No matter which fantasy sport you play, using a tiered system to choose, or at least judge, players is often a wise move. It's a dangerous tact to enter any draft or auction proceedings intent on ending up with any particular names, as in many cases there are others -- from wide receivers to outfielders to point guards -- in a similar class who can easily become bargains. We're talking statistics here, and while all of us bring some degree of inherent bias to who we choose and who we ignore, a tiered system helps alleviate this.
While I admit to often straying from a tiered fantasy football system when it comes to quarterback (with so few reliable choices and one starter per fantasy team) or running back (for this season the position is simply a mess and decisions can be dictated by myriad factors), this isn't the case at wide receiver. In fact, this season I've been relying on a tiered system. This is a significant deep position, and if I miss out on a guy I happen to like -- don't covet anyone! -- in the sixth round there's more often than not someone just like him lurking. In a way, the names become somewhat irrelevant. Just find another with similar statistical potential.
As a result, here are my thoughts on wide receivers for 2012 drafts using a tiered system, an exercise that essentially just groups similar options together. It's true that if five of the six players I group in a certain tier are off the draft/auction board, I would consider working a bit harder -- or overdraft/overpay -- for the final option. Of course, even though all the names are listed in efficient fashion in the ESPN draft tool, I like to print out a cheat sheet for all drafts, regardless of sport, and draw lines to signify certain tiers in advance, then cross out actual names during the draft/auction. If four members of a wide receiver tier are still out there in Round 6, I'll probably take a running back. If one name is there, I probably will not. Here are my updated rankings.
The Calvin Johnson tier: Well, he's pretty good. He even has a cool nickname, Megatron. Unlike past seasons -- well, all seasons -- I'm not simply and blindly choosing a running back in Round 1, so I might even get him in a league or two, despite the innate depth of the position.
The rest of the WR1 tier: I've got Larry Fitzgerald next, but the truth is I'd be fine with any of the other top 10 wide receivers as a second-round pick, even A.J. Green, who I have going 19th overall. My general concern with taking one of these top wide receivers in Round 2 is that I'll end up stuck with Kevin Smith as my best running back. Nobody wants that, even the Detroit Lions, but securing one of the top 10 wide receivers has been a theme in my drafts.
The New York Giants' options tier: I'd prefer Hakeem Nicks to Victor Cruz and rank them 11th and 13th at their position, respectively, but this tier is where the options start to show flaws (like Steve Smith, for example). I could see either of these Giants ending up as top five choices, really. A year ago I could see either of the Dallas Cowboys' stars doing so. Now I have both Giants over both Cowboys, and because of durability questions Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are trending the wrong way, perhaps out of this tier any minute now.
The Dallas Cowboys' options tier: What does it say that I've actually moved Kevin Ogletree into my rankings at all? It says I'm concerned about Bryant and Austin being on the field in September, and since Tony Romo might not have his security blanket tight end, and Laurent Robinson left town, enter Ogletree, though not nearly in this tier. This tier has only the Cowboys, and if drafting today I might just skip it depending on how I feel about my first wide receiver. And if I didn't have a first wide receiver, a Cowboys WR wouldn't be my first.
The Philadelphia Eagles' options tier: What is it with the NFC East and its occasionally polarizing wide receiver tandems? I'd trust Jeremy Maclin over "I'll try when I wanna" DeSean Jackson every day of the week, but one starts a tier and the other kind of ends it. In between is new New England Patriots wideout Brandon Lloyd, whom I think is going to disappoint as a true fantasy starter, which is telling since he's flanked by Philadelphia Eagles. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about with Michael Vick averaging two MRIs per preseason week.
The Denver Broncos' options tier: And here's yet another tandem of upside guys, flanking Torrey Smith and Pierre Garcon. I don't believe either Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker will turn into Reggie Wayne and magically become a top-10 choice and admit dumping them outside the top 25 wide receivers is hedging. If Peyton Manning throws a Philip Rivers-like 20 interceptions, they don't get charged to Thomas/Decker.
The San Diego Chargers' options and sleepers tier: Here's where fantasy leagues can be won or lost, with depth picks who end up starting for your team and thriving. Rivers needs someone to throw to, and even if he fails to halve the mistakes, the interceptions won't affect Malcom Floyd or Robert Meachem, leaders of this tier. I particularly like sleepers Titus Young (Detroit Lions) and Nate Washington (Tennessee Titans) over their paltry average draft positions and have them in the range of the Chargers' choices.
The Oakland Raiders' options tier: I want to believe in Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey more than I do, but having them in WR5 territory seems reasonable based on their track records. Anquan Boldin and Sidney Rice end up here as well, which is also telling. Each has a track record, but perhaps fantasy owners are clinging to it a bit too tightly. I mean, look at their stats the past two seasons.
The rookie tier: Sure, every once in a while a rookie -- and it's rarely the one everyone expects -- breaks through with a monstrous first campaign, much like Boldin, for example. Well, I have talented Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd falling to this range, barely top 50 at wide receiver. The Kansas City Chiefs' Jonathan Baldwin joins them. He was a rookie last year, but many might not have noticed. I wouldn't count on these players this season, but in dynasty formats I'm certainly more interested. We're talking about ESPN standard formats here, but the tiers adjust mightily if the rules are changed, like you can play four wide receivers at a time or there are keeper implications.
After the rookies start coming off the board, it's time to forget about tiers and find a name you like, if you even have room. Let's be clear about wide receivers for 2012: You can't help but find four or five useful options, so what I am finding is that when my tiers are done I'm adding more running backs and hoping for a DeMarco Murray-like surprise. Using a tiered system for wide receivers is smart strategy, especially because of uncommon depth. Enjoy!