What We Learned from Auction Drafting Mistakes in 2019

Lessons to be learned from mistakes made in 2019 auction drafts 

Auction drafting is often more of an art form than a science. Each room has different personalities, and those personalities bounce off each other in unpredictable ways. This means that even after completing an auction we could erase all the teams and start over and get completely different prices on the same players. The order of nomination, the point of the draft at which a player gets nominated, and the available money all greatly influence the bottom line of every single player auctioned. This means that we are in the difficult position of analyzing the possibilities of a draft when those possibilities are quite literally, infinite. That means we are going to make mistakes! In almost 25 years of auction drafts I’ve come out of many rooms feeling great, or disappointed, in my final roster. But I’ve never left a room and thought that I had the perfect draft. There’s always a point in the draft at which I make a mistake that turns out to be a big mistake or it leads to a bunch of smaller mistakes that ripple out and weaken my final team. We have to be comfortable knowing we’ll likely never have a perfect auction although that should always be our goal!

But if we make those mistakes and don’t go back to examine them then we are losing a major learning tool to improve with each year. We should look at our auctions a minimum of two times before the next season rolls around. One time should be after the draft before the season starts, and the other time should be after the season ends. It would be helpful to take a look about 4-6 weeks into the season as well, but it’s less critical.

As we know though, every auction is different so it’s difficult to analyze any auction as you would a snake draft by saying, “Player X went in the middle of the 4th round, which was exceptional value compared to his end of 2nd round average draft position.” Instead, we have to isolate trends and concepts that will guide us generally as we enter drafts. Details are important, but if we get caught up in saying that because Player Y went for $51 it was a bad or good price, then we’re missing the whole point of the exercise. We have to also analyze when the player went off the board and all the surrounding factors in order to come up with a big picture that gives us our general framework for attacking drafts.

So what did I learn in 2019 from looking at my drafts? It won’t help to know how to attack my particular drafts because I know those owners and know what they’re likely to do. Furthermore, mistakes in player evaluation aren’t that important for this article. We all make mistakes on being too high or low on players, but right now we are focusing on how to avoid mistakes in the strategy and theory of the art of auction drafting. So what I’ve done is to isolate my biggest mistakes from 2019 drafting to turn them into lessons we can learn before we draft in 2020. We’ll go through them by looking first at the concept we are discussing, the mistake I made, and the lesson we can get from it.

Concept #1: Isolate possible breakout players and be prepared to spend a few extra dollars for those players. Bidding a few extra dollars for top players, or possible breakout players, is usually better than saving that money for later in the draft.

Mistake: I think we’ll just call this the Lamar Jackson Rule from now on. In every single auction room I entered in 2019 I intended to roster Jackson and failed to do so every single time. Why? Because he went for a few more bucks than I wanted to pay in every single draft. In retrospect it’s downright silly that I wanted to spend $4-$9 on a quarterback and would balk at paying $12 or $14 for Jackson. The money is always tight in auctions, so that $5-$8 can be important for landing top talent at other positions. But failing to take a swing on breakout players can literally be the difference in winning a title or losing in the first round of the playoffs. Saving those few dollars to make your fourth wide receiver better seems like a sound play on draft day, but in reality it has what I would expect to be a negative expected value over the long run.

Lesson: The lesson here isn’t complicated, but before dismissing this idea as hindsight, I’m not making the argument that “Lamar Jacksons” are found every year. We are going to miss quite a bit swinging for the fences on breakout players but if we never pay the few extra bucks for players *like* Jackson then we never score those big roster boosts that win us titles. In 2019 Darren Waller and Mark Andrews were also good examples, even if to a lesser degree. Consider two historical examples.

In 2016 Todd Gurley played for Jeff Fisher and an awful rookie quarterback by the name of Jared Goff. Gurley was highly touted out of college but hadn’t produced a big season yet. He had just over 1,200 total yards, 43 receptions, and a scant 6 touchdowns that year. In 2017 he was a trendy pick as someone who had potential, had a new coach, and could break out given the right circumstance. All he did was produce almost 2,100 yards, 64 receptions, 19 total touchdowns, and countless fantasy titles.

In 2010 Rob Gronkowski was a rookie. He tallied 42 receptions and 546 yards but scored a whopping 10 touchdowns. Heading into 2011 the debate was about whether or not this was a fluke. But in most of my auctions his price tag was still rather cheap. In fact, I went back and consulted a couple drafts from that season and I paid just $2 to grab Gronk in one of my leagues at the end of the draft. He went on to record 90 receptions, 1327 yards, and 17 touchdowns that year.

Does this mean we should hop on every hot name or trendy player? Of course not! But we have to remember that if we never spend that couple extra bucks in an auction because a player has too much risk or goes higher than we wanted then we are missing out on possible league winners. After all, are we in these auctions to save a few bucks for Jamison Crowder or are we in it to try and find the next Gronk, Gurley, or Jackson?

Concept #2: The smaller the league, the more we should use a top-heavy approach to auctions.

Mistake: I found myself in an unusual position in a couple 10-team auctions in 2019. I drafted extremely deep teams that were loaded with good players at every position. But notice I said “good”. Most of my players weren’t Great. Unfortunately, in those leagues I either suffered an injury or missed on my player evaluations and my rosters ended up as extremely mediocre. Drafting for depth in smaller leagues is a mistake unless you nail some or all of your cheaper players who break out. It can be done but the difficulty level is much higher.

