Fantasy football 2015 draft preview: Auction strategies
“That’s the way we’ve always done it,” is the worst, least-satisfying reason to explain any decision. If people or institutions continued on an unabated linear path, allowing inertia to be their guide, George Washington would have had no reason to show up at the Pennsylvania State House in full military dress uniform. Robert Johnson never would have picked up a guitar, and Chuck Berry never would have plugged his in. Is that really the kind of world you want to inhabit? Of course it isn’t. You want one with an independent United States and rock music played well and played loud. You want one with pizza, not just bread covered with olive oil and non-melted cheese. You want one with cars and iPhones, not horse-drawn buggies and the telegraph.
So why are you still snake drafting?
The snake draft remains the default method for fantasy owners, even the most seasoned ones, to fill their teams. It’s also the less fun, fulfilling and challenging way to do so. The auction format is clearly superior and makes draft day even more of an event than it already is. Once you change to the auction, you’ll never go back to the draft.
An auction may be different, and different can frequently be intimidating, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t as frightening as it seems. Change is often hard, but it is almost always for the better. That is certainly the case here. So many of us can essentially turn on autopilot and draft a good fantasy football team. It follows a predictable script that, quite frankly, doesn’t change much, other than the names, from season to season. Auctions, on the other hand, are more engaging and require owners to stay tuned in and active throughout. They allow every player to be available to every owner. You may love Jamaal Charles, but you’re not getting him if you have the 10th pick in your draft. Finally, they do a better job of rewarding good strategy.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s easier to craft an actionable strategy for an auction than it is for a draft. Every owner, in some form or fashion, is limited by his or her draft slot. Auctions give you the freedom to build your team however you choose. Want to stack your roster with three guys who would be first-round picks in snake drafts? Go for it. Think that loading up on top-flight receivers while skimping on backs is the best way to build a team? You can make that happen in an auction. Got your eye on a few mid-round players you think can break out this season? You can have them all if you play your cards right. As long as you plan accordingly and remain flexible, you can come much closer to building your ideal team via an auction than you can in a draft.
The one similarity is that you need a defined set of strategies heading into either an auction or a draft. Below are handful of auction strategies that will keep you on the right path, both as you prepare and when the big day arrives.
If you want a player, pay for him
Clinging to pre-determined values for each and every player is the most common, and most damaging, mistake committed by fantasy owners in auctions. Most everyone goes into an auction with an idea of how much they’re willing to pay for each player. Owners may be willing to creep a few dollars above their values for a handful of players, especially if they’ve already saved money elsewhere, but too many give up on the bidding as the price continues to rise.
Here are a few crucial truths about that fancy value cheat sheet you created before your auction. First, it's not etched in stone; it needs to give owners the flexibility to change with the ebb and flow of the auction as it is happening. Second, you’re the only person following it. When the bidding on a specific player reaches the price you affixed to him during your auction prep, other owners in your league won't stop bidding on him—and you shouldn't either. As long as you’re within an acceptable range of the prices you laid out, you can easily shift your tactics mid-auction. You may peg Dez Bryant at $50, but it won’t be hard to adjust if you end up spending $55 on him, especially given the caliber of player you just landed.
That final point is what you need to keep at the front of your mind whenever a player you want on your team, especially an elite one, is nominated. Believe it or not, you’re not the only person in your league who is targeting Bryant. Or Eddie Lacy. Or Julio Jones. Or Rob Gronkowski. Or Le’Veon Bell. You’re going to have to pay up for those players, and all it takes is one other person who’s feeling a little zealous to drive up the price. If and when the bidding escalates beyond where you predicted it would, don’t automatically back down. If the player in question performs as you expect him to, and you secure his services, you won’t remember four months from now that you paid a few extra bucks for him in your auction. If he does so and you let him go, however, you will absolutely remember that you let him go because you we’re willing to pay $52 for him, but definitely not $54. That’s the sort of emotional scar that can linger until next year’s auction, and it will only be exacerbated when you remember the next point.
There will be bargains
I’ve never been in an auction, regardless of sport or overall league skill level, that didn’t feature incredible bargains in the late stages. I’m in a hyper-competitive, 12-team, two-quarterback league with a group of owners who have all been playing fantasy football for at least 10 years. This is not an industry league, but I feel that illustrates the point even better. A total of 216 players are selected in this league. Jeremy Hill, the 105th player nominated, went for just $3 in 2014. Few people saw Hill having a breakout campaign as a rookie, but he was still a sought-after running back. With 104 players already off the board, however, including all of the high-priced talent, owners had to be conservative with their remaining budget. Just a few slots later, Mark Ingram went for $2. Some other players who were stolen cheap, mostly because they were nominated late, included Kelvin Benjamin, Golden Tate, DeAndre Hopkins and Jordan Matthews.
