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Blood, Sweat and Tiers
by David M. Dorey
August 5, 2003
 
  "You've got someone that has tremendous leadership qualities, whose teammates love him, who's unselfish in terms of spreading the praise around. He's as ready to go as any young quarterback can be..."
Leigh Steinberg on his client Ryan Leaf (1998)
 
     
  "He is really the only quarterback in this draft that appears ready to play immediately. He is extremely bright, a playmaker and he has the one quality of positive decision making that is important to any team. I believe... a lack of arm strength will not show up when he gets into the league."
Marty Schottenheimer on Cade McNown (1999)
 
     
  "I think he's probably the best back in this draft, if you run a one-back system. He's the best back available. I think he's an outstanding football player."
Ron Wolf on Ron Dayne (2000)
 

Ah yes, theory versus reality.

The important fact to take from those quotes is that as evaluators of talent, even people whose jobs rely on it can be wrong. In some cases horribly wrong. One person follows another with more glowing assessments and it starts to sound very reasonable and even exciting. It's easy to get swept away in the hype.

If you allow yourself to become too locked in on a player, you can end up ruining your draft strategy just like the NFL teams that took the big reach for Cade McNown, Ryan Leaf, Ron Dayne and dozens of others in their drafts the past decade. Be careful of the hype or before you know it, it's 2 AM and you just ordered a pocket lint burner from an infomercial on TV, unaware that it is really only brass-colored plastic and it will singe all the hair off your arm while you try to burn lint that you never really had anyway.

Let's be reasonable.

When you approach your drafts, certainly there are some players that you really want and that is fine. Take them early if you really like some individual but in preparing for your draft, you need to treat your positional players in groups or "tiers" of similar risk and reward payoffs.

"Tiers" are made by determining which players who you feel 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 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 you a way to better address the hectic pace of your draft.

More than anything, "tiering" is an artform.

Before delving into the art, let's consider 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 seasons player results using standard performance scoring. Normally, there are about three players 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..

Quarterbacks Running Backs Wide Receivers
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
364 349 335 297 314
282 342 318 283 291
273 298 286 272 283
256 296 285 260 268
243 279 284 259 257
237 275 258 257 254
233 256 231 255 249
229 254 218 250 244
225 231 216 239 244
210 228 213 232 239
208 219 212 216 222
204 218 209 211 222
199 214 199 208 217
194 210 197 205 202
192 205 188 205 200
186 199 180 197 195
159 189 175 196 190
157 184 167 196 188
157 171 163 188 185
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
369 310 372 337 365
323 308 332 269 317
290 250 284 256 299
274 246 252 255 281
274 223 246 236 267
247 215 240 225 262
228 203 240 212 258
226 196 232 211 251
224 194 231 208 249
209 184 231 185 222
204 178 224 180 214
201 177 223 180 212
196 172 218 172 211
188 169 210 164 205
175 166 201 159 199
167 159 197 158 196
167 150 194 154 192
161 148 191 152 184
157 143 184 145 179
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
230 234 228 233 234
222 210 219 233 218
201 198 218 205 217
182 194 217 199 182
178 188 195 179 177
172 187 194 178 176
165 177 193 174 172
165 175 181 170 169
163 172 176 166 169
162 167 173 162 161
162 165 172 160 159
161 158 163 158 156
149 155 158 158 152
149 148 158 151 151
148 146 151 150 148
146 140 147 149 145
140 139 143 142 142
129 139 139 141 141
126 137 133 141 141

Why Create Positional Tiers?

In planning your draft and tracking the players taken, tiers allow you to better address your own needs compared to what players are available. Basically, tiers can allow you to build a better team during the portion of the drafts that starting positions are being filled and in some cases can help you decide if you should grab a running back or quarterback backup or go ahead and 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:

1. You may expect a draft to run a certain way how different 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 thirteen years. I can also claim that I cannot ever remember actually following the plan in its' entirety in any draft. Why? Because "things" happen.

