The Gut Check No.306 - Updated PPR Tiers and Notes

Waldman updates his PPR tiers, including notes on pivotal mileposts to consider during your draft. 

ABOUT MY PPR TIERS (Skip IF You Saw my previous Tiers)

If you don't know by now, I have a reputation for views on players that differ from the norm. Even so, my rankings accuracy is still very high by industry standards over the past 3-5 years and where I have performed best dovetails nicely with the strategy I write about the most: Upside Down Drafting.  

However, my tiers are formatted by my projections and I embed a variety of notations within them so you can tailor this information to a number of different strategies. I will be writing more about strategic angles than explaining where I ranked specific players. 

Have have grouped players into 14 tiers of rounds and picks. The first six tables each cover one round and the next eight tables cover two rounds for a total of 22 rounds of players in a 12-team league format. Feel free to adjust as you wish for smaller or larger leagues.

The notations within each table offer a shorthand for Average Draft Position (ADP) and my ranking of each player:

  • ADP is listed next to each player in parenthesis. For example, Le'Veon Bell (14) is the 14th overall pick in drafts as of July 5th ADP.
  • Players with normal fonts are have a ranking from me that coincides with their ADP. I consider them safe plays. 
  • Italicized players are slightly overvalued if you agree with my ranking vs. their ADP. 
  • Players bolded and italicized are overvalued by more than a round between rounds 1-6 and more than two after round 6.
  • Underlined players are slightly undervalued if you agree with my ranking vs. their ADP. 
  • Players bolded and underlined are undervalued by more than a round between rounds 1-6 and more than two after round 6. 

These notations give fantasy owners ample opportunity to plan: When to lay back and when to pounce when it comes to certain players and/or positions. I'll offer a variety of strategic tips as I discuss each tier.  

Notes on My Updates

This week, I've drawn a bold box around players in each tier that represent a pivotal discussion point for your 2014 drafts. In some cases I have moved the player up or down my rankings or he's a potential candidate for a future change of this type. There are also players whose projections I'm standing behind due to logic, but my gut feeling is in conflict with the forecast. 

As I've told my Twitter followers Monday, the summer is a time to look at player performance in layers or criteria: 

  • Physical skills (improvement/decline)
  • Mental grasp of concepts (improvement/decline)
  • Consistency of execution in camp
  • Consistency of execution in preseason
  • Consistency of execution in the regular season

This is especially true of rookies and developmental players in their second and third seasons. The biggest gaps in performance tend to occur between the camp layer and the preseason layer and the preseason and regular season. The reason that athletes, musicians, and actors have such affinity isn't solely about fame and celebrity, but also their shared understanding of the dynamics of performance. 

If you have never performed on stage or before a group of people you may lack the understanding of the difference in the intensity of the setting. Surprising as it may seem, performers generate this intensity more than the audience. When the skill level ratchets up a notch, many young players sudden become less confident and more self conscious about everything they're doing, which leads to over analysis, stiff performances, and mistakes. This is why playing "when the lights come on," is much different than practice and why playing in the preseason is much different than the regular season. 

Keep these points in mind when evaluating players this month and you'll have a solid perspective to draw from. 

TIER 1

Pivotal Points: Calvin Johnson is too difficult for me to pass up in the first round if I don't have a top-three pick and this even comes with some ambivalence about how his production could decline with the change of offensive coordinators and the addition of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron to the equation. Johnson's production in 14 games last year suggests he's capable of a 100-catch, 1600-yard, 15-touchdown season -- even with weapons that might pay off. Matthew Stafford has the skills to earn another 5000-yard, 40-score season -- and not because he's a great quarterback.

Don't get me wrong, Stafford has the potential to become a great quarterback, but it doesn't require greatness to deliver high-end production at the quarterback position. Growing up a Cleveland Browns fan, I remember Brian Sipe earning the NFL's MVP award after a 4100-yard, 30-touchdown season in 1980.  

