How to Tier Your Player Rankings for a Fantasy Football Draft Day Cheatsheet

Tiering your cheatsheet is, in my opinion, the most critical of all draft day preparations you can make before your fantasy football season.

Sure, you can read injury reports all day long. That helps. No one wants to draft a guy on IR. But the real edge to draft a better team than the other obsessive football fans in the room is your ability to identify — quickly and quietly — the most valuable pick left on the board.

In the heat of the moment, we often lose sight of where players have been missed. You’re looking ahead to decide when you can draft a quarterback…or maybe you’re focused on following your RB-RB-RB strategy for the first three rounds. That’ll keep you from noticing a WR1-level fantasy wide receiver falling into the third round, ripe for your picking.

Worst of all, if you don’t have a consolidated rankings sheet, you might miss out on a top-tier wide receiver simply because your wide receiver rankings were underneath your quarterback and running back rankings when it was your pick.

Regardless of the reason, you can only blame yourself for not tiering your cheatsheet if you miss out on draft day bargains.

It’s been a few years since I visited the topic, and in prepping for 2011, I thought it’d be worthwhile to revisit the best way to tier your player rankings  for your fantasy football draft.

Step 1, Start with rankings you like.

I don’t care if you prefer the rankings or projections from ESPN, NFL.com, Fleaflicker, or Yahoo!. What matters is that you’re comfortable with the rankings you choose.

I often prefer to start with aggregate or consensus fantasy football draft rankings from sites like FantasyPros or Fantasy Football Nerd. These give you a good starting point since the outliers are reigned in a bit when averaged together.

But if you prefer to go with the player rankings or projections of just one man and one man only…that’s your call. More power to you. Go you — and him, whoever that analyst or blogger may be.

One note: It will be a huge help if you choose a set of rankings or projections that includes an average points per week or total points for each player, either based on last year’s fantasy football scoring, several years of scoring, or projected points for the current season. If you don’t, you’ll have to do a little more legwork in Step 2.

Step 2, Add an average point per game projection or total points projection to each player in your rankings.

Foreshadowing. See, if you read my note on Step 1, you already know what you’ll need to do for this step.

If you don’t have any kind of average projected points per week or total points projection listed for each player on your current cheatsheet, it’s time to go get that info. You can pull these total or per week averages from sites like FF Today, CBSSports, or ESPN.

If they don’t provide a per game average, you don’t have to drill down to it. But you can just divide the total projected points for the 2011 season by 16. There are, after all, 16 games in an NFL season.

Step 3, Separate your rankings by position, if they aren’t already separated.

Pulling out just the running backs and just the quarterbacks into one ranking column will help you when you start locking in your tiers.

Step 4,  Adjust your rankings to your liking.

Now that you have your list, it’s time to make it your own.

With a points total or average attached to each player, start modifying those points as you see fit. Here’s where your research comes into play.

Upgrade the players who will excel, and downgrade the players that won’t meet expectations.

If your points total or average is based on a player’s performance in previous seasons and especially if it’s based off just the last season, be sure to update it based upon offseason moves and team system adjustments. If you like Matt Hasselbeck more as a Titan than a Seahawk, for example, make sure you adjust his point total accordingly.

Furthermore, if you’re player points are based off projections for the current season, feel free to bump them higher or lower depending on how you feel about players. Just be realistic. Micheal Vick will NOT score 500 points in a single season.

Look at a player’s schedule for the upcoming season, estimate the number of points they could realistically score, total those estimations up, and divide by 16 to get your average. You, of course, don’t have to adjust this for every player, but feel free to do so for the ones you feel are under  or over-projected.

Once you have your average points per game or total points has been adjusted for each player, sort by your projections and then adjust your rankings some more based on rankings alone.

You don’t have to be as rigid with the stat adjustments here. Spot a player a point or so to their per game average or 4-5 total points for a full season projection when you feel like they should move up a couple of spots in the rankings.

But like I explained when talking about adjusting projections, be realistic. Crazy cheatsheets make for a crazy draft.

Step 5, Tier it up!

It’s time to start assigning players to tiers. Look at your average points per game projections and start dividing whenever there’s a significant difference.

For example, you’ll probably section off all the quarterbacks averaging more than 17 points per game in your projections into your first tier. Then you might make those quarterbacks scoring between 17 and 15 points per game your second tier.

Just look for the significant breaks and run down your list. You want to have a few tiers of top players at each position, but leave everyone averaging 5 points or less in the final tier.

Step 6, Align your tiers

So you’ve got your players segmented by position, but how do you know when to take a quarterback in your second quarterback tier over a receiver in your top, or first, wide receiver tier?

Look at the tiers you’ve created and make the tier scoring universal across all positions. So, all of your players projected for 17 points per game or more would make up your top tier.

