In many cases, it’s evaluating potential that leads to grouping players into tiers. For instance, I don’t think the likeliest outcome is for Justin Fields to greatly outscore Matt Ryan — who is ranked just one spot behind Fields but is slotted in a lower tier. I do think the Bears quarterback’s running ability gives him a much better chance of finishing in the top 12 at his position, and that’s the separator.
The biggest benefit of using tiered rankings during a draft, though, is to help decide when to take players from different positions. I spell it out more in my 2020 and 2021 introductions to this annual piece, but the main point is that tiers are a useful way of trying to extract value and avoid opportunity-cost mistakes at every pick.
Note that my rankings default to half-PPR — points-per-reception — scoring, so you may want to adjust certain players up or down based on expected targets and touchdowns in the passing game if your draft’s format is full-PPR or standard.
It’s not that I think Allen is vastly superior to the next group of guys. It’s more the question: Would you ever draft any QB ahead of him this year? Answer: No, you would not. Therefore, he stands alone.
Patrick Mahomes II, Chiefs; Lamar Jackson, Ravens; Justin Herbert, Chargers; Jalen Hurts, Eagles; Kyler Murray, Cardinals
Including Allen, we have a “Big 6” of QBs whose chances at elite production distance them from the rest of the pack. Analysts have this group ordered in all sorts of different ways. With some uncertainty surrounding the Kansas City offense this season, Mahomes is often placed closer to the back than the front.
Joe Burrow, Bengals; Trey Lance, 49ers; Russell Wilson, Broncos; Tom Brady, Buccaneers; Dak Prescott, Cowboys
If you miss out on the top two groups, or simply prefer to wait on the position, it’s nice to know that these signal-callers have the receiving firepower to complement their considerable skills. Lance is definitely a wild card, but even if his passing is hit-or-miss, his projected rushing should ensure a steady stream of fantasy points.
Derek Carr, Raiders; Aaron Rodgers, Packers; Matthew Stafford, Rams; Kirk Cousins, Vikings
OK, you reallllly waited at QB and just want a nice, safe pick to keep you afloat at the position. These accomplished veterans won’t give you much on the ground, but they can be trusted to orchestrate effective passing attacks.
Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars; Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins; Jameis Winston, Saints; Justin Fields, Bears
We’re getting younger and more exciting here, but also more unproven. If you are in a two-QB or superflex league, you would do well to get your second quarterback no later than this point.
Daniel Jones, Giants; Matt Ryan, Colts; Mac Jones, Patriots; Ryan Tannehill, Titans; Marcus Mariota, Falcons; Zach Wilson, Jets; Baker Mayfield, Panthers; Carson Wentz, Commanders; Jared Goff, Lions; Davis Mills, Texans
Major upside is a scarce commodity in this tier, but it’s a good bet that at least one of these players will have a much better season than expected. Jones was a trendy pick in that regard before concerning reports began emerging from the Giants’ training facility.
Geno Smith, Seahawks; Mitch Trubisky, Steelers; Jacoby Brissett, Browns; Kenny Pickett, Steelers; Tyler Huntley, Ravens; Malik Willis, Titans; Joe Flacco, Jets; Tyrod Taylor, Giants; Desmond Ridder, Falcons; Drew Lock, Seahawks; Gardner Minshew II, Eagles; Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers; Jordan Love, Packers; Case Keenum, Bills; Andy Dalton, Saints; Deshaun Watson, Browns
The other QBs are either starters with major job-security issues, or intriguing backups. If Willis gets on the field for any reason, his rushing ability gives him a shot to make an immediate fantasy impact. A much-needed trade could greatly improve Garoppolo’s outlook. Watson’s 11-game suspension makes him essentially undraftable in one-QB leagues.
Christian McCaffrey, Panthers; Jonathan Taylor, Colts
I’m pro-McCaffrey here, but I would never dissuade anyone from opting for Taylor. Either way, they are the clear choices atop the running back ranks.
