The Perfect Auction
By David Dodds
August 31st, 2012

More and more leagues are abandoning the round-by-round draft in favor of auction style play. This type of play allows everyone in the league to have a shot at every single player in the draft. If you want Adrian Peterson, Tony Romo and Randy Moss and you are successful at outbidding everyone for these players, then you get them on your roster. You will probably not get much else, but you get the idea. This article isn't going to debate the merits of auction leagues, but simply attempt to explain the art of succeeding in one.

The following assumptions will be used in the analysis that follows:

  • 12 team league that starts 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 DEF/ST and 1 K
  • Scoring is PPR based
  • $200 salary cap per team, $2,400 dollars available league wide
  • Bids are whole numbers only
  • Draft will last 20 rounds for a total of 240 players selected
  • Teams are allowed to pick up free agents during the season (with a different cap or waiver system)
  • Some people seem to think the Principles of Value-Based Drafting (VBD) don't apply to an auction draft...that you can just show up with a cheat sheet and write down the values as they get determined, then pay a little more for a better position player and a little less for a worse one. I am not going to deny that you could do that, but that won't lead you to maximizing value in an auction draft.

    To maximize value in an auction draft you need to accomplish these things:

    1. Predict what players will cost
    2. Value what players are worth
    3. Get value with the majority of selected players

    Creating the Cost/Worth Table

    I used MyFantasyLeague Average Auction Values and our PPR ADP for pricing. I then sorted this table first by position and then by projected fantasy points to point out anomalies. The most favorable situations are highlighted in green in the table linked below:

    Getting Value with Most Selections

    This is pretty easy to do. Target the green guys, but do not look to nominate these guys early in an auction. Let others introduce them and then bid them up to their average cost. I say most selections here, because sometimes it does make sense to target a certain player that will make your team very dominant. And if you get value up to that selection, overpaying slightly could likely make the most sense. The table also shows columns for 70% and 85%. Most players are worth trying to secure when they come at these kinds of discounts. These columns give you a guide as to when to stop bidding.

    Let's have the perfect auction...

    This article is going to jump around a bit, because there are a few dynamic strategies that are taking place. Namely, the early auction pricing (and what players you get here) and your overall positional spending plan. Both are dynamic based on the players you get making this article very difficult to write to handle every possible scenario.

    Early Auction - First 40-50 Nominated Players

    In most auctions, these first players nominated (and selected) will be overpriced. That's not always the case, but when owners have the majority of their cap available, usually at least two owners want the star that is being bid on. This practically guarantees "market" or "above market" price for the star players. This is also compounded because at least a few owners will pursue a "stars and scrub" approach to an auction where they spend 90+% of their cap on 5-6 players and fill in the holes with $1-$2 bargains. You may even end up being one of these teams too, but you should not go into an auction with only this approach. Let value guide the type of team that makes sense to build.

    Your strategy:

  • Pay full retail (and sometimes an extra dollar or two) on the green players. They represent the most likely bargains at the auction.

  • Bid up the top players at a position to the 85% level so that no one can secure multiple studs and steal a few late round fiers to have a great team.

  • Consider bidding up to 70% of Retail cost on most players. That's enough of a discount (usually) to justify getting a non-targeted player.

  • Nominating players during this phase: I suggest not nominating players you want during this phase. In fact, I suggest nominating the guys that have high cost per expectd fantasy contribution. Your goal here is to drain as much of the cap from other owners to ensure better pricing on players that you are targeting. As a general rule, the later players get nominated the better value they will represent.

    Assessment during this phase: As these first players are being auctioned off, keep track of their actual values against their projected average cost. Is massive overspending happening? Are the prices close? Are the other owners allocating more for a certain position than another, etc? What makes auction pricing difficult is that you have to make certain adjustments on the fly. And those adjustments are likely going to happen based on the pricing of these first 40 players. The good news is a program like the Draft Dominator will dynamically adjust auction pricing as completed bids are finished.

    Besides assessing the overall and positional pricing, you have to assess how to spend the rest of your cap after every player selected. Obviously if you land a top RB that costs you $50, that will impact what other players you should target. I generally don't worry about this IF I am adding starters. If you get another stud RB at 70 to 75% of value, pull the trigger. But be VERY CAREFUL bidding on players that will not be starters for you. Getting value on the 3rd and 4th RB after spending half of your cap on RBs 1 and 2 will not yield the best possible team.

