Defensive Back Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
August 27th, 2010

Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and the rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It naturally lends itself to helping you make good strategic decisions during your draft. The process helps you stay on the right side of runs, shows you which positions can be sloughed a round longer than you thought or need to be targeted early. Perhaps most importantly, tiering and then running a few mock drafts leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and will keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.

This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position this summer, including IDPs, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB again this year and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Previously covered positions: Quarterback, Running Back,Wide Receiver, Tight End, Defensive Line, Linebacker

In this installment, we round out the defensive side of the ball with the defensive backs.

Bramel: I approach the defensive back position differently than the others. It might be a little counter-intuitive to those that look at my rank lists, but there's a method to the madness. For any number of reasons, there's often little consensus on the top defensive backs and it seems that defensive backs either get sloughed very late in the draft by a handful of owners or the players drafted earliest are targeted on name recognition or last year's fluky numbers and aren't players I've got on my target lists anyway. Next, because the DB position sees more year-to-year turnover and isn't drafted as competitively as the other positions, there tends to be a lot of high upside options available extremely late in drafts or presenting themselves on the waiver wire early in the season. Finally, I think there's lots of relative advantage to be gained here every year.

For that reason, I really don't want to draft a player that looks like a safe DB2 or DB3. I enter the draft with four tiers of defensive backs. Many of the players in the top 50 on my FBG rank list won't be on these lists because they don't provide enough upside. Guys like Nick Collins or Chris Hope or Chris Harris or Tanard Jackson or any number of other guys who will probably finish in the top 25-40 defensive backs but have little chance of hitting the top 20 are going to be on my rank list but not on my draft list. I'm looking for DBs that function like LB2s for me each week and provide as much relative advantage as top offensive talent.

It almost never happens, but if I've planned to draft four defensive backs and my list is exhausted after I've rostered just two or three, I'm done drafting DBs and I'll fill holes according to matchup considerations until and unless I find a player I don't want to cut at some point in the season. With that in mind, here's what I've gone to battle with over the past month.

Bloom: Jene is on point here. The keyword here is minimal - as in minimal investment in the position. Of course, you may take a guy you have projected top 5 at the position when only 11 or 12 DBs are off the board because you just can't let him sit there any longer, but you should be able to mine enough value late and through the waiver wire to be just fine without taking even one of the first 20 defensive backs off the board. You should not be taking a DB before you have at least one more LB than the number that start in your league and you've bagged both of your starting DEs.

Stud Safeties
(Yeremiah Bell, Bernard Pollard, Tyvon Branch, LaRon Landry, Brian Dawkins, Eric Berry, Roman Harper, Patrick Chung)

Bramel: It's rare that I get two players from my top tier in any given year, because while I've got a short list of guys I think are trustworthy enough to play like LB2s, I'm still sloughing this position in favor of critical depth at other positions. Guys like Tyvon Branch and Yeremiah Bell and Brian Dawkins may be in my Stud Safety tier this year, but they were available in a later tier last year. As I noted in my From the Gut article earlier this month, I think this is the year that the safety position reclaims its former value and begins to cycle back toward the forefront of draft strategies from its current place as an afterthought. If you're not in a league that's read us pimping a few of the players in this tier, you might be able to "slough" the DB position and still get three guys in this tier.

The three names that look like potential outliers here are Landry, Berry and Chung. Landry's tackle numbers are not jump off the list great over his first three seasons - until you consider that the majority of his snaps came as a free safety with deep cover responsibilities. Now an in-the-box safety on an aggressive defense, Landry could finish as the top overall DB. Berry and Chung have made prospective owners nervous due to uncertainty over whether they'll play free safety or strong safety and whether they'll play every down (in Chung's case). Put those worries out of mind. Berry and Chung will both be playing a very similar role to what Rodney Harrison played in New England. Barring unexpectedly poor play or a LaRon Landry-esque role change during the season, both guys are locks for strong numbers.

Bloom: I agree that Landry and Chung are your targets here. Both should easily fall outside of the top 10 DBs off the board, Chung could even fall outside of the top 20. I also think Adrian Wilson belongs in this group as the Cards will likely be a losing team this year and certainly not getting into as many shootouts. Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders are in this group on a week-to-week basis as long as they're not on the injury report, and they fit in a draft plan that includes a lot of waiver wire moves and turnover during the season perfectly. Harvest what good weeks you can from them before the inevitable injury.

