC South is a weak division and the Jaguars may not be getting the job done in the win-loss column, but one more decent draft and free agency period and they aren't as far away from contending in this division as their record appears. Yeldon will be a consistent producer with low RB1-high RB2 output for the next 3-5 years.
- Marshawn Lynch: If the Seattle offensive line didn't nullify two of every three runs over five yards this year, Lynch's fantasy production would be closer to expectation. The quickness, power, and vision are all there. It's center Max Unger is not--and centers are the most underrated and important position along the line of scrimmage when it comes to the unit operating in sync can creating interior gaps. If the line play gets better, Lynch should finish the year on a high note. He's also under contract through 2017, which makes Beast Mode an underrated option to acquire if you're in Win-Now Mode. The problem is that most fantasy owners with Lynch in the fold love him and they may demand a higher asking price. I'd be willing to stretch and place Lynch at the top of this tier--and maybe give up a late first for him--but will Lynch's physical style generate a sharp downfall in skills between now and 2017? That's the risk you have to take with him.
- C.J. Anderson: The fantasy darling who collapsed to begin the year has been playing hurt. There is a notable difference in his burst to begin the season and Week 8's contest with the Packers. Ronnie Hillman has played well, but Anderson is the better back when healthy and in shape. I expect a strong stretch run for Anderson and his dynasty value to climb back to first-round value. For now, I'd try to buy low. This is Anderson's final year under contract and while I expect Denver to negotiate a one-year deal if Anderson performs well because Peyton Manning is signed through 2016, there's no guarantee. It's a risk to trade for Anderson right now but if you can part with a second-round pick and/or player and your team is in a window of contention, I think it's worth it. By season's end, he might return to first-round value and you'll have to bump the 25-year-old back to the top tier.
Tier 2-B Starters (Mid-to-late second-round rookie draft pick and/or a starter):
- DeMarco Murray: There's nothing wrong with Murray beyond his fit in this system. He's a good buy-low because he's signed through 2019 whereas Ryan Mathews is signed through 2017. Either the Eagles trade Murray or they work to find a better fit between player and scheme. I won't say he's too talented not to fail long-term, we've seen that happen plenty in pro football. I will say he's worth the risk of a second-round pick and a starter your team can part with if you're in a window of contention and hoping to earn a buy-low with RB1 talent and enough future opportunity to prove it.
- Latavius Murray: I've never been crazy about Murray's running style, but his youth, surrounding talent, and versatility make him a solid dynasty starter. The players ranked above him Murray more "swing for the fences" upside for a contending team. At the same time, Murray could be a part of a more stable plan to keep a contending team on solid footing and become a part of a transition from an older roster to a younger one while competing in that "title window."
- Giovani Bernard: The only problem with Bernard is the potential for the Bengals to switch back to a grind-it-out, I-formation offense due to injury or free agency losses. Otherwise, he's the best fit for the current scheme and a fine blend between Brian Westbrook and Ray Rice (more leaning more towards the Eagles' runner).
- LeSean McCoy: There's enough left in McCoy's tank for at least another year or two of starter production. The concern is the stability of the Rex Ryan regime and the presence of Karlos Williams. If McCoy were with one of the teams in New York City, I'd bump him a few spots higher.
- Carlos Hyde: The offensive line in San Francisco is still a good run unit, but the quarterback play and lack of versatile receivers does not provide the balance to maximize Hyde's workload. Hyde, like Murray, is among the safest picks in this tier so if you're risk-averse, avoid DeMarco Murray and McCoy and consider this hard-charging runner.
Tier 3 Luxury Picks (Either a late-first round pick or a combo of no more than a late-second round pick and a starter):
- Jonathan Stewart: (So far...) this is the healthiest year we've seen from Stewart and he's still getting robbed at the goal line by Cam Newton and Mike Tolbert. If the lower leg issues somehow become a thing of the past, Stewart is only 28 and there's a chance he could deliver 2-3 years of starter production. If you have a team filled with super studs at every position but running back and you only need steady points, Stewart is a reasonably cheap fall-back option to fill a hole without losing the players that make your team a contender.