Sipe was not a great NFL quarterback by any stretch of the imagination, but he had a good system and surrounding talent capable of elevating the scheme and its production. Stafford, this era of the NFL, the Lions' surrounding talent, and Johnson make it possible for another career-year for the Detroit quarterback and his primary receiver. At this point, I'm only willing to bet on Johnson's upside, but you get the point. 

Ray Rice's reduced suspension makes him a value. I don't care what you think of him off the field. I'm here to give you fantasy football advice based on players as commodities that may or may not produce and not as human beings filled with flaws and whether or not your capacity for forgiveness or outrage should factor into your decision making.

The Ravens upgraded its receiving corps with veterans Steve Smith and Garrett Graham to pair with Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, and Marlon Brown. Baltimore has also addressed its offensive line. If the latter upgrade truly produces enough for Flacco to stretch the field, Rice is in for a major rebound this year -- even after missing two games. The runner's health and weight loss to get quicker are also two important factors to weight here. Last year's drop in production was a combination of issues that included Rice playing with a lingering injury -- keep this in mind and don't be afraid to consider Rice as a likely value.

Tier 2

Pivotal Points: Andre Johnson is a true professional and I'm gaining confidence in the original figures I've projected for the receiver because of his return to camp and willingness to work despite wanting a trade. This is the kind of person Johnson has been throughout his career and I expect he'll continue to perform like the man capable of schooling Patrick Peterson twice in one game last year. Don't be hesitant to take Johnson -- even with a new quarterback. Remember, Johnson was productive with and without Matt Schaub in 2013.  

Tier 3

Pivotal Points: Rashad Jennings saw a dip in my projections after I watched the Giants offensive line perform in limited time against the Buffalo first-team defense. Listening to the run-down of changes along the New York line, I have concerns this group may not gel this year. At the same time, my projections didn't drop Jennings significantly -- remember, the Raiders offensive line wasn't a group of world beaters and the veteran runner managed to earn his opportunity in New York this year.

Montee Ball will be seeing a change from me soon. I'm taking my time to consider just how much I'm taking off the top of his rushing and touchdown totals. When our site's email blast commented on Ronnie Hillman having issues in real games, look at what I wrote about performance and make it a serious consideration before counting on the back as your potential value pick. I liked Hillman at San Diego State and I'm not telling you that he's incapable of overcoming whatever performance issues he's had that limited his opportunities the past two years. However, C.J. Anderson is the type of talent well-suited to carry the load and he's available later in drafts and when you weigh past history of a negative (Hillman) with no history of a negative (Anderson), I'm more inclined to go with the latter.  

Tier 4

Pivotal Points: Before I get to the players in boxes, I had to laugh when I saw a link on NFL.com's home page teasing a story about Maurice Jones-Drew earning the top spot on the Raiders' depth chart ahead Darren McFadden as a "surprise." Are you kidding me? Ok, I understand how the casual fan might see this announcement as a surprise, but comparing McFadden to Jones-Drew is like taking the same high-performance car engine and putting one in a Porsche 911 (Jones-Drew) and another in a `78 Buick. I'll take the care equipped for that kind of engine, please . . .

Keenan Allen is talking about his desire to be the best receiver in the NFL. As good as Allen was, it sounds like a far-fetched goal because we think of 6-4 or 6-5, 225-230-lb behemoths with 185-pounder speed and agility assuming this mantle. I thought Allen was slower last year than what I saw during his early years at Cal. Allen was still working through a knee injury that hindered him through some of training camp. This year, teammates are noting an improvement in Allen's speed. I remember a player with blinding quickness in small spaces in a bigger man's body. Don't be surprised if Allen builds significantly on his production despite conventional thoughts that he'll only maintain last year's totals. How significant? I'm thinking 200 additional yards and another 3-4 touchdowns. I'm thinking about bumping Allen to totals as high as 85-1250-12. If I do so, it will make him my No.5 fantasy receiver. Even if I don't, Allen is a sound value in the second half of the third round. Stay tuned. 

