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The Best Fantasy Football Auction Strategy (aka The Nugget)

This is the third iteration of my annual auction strategy piece (The Best Auction Draft Advice Ever and Son of the Best Auction Draft Advice Ever, previously). In this, I’ve taken the advice from those earlier pieces and updated it for 2010. Let’s get to it.

“I have yet to be in a game where luck was involved. Well-prepared players make plays. I have yet to be in a game where the most prepared team didn't win.” - Urban Meyer

“Over-preparation is the foe of inspiration,” - Napoleon Bonaparte

Reconciling the thoughts of the brilliant nineteenth-century French tactician with those of the winningest active coach in college football is key to a successful fantasy football auction draft. There’s no way around it: To crush your auction draft, you have to prep heavily. Good preparation enables inspired flexibility. (On the other hand, over-preparation can lead to in-draft inflexibility.)

Prepping for Your Auction Draft
The first thing you have to do is develop a list of player projections, much like you’d do for a conventional (snake) draft. You can either use FFToday’s (an excellent resource) or make your own. Next, you’ll make tiers, grouping players with similar projections. (The FFToday Cheatsheet Compiler & Draft Buddy simplifies the following process exponentially and is worth a look.)

You’re going to have to come up with expected auction prices for each player; that is, how much you think each player will go for. If your auction league has been around for awhile, you can look at your league history. Take the actual prices from last year’s draft and figure out what percentage of the entire available money went to each position. If your league devoted 27% of the pot to wide receivers last year, take 27% of this year’s pot and allocate all that money to the drafting of wide receivers. If the total pot is 1,000 auction dollars (10 teams times $100 per), and there will be 50 wide receivers drafted, take a popular consensus ranking of the top 50 wide receivers and appropriately allocate the $270 among them. Take into account the idiosyncrasies of your leagues, especially homerism or college affiliations. Let the calculator keys cool for a sec. Now add 10-15% to the CJs, Andre Johnsons, Rodgerses, Gateses, and the other top-tier guys, and take that money from your third-tier players to balance the numbers. This is the over-hyped studs tax. In a new column, pencil in a dollar amount for each player that represents the max price you would be willing to pay for that player. That is his value to you (arrived at by whichever method you use: dead reckoning, Value Based Drafting, whatever).

There’s a caveat here: When assigning these percentages, keep an eye on keepers, and change the numbers accordingly. If your league mates are keeping an atypically high number of RBs at good keeper prices, bump up the dollar amounts for other positions (where it goes depends on your league’s scoring system).

If yours is a new auction league, and you don’t have historical data from which to gather position percentages, you’ll have to estimate. My recent 14-team, non-PPR league draft went something like this:

  • Quarterbacks: 10 percent
  • Running backs: 51 percent
  • Wide receivers: 31 percent
  • Tight ends: 5 percent
  • Defense/special teams: 2 percent
  • Kickers: 1 percent

Now all you need is a strategy.

A Few Deep Holes or Many Shallow?
There are two schools of drafting philosophy: Studs and Scrubs (S2) and Value/Depth (V/D). S2 holds that it’s best to devote the majority of your salary cap (75-85%) to a few superstars at the money positions—thus digging a “Few Deep Holes.” This might find you with Aaron Rodgers, Chris Johnson, and Randy Moss while the rest of your roster is filled with $1-$2 players. The V/D approach, as you might guess, drafts the roster with lesser players but with more even talent to the margins—“Many Shallow Holes,” in other words. These players would include a number of low-flyers with high upside. The benefits and downsides to both approaches are obvious. In my first years in auction leagues, I favored the V/D approach and consistently finished in the middle of the pack—now I’d rather walk through the Browns training facility with an open cut.

A mix of both strategies this year might be the ticket, with a strong emphasis on S2. Given the greater stability at QB and WR (the top ten of both tend to be more static from year to year compared to RBs), I’d grab a top five in both and go running-back-by-committee (depending on your scoring format). This might find you with Peyton Manning, Miles Austin, and a grab bag of Joseph Addai, Marion Barber, Michael Bush, and Correll Buckhalter. Overall, I strongly advise taking chances with your strategy and picks (especially toward the last third of your draft), valuing upside over a higher floor. This is where you take Demaryius Thomas over Lee Evans.

The Wisdom of Drafting Mid-Tier
In your rankings, tier your players according to similar expected production. This helps prevent you from getting too attached to, and over-spending on, any one player.

The last player bid upon in the second tier of the glamour positions (QB and RB) typically goes for far more than fellow second-tier players as owners panic and realize they need a bell-cow at the position—and that players at that position are quickly running out. If possible, try to get the second or third guy in the tier, just not the last player.

The Beauty of the Backup
If you’re targeting a valuable backup, get him before the stud he handcuffs comes up for bidding. Bernard Scott’s price goes up if you’re bidding against Benson’s owner.

Wait for It… Wait for It…
Every fantasy football auction draft has its own pace, but all are a grind compared to the leisurely meanderings of the snake draft. In an auction, you’re three dreams down, trying to synchronize the kicks the entire time. Because there will be junctures in the draft where, due to fatigue or inebriation or boredom, your opponents will falter, you have to be sharp the entire time. This is where you can pick up deals. This is Bonaparte’s inspiration.

The Early Rounds
Most auction strategy articles have you nominating big name players on your turn in hopes of reducing your opponents’ budgets early so you can pick up bargains in the mid-rounds and later. There’s a better strategy. Throw out a name that you want in one of the “lesser” positions—a top TE is a good call—while everyone is saving their cash to bid on an RB1. More often than not, Antonio Gates will go for less money in the first round of nomination than Dallas Clark will in the fourth. This year you might see more of your league considering a quarterback-by-committee approach, as NFL rules continue to favor passer success. Throwing out Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees early might net you a deal there. Overall, the early rounds are where boldness pays the most. If you’re taking shots at studs, do so here.

The Middle Rounds
Though an entirely different beast than a conventional draft, the auction works much the same way in that most owners will seek to fill out the upper end of their rosters first. This is especially important to remember for those of you transitioning from a snake draft to an auction draft for the very first time. Drafting from the top down means you’ll miss value opportunities in the late middle rounds, and that’s why it is so important to peg the values on your players and believe in ‘em. If someone throws out Jermichael Finley and he can be had at a cheap $5, then by all means take him, even if you don’t have your QB1 yet.

The End Game
As in Texas Hold ‘Em, patience in auction drafts pays off in the end. Unlike snake drafts where everyone participates in the last round, auction drafts find a few patient owners bidding for deep sleepers and flyers while everyone else has packed up. You want Kareem Huggins? This is where you get him. At the end, make sure you’re one of the last owners bidding.