Austin Ekeler, Chargers; Saquon Barkley, Giants; Dalvin Cook, Vikings; D’Andre Swift, Lions
These are the rest of the RBs I would strongly consider drafting in Round 1. As you can see, I’m taking an aggressive approach to Barkley, who is still just 25, will be on the field in all situations for New York and has generated glowing camp reports about his regained burst following two injury-marred seasons.
Javonte Williams, Broncos; Aaron Jones, Packers; Najee Harris, Steelers; Alvin Kamara, Saints; Derrick Henry, Titans; Joe Mixon, Bengals; Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers
I see these backs as excellent options in Round 2, and any of them (cough, cough, Henry, cough) could easily make me look foolish for not ranking him higher.
Nick Chubb, Browns; James Conner, Cardinals; Travis Etienne Jr., Jaguars; AJ Dillon, Packers; J.K. Dobbins, Ravens; Breece Hall, Jets; Cam Akers, Rams; Tony Pollard, Cowboys; David Montgomery, Bears; Elijah Mitchell, 49ers
All these players have the look of high-end RB2s, not that they’ll all get there, of course. As for ranking Pollard ahead of Ezekiel Elliott — remember what I was saying about upside? Plus, the loss of star tackle Tyron Smith figures to damage Dallas’s running game.
Chase Edmonds, Dolphins; Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys; Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots; Cordarrelle Patterson, Falcons; Rashaad Penny, Seahawks; Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs; Dameon Pierce, Texans; Kareem Hunt, Browns; Devin Singletary, Bills; Miles Sanders, Eagles; Damien Harris, Patriots
There are greater concerns here about how extensive these backs’ roles will be for their respective offenses. They should get on the field enough, though, to make for acceptable RB2s for fantasy managers who didn’t make heavy investments early at the position.
Antonio Gibson, Commanders; James Cook, Bills; Josh Jacobs, Raiders; Michael Carter, Jets; Kenneth Gainwell, Eagles; Melvin Gordon III, Broncos; Ken Walker III, Seahawks; Darrell Henderson Jr., Rams; Raheem Mostert, Dolphins; Rachaad White, Buccaneers; Jamaal Williams, Lions; Nyheim Hines, Colts; Isiah Pacheco, Chiefs; Jerick McKinnon, Chiefs
These RBs are all committee members, to varying degrees, and managers will be well-advised to pay close attention to how large a piece of the pie they seem slated to get.
Khalil Herbert, Bears; Alexander Mattison, Vikings; Isaiah Spiller, Chargers; Tyler Allgeier, Falcons; James Robinson, Jaguars; J.D. McKissic, Commanders; Jeff Wilson Jr., 49ers; Ameer Abdullah, Raiders; Tyrion Davis-Price, 49ers; Samaje Perine, Bengals; Zamir White, Raiders; Eno Benjamin, Cardinals; Rex Burkhead, Texans; Damien Williams, Falcons; Mark Ingram II, Saints; Boston Scott, Eagles; Mike Davis, Ravens; D’Ernest Johnson, Browns; Joshua Kelley, Chargers; Darrel Williams, Cardinals; Dontrell Hilliard, Titans; Brian Robinson Jr., Commanders; Sony Michel, Dolphins; Zack Moss, Bills; Trey Sermon, 49ers
Handcuffs, passing-downs specialists and a trio of Niners — your guess is as good as mine on which one earns Kyle Shanahan’s favor — mark this contingent.
Ty Montgomery, Patriots; Travis Homer, Seahawks; Matt Breida, Giants; D’Onta Foreman, Panthers; Chris Evans, Bengals; Kyren Williams, Rams; Ronald Jones II, Chiefs; Chuba Hubbard, Panthers; Trestan Ebner, Bears; Jaylen Warren, Steelers; Myles Gaskin, Dolphins; Jordan Mason, 49ers; Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Buccaneers; Hassan Haskins, Titans; Benny Snell Jr., Steelers; Snoop Conner, Jaguars; Gus Edwards, Ravens; Kenyan Drake, Ravens; Keaontay Ingram, Cardinals
Tell me you play in an incredibly deep league without telling me you play in an incredibly deep league.