There's no one who scares off more people than Trent Richardson. He's a fantasy football heartbreaker. Admittedly, I'm still on the fence. The Colts' offensive line doesn't look much better on paper -- especially with the injury to guard Donald Thomas. However, a good back with a feel for the system can transcend the line's limitations to some extent. Richardson is good, but it may require borderline greatness for the Colts' runner to perform as anything better than a fantasy RB2 behind that line. Thomas' injury has me considering a drop in projected production for Richardson.

Tier 5

Pivotal Points: Emmanuel Sanders should be in a box in this tier. According to Cecil Lammey, who is so embedded with the Broncos this summer that he has named the 2543 blades of grass that are within a two-foot radius of his "observation spot" at the practice field, Sanders will remain on the field if and when rookie Cody Latimer earns playing time in three-receiver sets. It means Wes Welker is the odd-man out.

Sounds a little weird, right? Yeah, if not for the concussions and advancing age, I'd be right there with you. It's still a little weird to be honest. Right now, I'm still taking Sanders with confidence, but "man-alive, this Broncos wide receiver corps is loaded." (I just channeled my inner Cecil right there if you didn't know. It explains why I want a triple latte venti with a bunch of bells and whistles at Starbucks while I rant about cars with more than one bumper sticker.) 

Tier 6

Pivotal Points: When it comes to passing games with questionable talent, I become more enamored with reliability than upside. In these cases, reliability may be the upside. Think of a lifeboat. If you had a choice between a raft and a ship you'd take the ship every time. But if your choice is a lifeboat and a life preserver, you're praying for the boat, am I right?

Carolina's passing offense has the look of a receiving corps filled with life preservers (yes, I think Kelvin Benjamin has the risk of being an extra-large life vest as a rookie), a buoy (Jerricho Cotchery will at least get you spotted by a wide receiver search party in the open seas), and a raft. Greg Olsen is the lifeboat. Don't be shocked if Olsen has a career-high in receptions. I have him in the range of 70 right now, but I'm thinking about bumping him to the range of 80-85.   

Tier 7

Note: Disregard my first entry for Dwayne Bowe and the listings for Witten and Olsen for Tier 7.

Pivotal Points: I'm having a difficult time believing in my production associated with Jarrett Boykin. It's not because I'm especially confident in any production for a Green Bay tight end this year. I'm more concerned about the Packers using rookie receivers in situations that could hinder Boykin's targets. I'm looking forward to watching and learning about the Packers' training camp to see if I have reason to adjust Boykin's production downward. 

Tier 8

Pivotal Points: Chris Givens seems less and less like a good idea here -- not much postive about him in camp. Then again, I haven't heard anything about him at all. Another year, another training camp where Jonathan Stewart is limited. So much for the optimism of dabbling in yoga for a short period of time. Seeking potential value in this round? Stick to the speed boat that Carolina gave away and Baltimore picked up for tooling around its harbor. And Travis Kelce -- liked him so much, I listed him twice.  

Tier 9

Pivotal Points: Listen, I know it seems too optimistic, but I'd put my money on Seahawks' receiver Paul Richardson Jr as the top-performing rookie receiver this year. Here's my theory behind it: 

  1. The Seahawks staff - This team is lose, competitive, and doesn't force rookies into situations where they are not ready. When Pete Carroll says Richardson is running good routes and they're excited to see what else he can do in a game it's another way of saying Richardson is performing ahead of our expectations as a rookie in camp and we want to see how close he is to winning the starting job. 
  2. The Seahawks players - As Ryan Riddle tells it, coaches teach players the scheme and players teach other players the tips and techniques necessary to win individual matchups. If this is case, then who better to help Richardson get ready than the Seahawks' pass defense and/or the receivers that face this defense every day? If Richardson is making plays against the Seahawks' he has a good shot of maintaining his performance against the 20 units he'll face from August through December. 
  3. Richardson - Routes, hands, toughness, physicality for his size, and big-play athleticism are hallmarks of Richardson's game. Some might be surprised that Seattle regarded him as a first-round talent, but I'm not. 

