Since the creation of fantasy football, the traditional serpentine draft format has dominated the game. The draft takes the player selection process from the first pick to last in odd numbered rounds and the last pick to first in even numbered rounds. In all likelihood, this is the format you experienced in your first fantasy draft. However, in the past five years, an alternative to the traditional serpentine draft has seen an incredible rise in popularity – it’s known as the auction draft.
At its most basic level, auction drafting democratizes the drafting process in that it allows any owner to obtain any player, given the owner is willing to pay more than any of his or her fellow owners. This format is easily understandable by many fantasy players due to a widespread familiarity with the concept given the popularity of EBay. It's this familiarity, coupled with the freedom to shape their own rosters, which has appealed to fantasy players who are either deeply experienced or new to the game.
Just as a host of draft strategies have developed over time in order to help owners gain an advantage in serpentine drafts, so too have strategies developed for auction drafts. Two universal strategies have thus proven to be the most effective for a majority of owners. Each of the following strategies has both its advantages and drawbacks. However, if employed properly, an owner should complete the auction with the type of team desired.
Each basic strategy is tailor-made to suit the specific style of play of the owner who employs it. While these strategies are generally much newer than the strategies developed surrounding serpentine drafts, they are generally much more flexible and refined than their serpentine brethren.
Let's take a look at the two universal strategies that can be employed in any auction draft and a bonus one to be used only in a dynasty format:
Overview: This strategy is best employed by owners who are supremely confident in their ability to rank and project players. It maximizes the amount an owner can spend on starters they plan to start week-in and week-out and comes at the expense of the owner's bench. This strategy is particularly effective in leagues where there is no lower level requirement on the number of players required on a team.
Executive Summary: The "Aggressive" strategy requires an owner to allocate the maximum amount of salary cap possible to spend on a pre-defined starting lineup while allocating the minimum amount of salary cap possible to the owner's bench.
Example: Imagine a fictional league with a $100.00 salary cap in which an owner is required to start five players (QB, RB, WR, TE, Flex). That owner must roster 15 players and the minimum bid is $1.00. This means that an owner has a 10 player bench (15 players on roster - 5 players used in their starting lineup). The owner must set aside $10.00 for their bench (10 bench players * $1.00 minimum bid) and has $90.00 to allocate to their starting lineup. The owner must then allocate the corresponding percentage of that $90.00 to the percentage of points each player in the starting lineup is projected to contribute. If the running back (RB) is projected to score 30% of the owner's starting lineup points then he should be allocated a maximum value of $27.00 ($90.00 allocated to the starting lineup * 30% of the overall starting lineup points projected to be scored by the RB). Assign maximum values for each player and only deviate from those values if salary cap money is freed up by winning another player for less than what they were allocated for.
Why It Works: This strategy increases the likelihood that several elite players can be obtained by the owner who employs it. This "all-in" approach allows the owner who to consistently outspend nearly any owner they face in a bidding war. As a result, the starting lineup this owner can field on a weekly basis has a greater chance of outscoring his or her opponents on a consistent basis. Most owners will seek to have a balanced team to account for injury risk and errors in projecting player value. An owner who utilizes an "Aggressive" strategy acknowledges these risks but believes the possibility of winning it all with a superior starting lineup outweighs them.
Why You Should Avoid It: The amount of risk an owner assumes when using this strategy is significant. One injury to a member of the starting lineup and the owner's season is in serious jeopardy. The risk is magnified due to the fact the owner's bench players are likely marginal starters due to other owners outbidding them for the middle-tier players in the league.
Overview: This strategy is best employed by owners who want to have flexibility in their lineup decisions. It allows an owner to continue to be competitive in the event of one or more injuries or in the case of poorly projecting long-term performance of players. This kind of flexibility is due to the ability to remain competitive in the bidding of players throughout the auction process. It is effective in leagues where the skill and experience level of the owners is generally equal.
