Fantasy Football Draft Help: Tiering vs. Value Based Drafting as a Strategy

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-- By Russ Bliss

Every year, I’m asked about the two most popular (and successful) ways to approach a fantasy football draft. Tiers? Or Value Based Drafting? Which is best? And if you’re new to fantasy football you’re probably asking yourself: “What are Tiers and what is Value Based Drafting?” I’m going to try to explain both here and hopefully keep it as simple as possible as it can get a bit complicated. Even if you’re a 20 year fantasy veteran, the explanation of how value based drafting is set up, and works, can be a nice tool to add to your fantasy football draft arsenal.

Before we get started, there is one prevailing theme though that crosses every different strategy, and that’s the creation of lists at each position. These lists are commonly referred to as fantasy football cheat sheets and they are a valuable tool for executing a successful draft no matter what strategy you may employ. Creating them is easy. You simply rank the players at each position and follow the rankings when drafting, crossing out the names of players as they get chosen. These lists will make sure you never forget about a player when it comes your turn to throw a name out. One very helpful thing to do when you create your cheat sheets is to make sure you’ve noted the bye week for each player next to his name. If you do this, you cut down on the chance you accidentally draft backups who share the same bye week as your starters. You’ll notice on the Tier sheets we provide here at Fantasy Football Starters, we’ve already included every player's bye week on the Tier sheets.

In order to create accurate cheat sheets though, you must understand your leagues scoring system. Some leagues use a combination of yardage and touchdowns. Others are just touchdowns. Some leagues give points for each reception, some don’t. Quarterbacks can be rewarded with 3, 4, or 6 pts for a touchdown pass. You may or may not get penalized pts for interceptions. Kickers might get bonuses for the length of their field goals. Defenses may either be rewarded or penalized based on the yardage they allow, or the points they allow. These differences in scoring systems will affect the rankings of players, sometimes dramatically. And if you play in multiple leagues, with different scoring systems, it’s likely that the cheat sheets for one league will look different from the cheat sheets of another.

The first Draft Strategy I’m going to go over is Tiering.

Tiering is a draft strategy where you lump players into “tiers”. These tiers are groups of players at each position who will all likely finish the regular season with about the same amount of fantasy points. For example, you think there are 2 RB’s (Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster) who are clearly at the top of the class. You’ve decided that both of them stand a good chance of being the number 1 fantasy RB and that both will likely finish very close to each other in the amount of points they’ll score for the year. You would tier these 2 RB’s together on your RB cheat sheet in tier number 1.

You would then create the next tier using the names of the RB’s you feel are just behind the first tier. Maybe you believe they are another 4 RB's who are just below Peterson and Foster. So you put them (let's say they are Ray Rice, Doug Martin, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles) all in RB Tier 2. You keep grouping players into these tiers of projected fantasy points until you’ve exhausted all the names on your RB cheat sheet. Then you do it at every other position.

Now tiers are used the same way cheat sheets are used. You take them to your draft and cross off or highlight the names as they get picked. The object of tiering positions is to make sure you take players from the highest tier when you go to draft someone at that position. For example, it’s round 4 of the draft and it’s your pick. You’ve gone RB’s in the 1st 3 rounds and decided you want to take a WR. Looking at your tier chart, you notice that one player from tier #4 has been taken, but there are still 2 guys left in tier #3 at the position (and none in tiers 1 and 2). You would take one of the guys from tier #3. Which one is totally up to you. When choosing from multiple players in a tier group take other factors into consideration. What are their bye weeks? Are you taking a WR from the same team as one of the RB’s you took? Who has the more favorable schedule the weeks of your league’s playoffs? When you’ve answered those questions, you should have a clear idea of which one of the two players to select. Even if the name is listed lower in that tier, you’ve still projected that you’ll get about the same amount of points from either one so where a name is in a tier doesn’t matter.

Now, tier groups at each position do not correspond to tier groups from other positions. There is no definitive point where the top tier of one position becomes more valuable than a lower tier at another position. The tiers for each position are independent from each other. It is up to you to decide whether the second tier of QB’s is more important than the fourth tier of RB’s, or the third tier of WR’s.

Also, Tier groups have NOTHING to do with what round you should be taking someone. You can easily go through every name in RB Tier’s 1, 2, 3, and maybe even 4 before the first round is completed. The number of a tier group does not correspond to a draft round value.

