Defensive Backs Tiers

Aaron Rudnicki takes a look at the landscape for fantasy defensive backs in 2019 and breaks them up into tiers to help with your IDP draft.

Why Tiers?

Most fantasy owners are used to drafting off a simple ranking of players, but that can mask underlying differences that exist between players. For example, two players may be ranked right next to each other on a cheatsheet but there could be a wide gap in the expected production for them. In that case, you would probably want to draft the higher-ranked player a full-round earlier than the lower-ranked player. Similarly, there may be a large group of players with very similar projections that are bunched together on a ranking sheet. It may seem that a player ranked 10th is much more valuable than a player ranked 15th, but if only a few projected points separate them then they are roughly equivalent in value. Rather than force yourself to pick one, it may be best to focus on another position and then come back to this position in the next round since you’re likely to get a player of nearly identical value.

Grouping players into distinct tiers or buckets provides additional context that allows a drafter to make more informed decisions. The projections we offer at Footballguys also help a lot in this regard, but those are still static projections that may not fully indicate the range of likely outcomes for a player. For example, two players may be projected with similar numbers but one may have significantly more upside and/or a higher floor than the other. Those types of risk vs reward decisions are inherent in any fantasy draft. While drafting the safe players will typically help you build a solid team, you often need to take some chances and hit on some players who significantly exceed their preseason expectations to win.

Rankings are typically helpful in ordering players within the same position group, but tiers can help you figure out which position to take as you move through a draft. If you see a large group of linebackers that are all capable of putting up LB1-type numbers but only one defensive lineman likely to put up elite numbers, it’s wise to grab the lineman and assume at least one of the linebackers will be there for your next pick. This helps you maximize the value of your picks, and is a strategy that all strong fantasy players likely use to some extent.

How to Use the Tiers

  1. These tiers are based on expected performance for the 2019 season in a balanced scoring system. While dynasty owners always need to consider long-term outcomes to some extent, the upcoming season is most critical for player value.
  2. Positional classifications can differ depending on what your league-hosting website uses. For consistency, I will rely on the official Footballguys player classifications. For the most part, these should match up well with the major sources that exist online but there could be differences. Assigning edge rushers to linebacker or defensive end is the main area that causes issues here as the classification can have a huge impact on fantasy value.
  3. Look for an asterisk (*) next to players that have added value in big-play scoring systems. There is a lot of scoring variability that exists among IDP leagues, so if your league places added value on big plays (i.e., sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, etc.), this information should help you identify some key targets in each tier.

SAFETIES TIER 1: THE ELITE

While defensive backs are plentiful and therefore not nearly as valuable as linebackers and defensive linemen, these are the players who clearly stand out from the rest at the position. They should all post 80+ solo tackles while adding in enough big plays to make them nearly as productive as some of the 2nd tier of linebackers. Given the depth that exists at defensive back, most will wait until the middle or late portions of the draft to fill out these roster spots. If you do take a safety early, however, these are likely the players you’ll want to target. Derwin James also would have been in this group before suffering a pre-season injury that leaves his season in jeopardy. Jamal Adams is coming off an 85 solo tackle, 3.5 sack season and should continue to see plenty of time playing up in the box. Landon Collins changed teams this offseason but is an elite run defender and figures to lead his team in tackles again given the inexperience at inside linebacker for Washington. John Johnson III III is another talented young safety who broke out last season while Keanu Neal will look to bounce back from an ACL injury that wiped out his 2018 season.

SAFETIES TIER 2: LOW-END #1

This group has more variability than the players in the elite tier, which gives them a lower floor but they can likely be relied upon as every-week starters. All should finish with 70+ solo tackles with a number of big plays that can lead to several high scoring weeks. Shawn Williams has been in the league since 2013 but finally had his breakout season last year, thanks in part to the emergence of rookie Jessie Bates III III at free safety. Justin Reid took over as the starting strong safety in Houston early in his rookie year and was borderline elite, while his teammate Tyrann Mathieu left to join the Chiefs and should emerge as a focal point in their rebuilt defense. Jordan Poyer has been a top-10 fantasy safety in each of the past two seasons and is an excellent playmaker while Budda Baker is another young, talented safety who can do everything well. Malcolm Jenkins and Antoine Bethea are quite a bit older than the other players in this group but should see enough opportunities to remain near the top.