Cooper Kupp, Rams; Justin Jefferson, Vikings; Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals
Based on the logic I employed above with Josh Allen, a case could be made to drop Chase from this tier, because I can’t really see drafting him ahead of Kupp and Jefferson (who are more interchangeable). It’s just that the massive talent Chase displayed as a rookie and his bond with QB Joe Burrow make him a worthy pick in the top half of the first round of most drafts.
Stefon Diggs, Bills; Davante Adams, Raiders; Tyreek Hill, Dolphins; CeeDee Lamb, Cowboys
It wouldn’t be shocking to see any of these players lead the league in targets. They should be long gone by the end of the second round.
Tee Higgins, Bengals; A.J. Brown, Eagles; Michael Pittman Jr., Colts; Deebo Samuel, 49ers; DJ Moore, Panthers; Mike Evans, Buccaneers; Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins; Mike Williams, Chargers; Courtland Sutton, Broncos; Gabriel Davis, Bills; Keenan Allen, Chargers
If you passed on WR in the first couple of rounds, you won’t be far behind by starting with someone from this group, which can be counted on for high-end production.
Allen Robinson II, Rams; Diontae Johnson, Steelers; Marquise Brown, Cardinals; Rashod Bateman, Ravens; Amon-Ra St. Brown, Lions; Jerry Jeudy, Broncos; DK Metcalf, Seahawks; Chris Godwin, Buccaneers; Brandin Cooks, Texans; Darnell Mooney, Bears; Terry McLaurin, Commanders; JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chiefs; Michael Thomas, Saints; Elijah Moore, Jets
The size of this group reflects the impressive depth of the WR2 field, and it provides all the reason you need to pound this position while your draft moves through the RB dead zone.
Drake London, Falcons; DeVonta Smith, Eagles; Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers; Adam Thielen, Vikings; Amari Cooper, Browns; Hunter Renfrow, Raiders; DeAndre Hopkins, Cardinals; Robert Woods, Titans; Christian Kirk, Jaguars; Tyler Lockett, Seahawks; Kadarius Toney, Giants; Allen Lazard, Packers; Chris Olave, Saints
Here we have the last of the WRs who inspire confidence that they’ll have major target shares. Hopkins, of course, would be several rungs higher if not for his six-game suspension to start the season.
Rondale Moore, Cardinals; George Pickens, Steelers; Garrett Wilson, Jets; Russell Gage, Buccaneers; Jahan Dotson, Commanders; Tyler Boyd, Bengals; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Chiefs; Jakobi Meyers, Patriots; KJ Hamler, Broncos; Isaiah McKenzie, Bills; Chase Claypool, Steelers; DJ Chark Jr., Lions; Nico Collins, Texans; Skyy Moore, Chiefs; Treylon Burks, Titans; Joshua Palmer, Chargers; Jarvis Landry, Saints; Romeo Doubs, Packers; Wan’Dale Robinson, Giants
A bunch of highly drafted rookies — plus a fourth-rounder in Doubs, who has caught Aaron Rodgers’s all-important attention — rub shoulders here with veterans who will see plenty of action.
Julio Jones, Buccaneers; Michael Gallup, Cowboys; Sterling Shepard, Giants; DeVante Parker, Patriots; Robbie Anderson, Panthers; Sammy Watkins, Packers; Kenny Golladay, Giants; Parris Campbell, Colts; K.J. Osborn, Vikings; Jalen Tolbert, Cowboys; Corey Davis, Jets; Zay Jones, Jaguars; Alec Pierce, Colts; Van Jefferson, Rams; Mecole Hardman, Chiefs; Jameson Williams, Lions; Christian Watson, Packers; Kendrick Bourne, Patriots; Marvin Jones Jr., Jaguars
Congratulations! If you read this list, then you are the kind of fantasy nerd who could actually get excited about some of these names. I, for one, am geeked about the possibility that Campbell may stay healthy this year and put his abundant talent to good use.
Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Titans; Randall Cobb, Packers; Ashton Dulin, Colts; A.J. Green, Cardinals; David Bell, Browns; James Proche II, Ravens; Devin Duvernay, Ravens; Donovan Peoples-Jones, Browns; Velus Jones Jr., Bears; Braxton Berrios, Jets; Quez Watkins, Eagles; Curtis Samuel, Commanders; Jamison Crowder, Bills; Josh Reynolds, Lions; Noah Brown, Cowboys; Dyami Brown, Commanders; Calvin Austin III, Steelers; Byron Pringle, Bears; Justin Watson, Chiefs; Laviska Shenault Jr., Panthers; William Fuller V, free agent; Odell Beckham Jr., free agent
You might as well get at least a little bit familiar with these guys, because it’s a long fantasy season and many of them will be coming to a waiver wire near you. Fuller will quickly be promoted from this tier if and when he ever signs somewhere.
Travis Kelce, Chiefs; Mark Andrews, Ravens; Kyle Pitts, Falcons
I didn’t want to give Pitts a secondary tier to himself, so I granted him the privilege of a perch with the two top candidates for fantasy supremacy. To be fair, Pitts merits inclusion as that rare TE who is the favorite to lead his team in targets.
George Kittle, 49ers; Darren Waller, Raiders
These two have more target competition than they or their fantasy managers might prefer, but Kittle and Waller also have a well-earned status of superiority to the rest of the TE field.
Dalton Schultz, Cowboys; Dallas Goedert, Eagles; T.J. Hockenson, Lions
The last of the players I’d feel comfortable having as the only TE on my roster (outside of bye weeks, of course). That means I’m advocating a slight reach, if needed, to land one.
Zach Ertz, Cardinals; Cole Kmet, Bears; David Njoku, Browns; Pat Freiermuth, Steelers; Dawson Knox, Bills; Gerald Everett, Chargers; Albert Okwuegbunam, Broncos; Hunter Henry, Patriots; Irv Smith Jr., Vikings; Mike Gesicki, Dolphins
If you miss out on the eight players above, you’ll still have a reasonable shot at low-end TE1 production from anyone in this tier. Ertz, Freiermuth and Henry have fairly safe floors, while Njoku, Kmet and Everett possess tantalizing breakout potential.
Robert Tonyan, Packers; Evan Engram, Jaguars; Austin Hooper, Titans; Noah Fant, Seahawks; Brevin Jordan, Texans; Tyler Higbee, Rams; Jonnu Smith, Patriots; Hayden Hurst, Bengals; Mo Alie-Cox, Colts; Isaiah Likely, Ravens; Logan Thomas, Commanders
We’re filling out the TE2 candidates list but still finding some intrigue. Engram has a chance to show what all the fuss was about several years ago, Okwuegbunam’s preseason usage was alarming but he has enormous physical talent, and Thomas just needs to get healthy.
Daniel Bellinger, Giants; Tyler Conklin, Jets; Cameron Brate, Buccaneers; Trey McBride, Cardinals; Greg Dulcich, Broncos; Tommy Tremble, Panthers; Adam Trautman, Saints; C.J. Uzomah, Jets; Harrison Bryant, Browns; Dan Arnold, Jaguars; Pharaoh Brown, Texans; Donald Parham Jr., Chargers; O.J. Howard, Bills; Juwan Johnson, Saints; Kylen Granson, Colts; Jacob Harris, Rams; Kyle Rudolph, Buccaneers; Will Dissly, Seahawks; Cade Otton, Buccaneers; Foster Moreau, Raiders
You’re probably familiar with the names of Brate, Smith, Uzomah, Howard and Rudolph. You’ll just have to take my word for it that all the other names are also real.