It is also important to recognize when a tier group is about to “close” (when all the names in that tier are going to be crossed off). Let’s say you’re in a 12 team league and drafting 10th. It’s the 5th round of a serpentine style draft. You know that there will be 4 picks after yours before you pick again. You still need your starting QB, but could also use a decent 3rd RB. You look at your tiers for those two positions and notice that in tier group #3 for QB’s, there are still two names left in it. On the RB list, there are 2 names left in tier group #4. One of the teams picking after you already has drafted a QB. It’s a safe bet that he isn’t going to take a backup QB with his picks this early. That means only one QB is likely to be selected, and therefore you’re still going to be able to get one of the two left in QB tier #3 with your next pick. Having deduced this you know to take one of the 2 RB’s from tier group #4 in round 5.

The essence of Tiering is that the names of the players are insignificant. It’s the point production of the tier group that matters.

There are no limits to how many names (or how few) can be in a tier at any position. You can have a tier with only one name it, or you can 20 names in it. Just be realistic when creating them. If historically, there are 6-8 WR’s who score about 100 points in your league, you’ll only want 6-8 names in that tier. Putting 12 names in there will lead to mistakes. Usually, there are fewer names in the higher tiers than at the lower tiers. This is reflective of the fact there are only so many Stud and high quality players who score a lot of fantasy points, but a bunch of players who finish the season with roughly the same amount of mediocre fantasy points.

One of the strengths about Tiering is that it can be used in conjunction with many draft tactics. You can use tiers to execute a RB Heavy draft. You can use tiers to execute the Stud WR draft tactic. Another strength is that tier lists are easy to create, especially if you’re working from a pre-existing rank of players. The weakness of Tiering is that despite calculating that you’re getting about the same amount of points from players in a tier, that little anticipated point differential can be the difference in winning and losing a close game during the season. After all, who hasn’t lost a game by a single point? And while Tiering doesn’t necessarily mesh with the idea of Value Based Drafting (or VBD), the tiers you’ve created can be based on the root principal of Value Based Drafting, which is Average Value Theory.

Now let’s turn our attention to another popular draft strategy, Value Based Drafting. VBD is a draft strategy that uses a point system designed to ensure you always are taking the player with the most value every round. Sounds reasonable enough, right? VBD point assignments are most accurately projected using a method known as Average Value Theory (AVT). I say “most accurately” because there are a lot of places that seem to assign any old numbers they like to fill out a player projections.

Did you know that in an average year about 15 to 17 RBs will reach 1,000 yards rushing or more, and that only about 9 to 12 RBs will score 10 or more combined (rushing and receiving added together) TDs? This isn’t my opinion, this is statistical fact. In 2007 there were 17 RBs who rushed for over 100 yards and 9 who scored 10 or more TDs. In 2008 there were 16 RBs who rushed for over 1,000 yards and (here is the one anomaly) 17 RBs who scored 10 or more TDs. In 2009 it was 15 and 12. In 2010, it was 17 and 9. In 2011 it was 15 and 11. In 2012 it was 16 and 9.

Why do I bring this up? I do it because many of the magazines and Internet sites out there will project many more players than this average to have 1,000 rushing yards or more, or score 10 or more total touchdowns. Every year almost every magazine and Internet site that shows projected stats for the players will list at least 23 RBs who they project to rush for over 1,000 yards and at least 15 who are projected for 10 or more touchdowns. Check it out yourself.

That’s why, to be accurate in a Value Based Draft assignment, the best way to come up with them is thru Aberage Value Theory. In AVT, every position’s rank number has an assigned point value to it. These assigned point totals are derived from the average total points scored by the player who finished in that ranking spot over the past three years. For example, let’s say last year the top scoring QB using your leagues scoring system (and remember, the name of the QB who produced those stats is irrelevant, it’s simply the QB who finished #1 in point total last year in your league, you’ll be adding the name of the player you think this should be later) but the total fantasy points he produced was 472. The year before, the top scoring QB (and again, the name doesn’t matter, it’s the point total that matters, as it’s likely it wasn’t the same QB) produced 439 fantasy points. The year before that, the top scoring QB produced 463 points. You simply add up the three totals (472+439+463= 1374) and then divide that number by three. Now, a quick side note here: there are variations using more complex percentages to get the AVT number, like 50% last year, 30% two years ago, and 20% three years ago, that you can use instead but for this example, I’m keeping it simple. When you divide 1,374 by 3, you get an “average” number of 458 fantasy points scored by the top QB. And that’s what you can roughly expect from the top scoring QB again for the upcoming season. Now, you do this for all players at every position. I know this sounds like a very time-consuming process, and it is the first time you do it. But it gets easier in subsequent years as you already have 2 of the 3 year’s numbers figured out.

