Fantasy football auction strategies: Understanding the basics

Tuesday August 13th, 2013

When targeting Adrian Peterson or another elite player in an auction, don't hold back on the bidding.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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The snake draft is at the very heart of fantasy sports. Most leagues use the draft to build teams, and the vast majority of us drafted a team in our first foray in a fantasy league. We all understand, however, that the argument, "That's the way we've always done it," is one of the worst known to man.

Drafts are a lot more popular for another reason. They're easy. Everyone naturally gets how a draft works. You don't really have to pay attention if it's not close to your pick, and even then you only need to perk up for a couple minutes. You know exactly when you'll pick, and you craft your players at a known, reliable pace. Drafts are simple, relaxed and accessible for even the greenest of fantasy players.

That's why seasoned fantasy players should consider the auction.

Auctions are intense. If you're not locked in from the start, you could miss out on a targeted player or a great bargain. You have to be mindful not only of your roster, but also your budget. The auction is chess to the draft's checkers, Texas hold'em to its war, National League baseball to its American League.

For me, the appeal of the auction is obvious. First, you can get any player you want. If I have the last pick in a draft, I'm not getting Adrian Peterson. I'm not getting Jamaal Charles or Arian Foster or Doug Martin, either. I can get any of those guys in an auction. I can even get two of them if I want. The auction is fantasy's embodiment of democracy and capitalism, and you want to be a patriot, right?

Second, strategy is essential in auctions. Sure, you need to have an overarching strategy going into a draft, but it doesn't get a lot more complex than "I like these players, I don't like those guys and I'm going to wait on a quarterback." Auctions require you to have an actionable strategy from the word "go," and one that takes into account not only the players you want to go after, but also the biases of your rival owners, understanding of the marketplace and an intelligent mix of aggressiveness and patience. Here are the steps to devising such a strategy.

1. If you want a guy, get him. I learned this the hard way in my first auction. Way back in 2005, LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander and Edgerrin James were three of the top backs in the league. Going into that first auction, I just knew I was going to get one of them. When the first of the trio was nominated (James. And yes, I remember the order) and the bidding got a little too rich for my blood, I consoled myself with the knowledge that the other two were out there. Next came Alexander, and again, I shied away when the price pushed into the $50s. "It's okay," I told myself. "I wanted Tomlinson anyway." Tomlinson's price proved to be the highest of the three, which I should have figured given that everyone wanted him with James and Alexander off the board. Again, I couldn't convince myself to go the extra dollar.

I didn't leave any money on the table at the end of the auction (a point we'll get to in a bit), but it became clear to me as the night went on that I could have afforded to throw a few spare dollars at the elite backs. I didn't, and struggled with the position all season.

The point of this sob story is that you should not guard your wallet so preciously when it comes to the top tier of players in the league. You win fantasy leagues with stars, and you have to spend this fictional money no matter what. You might as well spend it on the best.

2. Nominate high-priced players whom you don't want early. For those of you unfamiliar with the auction process, it goes thusly. Similar to a draft, there's a nomination order (non-snake). Whoever is first throws out any player in the league and a price. It could be Adrian Peterson or Sebastian Janikowski or anyone in between. The nominator can also start the bidding at any price. Understand, though, that this is the first bid. You do not want to nominate Janikowski for $10, because you'll be going home with the most expensive kicker in the world.

Alright, back to the strategy at play here. There are bound to be a few big-name players you don't trust. As an example, I don't like LeSean McCoy this year, which I covered in the fantasy busts column. However, I'm going to be in the minority with that opinion. Whoever ends up with McCoy is going to pay a pretty penny for him, taking a large chunk out of his budget. Forcing other owners to reach deep into their pockets early in the draft for a player you don't want is a great way to neutralize your competition. Later on, when a player you actually like gets nominated, hopefully you'll have one fewer owner in on the bidding.

3. Spend all your money. This should be an easy one, but I'm not sure I've ever been in an auction where everyone followed what should be a basic tenet. That money you got at the start of the auction isn't real. You can't take it home with you to spend on pizza or whatever. It's strictly for buying players. Once the auction is over, any unspent fictional money returns to the fictional bank where it will remain under lock and key, forever untouchable. The ridicule from your fellow owners and nagging feeling that you could have had a better auction will be real, though.

4. Know your opposition and their circumstances. In a draft, it's important to know who the owners picking near you already have on their rosters, so you can plan accordingly. In an auction, paying attention to the rosters and budgets of everyone in the league is essential. Knowing who can afford to go that extra dollar or who can get tied up in a bidding war can be the difference between getting a player you want and unnecessarily stopping short. Additionally, if you know your buddy has a thing for a specific player, you can get him to dip further into his budget than he hoped through a simple tool known as price enforcing, which we'll explore further in a later column. The key for now is to understand that everyone starts with the same amount of resources. If you know your rivals' preferences, you can siphon off some of their resources, giving yourself more wiggle room in the marketplace.

5. Pounce on the late bargains. Everyone is excited at the beginning of an auction. It's unavoidable. In addition, in every auction I've ever been a part of, whether it's with friends or fellow experts, I'd estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the first five nomination rounds were comprised of players who would go in the first five rounds of a traditional draft. Those are obviously the most expensive players, and people will feel pressure to start stocking their rosters, specifically with those sorts of players. As such, there will be dollars flying around within minutes of starting the auction. You'll want to grab at least a handful of these players as well, but there will still be plenty of good players on the board. Additionally, most of these purchases are made well before any market value has been established. That almost always leads to players being overvalued. Invariably, there are bargains to be had at the end of the night when everyone has spent most of their money. Try to keep a few bucks around to snag one of those cheap deals.

Auction strategies series:
Part I: Understanding the basics
Part II: Budgeting for success

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