Fantasy Football 2016: Tips for Surviving an Auction Draft

Jim McCormickFeatured ColumnistAugust 2, 2016

Fantasy Football 2016: Tips for Surviving an Auction Draft

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    You've been competing in fantasy football leagues with your friends for what seems like forever. You have added different scoring modifiers—yardage bonuses and a point per reception. You have augmented rosters to include flex positions. Yet when it comes to draft day, you're still deploying the old-school "snake" template. It's time to switch things up and try an auction draft. In this piece, we discuss how to best navigate auctions in fantasy football. 

    My first fantasy football draft happened back in middle school, and it involved acquiring a young Emmitt Smith. It was nice to have the second overall pick that year and be able to net such a coveted superstar tailback (Barry Sanders went first, of course). In an auction draft, however, everyone in my league would have had the right to bid on Smith and his prodigious fantasy value. It wouldn't have simply been my right to get Smith sitting in the second spot; I'd have to outbid my peers with the highest price for his services behind that legendary offensive line. 

    So how do auction drafts work? Auctions are set up so that each manager has a preset budget (often $200) to spend on a specific number of players (16-man roster, for example). We'll let ESPN.com's auction explanation page flesh out the details: 

    Once a player is nominated for auction, the bidding begins. Team owners are free to bid however much they feel that particular player is worth (the preset value is only a guide). Bidding continues until there is a single remaining high bid (at which time the system will alert all bidders by saying "Going Once, Going Twice, Sold"). The player is awarded to the team of the highest bidder, and the bid amount is deducted from the team owner's available funds. This process repeats until every team's roster is completely filled. 

    Even though they can take hours to complete, auction drafts are often riveting, given that each market is unique and offers a variety of compelling narratives. How did Tom Brady get so expensive? Why did Mike Evans cost so little? Why does John have three quarterbacks? The inverse could prove true in another draft, as each auction hosts its own specific marketplace and pricing patterns.

    Our first tip is to understand your league's scoring settings thoroughly. This is a common and seemingly obvious refrain in fantasy analysis, but for auction drafts, it rings particularly loudly, as specific pricing should be directly influenced by scoring details.

    In a full-point PPR format, for example, we would expect the Cleveland Browns' Duke Johnson to have increased market value, given his receiving pedigree, while a player like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Doug Martin might see some deflation in this context. Finding and exploiting any deficiencies could prove profitable. 

    Having a detailed pricing list for players you want to target at each position is wise, as you can establish a range of pricing for different tiers at each position. One more gem is to make sure you spend your draft cash; we can seek out perfect value to a fault sometimes, but getting star talents is still the name of the game. Don't be afraid to spend or you'll have too much coin for the lesser talents later in the draft. 

    There are a variety of investing strategies managers can employ when navigating an auction—many of which we will discuss in this article. 

Setting the Market Early

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Classic auction advice suggests we should wait for the market to set itself before spending big coin on superstar commodities. This old line of thinking posits we should let others spend big early and thus set the market for talent. In reality, there is no perfect timing to spend, as ideal pricing can unfold right away in an auction if most bidders adhere to this conservative investing approach. 

    If the New York Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. is nominated right away and the market is proving soft on his services, as many managers cling tightly to their budgets, feel free to spend the requisite coin to acquire him. Using Fantasy Pros' auction index as a reference, Beckham's price range will cost you roughly $53 of your $200—around a quarter of your entire budget. 

    It's admittedly scary to leverage that much capital off the bat in a draft, but we should be mindful of talent tiers and the need for superstar talents to outperform our peers in a league of 10 or 12 teams. The main takeaway is to consider spending early if the window of opportunity makes sense. If Beckham incites a bidding war and goes well over $60, too rich for your preferred budget, it's fine to save and spend on the next batch of stud wideouts. 

    There is no perfect time, but there are perfect price points. The key is to set a rough but firm budget for each specific position. Establishing a plan to spend about $95 on starting receivers and $75 on starting running backs sets a framework for how you'll navigate the marketplace in your auction. Don't be afraid to set the market early in an auction, as waiting too long on the diminishing crop of superstars can leave you with too much cash and too little talent. 