Lesson: We must load up on as much elite talent as we can the smaller the league gets. In 14-16 team leagues we can try and fill out a more balanced roster, but as we get down in the 10 team range it is essential to attempt to differentiate at as many positions as possible. This means paying for a top tight end, or a breakout quarterback, or simply throwing a ton of money at two top 8 running backs.

Concept #3: Save the cheapest nominations for later in the draft so that we don’t have to nominate players we really want when money is tight. The easiest players to save are the kicker, defense, and the final two roster positions regardless of position.

Mistake: Saving those nominations too long negates their value. Unfortunately, I held on to those nominations hoping that players would fall to me because the market would correct itself in time for me to clean up at the end of the draft. It didn’t materialize and I was left with too much money.

Lesson: Auction drafts are like finely choreographed dances. If we miss a step early on then we are behind for the entirety of the dance. Instead of doubling down on an early misstep and making it look like we are just barely behind the game we have to instead break out completely and get back on the beat. What does this look like in an auction?

If it looks like the draft is getting away from us and we need to get some players, it does no good to hold our nominations for later because they’ll have less value than they normally would. The money will be SO scarce that we can simply nominate who we want, get them for roughly what we wanted, and move on. Having a throw away nomination or two equates to dancing a few steps behind the beat the whole time. Instead, we should be abandoning the strategy and jumping in with our “throw away” nominations in order to avoid throwing our most valued nominations into the current feeding frenzy. In that spot it’s best to simply stall as much as possible and let the money run out. That’s a judgment call as the draft unfolds but I know I learned a valuable lesson this year when I didn’t use those nominations quickly enough and my favorite players were fed into the aggressive action too early and I missed out because they were too expensive.

Concept #4: At the beginning of the draft you should see some early deals that I call the Settling In Bonus. When drafters are settling into the draft and have a full salary cap there is often a deal on the first few players that will greatly outpace other deals in the draft.

Mistake: Failing to connect the early deals with position scarcity as the draft develops.

Lesson: It stands to reason that if there are a couple of deals on some top players early on that the money will be squeezed into the rest of the top talent. But this is easy to forget as the draft is unfolding. The other lesson (covered just below) is that the money won’t necessarily flow straight down the draft board to the rest of the players in an even fashion. Instead we should expect the money to be top-heavy to some degree and flow to the better players. If we sit down in an auction room and there is a deal on Dalvin Cook, and then a deal on Julio Jones, the effect of the early price discount may not be as profound. But if the deal on Cook is followed by a deal on Alvin Kamara then we need to realize that we are going to be overpaying for a running back later even if that player is an inferior prospect to Cook or Kamara. It’s a bad idea to get caught up in the thought that “well Kamara went for $56, I’m not paying $61 for Henry,” because that is keeping us behind the auction dance routine. Instead, we must ignore the $56 and put up the money to make sure we aren’t shut out. Yes that price hurts but it’s better than ending up with Marlon Mack as our top back.

Concept #5: An aggressive market for players early will always lead to a depression on prices later. The best drafters can tell when that will happen and take advantage. This sometimes means overpaying for top talent to avoid getting shut out of first and second round level players.

Mistake: If we wait too long when the bidding is aggressive we will end up with a team that has no first or second round picks. Yes the market will come back to us at some point, but if we wait too long it will shut us out of any elite player.

Lesson: Common auction strategy says that when the market is overly hot early it will lead to good deals later. That has largely been the case in past years. That was wrong to some extent this past year. Instead of finding deals on the players just below elite level, the market absolutely cratered on the middle tier players and the money shifted to the top players. So it was possible to build a team with several elite players and still have very good players at our backup spots. I failed to recognize this as it was happening. Obviously it’s easy to see this in hindsight, but it’s such a valuable lesson it is important to be on guard for it. The way to try and anticipate this phenomenon is to work our tiers to the point that we can see this developing during the draft. If we think there is a drop-off from Alvin Kamara to Joe Mixon their relative prices can clue us in as to whether this might be happening. If Kamara goes for $58, but then Mixon goes for $56 an alarm bell should be ringing in our heads that tells us to jump in now or be shut out. Our team may end up looking pretty because we get 5 third or fourth-round running backs, but ultimately it will have a detrimental effect with the dearth of elite players. The consequence of this result is that we give ourselves much more difficult lineup decisions each week on who we should be starting.

We can look at last year’s articles on Mastering the Art of the Auction for more in-depth discussion and details on all of these lessons, but it’s perhaps most interesting to me that I spent all summer writing about these concepts and still failed to execute them perfectly in all of my drafts. That’s auction drafting in a nutshell. If we can remember two things and only two things it would be this: 1) we can never assume the current auctions will go like the previous ones; and 2) we are always walking the tightrope between letting the draft come to us and letting the draft pass us by.

I was able to stock up on some really deep teams in 2019 with good players, but my rosters had no star power and they suffered when things didn’t go perfectly. So in 2020, if our auctions start with overly strong bidding and the spending continues to be too aggressive, it’s not safe to assume the deals will come on second tier talent. Instead, we’ll need to jump in and take the hit on some top players. The silver lining is that if the market craters like it did this year then we’ll be left with the best of both worlds – elite talent and excellent depth. It’s the ultimate goal of any auction drafter. This year will undoubtedly teach us some new lessons but for now we have to renew our goal of being flexible, yet aggressive, and nimble, yet dogged in pursuit of elite talent. There is always something to learn from every auction we do and paying attention to those mistakes makes us better every year.