After you have achieved the AVT numbers for all ranks within a position, you then set up a “benchmark” number at each of the positions. This is usually derived by taking the amount of teams in your league and multiplying that number by the number of players at each position you’re required to start every week. Again, there can be variations to the formula if you want to place greater importance to having depth at a position like RB, but for simplicity sake, we’ll stick with the basic number of teams multiplied by the number of starters formula.

Let’s say you play in a 12 team league, and you’re required to start 1 QB, 2 RB’s, 3 WR’s, 1 TE, 1 K, and 1 Defense. You would multiply each positions number of starters by 12 to achieve where to set the benchmark. At QB, it would be at the QB ranked 12th. At RB, it would be the RB ranked 24th, at WR 36th, etc. You then take that position rank’s AVT number and subtract it from every other rank’s AVT # within that same position. If the QB ranked 12th has an AVT number of 298. You subtract 298 from all other QB’s to attain a Value Based Drafting number (or VBD number). That 12th ranked QB will have a VBD number of 0 (as 298-298= 0). A top ranked QB with an AVT number of 458 would have a VBD number of 160 (458-298= 160). QB’s ranked 1-11 will have positive VBD numbers, while QB’s ranked 13th and lower will have negative VBD numbers.

After you’ve done that at every position, you then assign your rankings of players to each rank at that position. Let’s say you rank the QB’s Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan 1-5. Rodgers would have a VBD # of 160, Brees would have (and I’m just pulling numbers out of hat here) a VBD number of 157, Brady 142, Manning 136, and Ryan 129. You do that for all players, and eventually you’ll have VBD cheat sheets for your draft. By having figured out the VBD numbers, you then use these sheets to make sure you’re acquiring the best value player with every draft pick.

There are various theories of how to execute a Value Based Draft. You can go strictly by the point totals regardless of position, thusly always acquiring the most total points. This is usually done by creating a Top 100 list of players ranked by their VBD number regardless of position. Some people will draft the highest ranked player from such a Top 100 list in each round regardless of position or team needs. The downfall of that is that you might be acquiring an exceptionally strong overall team with a great bench, but because you took two higher ranked QB’s early, you possibly skipped over a better starter at another position than the one you drafted later. You can also execute the “Get Your Starters First” theory of drafting by using VBD to fill out your starting roster before drafting any backups. You can use a modified version of Starters First by including the drafting of one backup RB and WR before going strictly by the VBD numbers the rest of the way. This prevents you from blindly following the Starter’s First theory at the sacrifice of at least one quality bench player at those two positions.

Another way to execute a Value Based Draft is to not just take the player with the highest VBD number regardless of position, but rather cross compare positions to determine where the better value is at when it’s your turn to draft. For example, let’s say it’s round 5 and you’ve got the 10th pick in that 12 team league we used as an example earlier. You’ve already drafted 2 RB’s, and 2 WR’s. You’re thinking about either your third starting WR or your starting QB. You look at your VBD sheets and see that the highest rated QB has a VBD # of 88. Your highest rated WR has a VBD # of 99. One of the team’s picking after you has yet to take a QB either so you can assume he might pull the trigger on one. The most WR’s that will get drafted is 4, but you’re assuming that probably no more than three will be taken before you pick again the next round. You consult your VBD cheat sheet and see that the next highest rated QB on your list after the guy with a VBD # of 88 has a VBD # of 79 (a difference of 9 points). The next 3 highest rated WR’s after the guy with 99 have VBD #’s of 98, 96, and 93 (a difference of 6 points from highest to lowest). This version of Value Based Drafting dictates that the QB is the one to draft as the drop-off between him and the next guy at the position (88 to 79) is greater than the drop-off between the WR’s (99 to 93).

Your worst case scenario by taking the QB in round 5 is VBD #’s of 88 and 93 (a total of 181 fantasy points). If you take the WR in round 5, and then the QB with a VBD # of 88 gets selected before you pick again, you’re best case scenario is VBD #’s of 99 and 79 (or a total of 178 fantasy points).

It takes a lot of work to create VBD lists. And in the last example of using it you have to be sharp on your math so you can quickly analyze each pick and where the value lies before your next pick. If you play in multiple leagues with different scoring systems, you will have to calculate AVT’s differently and set up separate VBD cheat sheets for each league.

The strength of VBD is that it’s based on historical point totals and is therefore very accurate at predicting the amount of fantasy points each rank within a position will score. The weaknesses lie in how time consuming the process is to create (unless you’re some sort of math wizard or MIT grad, or a FantasyFootballStarters.com subscriber), also in how VBD gets misused in my opinion by going with the Top 100 or Starters Only First mentality, and finally, it also dictates that you had better be correct when assigning players a ranking within their position. Since the essence of VBD is to draft the most points, and at the right time, if your rankings are off, you not only missed out on the true value in a round, but probably a player at a different position who would have been a better value pick, thusly causing a domino effect throughout your draft.