It’s okay to have one or no players from a particular position in a tier. For example, you might slot Aaron Rodgers as the only player in your top tier if you project him higher than anyone else at more than 19 points per game. That’s fine. Just make the tiers align as best you can.

(Bonus) Step 7, Tag your sleepers

You’re more of less done creating your cheatsheet at this point, but I do like to throw in this tip just for the more savvy drafters out there. Once you’ve got your tiered cheatsheet created, I usually go back and mark the players I feel are “sleepers” or undervalued at their current position.

I know we adjusted our projections and rankings in the previous steps to our liking, but if I feel one player in the third or fourth tier has the potential to be a top-tier player if circumstances break his way — Jonathan Stewart, for example, or Ben Tate — I’ll be sure to mark him as the one I want to look to draft in that tier.

If I like a guy more than a lot of experts, but I can’t reasonably increase his projected points enough to make him a second tier player, I’ll mark him as a priority for the third tier.

As long as you don’t go homer-happy, you can also take a second to tag your favorite players in each tier at this point since part of the fun of fantasy football is drafting the guys you REALLY wanted to draft.

Just make sure you use a different mark for favorite players than your sleepers. You’ll need to know the difference quickly when you’re making your picks.

Time to draft

When you’re finished creating this tiered cheatsheet, you’ll be able to see, in one quick glance, that four players projected to score 15 points per game or better are still available as your pick approaches in the middle of the third round.

And you’ll be able to use your tiers to determine position scarcity. For example, when it’s your pick and you see one second tier wide receiver and six second tier running backs remaining on your cheatsheet, you will be able to jump on that last second tier wide receiver knowing that one of the second tier running backs will make his way back to you.

Rather than panic during a run on tight ends and start looking only at your rankings for that position, you’ll continue to collect value and steal picks at higher tiers for other positions.

The value picks are the entire reason you tier your player rankings, and the tiers work wonders. Just give it a try.

Best Player Available Strategy

As far as your draft strategy goes, tiers work best when you go into your draft targeting the best player available in each round.

Let your need at QB, RB, or WR steer you when there are several players available at the same tier, but when there’s only one or two top-tier running backs left on the board, it’s time to draft them. Don’t let someone else capitalize on those value picks that fall to you.

Of course, you don’t want to draft five quarterbacks just because no one else was jumping on the second tier signal callers, but I might consider taking four receivers in my first six picks if they were the only players remaining in my first or second tier. Assuming your rankings system and projections are solid, you’ll be able to make deals to improve your running back or quarterback struggles once the season begins.

If you want to get tricky, you can also try tiers with the draft strategy I have used since 2009, my “cutting out the middle men from best player available” strategy.

As a final note, I always feel like I don’t have to say this, but just in case there are any first-timers out there, you should always know the scoring and roster rules of your league!

Some leagues restrict the number of quarterbacks you can keep on your roster or the number of running backs you can draft. You’ll need to know this to take full advantage of the best player available strategy without botching your draft.

When you’re ranking players and preparing your cheatsheet, keep in mind your league’s scoring rules and the value placed on each position.

So that’s how you tier your fantasy football draft cheatsheets. Any questions?

Leave ‘em in the comments, and if you’re lucky, someone amazingly intelligent will answer you. Otherwise, you’ll just get me.

A promising beginning for Colt McCoy? ESPN doesn’t think so.

Going up against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense is a tough task for any quarterback, but when you draw that challenge as the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns…and as your first NFL start…well, that’s nearly impossible. As such, ESPN has their doubts about Colt McCoy this week, not that you were thinking about starting him.

Colt McCoy (Cleveland Browns) Fantasy Point Projection of 2 on ESPN.com

I guess you could do worse in your first start...

With Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme injured (and, in Jake’s case, maybe even if he was healthy enough to take the field), McCoy is the best they’ve got. As a Longhorn, I’ll hope the best for the kid, but this debut might get ugly. Consider this your “McCoy’s potential as a starter in the NFL” open thread if you’d like to put your own opinion on record.

UPDATE: Since this screenshot was taken, ESPN has updated their projections to list Delhomme at 4 points, assuming he will get the start. McCoy has been downgraded to 0 points. Still, there’s a good chance this game falls on McCoy’s shoulders this weekend because Delhomme looked like half a man last week on his bum ankle.

Vince Young: Playoff Pickup or Passable Projections?

Sports Data Hub recently investigated the usefulness [SDH no longer has this online] of Vince Young for the rest of the season, but that analysis was optimistically given before his come-from-behind fourth-quarter drive for the win against the Cardinals. Those last-second heroics capped off a fantasy day that had him throwing for almost 400 yards.

If you watched VY doin’ work against the Cardinals, you might just be a believer now.

I’ll make no claims to being unbiased about Young. I’m a Longhorn, and thus have a higher level of respect for him and his abilities than the average NFL fan. That said, I’ve done the research and looked into what he might do during the fantasy playoffs thanks to an email from a reader (just like you).

