Fantasy Football Today - fantasy football rankings, cheatsheets, and information
A Fantasy Football Community!

Create An Account  |  Advertise  |  Contact      

Staff Writer
Email Mike

Mike's Articles

Tiers of Success

Boo-HooAs Dick Vermeil showed us, and more recently Michael Irvin, there is crying in football.

What about fantasy football? Is there crying in fantasy football? There's heartbreak, jubilation, frustration, good fortune, second-guessing, and hopefully at the end of the day, triumph. Tears? I've never shed a tear. (Swearing is a whole different story.) There is in fact, no crying in fantasy football. At draft time though, there are tears. I mean, Tiers. And these Tiers are going to set you up, with a little good fortune, on the path to triumph.

What Is Tiering?

Tiering is the concept of grouping players together on a cheatsheet who have similar projected performance. Since I wrote my first article about tiering back in 2004, many more people have written about it and it has become a commonly used strategy by fantasy players. However, that 2004 article is still the article I refer more people to than any other fantasy football article by a long shot. Why? Because obviously many people still don't know what it is, and Tiering is that good.

Grouping players converts an otherwise typical cheatsheet in which players are ranked 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. to one that shows where the significant drop-offs in performance are expected at each position. Tiering highlights that there are X number of players at a position in Tier 1 (the top tier), Y players in Tier 2 (next tier), etc. so you can judge whether a position has good quality depth, or not so good quality depth.

The significance of this should be obvious. Positions that have shallow depth, you need to go after earlier in your draft, or pay more for at auction. Positions where there is deep depth, you can wait on until later in the draft. Players in the same tier represent players who you should be more or less indifferent about. Of course everyone has preferences about players, but if I feel Jon Kitna is essentially a wash in points with Drew Brees, and Kitna can be acquired 2+ rounds later than Brees, I should be much better off having acquired Kitna. I've used the earlier picks when I passed on Brees, on better, higher tier players at other positions.

The end result? Again, this should be obvious: You will have a much stronger team to go battle with this season against your competition.

Creating Tiers

To create tiers, there are two steps. The first is purely mathematical. It involves calculating drop-offs based on the projected fantasy points that helped develop the initial player rankings on your cheatsheet. The second step is more subjective. It involves re-ranking some players after being pushed through the projections, based on risk, upside, etc., and also adjusting the tiers as you feel are appropriate, based on your own judgment.

For the mathematical step, the calculations are pretty straight forward. This is all automated in the Cheatsheet Compiler, but to do it yourself, all you need to do is decide on a number at which point you think there is a significant enough drop-off to warrant a new tier, deduct it from the projected fantasy points of the top ranked player at a position to calculate the Tier 1 lower limit, and draw a line under the last player who's projected fantasy points are within the lower limit. Then repeat the same process for the next tier, and the next, working down the rankings for each position.

In a typical standard performance scoring system (1 per 20 passing yards, 1 per 10 rushing or receiving yards, 4 to 6 points per TD) I find 20 fantasy points works well, or 1.25 fantasy points per game. Here is an example cheatsheet based on FF Today's default scoring. The Tiers are indicated by the dotted red lines using 20 fantasy points.

This looks pretty good before we even make any adjustments. Peyton Manning is in a QB class by himself, as is LaDainian Tomlinson amongst RB. For QB, Tier 2 is maybe a little wide. Typically people would have Bulger, Brees, Palmer and Brady separated from the others based on them having lower risk.

The RB after LT go into a group of 3: 20+ TD potential guys as Tier 2, another 3: all the tools but some uncertainty as Tier 3, and then a much deeper RB tier of 9 players who have been picked very interchangeably in the drafts I've looked at and participated in, as Tier 4.

There isn't a lot of consensus about the top receivers this year, other than thinking any of those first 6 could arguably land in the #1 WR spot. This is Tier 1 for WR. Then 8 WR make up Tier 2 who have generally been consistently good, followed up by a similarly deep Tier 3 where the players have a few more warts, like Chris Chambers, or concerns of being a one-hit wonder, like Marques Colston.

