I don’t like fantasy football rankings. I know this puts me in the minority, but I’ve never been a fan of pre-draft rankings because I feel it forces players into a level of rigidity that’s not good for a fluid event like a draft. All it takes is one person taking Cam Newton at #8 overall to torch your meticulously constructed rankings list and send the draft into chaos. I also think draft rankings trick players into filling each position instead of drafting the best possible team. What should you do if five quarterbacks go in the first three rounds?
That’s why I’m a big fan of the tier system, which @JamesSeltzer and @SigmundBloom discussed on the latest episode of BGN’s This Week In Fantasy. It’s better to group each position by talent level instead of throwing everyone into a rank-and-file numbered list. This takes a little emotion and irrationality out of the drafting process. Take the quarterback scenario I mentioned above: if Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers both go in the first round of your 12-team draft, how many other QBs need to fly off the board before you HAVE to take someone? Do you need to take Luck if Brees and Roethlisberger are gone in the second round?
Huge year inbound for Mr. Rodgers.
Think of the tier system as a fantasy football stop-loss order. It’s all about maximizing value while limiting losses. If you think your team needs a first or second tier QB to make up for other deficiencies, you’ll know how long you can let QBs run before taking one. If all the first and second tier QBs are gone, you know you don’t need to immediately draft Philip Rivers with your next pick. You want as many top tier guys as possible without reaching to build your juggernaut.
So let’s get into my tier system for this season, these are the rankings I’ll be using going into my two fantasy drafts this week. No defenses or kickers here either because if you think drafting defenses and kickers is a skill, I have some great real estate to sell you. And if you play in a money league and your draft is held before the 3rd week of preseason, you’re a monster. Just a monster. One personal note: I tend to rank the positions in order of importance as 1. WR, 2. RB, 3. QB, 4. TE. So if I have QB and WR spots open and there’s one top tier QB and one top tier WR left, I’m taking the WR)
(Note: these are in alphabetical order. So when you see Ezekiel Elliott listed before Todd Gurley, please don’t freak out. It’s a tier system.)
TIER ONE (Make Sure You Get At Least One Of These Guys)
Aaron Rodgers – Rodgers gets favorite target Jordy Nelson back, plus a lighter Eddie Lacy and a more athletic tight end in Jared Cook. Rodgers is going to have a MONSTER comeback season.
Cam Newton – Pretty obvious choice here, Cam is best running quarterback in the league and grew exponentially as a passer in 2015.
Adrian Peterson – AP’s first half in 2015 was significantly better than his second half, but he still led the league in rushing and found the end zone 11 times. He’s 31 and the drop off is coming soon, but he’s still a top tier running back.
David Johnson – Johnson won’t get the carries AP and Gurley get, but he more than makes up for it with pass-catching ability. The 24-year old started only 5 games but still caught 36 balls on 57 targets and scored 12 total touchdowns. He’s the lead dog in Arizona now.
Ezekiel Elliott – Sorry Eagles fans, but you have to draft this guy if he falls. Zeke has looked great in preseason and runs behind the best RUN-BLOCKING offensive line in the league. He might be a step behind Johnson and Gurley, but he definitely belongs in the top tier.
Le’Veon Bell – This one I struggled with since his 3-game suspension is a huge drawback, but he’s a top tier performer when healthy and belongs in this spot. But one caveat – you’ll likely have to draft D’Angelo Williams a little earlier than you’d want.
Todd Gurley – He’s the entire Rams offense and he’s only 22. Another 1100 yard, 10 score season is the floor for Gurley and I think he surpasses both totals easily.
Allen Robinson – Yes, most of his TDs come in garbage time, but garbage time stats are beautiful in fantasy and Robinson had a ridiculous campaign despite only catching 80 of 151 targets. He’ll catch more than 80 if he’s targeted 150 times again this season (and he should be since the Jaguars aren’t good and will be trailing often).
AJ Green – He doesn’t get the respect he deserves because he’s a Bengal, but Green is consistently one of the best WRs in the league, both in ability and volume. He’ll get close to 200 targets this year if he and Andy Dalton play 16 games.