- Jeremy Hill: Another two years in Cincinnati before he's a free agent, Hill could return to his rookie prominence before his tenure ends--especially if the Bengals part company with Marvin Jones and cannot replace him in the passing game. Sorry Mohamed Sanu fans, he's not that guy. Until then, Hill is a buy-low with upside, but not a prime time pick for owners in Win-Now Mode.
- Melvin Gordon: The fumbles this year have been a minor problem. Emotional San Diego fans will disagree and say it's a major problem. Not every RB who fumbles early is Bryce Brown. LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, and Adrian Peterson had his share. Gordon is running hard and making the most of a makeshift offensive line. I'm confident Gordon will grow into a quality fantasy RB2 with RB1 upside.
- Andre Ellington: Let's not forget about how good he looks when he's healthy. In case you didn't notice, there are only exceptional situations where I buy into the injury factor. Ellington is a high-risk, high-reward "win-now" player who, like Forte, you have to see if he finds his way to another team within the next 12-16 months before you invest. Until then, exclude him on this tier.
- Ryan Mathews: The "oh yeah...let's get him, too" free agent pick of the 2015 off season has looked better on the field than DeMarco Murray. This should not be a major surprise. When Mathews is right, he's only a tier below the likes of the Adrian Peterson in terms of running the football. It's just that Mathews has rarely been right for most of his career. Injuries and a mature approach to the job have been Mathews' problem in San Diego and its why we saw the injuries and mental errors throughout his career. I don't know what will happen with Mathews' career trajectory, but there's a chance he could earn the starting role and thrive. I'm not counting on it. But if you can get Mathews for a second-round pick or a third-round pick and an expendable player on your roster and you're RB-needy, I'd give it a shot.
- Duke Johnson: It would be wise for Cleveland to keep its assets along the offensive line. If it gets the king's ransom it seeks from Joe Thomas and Alex Mack the need for a perimeter game of short throws will be even greater. Enter Johnson, who is making his bones in the passing game. Hopefully the Browns keep its sanity--or better yet, the NFL doesn't make a good enough offer for either player--an Johnson can earn a shot to develop behind this line. Line aside, Isaiah Crowell is another factor that depresses Johnson's placement in these tiers. Crowell is the latest version of Ryan Mathews, an excellent talent who either doesn't know how or doesn't want to activate that inner flame to work like a top professional should.
- Ameer Abdullah: The Lions' outlook is murky and Abdullah is the most variable name on this board. If Detroit can address its line woes and implement a scheme that's friendly to what Matt Stafford does well, Abdullah has the talent to thrive. If the Lions decide to trade Matt Stafford before his contract ends in 2018 or the team continues to flounder without a solid offensive line and Calvin Johnson's twilight years get wasted, Abdullah could become pegged as a scatback rather than the future. One of the biggest problems in the NFL regarding personnel that I hear from scouts is that good players get branded with a certain reputation of skills or usability and it's hard to shake that label. Abdullah could wind up in that danger zone. The other possibility is that the Lions keep Abdullah, have a fire sale with Stafford and Johnson and rebuild its offense--and it works. Abdullah is a hold for dynasty owners, but there's not much to feel solid about with his team.
- Karlos Williams: LeSean McCoy has enough left to keep Williams in check as a role player for another 1-2 years. Rex Ryan also has the patience of a horsefly when it comes to running backs. If McCoy falters for a couple of games, Ryan has no compunction about going to the next guy. Williams has been candid about the concussion that robbed him of four weeks this season and it is something to add to the file. I love his talent and I think he's still learning the position. If he can stay healthy, he's a keeper for a win-now team with the luxury to add a "play later" guy.
- Matt Jones: Like Williams, Jones is still learning the position at the highest level. He's a better inside runner than characterized at Florida, but he lacks great decision-making at the highest level. That may come. Will the Washington offensive line develop, too? Will Washington find a quarterback long-term? Those are the more fundamental questions that matter with Jones' development.
- Alfred Morris: If you can get him for a third-round pick, take the chance. There's still gas in that tank and his contract in football purgatory ends this year. His days as a starter may be deemed over, but if you have a bevy of 1st and 2nds and can afford to drop a 3rd or 4th to acquire him, methinks Morris can surprise elsewhere for a year or two.