Executive Summary: The "Balanced" strategy specifies an owner to allocate between 50% and 75% of their salary cap to their starting lineup and the remaining 25% to 50% to the bench players.
Example: Using the same league setup specified in the previous strategy (five starting players, 15 players on a roster, $100.00 salary cap, $1.00 minimum bid), an owner must first determine how much they want to set aside for their bench players. In this example an owner has decided to allocate 40% of their salary cap to their bench ($40.00 allocation, $100.00 salary cap * 40% bench allocation). Using the same RB target outlined in the previous strategy (30% of starting lineup projected points), the maximum value for this player would be $18.00 ($60.00 allocated to the starting lineup * 30% of the overall starting lineup points projected to be scored by the RB). Just as each starting lineup target was assigned a price value based on this strategy, so too must every bench player receive an assigned value. Using a similar method to the starting lineup value assignment, an owner must first develop a list of players to target. Once the 10 bench players have been identified, they too must each receive a point projection for their upcoming season.
Once a projection has been established for each player, those projections must be added and each player projection must be divided by the projection total to obtain the projected percentage of points that each player will contribute to the team's bench points. In this scenario, imagine an owner is targeting a wide receiver (WR) who is projected to score 100 points for the season and the owner's bench is projected to score 1,000 points over the season. Since this owner allocated $40.00 to their bench the player would have a value of $4.00 (1,000 projected bench points / 100 projected player points = 10% of the allocated bench salary, $40.00 allocated to the bench * 10% = $4.00 allocated to the targeted player). Once this process is performed for each player, an owner can head into their auction well prepared with a maximum price they should be willing to pay for each player. Any player who is obtained for less than expected would allow those salary cap savings to be added to a "slush fund" that could either be allocated to in-season waivers or used to supplement a bid for a specific player that may have exceeded the expected price.
Why It Works: The "Balanced" strategy allows for an owner to be flexible both during the auction process and during the season due to less stratification between starting lineup players and bench players. Additionally, owners are much better equipped to deal with player injuries, non-favorable match-ups and players who don't perform as projected. As opposed to the "Aggressive" strategy which produces a top heavy roster, the "Balanced" strategy produces a roster more similar to a traditional serpentine format with players at varying skill levels and equipped to deal with adversity within the season. An owner utilizing a "Balanced" strategy wishes to be prepared for the unforeseen and wants the flexibility to deal with these eventualities.
Why You Should Avoid It: When utilizing this strategy an owner must receive good-to-excellent games from every player they start. With a roster of players that range from very good all the way to average, this is asking a lot of your team week-in and week-out. Furthermore, this strategy is by far the most common so owners who employ it will need to rely on a bit of luck each week to pull out a win. Much like serpentine drafted teams, teams who use the strategy will be pitting lineups composed of similar players against one another. Simply put, while the "Aggressive" owner is simply depending on his or her players to not get hurt, the "Balanced" owner is depending on their players to at least perform as expected, if not outperform their expectations in order to pull out a win on a weekly basis.
While the two strategies outlined thus far can be used in any auction draft, the following strategy should only be considered by owners who are participating in an auction draft for a dynasty league:
Overview: The "Investing" strategy focuses on building a young dynasty team that isn't designed to compete in an effective manner in the early years of the league. Instead, the team is designed to mature by the third or fourth season of the league and remain anywhere from competitive to dominant for many years following. An owner who pursues this strategy accepts the fact they will lose in the initial years of the league but recoup those losses in later years. The "Investing" owner purposely foregoes expensive veterans and focuses on accumulating young talent, leaving themselves a lot of salary cap room to make moves in the future.
Executive Summary: An owner who accepts the challenge of using an "Investing" strategy must also accept the pain that comes with enduring several losing seasons while the strategy comes to fruition. This owner is generally free to spend whatever it takes to obtain younger players due to the increased likelihood that those players’ values will be lower and generally affordable. Even when spending heavily for desirable young players, owners can generally make up the difference with the savings they are able to recoup by staying out of the heavy bidding wars that surround established veteran players.
