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.
Win-Now Premium QBs: 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.
Top Tier (Players I'd pay a mid-to-high first-round rookie pick and/or a starter to acquire)
- Aaron Rodgers: Injuries to his receiving corps has limited the top-2 upside that is his fantasy production, but Rodgers is still a top-five option who could easily play until he's 38-40.
- Tom Brady: He appears more fit and mobile than ever. I think he can play another two years at this level if the nucleus of his team remains intact.
- Philip Rivers: His production is more variable than Rodgers and Brady, but he has the least amount of talent of the three and continues to take it to defenses.
- Andrew Luck: The Colts are a mess right now, but even a bruised Luck has delivered top production the past two weeks and his receivers are good enough to keep him in this tier. I'm not a fan of Pep Hamilton's scheme and I believe if the coaching staff turns over, Luck's best years are still ahead.I don't blame you if he's top-3 on your list, but punishment and interceptions drop him a bit on my list.
- Russell Wilson: There's a concern that Wilson can't get it done from the pocket, but this is false. His touch, skill versus the blitz, and accuracy down-field give him a vibrant future as a future Drew Brees-like producer with more athletic skill as his offensive line comes together and Marshawn Lynch rides off in the sunset.
- Cam Newton: Like Wilson, Newton does a lot with limited weaponry at wide receiver. A year younger than Wilson, but a year more experienced in the NFL, I wouldn't argue with you if you placed Newton higher on this list.
- Carson Palmer: This is the Palmer I saw flashes of in Oakland, but he lacked the support system to do what he's doing now in Arizona. And what a support system it is. Only 36, Palmer's ACL rehab went much better than his first tear and he's actually stronger and mechanically more sound. The offensive line is good, his receivers are very good, and he's playing great.
Second Tier Starters (A second-round rookie draft pick and/or a starter):
- Eli Manning: I much prefer Brees, Ryan, Dalton, and Roethlisberger as talents, but the system, age of the surrounding talent, and stability of Tom Coughlin's regime begrudgingly forces me to give Manning his due.
- Drew Brees: What Brees is doing without a true primary weapon (Brandon Cooks is a WR2-type to me) speaks volumes. He has been the No.9 fantasy QB for the past three weeks and if he were in Denver with those receivers, I believe he'd be a top-five option because he has the mobility and arm that Peyton Manning lacks and a similar acumen for the game.
- Matt Ryan: "Competency" is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Ryan. The Falcons offensive line has been shaky for a lot of years, but Ryan had excellent targets. He finally has a much-improved front five and now his receivers are old, journeymen, or dealing with injury. He still posts QB1 production and there's hope that his makeshift-line-done-well can help Atlanta afford more weapons to complement Jones in the draft. If so, Ryan will move up this list.
- Andy Dalton: I'm being cautious about Dalton. He should be higher--perhaps at the top of this tier. My concerns are that the Bengals won't pay Marvin Jones Jr next year and Tyler Eifert still has to prove he can stay healthy. If Jones leaves and Eifert's durability remains a question, Dalton's consistency suffers and the Bengals return to a ground-oriented attack.
- Ben Roethlisberger: I love the supporting cast this year and at 33, Roethlisberger still has at least one 3-year window left. But Heath Miller isn't long from retirement, Martavis Bryant's drug history with the NFL will be a lingering concern for at least a couple of years, and if the Steelers underachieve again, will Mike Tomlin (and Todd Haley by extension) keep their jobs? Then there's the injuries Roethlisberger has sustained on and off the field that could make him an "old" 33. Anquan Boldin has seen his share of injuries and he's still capable at 35, so it's not like I've completely written of the Steelers' QB.
Long-Term QB: 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 Colin Kaepernick, Kirk Cousins, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Sam Bradford, and Peyton Manning are missing and it's not an oversight.
Top Tier (Players I'd pay a mid-to-high first-round rookie pick and/or a starter to acquire)
- Aaron Rodgers
- Andrew Luck
- Russell Wilson
- Cam Newton
- Matt Ryan
- Andy Dalton
- Jameis Winston: I'm a believer and I've said it since Week 1, Winston has performed well under difficult circumstances and he looks better each month. Winston-to-Evans is a real thing and if the Bucs can keep Doug Martin and Charles Sims, I think this team will have the support system for Winston to deliver top-12 production for a decade or more.
