Lessons Learned from My 2020 Auctions

Looking back at 2020 auction results to learn lessons for 2021 drafts. 

One of the things I have stressed in my auction advice here at Footballguys is that there are plenty of lessons to be learned by studying the previous year’s auction results as a part of the process for preparing for the coming season. This allows someone to see what was successful, what didn’t work, and how each league treated different situations. No two auctions are ever the same, but leagues do have a personality that they take on and it helps to be tuned into it when hopping from auction to auction.

But, despite the complicated task of predicting auction behavior, there are some similar threads woven through all of them that will help us draft in 2021. Here’s some lessons I learned, and maybe some that I had to re-learn, from my 2020 auction season.

QUARTERBACK MATTERS

It is very en vogue in the fantasy community to play the waiting game on quarterbacks in start-one quarterback leagues. But that may finally be creating a pocket of value that there hasn’t been before. The idea that QB1s can be had cheaply has reached a saturation point and quarterback auction prices continue to fall each year. Obviously there will always be a market for Patrick Mahomes II, but below Mahomes there is an interesting price cliff that can be exploited in auctions.

I had been noticing for a few years that as the “wait on quarterback” crowd grew, there developed a cliff that was somewhat predictable. There will always be managers that want a top quarterback, and there will be managers that absolutely refuse to pay more than a few bucks. It is in the middle where savvy bidders can make hay.

In 2020 Patrick Mahomes II and Lamar Jackson demanded the most money in the room. Behind those two there were names like Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson. They still commanded a decent share of the cap that was too large, in the $14-$20 range (assuming $200 cap), but not in the same ballpark as Jackson or Mahomes. In some instances there was a sizeable enough cliff that Murray/Prescott/Wilson were values in and of themselves. But even more likely was a drop from the Murray/Prescott/Wilson trio to two massive fantasy jackpots: Deshaun Watson and Josh Allen. They could be had in a lot of drafts for $6-$10. It remains to be seen who will fall into that category this year, but ADP data will tell that story as the draft season gets deeper into the summer.

Of course guys like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady were big values last year too, but they would fall to the crowd waiting until the end of the draft so that is part of a different discussion. So, the value pocket seemed to fall in the QB5-10 range in 2020. When the price dropped precipitously after Mahomes and Jackson, one of two things usually happened: One of Murray/Prescott/Wilson became a steep value, or Watson/Allen cost just a few bucks ahead of the late round $1-$3 quarterbacks. Either way it was virtually guaranteed that all a drafter had to do was to be patient, wait for one of those five to be too cheap, and pounce. It happened in virtually every auction I was a part of, and it only required a few more dollars than the bargain quarterbacks. Spending a few extra bucks on quarterback is becoming a strong play in auctions.

QUARTERBACK MATTERS…TO A POINT

This is a lesson I had to re-learn last year. It is almost never a profitable move to spend top dollar on quarterback. Despite having noticed the value pocket I talked about in the last section, I ignored myself in a couple auctions and went strong for Lamar Jackson. I correctly predicted that Jackson would be a fairly significant discount from the price tag Mahomes would command. So, I had decided if he ended up in a certain price range I would have no problem paying the second-most in the league for a quarterback who could rush for 1,000 yards.

The problem was, I didn’t pay enough attention to two big factors. The first was Jackson’s incredible 9.0% touchdown rate from 2019. Of course I was aware that he would regress, but I thought his rushing upside would still make him the QB2 at season’s end. He wasn’t awful in 2020, but he was nowhere near the top couple quarterbacks at the end of the year.

The second factor was the proliferation of rushing quarterbacks. Nobody is running for 1,000 yards like Jackson, but he is no longer the unicorn that running quarterbacks used to be. In 2020 there were 15 quarterbacks who had over 200 yards rushing and eight that cracked 400 yards. Additionally, there were an incredible nine quarterbacks that had five or more rushing touchdowns.

In the end Mahomes was still near the top of the position and he rightfully earned the top price in auctions. But the difference between Mahomes and the rest of the top five at the position wasn’t nearly enough to justify the lofty price. Watson, Allen, Wilson, Murray, and even Prescott (had he not been injured) were a fraction of Mahomes’ price tag and produced comparable numbers. That group doesn’t even include Rodgers or Brady who crashed the QB1 party as well. Spending top dollar on quarterback still isn’t advisable in an auction.

BARGAIN SHOPPING REQUIRES HUMILITY

No fantasy analyst is perfect. Even the best analysts will be wrong about players. Furthermore, even when they’re right, players can often underperform through no fault of their own because of injuries, coaching changes, or other unforeseen obstacles.

Auction drafters who wait until the end of their auctions to pay a few dollars for their quarterbacks and tight ends need to have one important ingredient: humility. We are going to be wrong quite a bit when trying to nail a late auction value at these positions. It is the nature of the game. For example, in 2020 Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff, Cam Newton, and Daniel Jones were all popular cheap options. They were all fairly poor for fantasy purposes when compared to their peers.