Safeties With Stud Upside and Solid Floor
(Eric Weddle, Donte Whitner, Adrian Wilson, Troy Polamalu, Louis Delmas, Morgan Burnett, Erik Coleman, Dashon Goldson, O.J. Atogwe, Quintin Mikell, Antoine Bethea)

Bramel: Any of this group might finish in the top ten this year, but every one of them has one major question mark related to scheme, durability, surrounding cast, track record, etc. I like Weddle, Whitner, and Burnett the most here. Each narrowly missed the cut to join what is already a very deep stud safety tier. I'm most nervous about Polamalu and Delmas (both have durability and tackle upside concerns), as well as Goldson, who I think had his career high in tackles last year.

Bloom: I would include players like Antrel Rolle, Brandon Meriweather, Michael Griffin, and Tanard Jackson in this tier because they make up for a lack of big tackle upside with a ballhawk playmaker mentality in the deep third. Griffin in particular is a guy I am targeting in every IDP league because he revealed that he played hurt all of last year, and he was a stone cold stud in 2008 when he was healthy. Griffin's partner Chris Hope also probably belongs based on his finish as the #1 DB back in 2006 and relatively consistent tackle numbers since. Atogwe and Mikell are the players who stand out here for upside, and Whitner and Burnett are the great values. I think having one of this group as part of your starting duo is good, but not a must.

Safeties with Stud Upside and Low Floor
(Bob Sanders, T.J. Ward, Kenny Phillips, Lawyer Milloy, Sean Jones, Antrel Rolle, Michael Lewis, Darrell Stuckey, Malcolm Jenkins)

Bramel: If I get shut out of the players above, these are the players with enough upside that I'll roster and watch rather than have to fight over them on the waiver wire after the first week or two. The upside here makes the risk acceptable and makes each of these players better targets than guys like Collins, Hope, Harris, Jackson, etal. This tier has the most flux as it's often subject to the whim of a good looking series of play or interesting coaching comment. Next week, the Detroit safety du jour or Chinedum Ndukwe or similar talent might be here, while T.J. Ward may be up a tier or Bob Sanders could have had another joint flare up and disqualify himself from consideration.

Bloom: You could easily end up with two top 10 DBs with both starters coming from this group. I would also include Chris Harris, Kerry Rhodes, and James Butler (once his knee is right). Jene's takeaway point here is that the members of this group are always in flux. In other words, there is stud upside sitting on your waiver wire right now. To find out where that upside is becoming apparent, just listen to the IDP Roundtable Audible each week, frequent the IDP forum, and read everything that Jene and John Norton write weekly about the world of IDP.

Rosterable Cornerbacks
(Richard Marshall, Charles Woodson, Antoine Winfield, Charles Tillman, Cortland Finnegan, Brandon Flowers, Zackary Bowman, Tramon Williams, Kareem Jackson)

Bramel: This list applies to DB inclusive leagues and includes only those corners that I think have the best chance at reaching 75 solo tackles. It leaves off interesting names like the New Orleans corners, Kelvin Hayden, Kyle Wilson, Marcus Trufant, among others that could hit the numbers necessary to become consistent weekly starts but carry too much risk today. The majority of the players currently in this tier have a track record of performance. The three that do not - Bowman, Williams, and Jackson - have new roles and elite opportunity to go along with a skill set that makes them dual box score threats. Wilson nearly made this list for me, but I still think we see Darrelle Revis (whose low tackle upside would keep him off this list) before the season begins.

Bloom: Once again, my list is a little longer than Jene's. I would include Trufant, who is much healthier than he was last year. I also like Aqib Talib and Vontae Davis to join this group this season. Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph also belong, as do ballhawk extraordinaires Tracy Porter and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. There are many other names that you could easily make a case for. Again, the bottom line is the depth at the position. Even in CB-required leagues, you can take both starters after the top 20 are gone, and with one good choice and smart waiver wire activity, you can match the scoring of the first team to take their #2 CB in the draft.

As always, thanks for reading. Questions, comments and suggestions are always welcome to bloom@footballguys.com and bramel@footballguys.com.

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