You won't have to take Richardson in the 11th or 12th round. You can probably wait another 4-6 rounds (or at least before he has a good showing in a preseason game). However, I believe Richardson has a good chance of becoming a reliable flex option with strong WR3 upside. If Harvin goes down, see the results for Keenan Allen 2013 on Google's search engine.

Tier 10

Pivotal Points: Charles Sims moves up because the light is coming on in training camp. He's not as rugged as DeMarco Murray, but his style isn't that different. He's also a better receiver. He's a prime target as a handcuff despite the fact that Mike James is good enough to supplant Sims if the rookie falters.

Benjarvus Green-Ellis doesn't appear to be going anywhere after the Bengals released its first depth chart. Perhaps this is a hat-tip to the veteran's experience and the desire to make Jeremy Hill prove his worth, but I have a sneaky suspicion that Green-Ellis -- as maligned has he has been in Cincinnati -- will make it tough for Hill to assume the No.2 spot. In other words, don't jump on Hill just yet -- he didn't do enough at LSU to separate himself from many of the backs I've seen from that program that I didn't think were potential NFL starters. 

Jeff Cumberland is in a box because I have a difficult time believing that Jace Amaro will be worth anything as a rookie. His issues catching the ball in camp aren't a major surprise to me. He flashed concentration issues in situations that are common against NFL defenses while at Texas Tech. Can he get better? Absolutely, but be prepared for Amaro to need a year to look more like the player the Jets hoped for. 

Richard Rodgers is another story. I was hoping the Packers would see the 255-pound version with agility and quickness, but they're getting the 275-pounder who is still looking pretty darn good at that weight. If Rodgers puts it all together, he could be a nice bargain in 2014 as a low-end TE1. I'm thinking it's better to consider him as a bye-week option that you can trade as a potential TE1 in deep leagues. Better to keep expectations low with rookie tight ends. 

Tier 11

Pivotal Points: I won't be drafting Knowshon Moreno. I bet that 45-55 percent of the original owners of Moreno in MyFantasyLeagues.com will have dropped him by Week 4. I will be taking C.J. Anderson as often as I can.  

Tim Wright is not your traditional tight end. He's more of a big slot receiver in the mold of Marques Colston, Anquan Boldin, and Michael Crabtree. If the Buccaneers use him this way and put Austin Seferian-Jenkins at the line of scrimmage or split him like Jimmy Graham, Wright's value in this tier remains solid. If Tampa doesn't adopt this approach then Wright's value could be in danger because Seferian-Jenkins is drawing rave reviews in camp. 

First, monitor how the rookie tight end performs in the preseason. If it's as good as or better than advertised and Wright is not used as a slot receiver, it's time to reconsider the second-year option from Rutgers. If Wright is used in the slot with a tight end at the line of scrimmage, have hope. 

Speaking of hope, keep hope alive for Kenbrell Thompkins. Brandon Browner told New England Patriots beat writer Jeff Howe that Thompkins has "got routes at the line of scrimmage that are unmatchable." I've been writing about Thompkins and sharing samples of his routes since February of 2013. Thompkins is an example of a player that had mixed results once he took the big stage during the regular season, but here are some things to keep in mind before you write him off as an over-hyped player from 2013: 

  • Thompkins was never meant to be a primary option in 2013 - The Patriots were missing multple options in its receiving corps. If these players were healthy, Thompkins likely earns limited playing time in situations where he's comfortable and not forced to execute the entire offense. 
  • Thompkins basically went from JUCO to NFL - Thompkins didn't spend a lot of time at the University of Cincinnati because of injury and the University of Tennessee dragging its feet on releasing Thompkins from scholarship after he had a change of heart when Lane Kiffin left for USC. As a result, Thompkins essentially skipped two levels of football to the NFL and still performed well enough to earn time in a starting rotation and have some success. Don't judge him to quick on his inconsistencies with handling the spotlight. 
  • Thompkins has rebounded after each setback - Last year, Thompkins was the rising star in camp and then had a tough night during a scrimmage where he ran the incorrect route and dropped some passes. He rebounded with better practices. During the season, Thompkins had tough moments but rebounded with touchdown catches, including a game-winner against the Saints before he eventually succumbed to injury. Despite an up and down season, he's once again playing extremely well in camp. 

