NFL Fantasy: Eliminating draft day tears with tiers

We’ve all been there in the later rounds of our NFL fantasy drafts. Lots of names... no one sticks out… until it’s too late.

In a typical year, I participate in a handful of NFL fantasy leagues and meddle in weekly games. I participate in 20-30 mock drafts in preparation for the big day. But no matter how much I practice, the draft deals me a panic moment. 

Last year was no exception. As I waited to make my eighth pick, the two names I was bent on selecting were called by the teams directly ahead of me. I needed another player! I glanced at my notes and compared my lists to who was available. It seemed every player had good and bad points. The clock was ticking… names started running together. I was sure the two-minute clock started at one-minute for me. I didn’t see any name that stood out… until right after I picked. 

As the draft announcer told everyone I picked a mid-range wide receiver, I saw the name of my best-bet sleeper running back still on the board with only one other “name” RB ahead of him. There would be 14 selections made before I got back on the board. He was gone. 

What happens

There are two NFL fantasy draft day scenarios that confuse our brains, even after weeks of reading RealSport for every minute piece of information. The first is that our top choices come off the board right before we are going to pick them. Every mock draft had that guy available in the third round… but now he’s not! When that happens, we spend too much time trying to figure out what happened instead of immediately looking for another option. 

The clock continues to wind down as we analyze what went awry, robbing ourselves of important time to make another selection. When we finally start looking at the rest of the board, our two-minute clock is already at 1:20 or less, leaving us rushed and guessing. 

The other phenomenon that messes with our heads on draft day is “following the crowd”. This is what happens when we are set on drafting another wide receiver in round seven, but suddenly quarterbacks start flying off the board. Four more are gone in the last five selections. What if there are none left before your next pick? So, you blow up your draft strategy and panic-select Marcus Mariota. When your next round comes, three of your top-target receivers are gone and there are still viable quarterbacks to be had. 

“Tier” down your NFL fantasy draft!

Draft day panic can be done away with by using the tier system. It is a simple, but effective strategy. All it entails is assigning a level of quality to each position player on your board. Antonio Brown is better than John Brown, so he is assigned a higher tier. Doing this to each player gives you a quick perspective on what is happening during your draft and whether a change in strategy is warranted or not. 

Tiers reflect levels of importance, based on projected fantasy points and expected availability. Let’s look at the running backs. Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson are on a plane by themselves and occupy the top tier alone. The next tier includes first-rounders McCoy, Gordon, Freeman, and Ajayi. Then there is the third level consisting of RB1 consolation prizes (Murray, Howard, Gurley, Fournette). After that come the runners you’d rather have as your RB2 and so on. Running backs on my board covered 13 tiers through RB60. 

Wide receivers only have eight tiers in my draft board, which makes sense since there is little difference in the outputs among WR3 and WR4 players. After separating the receivers, plug your quarterbacks, tight ends and any defense you would consider picking before the last rounds. Separate them by position, but use the same tier or level. In other words, a DST1 might be on a tier with your WR5 and RB7. 

How does that help my NFL fantasy draft?

Imagine it is draft day and you have your tiers set up in front of you. The seven teams drafting ahead just picked wide receivers. You are tempted to grab a receiver before “the good ones” are all gone. But a glance at your tiers shows nine receivers left on that level, with only two running backs. 

This tells you there is a better chance a receiver of that value will be available for your next pick than a running back. Instinct may have told you to snag a receiver, but you confidently select your running back. Your pre-draft plan saved you from missing out on an important RB2. 

When your favorite target gets picked off the board, the tiers allow you a few seconds to moan before giving you the quick answer as to who to replace him with. 

The tier system also protects you from a third poor NFL fantasy draft strategy. Some folks pick all their starters before selecting backups. Others may pre-determine the round in which they should pick a QB or defense. But, it is better to pick the best player available. If your last fourth-tier running backs is still on the board with a lower-tiered TE, you need to take the RB4 first. The tight end will likely still be on the board later. If not, you know another tight end at that tier. 

Setting it up.

It doesn’t take much time to set up a tier system. I started with a projected NFL fantasy ADP list found via Google. (There are many!) I used the projected rounds from that list to populate my tiers. The projected round one started on the first tier, etc. Then, I compared that to my notes and added tiers to separate players further based on value. As explained above, the first round running backs occupy three tiers on my board.

Then I elevated a few reaches and sleepers I feel strongly about, circling them so I know they are sleepers. (A “sure thing” player should be picked before a sleeper on the same tier… in theory.)  

It took me an hour to set it up, although I have been tinkering with it since. It is worth the effort, especially if you will be working more than one draft board at a time like me. Take the time before the big moment this weekend to tier your draft selections. You’ll be the calmest owner at your NFL fantasy draft and look darned smart when your team takes the title!  

Do you use a tier system? Discuss in the comments below!

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Pat Opperman


Pat recently retired from real life to watch sports and write. Look for references to games and events from ancient times as memories of an earlier Age of Sport tend to pop into his head.