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.