Similarly, the late round tight end position was a wasteland with names like Austin Hooper, Eric Ebron, Tyler Higbee, and Evan Engram posting mediocre seasons despite late-auction buzz.

So where does the humility come in? It is important not to get too confident in one outcome for certain players to the point that it limits the options. If an owner becomes convinced that Higbee is the answer, to the exclusion of others, then it can prove to be a huge problem for the entire season if that player busts. Instead, bargain shopping should include taking two, or even three, players at these positions. It is a stronger play to grab multiple players at these positions to ensure a roster has a top-level starter than to take a fifth or sixth running back or seventh wide receiver that has a low hit rate.

I have been using this strategy almost exclusively for the last four to five years at the tight end position and it is paying dividends. In 2020 I tried to get some exposure to Tyler Higbee in case his late season surge wasn’t a fluke. But I didn’t want my season tied to what could’ve been a flash in the pan (it was). In instances where I drafted Higbee I made sure to draft someone like T.J. Hockenson in order to spread out my risk.

One drafter I remember in particular in one of my leagues used this strategy to perfection at the quarterback spot by drafting Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers both for just a few bucks. Obviously both of them hit, but if one hadn’t, the other was excellent insurance. Similarly, if someone took Tom Brady, Allen, or Rodgers, along with another late flyer they ensured themselves two shots at a Top 6-8 player instead of one. This method isn’t foolproof (as my teams with Stafford and Goff can attest), but it’s got a higher rate of success (as my teams with Ryan Tannehill and Teddy Bridgewater can attest) than drafting just one and hoping for the best.

I think it is important to swallow the certainty that we may have about players and spread out the risk when bargain shopping at these two positions late in auctions.

THE RB2 MORASS

One of the best parts of doing auctions over snake drafts is being able to fade certain players that otherwise can’t be avoided in a serpentine style. The best example of this from 2020 was the complete morass at the RB2 position. In snake drafts it was hard to ignore certain guys like James Conner, David Johnson, Mark Ingram II, and Devin Singletary in the 3rd to 5th round territory when they fell that far. But in auctions it was much easier to ignore that group of running backs altogether, or to play the scattershot approach with these guys and get several of them to spread out the risk.

Instead of being forced into a running back that I didn’t want last year, I shifted my resources to the wide receiver position. As most drafters realized last year with their snake drafts, the wide receiver position had a glut of guys who were perfect for that 4th to 7th round range. Auctions allowed drafters to completely skip, or mitigate the risk, of the RB2 morass and grab extra value at wide receiver. This is likely to continue in 2021.

STACKING WIDE RECEIVERS

Another trend that continues in fantasy football is that after a few elite options at the wide receiver position, there is a huge group of guys that have a case to be a strong WR2 with upside. Last year that group was in the neighborhood of twenty-five players deep. As a result, auction drafters were not particular with who they grabbed because there was so little difference between all of the players in that group. That tended to significantly depress the prices in that group and make for a huge buying opportunity. There were still plenty of players in that group who went for significant money, or for what they should go for, but inevitably there were bargains everywhere in that surplus of receivers.

So, I had decided prior to drafts that I wanted to be extra cautious with my depth because of the covid pandemic, and because of the uncertainty of so little offseason work and what it would do to injury numbers. Plus, I had been paying more attention in recent years to how strongly some of my deeper teams performed through bye weeks and injuries. What I noticed was that due to this burgeoning group of productive wide receivers it was now cheaper than ever in auctions to stack five or six really strong wide receiver options. It doesn’t sound super exciting in August, but when it’s the middle of November and there are three guys hurt and two on bye, plugging in that strong fifth wide receiver that was rostered for $9 feels pretty good.

KICKERS ARE STILL KICKERS

I almost did it this year. Almost. I had compiled a really strong team and still sat there with too much money in my auction budget. Harrison Butker was called out and I almost paid $3 for him just to lock up a good kicker on a great offense. But I held off. I have still never paid more than $1 for a kicker. Ever. Butker finished as the 14th best fantasy kicker in 2020. It would’ve hurt my team to start him for the season instead of the guy I picked off the waiver wire, one Younghoe Koo. The other guy people were paying $2-$4 for was Justin Tucker and he finished as the 8th best kicker. Resist the urge and let others make this mistake.

CONCLUSION

These are some of the biggest things I took away from my auctions, but there are dozens of more minor decisions or occurrences during draft season that teach me new things every year. In order to keep advancing as an auction drafter it is imperative to go back and review prices, how things flowed, and who did what after every auction. Patterns like those articulated above begin to become apparent the more time spent doing it. Auctions are rarely solvable but gaining any edge we can is the key to getting better.


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