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Fantasy football 2014 draft strategies: Tiered player rankings

Fantasy Draft Primer: Best draft practices

Sports Illustrated's lead fantasy writer Michael Beller reveals his three rules to live by on draft day.

One thing we know about all fantasy football drafts is that there will be an element of unpredictability. All it takes is one or two rogue picks to send your draft hurtling in a direction that you did not expect. That’s why you have to head into any draft with a few strategies upon which you can rely. This week, we’ll take a look at certain strategies that can help you hoist the fantasy hardware in December. Some will pertain to specific draft slots, while others will apply regardless of where you fall in your draft. Our third installment falls into the latter category, discussing how tiered player rankings can prepare you for the unpredictable actions of others in the later rounds. Our previous installments covered the best course of action for owners with late first-round picks and targeting great offenses over great individual players.

FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:

More often than not, the toughest choices in a fantasy draft come when you’re choosing between two guys who play different positions. It’s relatively easy to decide if you like running back X or running back Y better. These two players will fill the same position on your team, and the nature of their on-field job is the same, making for an easy apples-to-apples comparison. It’s much harder when you need to make a choice between running back A and wide receiver B. Now you’re not simply deciding which player you think is better. You must also determine which player better fits your roster, and the domino effect that each player's selection would have on the rest of your draft. This makes things a whole lot trickier.

Luckily for fantasy owners, there is a way to make even these choices as close to apples-to-apples as possible, and it doesn’t require much of a tweak from your regular draft prep process. Every owner in your league will show up to the draft with a cheat sheet, ranking players at every position, and, likely, a set of overall rankings regardless of position. All you need to do to take your draft prep to the next level and make those position vs. position decisions as painless as possible is divide each position into tiers.

Breaking up your rankings into tiers will help you in multiple ways. First, you won’t be as rattled by curveballs as your leaguemates, especially in the middle rounds. For example, one mid-round player I like a lot this year is Torrey Smith. I think this is the season that both the yards and touchdowns are there for him and that he plays like a top-20 receiver. However, all it takes is one owner in my league to like him even more or to be better situated to grab him for me to miss out on a guy that I’ve been targeting all summer.

Without tiers, I might fall into a trap and force myself into taking the next wideout in my rankings, or I might end up ignoring the position for the time being and going in another direction. With tiers, however, I will have the understanding that there is a group of receivers being taken around Smith in a typical draft, including Jeremy Maclin and Emmanuel Sanders, with considerable upside. Thanks to tiered rankings, I’ll be able to quickly rebound from getting sniped for a guy I really wanted on my roster.

FANTASY FOOTBALL BREAKOUT CANDIDATES: AFC  | NFC

Second, tiers allow fantasy owners to easily find the best available players, rather than forcing themselves to take a player at a specific position. Again, let’s use missing out on Smith as our example here. He’s coming off the board early in the fifth round in an average 12-team draft, so by this point you will already have the foundation of your roster.

Let’s say that Smith was the last receiver in a tier, and the next one includes Maclin, Sanders, Brandin Cooks, Marques Colston, Sammy Watkins and Reggie Wayne. That gives me six options that I feel are all grouped closely together. Meanwhile, let’s say that Ben Tate and Stevan Ridley are the only players available in my top remaining running back tier before the position drops off to the next group. Rather than having to decide if the wide receiver Cooks is better than the running back Ridley, I can easily see that the best way for me to get a player in each of my top remaining tiers is to go running back first and wait on a receiver. I may not get my ideal choice at receiver, but I’ll get one in the same tier as my top guy while also getting the best running back remaining on my board.

POSITION PRIMERS:
QB | RB | WR | TE | K | DST

Finally, grouping players in tiers forces fantasy owners to focus on value. As has been said many times in this space, once Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are off the board, the next 10 to 12 quarterbacks could conceivably end the season in any order. Realistically, the second tier of quarterbacks could be 10 guys deep. However, Matthew Stafford, the No. 4 quarterback by average draft position, is coming off the board toward the end of the fourth round in a 12-team league. Andrew Luck, the quarterback with the fifth-highest ADP, is typically selected about 10 picks later. At the opposite end, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler and Tony Romo, the 11th, 12th and 13th quarterbacks off the board in a typical draft, have ADPs of 90.6, 94.9 and 98.2, respectively. Creating tiers will help you determine if Stafford in the fourth round or Luck in the fifth really makes more sense than Cutler in the eighth Romo in the ninth.

Fantasy debate: Would you rather have Percy Harvin or Roddy White?

Stafford’s ADP is on par with guys like Pierre Garcon, Roddy White, Ryan Mathews and Frank Gore. Luck is sharing a draft-day neighborhood with Shane Vereen, DeSean Jackson and T.Y. Hilton. Cutler and Romo, on the other hand, are coming off the board at the same time as depth backs and receivers like Devonta Freeman, Jeremy Hill, Rueben Randle and Dwayne Bowe. Knowing this allows us to make some elementary comparisons. Think about which of the following groups of players would you rather have:

Stafford/Freeman or Cutler/Mathews?
Luck/Bowe or Romo/Jackson?
Stafford/Randle or Cutler/White?
Luck/Hill or Romo/Gore?

I would rather have the second group each and every time, and that’s because Cutler and Romo are just not that far behind Stafford and Luck in terms of expected production, and both could end up ranked better at the end of the season than their higher-priced counterparts. Dividing players into tiers makes that, and a number of other seemingly impossible draft-day conundrums, much easier to figure out.

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