Tips for Surviving: Stars and Scrubs Strategy

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The "stars and scrubs" investing strategy is a bit harsh in tone, as it describes some NFL talents as scrubs. The premise is sound, though, as it espouses acquiring multiple superstar assets, who will cost you a great majority of your budget, to go with modestly priced players, known as scrubs in this context. In order to afford several superstars, we must be willing to go bargain hunting at several other spots. 

    In a snake draft, you can only net one first-round asset, but in an auction format you can spend up for multiple elite commodities if you choose to use the requisite draft capital. Go ahead and get three first-round talents if you want, but just be willing to accept the subsequent roster imbalance. Spending $143 on the trio of the Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Rob Gronkowski early in an auction draft consumes nearly 72 percent of your $200 operating budget, but it also establishes a consortium of superstar producers as your fantasy foundation.  

    This specific spending strategy makes it difficult to establish balance and parity at other positions, leaving far less coin for running backs, for example. Patience can prove valuable when employing this strategy, as you'll need to wait for values to emerge in order to fill out the complementary roster spots. 

    Establishing a list of modestly priced players you value as starters will help in balancing out the full roster. While this can be viewed as a high-risk, high-reward strategy, it's about striking the balance between hitting on those high-dollar stars while still netting productive players from the $1 assets you'll rely on to balance the budget. Fittingly, you'll need your stars to support your scrubs—and vice versa—in order to make this strategy successful. 

Talent Tiers Are Crucial

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Getting perfect pricing on specific players can prove difficult in a fantasy football auction, which is why it becomes important to establish tiers at each position. 

    Rankings at each position are helpful in fantasy football in order to identify preference, but tiers also serve to bunch players who have relatively similar outcome spectrums. For example, you might find the Arizona Cardinals' Carson Palmer is closer to the top six or seven fantasy quarterbacks than the back end of the top 10, meaning he could represent the end of an elite tier at the position. This is merely an example, but it's one that could prove actionable in an auction when pricing quarterbacks. 

    If you have established tiers at each position, you'll have a better shot at navigating balance within your overall budget. You won't be able to net perfect pricing on every player you covet, but establishing which tiers you prefer helps ensure recognition of impending shifts in the market as it unfolds. Missing out on the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger proves more palatable when you find Palmer, who is still in the same production tier, available for less. 

Nomination Strategies

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    One way to wield influence in an auction draft is to deploy deliberate nomination strategies. 

    Nominating players you don't want to invest in early in the draft can serve to consume budgets of your competitors, freeing up expenditure for you on your targeted assets. If you plan to save on quarterback and have a few budget-conscious targets at the position in mind, it could prove wise to nominate high-priced signal-callers—such as the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton—so your peers pay up at the position and satisfy their roster needs.

    When it comes time to acquire one of your budget arms, you'll compete with fewer investors, as the market will shift once many managers have already spent at the position. 

    While we just advised you to nominate players you might not be interested in, don't be afraid to nominate players you are willing to pay up for, either. This approach helps you spend some of your coin early and establish the foundation of your roster. A blend of nominating for your peers and for your own purposes can help strike a helpful balance as the draft develops. 

    It's also wise to nominate quality defenses and kickers early, giving yourself a shot at a discounted commodity, while the alternative is having your peers pay up for what should be $1 positions. 

Be Careful of Price Enforcing

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    It's easy to get caught up in playing the role of value police in an auction draft. That is to say we can try to enforce accurate pricing based on pre-draft values for specific players.

    If the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin is "supposed" to cost $20 based on expected value, but he's about to go for $16 to your rival, we can become tempted to bid solely to enforce appropriate cost. This is fine if you actually want to invest in Benjamin, but be wary of trying to patrol pricing throughout the draft, as you'll end up with players you didn't necessarily want as a result of your self-nominated role. 

    It's not easy to watch your peers net awesome value on a certain player. You'll likely beg your league mates to pay up in order to make the pricing more appropriate, but it's also important to focus on your own budget and roster, as you'll net similar values if you navigate the market with your team in mind. The pitfalls of price enforcement can be costly, as you can quickly derail your own investment plans for the sake of pricing parity. 

Finding Value: Investing in Backfield Competitions

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Falcons' Devonta Freeman drove many fantasy teams to glory last season. An afterthought in late-summer drafts, Freeman took the reins of the Falcons backfield early in the 2015 campaign and never looked back, leading all running backs in fantasy points in both standard and PPR points in ESPN.com's scoring system. How do we find such a valuable and profitable investment for 2016? 