Thompkins was not a total bust and because of this fact, you'd be wise to consider the circumstances and keep him in mind this late in your drafts. You might earn a quality flex option with WR2 upside if everything clicks.   

Tier 12

Pivotal Points: Reports that Carlos Hyde is gaining comfort may be little more than a headline written around Hyde saying this to a beat writer and not the coaches stating it to the writer. However, Hyde might be the safest rookie runner of this draft class and behind the best run unit in the NFL. I'm not one to get too handcuff dependent, but if there's a situation where a player is worth the inflated ADP Hyde might be one of them due to Kendall Hunter's injury and Frank Gore's age. 

Former Jaguars and Jets tight end Anthony Becht has watched Austin Seferian-Jenkins in camp and tweeted that he sees "Gronk-like tendencies" from the rookie. If you recall, Gronk wasn't especially fast in terms of timed speed, but has proven to be one of the more fluid athletes for his size and strength. If Seferian-Jenkins is demonstrating similar things, he could be a steal. 

At the same time, I have seen my share of former NFL players that have no eye for studying football talent despite years of playing the game. I don't know if Becht is in that category, but I'm looking forward to seeing the rookie to determine if he's a little better than I imagined. 

Stepfan Taylor is ahead of Jonathan Dwyer on the initial depth chart. Keep an eye on the No.2 in Arizona. Although the Cardinals are going strong with Andre Ellington this year, Bruce Arians' initial reticence is something I'm keeping tucked away. With Taylor available as late as the 18th-19th round, why not?

Jordan Matthews is gaining momentum in camp. Many writers are "ahead of me" with their optimism for the rookie. That's fine, because the combination of the Eagles' options and Matthews' inexperience is too compelling for me to move him up until I see something from him as a starter or a part of the starting rotation during the preseason.

Tony Moeaki's injury means I'm dropping him off my next set of tiers. 

Tier 13

Three running backs that your competition will consider as handcuffs closer to their ADPs than my tier spots are Christine Michael, Terrance West, and KaDeem Carey. Of the three, Carey is the best value and maybe the most complete talent. Don't get me wrong, Michael has the most upside, but Carey is sneaky-good and the Bears offensive line is young, strong, and likely better than it was last year. And if you recall, Chicago's line was a much improved in 2013.

When I studied Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch as rookie prospects, I rated Lynch slightly ahead of Peterson with the qualification that in terms of NFL readiness, Lynch was better but Peterson had the skill to be a once in a generation player at his position. There's little doubt that Peterson has been better statistically, but Lynch has held his own and even players say there's not as much difference in difficulty between facing the two as you might think. 

Carey to me is a more of a Marshawn Lynch type of back wherease Michael is a Peterson type. Keep that in mind when it comes to draft value in the late rounds.

Tier 14

Brandon Lloyd has been a flaky player, but he's an inconsistent artist -- the kid of performer that will deliver stunning performances one week and make you demand your money back the next. I'll be taking a flyer on Lloyd at the end of any draft if he's slated to make the team.

Cody Latimer might be the handcuff you need to take if you have either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders. I've kept relatively quiet about him here so my RSP readers in dynasty leagues could get the jump on him from April through June. Make it a point to take Latimer late or at least keep in high on your waiver wire list as an injury substitute. 

Coming in the next 7-14 days: Optimal Upside Down Draft Strategies Played out, Planning Your Waiver Wire Strategy for the Season, and 2014 The All-Gut Check Team.