Second Tier Starters (A second-round rookie draft pick and/or a starter):
- Matthew Stafford: If the Lions find the correct coordinator and this offensive line comes together Matt Stafford could easily return to his old standing as a top-five long-term option. The argument that a 30-year-old Calvin Johnson has one 3-year window left and there's not enough talent to replace Johnson's value is a good one. There's also a good argument that Stafford could find himself in a new town within the next 2-3 seasons. A Dallas native, there are speculative rumblings about this future connection.
- Ryan Tannehill: Last week's stupendous 18-for-18 multi-touchdown outburst aside, Tannehill has been described as a robot in both a good and bad way. He could easily climb if DeAndre Parker develops into a primary option. I like that Dan Campbell, the Dolphins' interim head coach has worked to simplify the schemes, because I've been told by a person with knowledge of the Miami system that the scheme terminology was complex and lacked clarity for simple concepts that lead to slower processing for the players, and often confusion.
- Blake Bortles: He still has issues reading hybrid coverage (combos of zone and man), but his errors are now limited to key moments rather than multiple errors per series. It helps that he has two quality wide receivers and a ground game. I'm still skeptical that this year's production as a top-five QB is a minor aberration, but not enough to ignore him as a future option to build around.
- Derek Carr: Amari Cooper and Clive Walford are two exciting options and Carr is throwing the ball with confidence and aggression. I like his mobility and his pocket presence, which I rated as on the borderline between acceptable and failing and I ultimately gave him a passing grade in my evaluations, has tipped to the side of positive.
- Teddy Bridgewater: Talent-wise, Bridgewater has done more in difficult circumstances than most of the players ranked in the second tier, but that offensive line needs to get healthy and stay healthy. If this were the case right now, I'd have Bridgewater above Bortles. But I'm banking on the perception that Bridgewater will develop into a similar fantasy option as Troy Aikman or Alex Smith. There will be pockets of fantasy owners who are still optimistic about Bridgewater's upside, but if you find owners ready to move on, you could get a nice deal. I'd try to negotiate something before center John Sullivan returns.
- Johnny Manziel: I've always been a believer in his ability. The recklessness is no longer an extreme issue with his game. He'll still try some wild things here an there, but not to the degree of stupidity he displayed at Texas A&M. The arm, the mobility, and the accuracy is there. So is the work ethic. If the ultra-conservative league grapevine hasn't Tebow-ed or Flutie-ed Manziel, I think he'll either earn a shot somewhere. You can also get him cheap.
- Jay Cutler: Cutler and Stafford are in the same boat, but Cutler has a worse image that makes him cheaper than the Lions' quarterback. I think Cutler has 5-7 years left, depending on the team and talent surrounding him. He still has the skills to author QB1 production.
- Marcus Mariota: Most fantasy owners will value him near or above Winston. It may turn out that Mariota will be worth that kind of value. For now, he's still developing the skills to attack the deep end of the field and the Titans offense has been enabling a slower development that opposing defenses have been catching onto before the rookie got hurt. You won't get Mariota at this value, but I wouldn't pay more.
- Tyrod Taylor: I'm encouraged by what I see from Taylor. I'm also wary of Rex Ryan sticking around long enough for Taylor to establish himself as an NFL starter that any team would pursue. I think he's good enough, but perception still matters among NFL teams and not a lot of teams were after Taylor.
- Brett Hundley: Once considered a first-round prospect, the UCLA QB dropped due to a lot of nitpicking and questions about his ability to process the game as a pocket passer. Those who watched tape close enough should have discovered that Hundley played behind a bad offensive line and a head coach that refused to led Hundley change plays. This lethal combo of restrictions forced Hundley to execute plays that defenses had beat before the snap--and Hundley still found a way. Jim Mora Jr.'s regime unintentionally created a perception that Hundley lacks that QB feel and mental processor to excel. All Hundley did this summer was enter camp, form a study group with teammates, learn the system fast, and post league-leading preseason production at his position. Hundley has the skills to be the best rookie of this class. It might take a few years for him to develop and the Packers to trade him for a pick, but I believe Hundley is a great low-cost, high-reward investment.
- Robert Griffin III III: I got a lot of flak from readers when I cautioned that Robert Griffin III's talent might be great, but his early production was system-driven. Now that most see Griffin as a system failure due to injuries that limit his athleticism and clashes of immaturity and dysfunction between Griffin and the Washington organization, I still believe Griffin has the talent to develop into a good pocket passer. If he can get a new start and sit for a year or two, he showed the pocket presence and accuracy to thrive.
Next Week: Dynasty Running Back Tiers.