Antonio Brown – Yeah.
DeAndre Hopkins – Shouldn’t have to explain this one, but I will. Hopkins had an awful QB situation last year and still managed 111 catches on 192 target for 1521 yards and 11 TDs. Now he’ll at least get the same QB for 16 games with Brock Osweiler in Houston.
Julio Jones – Yeah again.
Odell Beckham Jr. – Not a bad consolation prize if you miss out on Brown and Jones.
Jordan Reed – The 1B to Gronk’s 1A, Reed is capable of huge games every week, but he needs to stay healthy.
Rob Gronkowski – Clearly the best fantasy tight end now that Jimmy Graham has been banished to Seattle.
TIER TWO (Get As Many Of These Guys As Possible)
Andrew Luck – Bumped down to tier two after his horrendous 2015 season, but Luck is too talented not to bounce back. He had 40 TD passes in 2014 with another 300 yards and three scores on the ground.
Ben Roethlisberger – He’s 34 now and has missed time in five of his last seven seasons, but Roethlisberger plays in a prolific offense and Antonio Brown is ALWAYS open. He should be close to 5000 yards and 30 TDs by the end of the year.
Drew Brees – Brees isn’t the same guy he was 5 years ago, but you know you’re getting about 5000 yards and 30 TDs from him too.
Russell Wilson – 2015 was the best year of Wilson’s career, setting new highs in passing yards (4024) and TD passes (34). He’ll also chip in 500 yards and a couple TDs on the ground. Could very well be in tier one next year if he duplicates his 2015 numbers.
Devonta Freeman – Last year’s “Out of Nowhere” fantasy stud, Freeman had 1000+ yards and 11 TDs despite only starting 13 games. Too small of a sample to shoot him into Tier One, plus Atlanta has a shaky offensive line and a good back behind him in Tevin Coleman.
Doug Martin – He burst back onto the scene in 2015 after two sub-par seasons, rushing for 1400 yards and 6 TDs on 288 carries. Tampa Bay finally has a quarterback defenses need to respect and Martin is reaping the benefits.
Eddie Lacy – He murdered your fantasy season last year if you had him, but Lacy lost weight in the offseason and seems rejuvenated. Having Jordy Nelson back also opens things up at the line of scrimmage.
Jamaal Charles – He was a Tier One guy before his ACL injury, but that’s not exactly an easy one to come back from for a 30-year old with 1300+ career carries. Charles is still a strong play, but his days in Tier One might be over.
Lamar Miller – Seeing him listed as a Tier One guy a lot this year. I’m not there with Miller yet- he’s yet to rush for 1100 yards in a season. However, he was criminally underused in Miami and catches a lot of passes out of the backfield. Tremendous upside here.
Let’s just ignore this play from Marshall
Alshon Jeffrey – Dealt with leg injuries all throughout 2015, but he played a full 16 games in 2013 and 2014 and had 80+ catches in both years. If healthy, he’s a stud.
Amari Cooper – Put up 1070 yards as a rookie, but only caught 72 of 130 targets. If he can improve his catch rate (and I think he will), could be another breakout candidate.
Brandon Marshall – Marshall put up an astounding 1502 yards receiving last year and scored a career-high 14 TDs. With Ryan Fitzpatrick! Marshall now has 1200+ yard seasons with 3 different QBs and he’s played the full 16 games in four of the last five seasons. He’s unlikely to repeat last year’s numbers, but with a better QB, he’s Tier One.
Dez Bryant – He was a Tier One guy until Romo’s latest injury. Now Dez is a question mark with Dak Prescott taking over for at least the first half of the season. Lots of volatility here, I wouldn’t depend on him as your only Tier One or Two wideout.
Jordy Nelson – He’s Aaron Rodgers favorite target and a lock for 1400 yards and double-digit TDs if he’s healthy. He tore his ACL in training camp last season, so he’s had a full year of recovery. Draft him without fear.
Keenan Allen – Led the league in receptions before getting hurt about halfway through the season. He’s back healthy with Travis Benjamin drawing defenses away from him on the other side. He’ll likely go later than he should.