    One lesson we can apply from Freeman's profitable fantasy season would be to invest in the uncertainty of competition. Investors weren't clear last August on whether Freeman or Tevin Coleman would lead the Atlanta backfield. It required consuming multiple roster spots on a single backfield, but netting both Freeman and Coleman last season and letting the competition play out proved invaluable.

    This might appear to be cherry-picking the perfect example, but let's look at some specific examples of affordable running back depth charts found on the current 2016 marketplace. 

    In Philadelphia, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, according to Turron Davenport of USA Today, "has said the Eagles will be more committed to running the football which should bode well for the team that doesn’t have an established game-breaker in the passing game." 

    ESPN.com projects Ryan Mathews to have roughly 225 touches and just over 1,100 total yards. Referencing Fantasy Pros' auction estimates for half-point PPR leagues, it would cost just $16 to net Mathews and rookie tailback Wendell Smallwood heading into the season. We wouldn't be surprised if that price is even lower in actual auctions, as Mathews is already dealing with an injury that could serve to drive his stock down in drafts. For a team committed to the run and with a somewhat solid offensive line, such savings could prove helpful. 

    In Seattle, Thomas Rawls is also dealing with an ankle ailment that has driven his stock down, and rookies Alex Collins and C.J. Prosise are also quite cheap. Netting all three appears a bit unrealistic, but pairing Rawls with Prosise as a means to consolidate what has been a valuable running game over the years should prove reasonable in the price department. Once again, it's about exploiting any uncertainty over specific running games, particularly those with an intention of establishing busy backfields. 

    For one more example, let's look to Baltimore, where investors can net any blend of Justin Forsett, Buck Allen or Kenneth Dixon for modest expenditure. While Forsett is the most expensive of this trio, pairing Dixon and Allen in the hopes that one of them takes the job could prove valuable in leagues with deep benches. Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has often leveraged valuable passing work to his backfield, so Allen is of particular interest in PPR formats and could cost you as little as $1 in auctions. 

    Similarly, it won't cost much to consolidate the backfields in Jacksonville, Cleveland, San Diego or even Oakland, where veterans and young backs often combine to make for reasonably priced depth charts.

    These are merely examples of scenarios we might mine for value, but the overall premise is to seek out the value in uncertainty in situations around the league. 

Saving at Tight End, Kicker and Defense

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Single positions like kicker, tight end and defense should only consume a small portion of your budget. A good operating strategy would be to allocate $6 or less to these three roster spots, as this leaves robust per-position pricing for the rest of the roster while satisfying these often variant positions.  

    It's fine if you seek to spend at tight end for the rare superstar—such as the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski or the Washington Redskins' Jordan Reed—but we often find saving at the position can prove profitable.

    Finding breakout assets at tight end isn't necessarily easy, but we do find a number of players emerge each season at extreme values, including Reed and the Tennesee Titans' Delanie Walker last year. Intriguing talents—such as the Detroit Lions' Eric Ebron or Chicago Bears' Zach Miller—could emerge this season and will likely cost right around $1 in most auctions. 

    As for investing in kickers and defenses, the auction format is friendly for netting specific targets. Nominate top kickers early on, with a willingness to only spend $1 on each. If someone wants to pay $2 or $3 for a "top leg," let them. You'll often find you can land a strong asset for cheap this way, as investors are hesitant to spend up on fickle positions early in the draft. The same applies for defenses, so nominate top groups for just $1 and see where it takes you. 

    If you can satisfy these three positions for $5, you'll have valuable freedom to spend up on more meaningful positions down the line. 

Keep an Eye on the Competition's Budgets Throughout

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    It's difficult to keep track of the fluid budgets of your competitors throughout an auction draft, but we find this simple formula from 4for4's John Paulsen helpful for identifying the maximum bid amount of your peers: "1 + remaining bankroll - # of positions left to fill. Assuming the minimum bid is $1, if a player has $22 remaining and has 10 roster spots to fill, the most he can bid on any single player is $13." 

    Most fantasy host sites do this math for you, revealing the maximum bid available for each competitor. It's wise to keep these numbers in mind when engaging in a bidding battle, as you'll recognize the realistic limits of your competition. If you manage your budget shrewdly, you could control certain portions of the draft by leveraging your knowledge of competitors' budgets.