Now that we’ve gone over two of the most successful strategies you use to plan a successful fantasy football draft, be it Tiering or Value Based Drafting, we should cover a couple of the simpler tactics that you’ll see at your draft.

Possibly the most popular draft tactic today is to draft RB’s in at least 2 of the first 3 rounds, and sometimes 3 of the first 4. The reason for this is that most every league requires each team to start at least 2 RB’s, sometimes with flex options for more. Since there are 32 teams, and usually only one starting RB (FB’s don’t get counted as they usually make little impact in fantasy football), this leaves a small talent pool of quality players at this position. Making RB’s even more valuable is the fact that some teams employ a Running Back By Committee (RBBC as it’s commonly referred to), meaning that there are 2 or more RB’s who share the majority of the carries, and therefore their production individually isn’t as valuable for fantasy football as full time RB’s. RB is also the most volatile position for fantasy football as injuries to them appear to happen more frequently then at the other positions.

All of these things make the RB position the top priority for many fantasy players. They’ll pass on the top QB’s or WR’s figuring the drop-off between the top ones and the next level at those positions isn’t as great than the drop-off at RB. There are fewer starting QB’s required in most leagues as opposed to RB’s, so the position doesn’t dry up nearly as quick. There are 2 starting WR’s on every NFL team and therefore there are always decent WR choices even into the later parts of every draft.

The strength of going with RB’s early and often is that you ensure getting two projected solid starters at a position devoid of great depth. Also, by focusing on getting quality backups while others are snatching up the top QB’s and WR’s, you’re covered in case of injury. You also have trade bait to dangle to other owners who are either weak at the RB position or have suffered an injury to the position.

The weakness of going with RB’s early is that you might be passing up stud players at other positions just to ensure getting RB’s, some of whom are likely to be duds. The top 10 fantasy RB’s from year to year usually suffer about a 50% turnover ratio from the prior season. That means that its likely in 2013, 5 of the top 10 RB’s from 2012, won’t finish in the top 10. It’s not that way every year, but more often than not, it is. By going with RB’s heavy in the first 3-4 rounds, you basically ensure that you will not get a stud QB or WR. That’s the risk of going all out on RB’s early. But make no mistake, it is usually the RB position that makes or breaks your fantasy team.

Now, an interesting tactic that can be employed by those who are picking at the end of the first round of a fantasy draft is the Stud WR theory. It dictates that when you pick at or near the end of the first round of a serpentine style draft that instead of picking from the second or third tier of RB’s when it gets to you, you instead take the top WR’s with both your first and second round picks. For example, back in 2004, if you had snagged Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens in the first two rounds , you got a combined 2,313 yards and 29 TD’s from them. If you had followed that up by drafting RB’s in rounds 3 and 4 and gotten Curtis Martin and Warrick Dunn (both of whom were being drafted in about those rounds or later in 2004), you got their combined 3,342 yards and 23 TD’s. That would have been an outstanding draft, and not unrealistic at that time for the first 4 rounds.

Like we just covered, every year, there are RB’s who do not perform up to expectations but are drafted very high, while there are RB’s drafted after the first two rounds who put up solid fantasy numbers. At WR though, the top guys are usually very consistent in their top production from year to year. We saw some new studs pop up in 2012, but Calvin Johnson was still #1 and I just don't see much of a dropoff coming from emerging new studs like Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green. The Stud WR theory says you don’t leave the sure things at WR on the board to take chances on 2nd or 3rd tier RB’s just because you’re afraid there won’t be any good ones left by the time you pick in rounds 3 and 4. The RB’s left to you in those rounds may not be the sexy names people love to have on their roster, but they could be the surprise picks, like Doug Martin and Stevan Ridley. And when teamed with your top WR duo, could give you a championship team.

Now, if you go Stud WR, know that you probably won’t be drafting a QB until round 5 at the earliest because it is likely necessary that you draft two RB’s back to back in rounds 3 and 4. Unless you only have to start 1 RB in your league, it is a risk to wait until your pick in round 5 comes back to you to wait on your second RB. So usually, the QB position has to wait.

These are many ways to execute a successful fantasy draft, but the first rule is to be prepared. No matter what system you follow, be ready. And I hope I’ve helped make you ready.

Russ Bliss is a fantasy football expert and nationally recognized radio host. A veteran NFL analyst who has won dozens of fantasy football championships, Russ was so impressed with our predictive analysis engine that he joined the team at Fantasy Football Starters.com. See the complete "Word to the Winners" archive for more of Russ's fantasy football advice.

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