Auction Draft Strategy: Tips & Tricks and How to Approach 2016 Drafts

Auction Draft Strategy: Tips & Tricks and How to Approach 2016 Drafts

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor), last update Aug 22, 2016

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in both 2012 and 2015 for a total of five Top 5 seasons in the last six years. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-15 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate draft rankings. 

Follow John Paulsen on Twitter: @4for4_John.

Snake drafts are simple, easy to understand and organized.

Auctions are not.

They are haphazard and chaotic, and that’s part of what makes them so much fun.

Want the #1 RB? He’s yours...if you’re willing to pay. You’re not beholden to a certain draft slot or to the whim of the guy picking in front of you. It’s your team and the decisions you make will completely shape your roster, for good or for bad.

Auction Strategy

Auctions come in all shapes and sizes, but for the past several years I’ve played in a league where each team has a $400 salary cap and a roster of 20 players. It’s a slow online auction. Every day, each owner is responsible for nominating one player along with an opening bid, which can’t be seen by the other owners in the league. Bidding is open for 24 hours, unless the high bidder changes, in which case the clock is reset. At any particular time there might be 20 or 30 players up for bidding, but the slow format gives owners plenty of time to consider their options.

I generally budget 90% of my total cap for my starters. This way, I have already accounted for some extra funds to acquire some cheap backups in the later part of the auction. This might seem like a lot to spend on your starters, but these are the guys that are playing week in and week out, so it’s smart to put the vast majority of your resources to that end. Also remember that there will be some starter- and bench-caliber players available on the waiver wire throughout the season.

In most auctions, owners are amped up and ready to spend. Usually, big-name players are nominated first, so there is a sense of urgency when there are 12 or 15 of the game’s top 20 or 30 players on the board. Live auctions are even more intense. The bids come fast and furious and prices are usually inflated. How do you know if they’re inflated? 4for4's Auction Values Cheat Sheet can tell you. The prices give you a maximum suggested bid for all relevant players based on your custom league scoring format, number of teams and number of starters by position. Your goal is to try to get players you like for that price or less.

When approaching an auction there are three prevailing strategies to consider when bidding on players:

Stars and Scrubs

The "stars and scrubs" approach is to hit the auction hard at the start, acquiring 2-4 top players – 1st or 2nd rounders in a traditional draft format – that cost anywhere from 50-80% of your total budget. While you need to trust your prices, don’t be afraid to pay a bit more than MSRP to get a guy you want.

Once you have your first few players, look to round out your roster with cheaper players, hoping that your studs will stay healthy and carry you to the playoffs. Depending on how far you pushed your payroll, this may be easier said than done. Owners who saved their money for the middle of the auction are going to be able to outbid you at will, so you have to hope that those owners aren’t interested in the cheaper players that you want. If you’re patient, you can usually find good deals in the later stages of the draft.

This is a high risk, high reward strategy. But if you focus on getting your studs for 70%-85% of their true value, you'll be in good shape.

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Sit and Wait

Another approach is to sit on the sidelines while the other owners trip over themselves overbidding on every player on the board. At some point, they’ll all run out of money having overspent on their studs and won’t have any money left to fill out the rest of their roster with anything but scrubs.

This is the point in the auction – usually when 60%-70% of the total league payroll has been allocated – that the proverbial worm turns. This is when you step in with your wad of cash and pounce on value when it reveals itself. It’s not uncommon for good players (3rd-5th rounders) to go for 50% or less of their projected value. The strategy here is to build a balanced squad made up of solid mid-round talent. This type of team will be better able to absorb an injury or two.

There are two drawbacks to this strategy: 1) fantasy champions usually have at least one or two studs on the roster and 2) it can be difficult to sit idly by at the start of the auction as a series of very talented players come and go.

Both strategies, if followed to the letter, have significant drawbacks. This is why I advocate something of a hybrid approach, which I dubbed...