SAFETIES TIER 3: SOLID #2

The depth at the position becomes quickly apparent as you move into this tier as there isn’t much separation among these players in terms of their expected production. There are a number of free safeties in this group who won’t play up in the box very often so their solo tackle numbers may suffer but they offset that with interceptions. Harrison Smith, Damarious Randall, Kevin Byard, and Justin Simmons likely fall into that group. The tier also includes some excellent run stoppers who will be more reliable from week to week but may not put up many huge games due to some of their limitations in coverage. This group includes Ronnie Harrison, Adrian Amos, Clayton Geathers, Reshad Jones, D.J. Swearinger Sr, Kenny Vaccaro. There is some uncertainty about how Denver will use Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson but both are likely good enough to be considered low-end #2 safeties while Minkah Fitzpatrick got some clarity on his role with the recent release of T.J. McDonald.

SAFETIES TIER 4: TOP BACKUPS

With the assumption that most leagues start two safeties, you should aim to get at least two and preferably three players from the tiers above. If you miss out, however, there’s no need to panic as you can still build solid depth with players from this tier. These players will be more matchup-dependent and carry more risk but will likely be startable for much of the year. Some players to target here that could have added upside are younger players like Marcus Maye, Eddie Jackson, Terrell Edmunds, Johnathan Abram, Jabrill Peppers, and Juan Thornhill. If you are looking for a safer option, consider veterans like Adrian Phillips, Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, Eric Weddle, or Morgan Burnett.

CORNERBACKS TIER 1: THE ELITE

Cornerback is an extremely deep position and there tends to be a lot of variability from year to year as their value depends heavily on interceptions that are difficult to predict. This places added emphasis on corners who post more consistent tackle numbers since that added reliability allows you to start them just about every week without looking at matchups. If your league combines cornerbacks and safeties together, the top corners are still probably no higher than tier 3 so you’ll probably want to load up on safeties first.

Kyle Fuller looks like the top option this year due to his playmaking tendencies and the dominant Bears defense, but that could also keep his tackle numbers down. Kendall Fuller, Denzel Ward, and Marshon Lattimore all figure to see plenty of passes given the explosive offenses their teams possess. Kenny Moore II II broke out on a surprisingly good Colts defense last year while Donte Jackson will try to build off an excellent rookie year.

CORNERBACKS TIER 2: STRONG STARTERS

This group makes up the bulk of the remaining players who should be considered safe to start every-week without worrying too much about the matchups. While a player like Jalen Ramsey can benefit from taking on the opposing team’s #1 wide receiver each week, some shutdown corners don’t see enough targets to make a consistent fantasy impact. Therefore, most of this list is made up of players who are good enough to hold onto their starting jobs but not quite good enough that quarterbacks will avoid throwing in their direction. It also helps if they are aggressive and active in run support, which can boost their tackle numbers.

CORNERBACKS TIER 3: TOP BACKUPS

These players stand out slightly among the large group of backup cornerbacks, but the reality is they aren’t a whole lot different than the players who will be available on the waiver wire throughout the season. Many astute fantasy owners are comfortable picking up waiver wire options to start each week based on the most favorable matchups. Consider these players as matchup-dependent with a chance to emerge as every-week starters. Pay extra close attention for any rookies who earn starting jobs as they figure to be picked on by opposing quarterbacks and will get a longer leash from their coaches while they develop.

Good luck in your drafts. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

Email: rudnicki@footballguys.com

Twitter: @a_rudnicki

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