A fantasy football draft is seemingly a very simple affair. Await your pick and take the highest profile name or your favorite player, rinse and repeat. While that strategy can work, you’re leaving too much to chance.
Undoubtedly you comb through numerous fantasy websites prior to your draft in hopes of gleaning that one stat or opinion that will help steel your resolve as to which player to select in the early rounds, or perhaps to add a name to your list of mid-round sleepers. Who doesn’t? Whether you run a website or are a first year fantasy player, the goal is to outwork your fellow coaches towards gaining an advantage in as many phases of the season as possible. The first, and most important, phase starts with your draft. While not every coach uses them, most successful ones understand the importance of tiers.
Tiers are easy enough to understand. It would seem as simple as ranking your players and drawing a line at select points. While this is basically true, how is it that you go about finding at which point to draw those lines?
I have seen many different strategies and implementations when it comes to developing tiers, both simple and very complex. What has also surprised me in some cases has been the arbitrary methods used in finding the separation points between the names making up each tier. Many like to simply quickly develop their tiers around the “names” of the players after developing a ranking list. I have seen others that suggest and use a “last 10 games” approach to developing scoring tiers. In the most complex approach, I have seen a very deep non-positional approach to tiering that broke down the upcoming draft into rounds and created a tier for each round of the draft in an attempt to not only create an overall player ranking list but also to create a tiered draft strategy that reduced the draft process to a single master list. Any of these approaches can work well to give you an advantage during your draft. But I’m a firm believer in maximizing your efforts in whatever strategies you choose to employ. Arbitrary rankings or exercises that don’t give you any real advantage or clear results are wasted efforts and will only clutter your desk during the draft. Whether you are up against a three minute draft clock or a twenty four hour clock, your ultimate goal is to have a well-developed list, or set of lists, that reduce your decision making process down to a minute or less. The goal is simplicity. Once you have these lists in place, only then can you begin to modify them as your draft timer allows in order to take advantage of other draft variables, such as predictive player selection that can gauge the potentiality of a certain player surviving into the next round or until X picks later.
But what do tiers actually provide? After all, doesn’t a positional ranking list accomplish the same thing in that it tells you who the next best available player is within his position? No. And here’s why. A linear list of rankings is relative only to the player directly above him and below him. It takes into consideration nothing in the way of what I call “point differential”, or the performance of a player as it relates to those around him, both above and below. Furthermore, it gives me an indication of how many players are within his same tier, which allows me to then gauge how many are likely to score at that same level of point differential. Remember that in the end, regardless of how much we love or despise a particular player, they are no more than a statistic at the end of the day that ultimately determines, when combined with others, whether you win or lose.
When creating my tiers, I practice a very scoring-oriented approach surrounding a player’s most recent full-year performance broken down into avg. points per game played (appg). Why is per game “played” so important? Some league engines still report an average score based on a full sixteen game schedule, whether or not the player played in all sixteen games. This can drastically reduce a player’s score if they sat out one or more contests. So for each player in your list, make sure that the appg. metric is correct by using their total points divided by the number of games played. Additionally, if a player was injured early into a game such that he did start but quickly was removed from the game, I’ll subtract out that game as well. The result is my first rankings list by average fantasy points per game from the previous year.
Following the previous exercise, I’m now staring at a linear list of players within each position based on how they scored the previous year, which is still our best predictor of what they will do this year. Next, I go down this list player by player and mindfully adjust their ranking based on whether I feel there are variables that will increase or decrease their appg. Did he have a late season injury that isn’t reflected his appg. but will certainly affect his early season production? Did his team add a quarterback late in the season that will likely boost his production or add a running back that is certain to reduce his touches? Is there a looming suspension on the horizon or is the player particularly injury prone? Did the player have a anomalous performance, good or bad, one that history suggests he won’t reproduce? And yes, especially in the dynasty format, is this just a player that I love to have on my team even at the expense of a slight loss in appg. (who isn’t guilty of this at least once?). The goal here is to be as objective as possible and with a very mindful (there’s that word again) approach to why a player is being moved. The end result is now your final list of linear rankings that are ready to be tiered.
Creating your tier lines won’t always be easy. A couple thoughts here to help make the process easier for you. Firstly, this isn’t rocket science and regardless of how much work you put into your list and your tiers, there are going to be players that will substantially outplay their tier, either way – it’s an approximation exercise. Secondly, don’t think you need to have twenty tiers. I’ve found that about seven tiers, give or take depending on the year, makes for enough of a breakdown. Lastly, there is no set point differential that you HAVE to use for separating your tiers. For myself, I tend to use a 1 ppga. differential AFTER my first tier. I say “after” because although Roddy White’s appg. was 20 last year, I will not have him in a tier by himself away from players like Calvin Johnson (17.75) simply because he is greater than 2 points better in the appg. category. There is enough point variability in highly tiered players such that Calvin Johnson is as attractive as Roddy White this next year and he’s deserving of sharing the top tier with him.
When surveying your list, many of the appg. differential tier lines will be obvious and easily drawn. Others will take more effort and not be so clear. Again, don’t sweat the decision when drawing the line. The goal here is to have the lines drawn that loosely tier the players within the position so that you understand the depth of the list at particular points during the draft. The tiering excercise helps to uncover players that you may, otherwise, not rank appropriately.
How do I use this list during the draft?
We are all creatures of habit and open to influence. We’ve all experienced those drafts where you select a particular player at a particular position only to see a run start in another position immediately following your pick. It’s easy to get caught up in the flurry of activity as one player after another is coming off the board, drawing down the talent within that position. This is where your tiers pay dividends. As you are crossing off players upon their selection, you are surveying your tiers towards determining who is left and the depth of the tier of those remaining. If players are coming off the board in your Tier 3 and you still show a Tier 2 player remaining, your choice is likely made. However, if a run has started on a position, exhausting the players in a tier, there may be no need to rush a pick within the same position if the following tier is showing plenty of talent available. A quick bit of math in determining the number of picks before your next selection and logistics towards determining the likelihood of certain positions being taken will greatly aid you in determining whether you can pass on a particular player and address another need or that you do, indeed, need to make the selection because you don’t want to be left out.
Over time, you’ll come to see the tiers without even having to go through the exercise (although I still do) and creating them will just be part of your normal pre-draft routine. You’ll also begin to understand the point differentials and depth at certain positions. Mid-tier wide receivers and quarterbacks offer little advantage. Almost all defensive players outside of the top tier or two provide little advantage over each other and rarely offer significant point differential such that can be determined at draft time. Miss out on the top running back tier and you are playing from behind in many cases right out of the gate. This is why running backs go so highly in drafts.
Tiering works as a way of surveying the depth of scoring available at different points during the draft. Through their use you can make more informed decisions in building your team. Remember that when going head-to-head with another fantasy coach, it’s important to have point differential advantages at as many positions as possible. Luck and circumstance will take care of the rest.
You can find Jeff on Twitter at @dlf_jeff