The Hybrid Approach

Clever, I know. This strategy requires the owner to play a little defense in addition to offense. The first thing I do is nominate a player that I don’t really want. The ADP Draft Day Sleepers  can help to identify overvalued players. Just hit the Bargain Score column until the negative numbers come to the top. Look for a big-name player going in the 1st or 2nd round. Throw his name out there and hopefully you can cause a feeding frenzy, eating up some of the resources of the other owners in the league. This will also burn a starting roster spot and decrease demand for comparable players that are nominated later. I’ll usually cap my bid at 50-60% of the player’s value, so that no one gets a screaming deal.

Then, as the big-name players are nominated, I’ll bid them up to different levels depending on how strongly I feel about them...60-70% of maximum suggested bid if I’m lukewarm...70-80% if I like them...80-85% if I really like them...90-100% if I love them.

Sometimes, I’ll end up with the high bid on 2-3 big name players early on. Don’t be afraid to spend a good chunk of your payroll on discounted studs. If you can get three 1st round or early 2nd round players for 60%-75% of your total payroll, you'll be in good shape. Two studs at 45%-50% of your payroll is also a good start. Then just lay low for a while. Only enter the fray if there is a value player available that fits your budget.

If you don’t end up with any studs in the first third of the draft, don’t fret. There are bound to be several 1st and 2nd round talents still available, along with plenty of players who are going in the middle rounds of snake drafts. Keep track of who has and who hasn’t been nominated and only bid with a sense of urgency if the last stud RB or WR becomes available. Chances are, you’ll be able to get him at a price that wasn’t available earlier in the auction.

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Tips & Tricks to Dominate Your Auction Draft

I’ve compiled some of my favorite auction tips and tricks below. Hat tip to former 4for4 writer Tim Ferrell who contributed several of these tips back in the day.

Don’t be the auctioneer.
It's going to take you away from thinking about your team, studying what the other managers are doing and it's a thankless job. If you want to be the best manager, stay focused on the job at hand and let someone else run the auction.

Focus on RBs, WRs and TEs.
Don't worry about backup TEs and kickers. If your league allows you to freely work the waiver don't even bother bidding for a backup kicker or a backup defense. Save that cash and land another player with better upside. Remember, injuries often pave the way for NFL stars to emerge. Having a well-targeted sleeper running back at 2% of bankroll is much better than having a journeyman backup kicker at 1%.

Always nominate with the minimum bid.
Owners could open bidding at 5% of their bankroll and then nobody else bids on the player. For all we know, that manager could have landed the player for 1-2%.

Calculate the maximum bid of your competition.
Toward the middle of the draft, knowing the maximum the other managers can bid can be very helpful. With the help of a simple equation in a spreadsheet, apply this formula to each team:

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. With this data live on your computer you can quickly see the maximum anyone can bid. In addition, you can see exactly how aggressive each manager can become.

Feed the mistake.
If two owners get in a bidding war over a player and one owner eventually overspends, then nominate an even better player at the same position. This works beautifully when you want managers to continue overspending. The manager that lost on the last bid will be even more excited to land a better player at the same position. Other owners, while they would never admit it and may not even realize it, have been influenced by the bidding war they just witnessed.

Start by nominating players you don’t want.
Early in the draft nominate players you don't want and that are overvalued. Use the ADP Draft Day Sleepers tool to find them. These are players that are ranked very high using ADP, but not so by 4for4. Nominate these players early and watch all the other managers bid for them, burning up bankroll. If you can get the other teams eating up extra cap dollars early, you'll be in control down the line.

Don’t wait for the stud in a tier.
If you want an elite WR and feel there are six on the board, don't wait until the first five are gone. At that point other managers may also realize that only one stud WR is left, and a bidding frenzy could result.

Start the run, don’t finish it.
In some auction drafts, there will be a run at a particular position. In the beginning it's often the running back or wide receiver positions. In the middle of the auction it’s usually the tight ends or quarterbacks. Late in the auction, it can be the defenses. In general, you're better off starting the run than being the one finishing it. At the end of the run, the talent at the "hot" position is usually two or three tiers lower.

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Don’t panic if you’re outbid early.
It can be unnerving, nine or 10 picks into the auction, all the other managers are clearly overpaying, but they have some great studs. You on the other hand don't have a single roster spot filled. Don't panic, the math will eventually come to your rescue and put the odds in your favor.