Originally, I was asked to compare the potential of Kyle Orton and Vince Young as a matchup play during the fantasy playoffs, filling in from a more promising fantasy starter during his bad weeks.

I’m not sure what to think of Orton on his way back from an ankle injury, but his schedule comparison side-by-side with Young’s puts Young’s upside in perspective.

Orton fell off the charts last season when an ankle injury struck, which makes me want to avoid him, but he has been a solid backup fantasy quarterback for many teams this year. Against the Giants, the Broncos got it done by leaning on Knowshon Moreno, and that could continue to be the way they win.

Orton’s upcoming schedule looks a little rough at first sight…and again at second sight. The number in parenthesis is the opponent’s rank in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks from FF Today. Obviously, the lower the number, the more points they give to fantasy quarterbacks.

Orton – Week 13: @KC (4), 14: @IND (25), 15: OAK (21), 16: @PHI (17), 17: KC (4).

Young’s schedule is better, but can we count on him to deliver like he did against the Cardinals even in these cupcake matchups?

Young – Week 13: @IND (25), 14: STL (12), 15: MIA (6), 16: SD (26), 17: SEA (9)

Let’s drop Week 17, assuming that you play your championship game in Week 16, and average those ranks during the fantasy playoffs, Weeks 14-16. In this case, the lower number would indicate be a more favorable schedule.

Orton: 21
VY: 15

That’s enough of a difference for me to project that Young would be the better start through Week 16. You could argue that Orton is a more traditional passer and a safer pick, but I just think the upside is there for Young to succeed.

No, I wouldn’t want to be forced to rely on Young in a pinch. But if your starter has a terrible matchup in the playoffs, or if you just lost Kurt Warner or Ben Roethlisberger for an unknown amount of time, Young wouldn’t be bad playoff insurance. He may even be worth spot-starting in Week 14 against the Rams.

So there you go. Detailed analysis with the Longhorn bias held back. Hook ‘em.

Taking the Next Step: Matt Ryan Projections for 2009

Is Matt Ryan really all he’s cracked up to be this season?

I wasn’t much of a believer in the 2008 class of NFL quarterbacks. I even doubted that Matt Ryan would make it off the board among the top five picks, but I am sure the Falcons are glad they didn’t feel the same way. Ryan blossomed in his rookie season and drew comparisons to Peyton Manning by year’s end. Going into 2009, he’s got an enhanced set of weapons with Tony Gonzalez now in Atlanta and plenty of opportunity.

The obvious improvements in his game and the Falcons as a team have caused many fantasy football pros to raise him up as one of the future quarterback icons, and now drafters are taking him as a late QB1 selection — or sometimes far earlier than they should — expecting him to be a starting quality fantasy quarterback this year.

While there’s no denying that his rookie season was impressive, it’s hard for me to justify taking Matt Ryan as a starting fantasy quarterback with just one year under his belt and few multiple touchdown games to his name.

Tony Gonzalez’s late-season surge in Kansas City made him the top tight end in fantasy last season, but I don’t think he’ll carry that momentum right into his first season in Atlanta. The Falcons were a run-first team last year, and they’re not going to turn into Peyton Manning’s Colts just because they have a tight end who can catch. Atlanta will depend on Gonzalez’s blocking abilities to establish the run with Michael Turner before looking to pass with a mix of Roddy White, Gonzalez, Michael Jenkins, Harry Douglas and Jerious Norwood.

While Gonzalez will be the new “hot route” in Atlanta, a designation that made Roddy White one of the most targeted receivers in the NFL last season, the shift to Tony Gonzalez shouldn’t make the Atlanta offense significantly more productive in “hot route” situations. The move is more a knock to Roddy White’s value than anything else.

In 2008, Ryan was a marginal to poor fantasy starter. He made Roddy White look like a true fantasy stud, but Ryan’s 16 touchdowns throughout the season were not enough to keep him at the top of many lineups. The games in which he did score multiple touchdowns came against struggling defenses like the Packers, Raiders, Saints and Chargers, except for, surprisingly, one game against the Eagles where he had two touchdowns. In my mind, that makes him largely unproven facing the NFC and AFC East this season.

The one bit of reasoning that I can buy for being optimistic with Ryan’s projections is that Ryan could see a need to put more points on the board this season if the Atlanta defense, largely unspectacular last season, fails to keep games close. Turner’s power running might have to be put aside for more of a throw-happy, play-from-behind offense if that is the case, but that could also prove dangerous for Ryan and doesn’t promise that the offense will be successful.

In order to justify a QB1 role, Ryan would need to increase his touchdown totals and his yardage significantly. Despite his skills, Tony Gonzalez is unlikely to give Ryan the 75 yards and a touchdown he needs each game to do that. I see Matt Ryan finishing the year with just over 3000 yards and 20-25 touchdowns.

