Do you want to play checkers … or chess?– ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry
Berry uses the perfect analogy to describe the perfect way to play fantasy football – at least, for those looking for a more immersive experience. While the serpentine draft is still the choice for the majority of fantasy players, auction drafts are growing in popularity — and with good reason. Between managing a budget, studying player values and deciding which players you absolutely have to have — and then engaging in a spirited bidding war — the fantasy football auction is a much more layered approach to the pastime.
For the uninitiated, an auction draft sees each team manage a pre-determined “budget” with which to fill a roster. In most cases, budgets are set at $100, $150 or $200. Players are nominated for auction individually, with the highest bidder awarded the player. This continues until every team’s roster is full. If you wind up with money left over, then congratulations! You gain nothing, except for some deserved chirping from league mates who were probably skilled enough to avoid a similar fate.
So now that the introduction is out of the way, let’s get to the strategy, beginning with a simple question.
Q: How does a fantasy fanatic excel in an auction setting?
A: Patience, patience, patience.
One more time, altogether.
For those new to the auction scene, the temptation to spend ALL TEH DOLLARZ on three or four studs is a strong one. Yet, those same people tend to be the ones who end up with Jacquizz Rodgers as their second running back, or Randy Moss as their No. 3 receiver. And while filling your bench with $1 finds can occasionally lead to success, it often does not — and with star players injured far more frequently than any other fantasy sport, that $36 you spend on Arian Foster will end up being a terrible investment if his back and leg issues don’t improve.
A quick search of the web will yield many other auction-specific tips; some of them work, while others don’t. Let’s take a look at many of the other commonly-shared suggestions and determine whether they’re helpful or harmful:
Their Tip: Nominate players you don’t want to soak up your competitors’ available cash.
My Tip: Throw out players you DO want, but not the big-name guys.
The premise is a good one — toss big-name guys you aren’t interested in and watch as your buddies spend huge chunks of their available budgets. But they’re going to do that regardless of when a marquee player is thrown out — which gives you the opportunity to throw out second- or third-tier players you’re eying and snag them at a discount. For example, if everyone’s waiting for Jimmy Graham (considered the top fantasy tight end by a mile) then toss out Tony Gonzalez. The chances are good that the number of interested parties will be far fewer with Graham still unclaimed than if he has already been bought. And voila! You get Gonzalez on the cheap.
Their Tip: Price enforcing is an effective way to drive up the prices.
My Tip: Price enforcing is an effective way to end up with a high-priced anchor.
The notion of price enforcing wasn’t all that ingenious to begin with — and now that most auction players are familiar with how it works, it is tougher than ever to get away with it. Unless you’re happy with the idea of paying an exorbitant price for a particular player, stay out of the way. The only exception is if you believe a player is about to be bought at a significant discount relative to that player’s expected value. In that case, step in and snag him – if nothing else, you end up with a shiny trade piece for later in the year.
Their Tip: Don’t limit yourself to bidding up in $1 increments.
My Tip: Agreed, but also, set the tone with a strong opening bid.
There are few things more annoying in a long auction draft than the guy who proudly announces: “I nominate Calvin Johnson for a dollar.” Seriously? C’mon, man! Don’t be that guy (or girl). Successful auctions are about establishing the tone, and a firm, generous opening bid tells opponents that you’re not playing around. In a draft several years ago, I estimated Tom Brady’s value for the season at $41. So I threw him out for $35 – and that’s where he stayed. A sign that I overvalued him, perhaps? That was my first thought, but when the next quarterback (Drew Brees) was valued at $40 and went off the board for $50, I knew that I had stolen Brady. Brees’ opening bid? $5. Be assertive, it can pay off.
Their Tip: Spend a dollar on your kicker and a dollar on your defense.
My Tip: Yes to the first, but no to the second.
Kickers are virtually interchangeable — and almost entirely dependent, all things being equal, on the quality of their team’s offense. If a guy manages to find his way into the top five year after year, it’s a virtual certainty that it’s a byproduct of the offense providing him the most opportunity. So leave the Stephen Gostkowskis and Garrett Hartleys to the big spenders, and settle for a lower-profile kicker on a team with a strong offense. You’ll save a few bucks that you can spend elsewhere.
And here’s a good place to spend it: On your defense.
While the difference between good and great kickers is one or two points per week in most cases, the gap between decent and top-of-the-line defenses is usually a bit bigger. A quick glance at ESPN’s standard league scoring projections reveals a 54-point gap between top-ranked Seattle and tenth-ranked St. Louis. That’s nearly four points per game. So pony up and spend the extra dollar or two on a defense; it could pay off handsomely in the end.
Here are a few other auction-specific tips to help you build a winning team:
- Look at the number of points required to win your pool the previous year, and aim for that total. Every decision you make on draft day should center around obtaining players that can get you to that total. If it’s the first season of your league, then aim primarily for good value — that is, players who are most likely to be worth more than they’ll cost. At the end of your draft, your goal should be a team that cost you $100 or $200 but is actually worth much more than that.
- Be flexible with your plan. The best auction players are the ones who react to what’s happening around them and adjust their objectives accordingly. If you see that the top tier of quarterbacks are all going for more than they’re valued, then bide your time, land a solid second-tier QB and spend your savings on players at other positions — players the big spenders will likely not be able to afford.
- Don’t be stingy. If you’re thinking hard about spending that extra dollar for the receiver you want, then spend it. One of the greatest regrets of any beginner auction participant is holding on to money that should have been spent. Don’t overdo it, but remember that you don’t get additional points, prize money or trophies for having a surplus budget.
- Own the middle. The beginning of a draft is where the big names are bought at premium prices. The end of the draft sees a non-stop parade of $1 lottery tickets — the majority of which flame out. The real value is mined in the middle of the draft, which is why you’ll want to have one of the biggest budgets at this point. Sure, some players still go for too much, but there are also plenty of bargains to be had. The sunk cost in a bust at this point in the auction is much lower than in the early going, and you’re more likely to get consistent value from mid-range players than those found at the end of the draft.
Whether you agree or disagree with these tips, there’s no arguing that auction drafts offer a much more complex and rewarding fantasy experience than snake drafts. And if you’re a die-hard player who hasn’t discovered the joy of an auction draft, you’re missing out on a wonderfully interesting way of enjoying fantasy football.