This season is shaping up as the Great RB Rush of 2003. It varies from draft to draft but overall, running backs are going fast in every league. Guaranteed. But the quarterbacks and receivers are not consistent where they are selected at all. It depends on the RB run and the other drafters selections. For example, I have always preached taking a quarterback in later rounds. I normally wait until about the fourth to sixth rounds depending on the draft. However, this season I just picked up Daunte Culpepper in one league with my 3.07 selection because I could not let him slip past unlike other drafters. He headed up the first tier of quarterbacks on my board and though it changed my plans, it was the best pick to make.

Tiering makes it very easy to see where value picks are still available. Those are the ones that give you an advantage.

2. Tiering allows you to better recover from the #1 tragedy in any draft. It never fails for me - if I dare to lock onto one player that I want, the chances that he will be drafted during the pick immediately before me usually runs about 97% in my experience. It can be disheartening, frustrating, annoying, criminal, ridiculous, saddening, maddening and very DOH! I NOW ONLY HAVE 45 SECONDS LEFT TO MAKE A PICK!

That can throw you in any case, but if you tier it makes it easier to rebound quickly. You can assess the remaining players better 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 that moron pick your guy right in front of you. That team owner you never liked, that is using some cheat sheet that he ripped from a magazine and that owes you money from the time that - DOH! I ONLY HAVE 30 SECONDS LEFT TO MAKE A PICK!

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 what they net offering. 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, let's consider The Huddle's current first three tiers for running backs.

Tier 1 - Tomlinson, Portis, Ricky Williams, Holmes, Faulk, Alexander and McAllister
Tier 2 - William Green, Barber, James, Ahman Green
Tier 3 - Dillon, Lewis, Taylor, Davis, Henry, Garner

The first 17 running backs play out into three tiers in my estimation. Let's analyze why:

Tier 1 - Every player in this grouping comes off a big 2002 campaign with no real change to their offenses. Each is the clear cut option for their team and if any of them turn into the NFL rushing leader it will be no surprise. There is a little mixture here - all are young, talented backs except for Holmes and Faulk. Holmes returns from a hip injury and Faulk had a down year but either are definite contenders to be huge difference makers for their owners. Those two carry more risk due to age, but it is a risk I am willing to accept given their recent history of superlative seasons.

Tier 2 - The best I can describe this group is that next to tier one, these four players "net" out to a similar level below that of tier one and yet slightly higher than tier three. William Green has the most upside since he ended last season red-hot but since he did not manage that for the entire 2002 season, I need to temper his outlook with the risk he has from not having a full season of top performance. Barber is always a solid pick and 2002 was a stellar one in his career year. I would not move him up higher since he is actually a bit light for an everydown back, but you cannot deny his productivity. He will never lead the league in rushing yards, but has a good chance to rank highly in total yards. Edgerrin James is a tier one back to many, but I move him to tier two in view of his risk. He is now two seasons beyond his last big year and was continually hurt last season. If he is 100%, he is a definite tier one player but his risk concerns me enough to allow someone else to take the chance. Ahman Green is only one season past his last big year and has a very nice rushing schedule, but he also was dinged up last season and Davenport may be taking some yards and scores from him. If I end up with one of these players, I had better have a tier one running back or receiver already.

Tier 3 - These players all offer likely solid production to me though a see none of them creeping into the top five for various reasons. I would love to have any of these as my second running back because it would yield consistency to a high scoring position on my team. If I can still reach a top receiver or quarterback in my draft and have one of these guys, I would likely do just that.

The tier one runningbacks are always gone by the first round and often Tier 2 is gone very early in the second round. I can go into my draft knowing that if I have a tier one back and my second pick would allow me to get one of these AND maybe a tier one receiver or quarterback, I would have an excellent start to my draft with three solid picks.

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. You need to 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 yourself.

Tiering players allows you to make 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 seven 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 that running back would be very likely 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 six to eight players. Tier three is about the same eight players. You have to incorporate the tiers into your draft strategy knowing the relative scoring value of your positions as examined in the article about analyzing your league called LAG to win.

In however you tier, you need to establish 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 as we all know, 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.

And you know, you must know in your heart of hearts, that your unnatural attraction to drafting David Boston just increased the odds about 97% that the moron before you snaps him up. We all hate that guy, the one that does not know what he is doing and dresses funny and drinks Zima and laughs like a horse on PCP and ... and ... DOH! I ONLY HAVE 15 SECONDS LEFT TO MAKE A PICK!

Happy drafting!