Mike Evans – Pay no mind to the three measly TDs he caught last year, Evans is a solid fantasy starter poised for a breakout season he as improves his chemistry with sophomore QB Jameis Winston. He’ll grab at least 10 scores with 1200+ yards.
Sammy Watkins – Watkins had 1047 receiving yards and 9 TDs despite missing three games. He improved his catch rate by 12% last season and is one of the game’s best home run hitters. He’ll break 1200 yards if healthy.
Delanie Walker – Marcus Mariota’s favorite target. Walker had nearly 100 catches last season and topped 1000 yards for the first time in his career.
Greg Olsen – Back to back 1000 yard seasons puts Olsen into the level of elite tight ends. He’s got a clear rapport with Cam Newton and hasn’t scored fewer than 5 TDs since his rookie season in 2008.
Travis Kelce – Two years as a starter, two years with 800+ yards and 5 TDs. He’s consistent, which is what you want in the TE spot.
TIER THREE (Fill Out Your Starting Rotation With These Guys)
Blake Bortles – He benefits from a lot of prevent defenses, but Bortles had 4428 passing yards and 35 TDs last season. Throw in another 300 on the ground and he’s not a bad option as a starter, but beware the turnovers.
Carson Palmer – He had a career year in 2015 with 35 TDs and 4671 passing yards. At age 36! He’s probably due for a drop off, but still a great option in one of the league’s best offenses.
Philip Rivers – He’s good for 4000 yards and 30 TDs, like he always is.
Tom Brady – The four-game suspension is the only reason he isn’t Tier One. Steal him late if you can.
Jeremy Hill – Part of the Bengals two-headed monster, Hill gets the goal line carries but doesn’t catch many passes.
Jeremy Langford – He’s the lead back with Matt Forte in New Jersey and he looked impressive while filling in for him last year. Could have Tier Two upside.
Jonathan Stewart – The top back in Carolina, but Cam Newton steals a lot of his goal line chances.
Latavius Murray – Had a disappointing 4.0 yards per carry as Oakland’s lead back last year. If the volume dries up, he’s not even worth starting.
The Shady of 2013 is long gone.
LeSean McCoy – Shady will get a higher percentage of touches with Karlos Williams gone, but his average YPC is 4.3 in the last two seasons. His days as a top fantasy back are over, but he’s still involved enough to be a starter.
Mark Ingram – He’s a solid back, but New Orleans doesn’t run the ball enough and he’s missed games in each of the last three seasons.
Matt Forte – Nearly all of his value comes in catching passes. His 4.0 YPC average over the last two seasons hasn’t done much to inspire and he’ll likely be in a timeshare in New Jersey.
Thomas Rawls – He exploded onto the scene with Marshawn Lynch out in Seattle, but he only played in seven games and likely will be in a timeshare as well. There’s Tier Two potential here should he steal the starting job in Seattle.
Brandin Cooks – The undisputed #1 WR in New Orleans now, but he only topped 100 receiving yards four times last year. Brees always spreads the ball, so there will be weeks where Cooks has a stinker.
Demaryius Thomas – He’s a Tier One talent, but that quarterback situation is a nightmare. He’s relegated to Tier Three until Denver sorts out that mess.
Golden Tate – The beneficiary of Megatron’s retirement, Tate will probably see the end zone more than six times now.
Jarvis Landry – You could argue he’s a Tier Two guy in PPR since he’ll catch 100 balls, but he doesn’t score and averages a weak 9.9 yards per catch.
Jeremy Maclin – Numbers dropped off a bit going from Chip Kelly to Andy Reid, but he’ll get his 1000 yards and 80 catches.
TY Hilton – We’ll see if getting Andrew Luck back improves Hilton’s status, but he’s too boom-or-bust to put any higher than this.
Antonio Gates – Old reliable had another 600+ yard, 5 TD season last year, but his number of targets decreased for the third consecutive year. Still a starter, but not the dynamic force he once was.
Colby Fleener – Drew Brees likes his tight ends. A lot.