Monitor the aggressiveness of your auction.
You should know what kind of auction you’re in by the time the first few players fall off the board. Keep a running total of what players are going for and divide that by their total maximum suggested bids. If the number is greater than 1.1 (110%), then you're in an aggressive league (or at least there are a few aggressive owners). If it's less than 0.9 (90%), you're probably in a passive league, so look to invest in discounted studs early on.

Don’t get emotional.
I've seen managers lose a few bids early, steam starts coming out of their ears and then really lose it on the next few players. Don't go on tilt. In fact, if you have a hothead in your group, you can often bait them into this type of overspending. Be careful when bidding players up because you might just get stuck with him.

Fill it, then nominate it.
If you're one of the first guys to fill your starting lineup requirement at a given position and if you're strong at the position, then be sure to nominate plenty other players at that position. The logic is simple. Let the other owners spend money at that spot in a potential bidding war. After they burn off bankroll you'll be better positioned to work on your other starting lineup requirements.

Invest in training camp battles.
In regular serpentine drafts, managers usually avoid players in a training camp battle. Why burn a draft spot on an uncertain player and then wait five or 10 picks until you get your next one? In auctions, it’s more palatable to grab up the two guys competing for the job. The reason? Auctions tend to be top-heavy. In other words, the top few guys demand huge bids. After the elite guys, the auction values tend to drop off very quickly. The two guys in the training camp battle tend to be devalued in auctions so they can be had on the cheap. Yet, when one of the players finally emerges, his value grows exponentially and you come out ahead (e.g. draft RB1 for $5 and RB2 for $5, if the RB1 is named the starter, his value will be much more than $10 you invested).

2015 Example: In the aforementioned $400 cap auction league, Tevin Coleman went for 6% of budget while Devonta Freeman went for 2.5%. Freeman’s value by October was in the 20-25% range, which is a good bit more than the 8.5% of budget that was invested in the duo.

Try to spend minimum or near-minimum money on quarterbacks.
When I've plotted snake draft ADP versus average auction prices (AAP), the running back, wide receiver and tight end positions fit nicely on a trendline. The quarterback position has its own, higher trendline. This means that the position is overvalued relative to the other positions, so steer clear of the top 5-8 QBs unless they're going for very cheap (i.e. less than two percent of total budget). The quarterbacks in the #10-#24 range tend to be cheap to dirt cheap, and represent much better value. Auctions are a great format in which to build and utilize a quarterback by committee approach.

In a slow auction, don’t bid on a new player if you’re about to win another player.
If you’re high bidder on a player and his auction is almost complete, wait until that auction is done before placing another bid. That way, you'll avoid freeing up money for another owner to bid up the player you're about to get.

Let someone else overpay for a kicker.
Your goal should be to get a good kicker with a minimum bid. One trick is to nominate a kicker in the #5-#10 range with a minimum bid early in the draft. You'll often win the auction as your competition is focused on other positions.

Stream defenses or look for defensive bargains.
Expect to pay 1%-1.5% of your bankroll on an elite team defense. If you are comfortable with using the waiver wire to change your defenses week to week, look for a mediocre defense with good matchups early in the season and spend no more than $1.

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How to Approach 2016 Auction Drafts

The quarterback and tight end positions look extremely deep and there are several running backs going in the 3rd-7th range that I like, so I’ll be spending my stud money at the receiver position. I’ll try to nab two stud receivers along with three mid-level running backs going in the middle rounds. At tight end, I’ll be targeting Delanie Walker, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Ladarius Green or Dwayne Allen. There are several fallback options at the position if those targets don’t pan out.

At quarterback, I’m looking to spend as little as possible on a two- or three-man committee made up of players in the #8-#24 range in our rankings. Last year, I nabbed Carson Palmer for 1.5% of budget. In 2014, it was Russell Wilson for 1.3% of budget, so I’ll try to do something similar in 2016.

With regard to investing in a position battle, Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon/Chris Ivory combination may yield good return if one player wins the lion’s share of the touches or if an injury knocks one out of commission. Owners could also invest in both Jeremy Langford and Jordan Howard in Chicago.

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