Example: An owner who subscribes to the "Investing" strategy in the example league would bid on first and second year players with a clear path to starting very quickly. This owner would need to acquire at least a starting lineup that will see significant playing time in Year one but can fill the remainder of their roster with young players who either play limited snaps or have a clear path to significant playing time within one to two years. An "Investing" owner would typically allocate anywhere from a third to half of the salary cap toward acquiring a young, solid starting lineup core to build around. Another quarter to third of the salary cap would be dedicated to acquiring young players with high-upside for prices that never float too far above the league minimum. The unallocated salary that remains can be used for either in-season waiver acquisitions or as a bargaining chip in trade discussions.
Why It Works: A team built around an "Investing" strategy is a team built to last for many years and matures with its players. It is effective when several blue chip prospects are acquired for affordable prices and then develop into very good to elite players who consistently outperform their salaries. This strategy works best with a very patient and calculating owner who doesn't deviate from the plan despite suffering early losses. The key to success when using this strategy revolves around a delicate balance of low salary cap utilization, high performance vs. cost ratio and keeping the average age of a team on the lower end of the league average. Striking this balance presents a high-performing team that can absorb injuries and can be kept intact for many years.
Why You Should Avoid It: This strategy involves a significant amount of risk, which centers primarily on projecting the future success of players in the NFL without a track record to guide the owner. Additionally, assigning predefined salaries to players prior to the auction is extremely difficult as any projection assigned to young players tends, more often than not, to be little more than a guess and may rarely be accurate. It is just as likely an owner may overpay for a prospect, even at the league minimum, rather than acquiring a player who outperforms their contract.
Even if the strategy is successful, there is no guarantee the team that is ultimately built can find its way to recouping the lost entry fees spent in the early stages of the strategy.
Even the most prepared owner who completely understands each strategy outlined must understand, contend and deal with one ultimate variable - their own emotions. More often than not (especially during the auction itself), the biggest nemesis owners battle is their own set of primal emotions. The desire to punish other owners for challenging the owner's accumulation of a limited resource, the greed that owner feels out of a desire to own the best possible resources and the yearning to taunt others who would challenge that owner's desires are all present. Every owner feels these emotions to varying degrees during the auction process, it's normal, it's human. Unfortunately, these emotions were bred into humans to help our ancestors survive and thrive, but now tend to run amuck and sabotage owners who are no longer using them to survive. Instead these primal emotions now cloud decisions that require level-headed thinking for an owner to be successful.
The big question, of course, is how can an owner contain their counter-productive emotions and make those smart decisions?
The only real way to combat these emotions is to first recognize their emergence and to then back away from those feelings as quickly as possible. For instance, if an owner seems to be getting an extreme value on a player, many owners will attempt to increase the price on that player even without the need for getting that player themselves. Deep-seated feelings cause many owners to try and keep others from a perceived advantage (in this case a low salary for a desirable player). Owners must be aware of these unfavorable urges and suppress them. In the end, if an owner gives in to their emotions, they will derail any sensible strategy they had earlier committed themselves to and will ultimately damage their chances to win their league.
The most successful players who consistently win auction leagues specifically (and fantasy football in general), always come into a draft with a plan. Of course, no plan is perfect and each requires an owner to react as challenges arise. However, the prepared owner has a huge advantage over an owner who comes into the same draft with no plan and is forced to consistently react. The less an owner has to make decisions on the fly and the more he or she follows the plan they set forth, the better off they'll be.
This can be a fairly daunting topic to digest in one piece. However, the most important aspect to any auction that an owner decides to take part in is to remember to have fun! If no one is having fun, then really, what's the point?
The auction draft format is experiencing rapid growth for a reason - players enjoy it and so should you! It's important to remember that playing smart and having fun aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, the smarter an owner plays, the more fun they're bound to have. Employ a sound strategy and you’ll soon be counting your winnings or raising the league trophy.
Now that’s fun!