Gary Barnidge – Came out of nowhere to catch 79 passes for 1043 and 9 TDs in an awful QB situation. He won’t repeat those totals, but he should be a favorite target of Robert Griffin.
Zach Ertz – His catch and yardage numbers have increased every year and he’ll definitely score more than twice his year.
Martellus Bennett – Yes, he’s not even the starter on his own team, but nobody uses two-tight end sets like the Pats. Bennett will get his targets in New England’s offense.
TIER FOUR (Rotational Guys / Spot Starters)
Cousins will have some 3 INT games this year.
Eli Manning – Occasionally remembers his last name is Manning and has a big game.
Jameis Winston – He’s going to be a good fantasy quarterback soon, but I don’t think that’s this year. Still will throw for a lot of yards.
Kirk Cousins – You don’t believe in Kirk Cousins? Me neither.
Matthew Stafford – Even without Megatron, he’ll throw for 4000 yards.
Marcus Mariota – Same as Winston, only with more running potential.
Tyrod Taylor – Has Tier Three upside, but needs to make it through a season healthy first.
Carlos Hyde – Chip Kelly offense means more touches for Hyde, but health is a concern.
Danny Woodhead – Doesn’t run much, but catches a ton of passes and scores close to 10 TDs a year. Much better in PPR.
Giovani Bernard – Handles the pass-catching duties in Cincy’s running back timeshare, but rarely finds the end zone.
Jay Ajayi – I think he eventually gets the top spot in Miami’s backfield, but he’s got to fight off Arian Foster.
Matt Jones – Lots of upside as the Redskins lead back, but only averaged 3.4 yards per carry in 2015.
Melvin Gordon – Gets most of the carries in San Diego, but Woodhead takes a lot of his targets. He will score this year!
Ryan Mathews – He’s a great running back, but a lock to miss at least four games.
Allen Hurns – Disappeared down the stretch last year, but he plays on a team that’s always trailing so he’ll get his targets.
Desean Jackson – Fantasy’s version of Russian Roulette.
DeVante Parker – Finished 2015 strong with four 80+ yard games in his final six.
Donte Moncrief – Hopefully he can reconnect with Andrew Luck because his name is very fun to say.
John Brown – They spread it around in Arizona, but Brown is the home run hitter.
Jordan Matthews – Sam Bradford has to throw to somebody.
Julian Edelman – Still the #1 wideout in New England, but not sure what you can expect from him until Brady gets back.
Larry Fitzgerald – Big bounce back season last year, but he’s 33 and no longer the Fitzgerald of my 2008 NFC Championship Game nightmares.
Kelvin Benjamin – Had 1008 yards and 9 TDs as a rookie in 2014, but coming off an ACL tear.
Randall Cobb – His one-year tryout as Green Bay’s top receiver was disastrous.
Stefon Diggs – Not a believer in Teddy Bridgewater just yet, but Diggs should get 1000 yards in that offense.
Tier Five (Desperation Plays and Guys To Stash)
Andy Dalton, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan – I wouldn’t start any of these guys unless they’re playing the Jaguars or Browns
Ameer Abdullah, Arian Foster, Chris Ivory, Derrick Henry, Duke Johnson, Frank Gore, Shane Vereen, Tevin Coleman, TJ Yeldon – these guys could have value once injuries and ineffectiveness alter their respective teams’ depth charts, but right now they’re fairly useless. Derrick Henry probably has the highest upside since Demarco Murray is more cooked than Thanksgiving dinner.
Doug Baldwin, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Jaelen Strong, Marvin Jones, Michael Crabtree, Sterling Shepard, Torrey Smith, Tyler Lockett – Some rookies, some bad QB situations, some guys on new teams, and one guy who I’m pretty sure had the flukiest receiving season ever (looking at you, Mr. Baldwin). If you have to start one of these guys, make sure they have a good match-up.
Ben Watson, Eric Ebron, Eric Rudolph, Jared Cook, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, Ladarius Green, Zach Miller – Green is an interesting name if he’s healthy, but that’s a huuuuuge if right now. Everyone else here is basically dependent on find the end zone to have a good fantasy week, so insert into your lineup with caution.