    This is where all this gets really messy with a one article fits all strategy. After 40-50 players have been selected, I think to be successful, you have to have a very detailed positional plan that you are building your team towards. At your team's core are the players you selected in the first 40-50 picks. Each of these should be a great value.

    The Master Plan for your 20 spots

    I go into every auction and map out a general strategy. This is the strategy assuming you got everyone at average cost and you built your team around the best of these values (players highlighted in green in the chart). I usually pencil in my hopeful player, but I am not locked into these players. The values are placeholders and reflect the $200 cap. As you add players (hopefully at deep discounts), you need to adjust the Master Plan based on cap left and changes in strength/weakness of your roster.

    Here is an example of a Master Plan (Value Approach)

  • QB1 - Michael Vick, PHI/7 ($18)
  • QB2 - Robert Griffin III, WAS/10 ($9)
  • RB1 - Fred Jackson, BUF/8 ($24)
  • RB2 - Doug Martin, TB/5 ($22)
  • RB3 - Reggie Bush, MIA/7 ($17)
  • RB4 - Donald Brown, IND/4 ($9)
  • RB5 - Felix Jones, DAL/5 ($2)
  • RB6 - Bilal Powell, NYJ ($1)
  • WR1 - Percy Harvin, MIN/11 ($21)
  • WR2 - Dwayne Bowe, KC/7 ($16)
  • WR3 - Steve Johnson, BUF/8 ($15)
  • WR4 - Torrey Smith, BAL/8 ($10)
  • WR5 - Malcom Floyd, SD/7 ($5)
  • WR6 - Brandon LaFell, CAR/6 ($2)
  • WR7 - Jerome Simpson, MIN/11 ($1)
  • TE1 - Aaron Hernandez, NE/9 ($18)
  • TE2 - Brent Celek, PHI/7 ($3)
  • TE3 - Dustin Keller, NYJ/9 ($2)
  • PK1 - Garrett Hartley, NO/6 ($1)
  • Def1 - New England Patriots, NE/9 (1)
  • Cost is $197 which is close enough for planning purposes. It's almost always better to craft a master plan that is a few dollars less than your budget in case a few players go for an extra dollar or two.

    Recapping, you use a plan as a baseline. As you land players, pencil them in and adjust the plan accordingly. As players you had hoped to land go for more than expected, cross them off the plan and adjust the plan accordingly with other players.

    Early Middle Auction - Picks 50-100

    Just like the middle rounds of a draft, there will be varied opinions on a lot of these players. Some will be very expensive and others should be nice bargains. Bid to secure the people within your plan during these middle stages. I prefer to nominate positions where I am the strongest at during this phase. If you landed Matt Ryan at a discount, just keep nominating QBs since you would like these players going as close to full price as possible.

    Keep adjusting your master plan to ensure you use up all of your dollars available without overspending too much on any one player to limit your participation in the back half of the draft.

    Late Middle Auction - Picks 100-150

    If you weren't active much early in the draft, you likely will control the action in this stage. These players usually come at a discount, but a team crafted with all $5-$10 players is usually a weak one (Deep, but usually not explosive enough to beat teams in non-bye weeks). I like to have done solid bidding up to this phase so that I am just looking for the best of these deals. In this phase, you should try and slide your $1/$2 players you have targeted through. Most of the owners will allow a cheap kicker through because they don't want to spend the extra dollar either.

    The End Game

    Usually this phase consists of bad players left, but if you have crafted a team with great starters with limited depth then these nominations can be the difference between a good and great auction. Cheap handcuffs, swing for the fences picks are the norm here. If I need to be active in the end game, I prefer allowing myself at least $2 for half of my remaining picks. Let's assume you have 8 spots left to fill. You should leave yourself with at least $12 to fill these spots. This allows you maximum flexibility to nominate at $1 and bid $2 on the best players left. You should not bid $5 and then leave yourself with just $7 to get 7 players (even if the $5 bid is a player worth more than the $5). It's all about cap management in the endgame. You can squeeze a considerable amount of value in this phase, but unfortunately it's mostly bench strength. Always manage your cap sufficiently so that you can spend all your dollars, but if it means controlling the last 50-75 picks, I think eating a dollar or two is ok too.