As for picking 20 as the magic number, there is not a hard rule on this because different fantasy scoring systems will yield different results. To assess what is right for you, pick a number like 20 and push the calcs. Then review the tiers and see if they provide a reasonable distribution of players as analyzed above. Can you reasonably make a case that the bottom guy in a tier has the same ballpark expectations for the season as the top guy in the same tier? Is there a noticeable drop in talent, opportunity, upside or risk from players in one tier to the next? If yes, then you likely have your tiers at or pretty close to where you want them.

Remember at this point you don't need to agree with where every single tier line falls. There can be some finessing if you like. In this case, I do think Tier 2 for QB is a bit wide. I'm going to cutoff the second tier between Kitna and Tony Romo. I'm also tempted to re-rank Rivers, Roethlisberger and Leinart ahead of Favre, and create a new tier between Leinart and Favre.

I like how the top 3 tiers are set out at RB. I disagree with Mike Krueger's projections of Travis Henry, thinking they are a bit low. I'm moving him up to the 11th spot on my sheet, McGahee 12th and Bush 13th, and mark a tier line under Bush.

The WR rankings I'm going to leave as is. Here is the revised cheatsheet:

Even after my adjustments, there will be some questioning of why, for example, Mark Clayton is not in the same tier as Larry Fitzgerald when there is only 3 fantasy points difference between them? That isn't the way to look at it. We don't focus our attention on the specific player names and fantasy points at this stage. I could have in fact taken the fantasy points out of this cheatsheet.

What we need to focus on now are the groupings of players. By accepting a tier line there, I'm saying there is a significant enough difference between expectations and risk of the players in Tier 2 (Fitzgerald's tier) and expectations and risk of players in Tier 3 (Clayton's tier) to warrant them being in separate groups.

Since these are my rankings, then I should be able to make similar assessments at each place I've marked a new tier. Now my tiered cheatsheet is complete, let's draft.

Theory Meets Reality

Here is a situation I faced recently in a keeper league draft. Marc Bulger is sitting all alone as a Tier 2 QB, while the RB position has been depleted down to players ranked in the 20s. I could use another RB. I don't have a starting QB either, but I usually love waiting on the QB position until late.

As tempting as it is to add potential TD machine Marion Barber here, relying on my tiers, Bulger is the pick. Taking Bulger now enhances the whole starting lineup much more than Barber or the other RB in his tier.

Bulger not only provides a clear advantage over the other teams in the league that still need to draft a QB, but also playing the odds, one of the RB could likely be available at my next pick. It may not be Barber, but the way my tiers are laid out, drafting Tier 2 QB + Tier 6 RB is clearly better than drafting Tier 6 RB + Tier 3 QB.

When you put tiering into practice, then you're going to apply that same analysis across all positions and with each pick. The overriding idea to keep in your head will be, draft from higher, shallower tiers, and wait on lower, deeper tiers. Note a player's Average Draft Position ("ADP") and estimate how the tiers should look (what players should still be available) at your next pick. Do all this, and making the right draft picks becomes much clearer.

One of the subtle advantages of tiering is that is forces you to stay flexible, rather than locking into drafting certain positions in set rounds. Staying flexible will help you react appropriately to the draft as it unfolds in front of you. You never know what curveball a draft or auction might throw at you. If an amazing value falls to you, tiering will identify it immediately, and having stayed flexible, knowing this is the best pick on the board, you will be sitting pretty. Much better than the guy next to you who just selected his 4th RB in his first 5 picks.


Tiering helps you pull as much value off the board as you can with each draft pick, which will ultimately result in building the best possible team. It removes the tendency to get locked into drafting certain positions at each pick, and instead helps you take a tactical approach to the draft making the best picks based on what is transpiring around you (other picks that are out of your control).

The decisions are not difficult. There are not any complex formulas you need to complete before proceeding further. The setup is straight forward and all done beforehand, so under typical live draft conditions you should have plenty of time to analyze your options, make your decision, and call out your pick.

At the end of the day, a draft or auction off a tiered cheatsheet will outperform a non-tiered positional cheatsheet, and almost certainly an overall ranking list. The drafter using tiers gets the most bang for his buck with each draft pick, while the drafter oblivious of the advantage of tiers is very likely overpaying for players as early as the 3rd round, and then paying for it in a cumulative effect throughout the draft as they fill in other positions on their roster. Take control of your draft. Tier it up, baby!