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How to Tier Players
David M. Dorey

When you sit down at your draft, certainly you’ll have that finely crafted cheatsheet. All those names ordered by their value to your team, the chance to build the greatest collection of fantasy players (yet again). It’s as easy as crossing out names as they are picked and then taking the highest available player when your turn arrives. Problem is this – which column will you be using when you pick your player? Running back? Quarterback? The first name you can pronounce? The highest ranked guy named Smith?

The second step in preparing your cheatsheet comes after you order all those players in their position. You then must group those players into “tiers” to show, at a glance, what the overall availability is for players in every position. You are drafting a team with perhaps six different positions and a dozen starters each week. If everyone agreed to raid one position at a time, the cheatsheet would be fine as is. Since the proper mixture of players in their positions is critical to producing the best overall value, you need to tier.

"Tiers" are made by determining which players are relative equals in what they can deliver this season. A tier should contain players that "net out" the same when risk and reward are considered. A tier may contain players which are the product of projections or just personal preferences, but a tier contains a group of players that you would be about as happy with no matter which one you took. They are all ranked in order for selecting, but tiers offer a much better way to  address the hectic pace of a draft.

More than anything, "tiering" is an art form.

Before delving into the art, there is a bit of the science behind the concept of tiers. In fantasy football, each season will produce approximately the same scoring from season to season in any given scoring scenario. The actual stats themselves fall into tiers because there are players that score similar to one another, and yet small groups that represent a step down from the higher tier and a step up from the lower tier.

Below is a table that shows the past five season’s player results using standard performance scoring. Normally, there are about three players in each position that will top the lists each season. They are followed by the next group which can be six or eight players and depend on the particular position. There is nothing hard and fast about the numbers in each natural scoring tier and in some cases you could argue with what I called a natural tier for that position and year. The important factor is not to get tied up in specific numbers, but to recognize that tiers do occur naturally. The only real change recently is that second tier receivers are getting deeper almost every season.

  Quarterbacks Running Backs Wide Receivers
  1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
1 349 335 297 314 316 310 372 337 365 373 234 228 233 234 268
2 342 318 283 291 306 308 332 269 317 345 210 219 233 218 242
3 298 286 272 283 296 250 284 256 299 343 198 218 205 217 196
4 296 285 260 268 294 246 252 255 281 311 194 217 199 182 190
5 279 284 259 257 290 223 246 236 267 277 188 195 179 177 188
6 275 258 257 254 280 215 240 225 262 269 187 194 178 176 183
7 256 231 255 249 276 203 240 212 258 264 177 193 174 172 179
8 254 218 250 244 275 196 232 211 251 236 175 181 170 169 178
9 231 216 239 244 270 194 231 208 249 233 172 176 166 169 168
10 228 213 232 239 268 184 231 185 222 221 167 173 162 161 166
11 219 212 216 222 265 178 224 180 214 217 165 172 160 159 165
12 218 209 211 222 263 177 223 180 212 208 158 163 158 156 165
13 214 199 208 217 263 172 218 172 211 188 155 158 158 152 162
14 210 197 205 202 254 169 210 164 205 187 148 158 151 151 160
15 205 188 205 200 229 166 201 159 199 187 146 151 150 148 158
16 199 180 197 195 226 159 197 158 196 177 140 147 149 145 140
17 189 175 196 190 208 150 194 154 192 175 139 143 142 142 136
18 184 167 196 188 206 148 191 152 184 170 139 139 141 141 134

Why Create Positional Tiers?

In planning your draft and later tracking the players as they are taken, tiers allow you to better address your own needs compared to what players are available. Basically, tiers can build a better team during the portion of the drafts that starting positions are being filled and in some cases can help determine if you should grab a running back or backup  quarterback or take your first tight end or defense or whatever.

When a draft is underway there is pressure to make the best pick for your team within your allotted time. You need to be able to plan your draft as it is happening in response to how players are being taken. There are two big reasons why this can be critical.

First, drafts rarely meet expectations on how certain players and positions are taken. You can plan ahead, based on your draft slot, as to which player or position you are going to address in order. I have personally done that in probably every fantasy draft I have had in the past fourteen years. I can also claim that I cannot ever remember actually following the plan in its' entirety in any draft. Why? Because "things" happen.

You have to be able to know what values are still on your board at any given moment. There will always be a run on the running backs in every draft given their value, but the use of tiers allows you to know if the time has come to go grab that quarterback or wide receiver. Typically, I have always preached taking quarterbacks later – perhaps the fifth or sixth round. However there are the occasional drafts when the running backs are flying off the board so fast that by my second pick I am still looking at a tier one quarterback or receiver. I know the point differential is more beneficial to me to get the top player in a different position than to just accept mediocrity with a very valuable early pick.

Tiering makes it easier to see where value picks are still available. Those are the ones that yield a big advantage. You can glance at your tiers and see where the greatest value lies when your turn arrives. All drafts should be about gaining the greatest overall values for your team to produce maximum points and tiering makes that feat much simpler. Tiers allow you to see how deep each position is and how quickly others are draining.

Secondly, tiering allows you to quickly recover from the #1 tragedy in any draft. It never fails, if you ever lock onto a player and see he is about to fall to your spot, chances are very high that he goes right before your turn. The problem is that you were salivating for a particular player and suddenly the clock is ticking and you still have to make a pick.