    The QB Plan

    Not a lot of value with the early picks. I have seen Matt Ryan get a deep discount in some auctions though. Be ready to capitalize on that should it present itself. If Ryan is too expensive, you can usually get great value with Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Ben Roethlisberger, and Jay Cutler. You need to end up with one from this list, if not two.

    The RB Plan

    I suggest you avoid the big names (Top 5-10) as none will go below market value in my opinion. I like crafting a unit consisting of Doug Martin, Fred Jackson, Reggie Bush, CJ Spiller, Donald Brown, Stevan Ridley, Rashad Jennings, Mark Ingram, and DeAngelo Williams as I have seen those players slide considerably. The extra value you can preserve by avoiding a top ten RB selection should allow you to dominate the rest of the auction.

    The WR Plan

    Value always emerges at wide receiver. Just stay active and you will grab some players at a deep discount. Avoid the consensus top WRs, but be active in landing solid ones (WR10 through WR25) to field a solid team. Steve Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, and Torrey Smith are three guys that often go at deep discounts. WRs 22-36 usually are among the best bargains in any auction. These guys generally go for $6-$12. Even if you can't start all these players, most will command good trade value in start 3 WR leagues once the bye weeks hit.

    The TE Plan

    Target Aaron Hernandez as a difference maker at tis position. If you get him, there will be many cheap options late as the position is deeper than usual years.

    The PK Plan

    My plan usually involves spending at most $2 to get a decent kicker.

    The Defense Plan

    A lot of this depends on how well I end up managing my cap. I generally will spend about $3 to get a top 5 defense.

    More Thoughts

  • Nominate players you can't use early in the process. If you know you aren't going to bid high on Peyton Manning then nominate him early while everyone has lots of dollars available. Remember your goal is to start every other team going down the wrong road of cap allocation.

  • Follow an overpriced bid with a player from the same position that is generally considered better. If DeMarco Murray fetches $40, then nominate Chris Johnson (a player most value higher than DeMarco) next. The point you are attempting to achieve is to continue having people overbid on players.

  • Don't feel left out if you are consistently being outbid early. Conservative cap management early usually leads to great teams. Just don't be so cheap that you find yourself without good starters to purchase.

  • Since only the top defenses and kickers usually go for anything more than the minimum, nominate the 5th or 6th best at these positions for a dollar. You will either get this player or force someone to waste a dollar or more. Either way you have succeeded.

  • Never increase your bid by more than the minimum. The auction is not the place to show how macho you are. Getting players as cheaply as possible is always the correct route.

  • Very early in the auction, you can sometimes get cute by announcing junk at the minimum bid. Junk players have some value, but would likely go for the minimum at the end of the auction. But announced early, they sometimes go for $5. Sit back and smile when RB LeGarrette Blount gets bid up and these same owners don't have the money to bid on quality elsewhere.

  • Don't participate in a bidding war (cost of bid is greater than player's worth) in an attempt to drive up what others pay. This can backfire fast and mess up your roster in a hurry.

  • During the auction, adjust undrafted player values dynamically based on previous bids in this auction. (This is very hard to do manually, but we do this automatically with our Draft Dominator software). This is very important to make sure you are not overbidding during the draft. A player's dynamic value can change significantly during the draft if massive over-bidding/under-bidding occurs.

  • When the bid gets to two to three owners, evaluate the seriousness of their bid by examining their core roster and dollar requirements left. It might be wise to give up on a player as the dollars drained may serve a better purpose towards minimizing the number of owners who can block you from getting certain talent later.

  • Never leave money on the table at the end of the auction. Winning teams spend their entire cap and you need to do the same. Being so conservative that no good players are left to spend all of your dollars at the end of the draft is terrible cap management.
  • Consider creating value by taking two players involved in a depth chart controversy. The controversy allows both of the players to be undervalued and can protect your roster against injury.

  • Don't assume a few overvalued superstars will kill a team. Just because an owner overpays for a few players does not mean they will be terrible. Owners that power their team with a few superstars usually lack depth, but if they are anchored by Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Foster, and Jimmy Graham they may not need it (if all stay healthy). I prefer a solid deep team, but have seen some experts allocate 90+% of their cap on their 4 top players. Just don't let these teams steal guys real late when everyone else is broke.

  • Track everyone's picks and dollars available. You can easily do this by using the Draft Dominator.
  • As always, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to dodds@footballguys.com

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