This is an invariable pattern in auctions. Even though players can be nominated in any order, the most popular players always come up first. They may not have their names called in snake-draft fashion, but a top-10 running back or receiver, by average draft position, isn’t going to be on the board 100 picks into your auction. By time guys like Hill and Ingram come up, both of whom had plenty of upside last year, many owners have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of their budget and simply can’t go much more than a couple bucks on someone they may have paid up to $10 for had his name come up earlier in the auction. No matter how smart your league is, how many teams it has, or its overall format, bargains will be available once you pass the 100-pick mark.
Keep this truism in mind throughout your auction. Not only will it help you at the end, it can be that final push you need to pay a couple more bucks for the elite talent when the bidding surpasses your preconceived notions of value.
Toss your trash, but others’ treasures, early
This is a hallmark strategy in auctions, mainly because it’s simple and it works. There will inevitably be high-ranked players that you don’t like as much as the average person in your league. For me, that list this season includes DeMarco Murray, Brandin Cooks and Andre Ellington. Yours is probably different, but it definitely exists. At the same time, my rival owners who are more into the new Eagles starting running back than I am, aren’t going to be solely committed to him as a top-tier running back. They may target Murray, but they’d likely also be happy with Lacy, Bell, Hill, Jamaal Charles, or some other top-10 back who I actually do like. I can increase my chances for getting one or two of those players by reducing the number of people bidding for their services, and I can do that by making sure that someone who might be in on the action for Lacy or Bell or Hill or Charles has already spent top dollar on another running back.
That’s why I’ll be nominating Murray, and other guys likely to fetch a high price, early in my auctions. Any dollar spent on a player I’m not targeting is a dollar that can’t be spent on someone I do want. The person who pays $50 for Murray may still go after another high-priced back or receiver, but they fact that they’ve already paid up for Murray could also prevent them from keeping up with me in the bidding. If they’ve already burned a quarter of their auction budget on one player, they may not be so keen on spending another 25% of it on, say, Antonio Brown, a player I’d love to have on as many teams as possible this year. By nominating expensive players you don’t want early in auctions, you whittle away at your opponents’ resources on players you weren’t even considering for your roster. In my case, the owner who pays $50 for Murray might as well have started with $150, not the standard $200.
Budget for positions, not just players
This goes hand-in-glove with creating tiers for all your positional rankings, as well as your overall rankings. My top-eight wide receivers are Bryant, Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Odell Beckham Jr., Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and A.J. Green. That’s the order in which I’d take them in a draft, but it’s not as though I think Beckham is miles ahead of Nelson (they’re only two spots apart in my overall rankings), or that Green is a far inferior choice to Johnson. Bryant and Brown are in their own tier, thanks to their freakish consistency, and then the next six receivers comprise my second tier. I may think, all things being equal, that Beckham is a better fantasy receiver than Nelson, but if I’d rather have Nelson if he comes at a discount of even just $3 to $5.
You should already know why it’s important to tier your rankings. Put simply, it can help keep you from mistakenly prioritizing a position and going after a player too early. You also already understand the importance of applying dollar values, specific to your league parameters, to every player. The practice of budgeting for positions is the marriage of these two auction-prep pillars. Let’s again use my wide receiver rankings as an example, but also pull in the next five receivers on my cheat sheet, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton and Emmanuel Sanders.
I believe there is a significant dropoff after these first 13 receivers are off the board, so there’s a good chance I’ll try to get two of them, depending on how my auction unfolds and what I do at running back. If I’m planning on getting two of these receivers, I know that I’ll probably have to devote $80 to my first two players at the position. That overall price tag of $80 works in tandem with the individual values I’ve applied to every player. I’m not committing myself to any two of them specifically, but I do know that I’m comfortable paying $50 for Bryant and $30 for Cobb. Maybe I’ll end up going $40 for Thomas and $35 for Nelson. By knowing not only how I value each player, but how much I want to spend on the position as a whole, I guarantee myself maximum flexibility in marshaling my resources during the auction.