That can throw anyone back, but if you tier it makes it easier to rebound quickly. You can assess the remaining players more easily and quicker knowing what small groupings you have to choose from.

Creating positional tiers is the best way to actively manage your draft and thereby the flow of optimal players onto your roster. It also allows you to track the draft, change course and recover quickly from having your big sleeper snapped up right before your selection.

How to Tier

Tiering is a definite art and yet allows you to control your drafting or auction process. While you could create your own tiers based solely from projections, and many do just that, tiers should be created considering groups of players that offer similar risk/reward, at least in their net benefit. By this I mean you may have a tier which contains some solid yet unspectacular players and mix in some potential superstars that have unusually high risk.

To provide an example, here’s a sample of how to view building tiers within a position.

Tier 1 – The high scorers of the previous season that have minimal reasons why they will not repeat.

Tier 2 – The high scorers from the previous season that have reasons why they are a bigger risk

Tier 3 – Solid performers that offer a low risk of a good season and yet with an upside for a big year.

Tier 4 – Solid performers that are either great players on the downswing or high risk/reward players.

Let’s take that criteria and see how it could apply to the wide receivers of 2004

Tier 1 – Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss and Torry Holt. All three come off very big years. Moss and Harrison have consistently been at or near the top each season and offer great reward with minimal risk. Holt is a newcomer to this top tier but has improved each season and truly came into his own in 2004. He may not have the track record of the other two, but he has the same team, scheme and is a younger player continuing to improve.

Tier 2 – Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Joe Horn, Hines Ward, Eric Moulds. Those five are players that have turned in big years in the past and are talented performers. They fall to tier two due to more risk than the top three players. Owens is on a new team. Johnson has a new quarterback. Horn is getting old. Ward is playing on a team that may use Staley to catch and has a possibly unresolved quarterback situation between Maddox and Rothlisberger. Finally Eric Moulds comes off a season of injury but has the same quarterback and system. All great players, all have a little more risk.

Tier 3 – Derrick Mason, Darrell Jackson, Anquan Boldin, Santana Moss. Those five are all players that have had very solid seasons and there is little reason to believe they will not replicate at least respectable numbers. Mason connects well with McNair and no longer has McCareins to steal passes. Jackson had a big year in 2004 and is almost a guarantee for a good year again. Boldin was a skyrocket last season and while he will have a new quarterback in McCown, he has already shown chemistry with him. Lastly, Santana Moss comes off a very big year with Pennington and could get even better in a offensive scheme dedicated to the pass.

Tier 4 – Jimmy Smith, Javon Walker, Koren Robinson, Rod Smith, Steve Smith – Those are six players that are either aging stars that could be turning downward (Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith) or players that have had at least one good season and could be positioned for a big year (Walker, Robinson, Steve Smith). This tier would have a mixture of players that have a decent chance of hanging onto a good season or that have promise of a big year with higher risk than in Tier 3.

You may place different names in those tiers and you should. But the importance of them is that they will allow you to immediately evaluate what values exist in the available receivers. You get into the third round, you already have two running backs and see that your tier two receivers are starting to fly off the board, you can quickly determine where your best values lie. Take that receiver or compare it to what quarterbacks tiers are still open.

You can, and should, tier players as deeply as the starters are taken for each position if not one more tier of quality backups to pursue. The ability to tier players well is not an ability that someone new to fantasy football can likely do very well since you need to incorporate much more than raw projections. Determine what each player offers in total considering their risk, past history and current outlook. After a few seasons, it becomes much easier to do.

Tier Your Way To The Top

Tiering players allows for quick decisions that are already supported by your previous research and thoughts. When it comes to your turn in the draft, it is just far easier and quicker to review the remaining players in sets of tiers than to read every player name or just grab the top guy from one position in your cheatsheet. When it comes to your turn and you see that only one player remains in, say, tier three for running backs and yet there are six left in the highest open tier for receivers, you can immediately know that you can take that runner and still get as good a receiver with your next pick while the running backs would surely be gone at that point.

The safest way to tier is to make a top three in each position be tier one, then tier two would normally be about five to eight players. Tier three is about the same number of players. You have to incorporate the tiers into your draft strategy knowing the relative scoring value of your positions. The size of a tier is entirely related to the net value of all grouped players considering risk and reward.

Tiering is just establishing groups of players that you view as similar enough that the best and worst in that tier carry relatively the same risk/reward. That depends on subjective determinations, and yet that is nothing more than what projections are anyway. If you honestly think that your projections are so accurate that you can distinguish the difference in players of only 50 yards in an entire season, then maybe tiering is not for you. Then again, chances are you have never followed your projections before or bothered to look at how far off most of them fall.

The greatest advantage you can have in a draft is the ability to build the optimal team by taking players which are the best available and yet fit into your needs for starters. Particularly in rounds two through seven, using tiers allows you to "see" your draft as it unfolds and as positions are raided. It is far more effective than becoming mired in comparing projections for individual players across positions because you do not often have the time to do that when the draft is underway. You have to be able to make a quick decision that is the right one and of course, drafts never unfold exactly like you thought.

Tiering is every bit as valuable for auctions as well, since player value is paramount. There is no need to spend huge sums of salary cap dollars on one player if there are a couple others still available and who could be had for less money. You save in one spot to spend in another. Tiering is cannot make up for bad player rankings, but it can turn good rankings into gold.