While Ryan makes for a promising and reliable QB2, I would not plan on taking him as your starting quarterback this season. He still has more to prove, and it would be unfair to him and his talent to expect it of him in just his second season.

Think Matt Ryan is the next big thing? As always, the comments are yours.

Brett Favre stays retired: What Good are Favre-less Vikings

Brett Favre isn’t going to save the Purple People Eaters and their Purple Jesus. So what? Favre wasn’t going to have a large fantasy impact on the team this season anyway. To prove my point, let’s take a look at all the purple players affected in this one.

Adrian Peterson, RB
Well, it would have been nice for Brett Favre to come in and scare defenses away from stacking the box against ol’ “All Day,” but the scare would have come at a price. Favre would have turned the Vikings into more of a passing team — taking away a few of Peterson’s opportunities. In the past, A.P.’s proven to be one of the running backs in the NFL that needs a fair amount of carries to get going each game at his full potential, and any reduction in carries might have been detrimental to his production over the course of the season.

Inevitably, Favre would have turned the ball over more as well, which would take away some of the drives Peterson might have scored on with a more conservative quarterback — read: not a gunslinger — calling the shots. Peterson fumbled enough last season on his own. He doesn’t need another player on the team to kill more drives.

It’s hard to determine how much of a trade off Favre’s presence would have been for Peterson’s fantasy point total, but I believe A.P. comes out better with Sage Rosenfels scaring defenses but still giving A.P. plenty of chances to run.

Bernard Berrian, WR
Sure, it would have been nice for Berrian to finally have one of those big arms to throw him the ball. Berrian is a speedster who has never really had a quarterback that could hit him consistently. But Favre isn’t the only guy who can throw it. Sage Rosenfels was the new guy in town before the Favre saga began anew.

As long as Sage beats out Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job, which is likely, he’s shown the ability to lead long scoring drives in Houston and hit his wideouts deep consistently. The only danger is that Rosenfels can suffer from the same “Captain Turnover” mentality that could sometimes get the best of Favre, but, at this point in their careers, I’d rely more on Sage’s accuracy than Favre’s. Sage will only get the starting call if he proves he can take care of the football for Minnesota.

Percy Harvin, WR/RB
Favre’s absence doesn’t change the fact that the Vikings have one of the more versatile players in the game at their disposal. Much like Berrian, Favre might have advertised more readily that the Vikings could hit Harvin deep, but I think Rosenfels will have just as much success if he takes the reigns in Minnesota.

Harvin is unaffected — Favre or no Favre — and Harvin’s presence on the field could open things up for Adrian Peterson more than Favre’s arm could.

Sidney Rice, WR
A sleeper wide receiver for the past two seasons, Rice is still developing into what he could become in the NFL. As a big-target wide receiver, Rice could have benefited from Favre’s knack for throwing the ball in the red zone rather than just handing it off to Adrian Peterson, but there’s nothing stopping Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson from taking advantage of Sidney Rice’s ability just the same.

Rice is probably the only player who looks less promising without Favre in-house, but that’s mostly because many are still waiting to see what he is capable of in this Vikings offense. Any of several factors could lead to him stepping up in the passing game or disappearing for a few more years.

Visanthe Shiancoe, TE
Brett Favre’s country charm might have convinced Shiancoe to keep more clothes on when the news cameras are around, but otherwise, Shiancoe’s not any better with Favre around. Tarvaris Jackson, surprisingly enough, made him into a legit star last season, but Rosenfels is capable of doing just that or more.

In fact, Shiancoe actually might have been more limited if Favre was starting for the Vikings because he might have been tasked with staying in and blocking more frequently for the less mobile veteran.

Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson, QBs
Obviously, these two guys benefit because they actually get a chance to play. Let’s hope that all the Favre talk inspired them to work harder rather than deflating their confidence as they entered training camp.

Minnesota Vikings D/ST
No doubt, the Favre deal failure helps the Vikings defense and special teams because they are less likely to encounter sticky situations if the Vikings stay with their conservative, run-based offense and don’t get too crazy with Rosenfels or Jackson passing the ball.

Favre might have forced the ball into a gap from time to time that just didn’t exist, and that would have required the Vikings defense, as good as it is, to bail him out of a jam. No Favre-jams this season, Vikings fans.

Looking ahead at a Favre-less 2009

So all in all, I’d say it’s a pretty good deal that Brett Favre decided to stay retired for the Vikings’ fantasy football values. While his own stock would have been on the rise and Berrian and Sidney Rice might have perked up a bit at the sound of his Wrangler jeans, the rest of the Vikings couldn’t have expected much of a drastic shift from having Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson leading the team.

For the sake of the passing game, let’s hope that Sage secures the job now that Favre is out of the picture.