Long-Term RBs: These players have multiple three-year windows and they're best matched for teams where the expectation isn't to win this year or next. Players like Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy are missing and it's not an oversight. At the same time, if the player is 26-27 and likely has not more than one three-year window, but the talent to make it a great three years, a 24-year-old in a more murky situation or less developed talent does not get a bump on my board.
Top Tier (Players I'd give a mid-to-high first-round rookie pick and/or a starter)
Yep. That's it. If I'm rebuilding, I'm not parting with a top-five rookie pick and a quality starter for anyone other than these two. Gurley transcends his surrounding talent. Bell has great surrounding talent. Both are young. There aren't other running backs that fit two of these three scenarios.
Tier 1-B (Players I'd give a mid-to-late first round rookie pick and/or starter)
- Doug Martin
- Lamar Miller
- Adrian Peterson: If I believe Peterson can play at this level for another 2-3 years and I believe the Vikings' fortunes are pointing in the right direction, I have to be willing to pay this price even for a rebuilding team. I'd only do it if I already earned a bounty of picks or my rebuild is mostly complete. What does that mean? I have a veteran QB, elite WR and/or elite TE, and a collection of picks banked for hte following draft, and a RB like Peterson could get me to the playoffs and not cost me more than one of those picks and a promising player. It would mean earning Peterson from a team that's blowing up its roster.
- Mark Ingram
- Eddie Lacy
- T.J. Yeldon
- Matt Forte: Only if he lands in an ideal situation--a great team where he can deliver 2 high-impact seasons of note and my squad is in a similar situation as the scenario highlighted in the Peterson entry.
- Melvin Gordon
Second Tier Starters (A second-round rookie draft pick and/or a starter): Lynch and McCoy would fit in this group if your team meets the status that I described to get Peterson or Matt Forte.
- Dion Lewis
- Carlos Hyde
- Latavius Murray
- Giovanni Bernard
- Chris Ivory
- C.J. Anderson
- Devonta Freeman: Again, my concern is Tevin Coleman clogging up the works and if it happens, trades are still rare in the NFL and it means that when Freeman hits the market he might not be viewed as a franchise back and the value he's probably earning in the dynasty marketplace today never pans out long-term. Good player, but he's in a dangerous situation.
- Jeremy Hill
- Duke Johnson
- Ameer Abdullah
- Ryan Mathews
- Karlos Williams
- Matt Jones
- David Cobb: Tennessee is a mess and Cobb could become a victim of a new regime going a different direction than what the old regime considered when they selected the power runner from Minnesota. He's worth consideration, but don't get enamored and over value him.
- Tevin Coleman: You won't get Coleman his low, because those who invested in him are in love with his speed and don't buy my explanation why he was given the starting job early in the year and didn't really earn it yet. The talent is there for Coleman to develop and I think the Falcons will try to expand the rookie's role in the offense between now and this time next year. But don't underestimate the power of a good running back with consistent execution--Devonta Freeman could hold the Coleman show up for a couple of years, maybe longer.
- Charles Sims: Watch Sims' this year and you'll see a more decisive, fast-twitch player who has picked up the mental part of the game. He's a great handcuff for re-draft owners right now. His dynasty value is less than ideal because he could wind up stuck behind Doug Martin long enough to never earn a shot as a starter elsewhere. If Martin gets hurt, Sims value could skyrocket. He's worth an investment, just not a pricey one.
- Christine Michael: Darren McFadden may last another year if all goes perfect for him. Michael should get this year and next to prove he can be the future of this ground game. The talent is worth this kind of investment.
- Isaiah Crowell: Similar to Michael, except we've seen more flashes on the field.
- Jerick McKinnon: I'm enthused about what I'm seeing from McKinnon when he's on the field in relief of Peterson. If the cliff comes up faster on Peterson than I thought, McKinnon is worth having.
- Ronnie Hillman: He has a specific fit required to thrive. There are enough teams that could make it work, but will they want to? If they do, he could be a steal. If they want to peg him as a scat back, which is most likely, then here you are.
Next Week: Dynasty Wide Receiver Tiers.