Fantasy football auction strategy

Updated: June 20, 2012, 10:56 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June 2011. We are bringing it back updated to reference the 2012 season for your convenience.

Draft preparation can be a stressful exercise, and judging by the frequency with which it is asked, this question exemplifies a key stress:

What is the worst draft position to have?

We fantasy owners sweat that every year. We pray for the No. 1 pick in 2007, the season subsequent to LaDainian Tomlinson setting the single-season record for fantasy points. Then we prefer the No. 4 pick in 2011, because we regard the top four running backs as interchangeable, and would rather let someone else make the tough decisions and leave us with an easy choice. And every year, death and taxes represent the only two worse fates for us than scoring the dreaded 10-spot … which is ironic because the harder we root against getting stuck there, the more it becomes as inevitable we will as, well, death and taxes.

Folks, there's a very simple answer to the question about draft position, an easy fix that will make that particular stress melt away.

Hold an auction.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIn an auction, everyone has the same shot at getting Arian Foster.

Gone are the frustrations of knowing that only one person in the room, one purely lucky individual, will even have a crack at Arian Foster. Gone is the internal struggle over how early you should select your quarterback, or your tight end. Gone is the annoyance that is losing the player that you oh-so-wanted, vultured by the very team with the pick right in front of you.

In an auction, it's no-holds-barred. If Foster is your object, you've got a can't-miss way to get him: Just open up your wallet and pay the extra buck. Want three first-round draft talents at the expense of having to fill the cracks with late-round, sleeper-caliber material? You can do that too. Have you always wanted to spread your risk, sacrificing top-shelf talent for the effective equivalent of populating your roster with every fifth-rounder in a draft? Again, that's a can-do.

Before we get to specific strategies, let's first provide some insight as to what an auction is. Each team in a given auction is granted a budget, usually $200, with which to "purchase" its roster of players, generally a 25-man roster. Players are nominated in a preset order, with the nominating team offering up a player for bid at a specific price; for example, "Chris Johnson, $15." At that point, any team can bid a higher price on that particular player, be it $1 or even $50 more, and the process continues until no other team is willing to trump the active bid. An auctioneer -- pick a colorful, entertaining character to fill these shoes should you be fortunate enough to arrange the experience live -- counts down the bid, "Once, twice, SOLD!" and then the process restarts with a new nominee. This continues until all teams in the league have filled every available roster spot. At no time is any team allowed to spend more money than was allocated at the start.

A full overview of ESPN's auction drafts, what they are and how they work, can also be found here.

Sounds simple, right? Hardly.

A keen strategy is imperative in an auction, much more so than in a serpentine draft, where an inexperienced owner can mask his or her shortcomings by hiding behind any ranked list of players. In an auction, players are usually nominated and sold in random order, bargains can be found at any point, as opposed to mostly in the later rounds of a draft, and market values can shift wildly from moment to moment.

At the same time, that shouldn't be misconstrued as your needing to have some snazzy, creatively named strategy to succeed in your auction. All too often, the owner who forcibly sets parameters to his or her strategy ends up the one with the least flexibility … and potentially the least attractive post-auction roster. It's a matter of knowing the tricks, mastering the traps and keeping your cool.

Knowing the tricks

Staff strategies

To provide some diversity in auction strategies, I asked ESPN's fantasy staff to share some of their most treasured secrets. Here is a sampling:

Pierre Becquey: I like to bid in $2-3 increments when I know I'm up against someone as serious as I am about that player (i.e. I don't expect them to let me have him easily). I think of it as proactive bid-stealing. If my opponent owns the bid at $17, why go $18 to have my opponent go $19 and put it back to me at $20? By skipping the bid directly to $19, you reverse the tables. It certainly helps to counter the slow escalation that is the "Oh, what's one dollar more?" attitude, while taking advantage of the psychological barriers that exist at the $10, $20 and $30 marks.

Shawn Cwalinski: Be as unpredictable as possible. I will nominate players I want, ones I don't want, throw a defense out early, jump a bid by $15, not bid until a player gets to $30 then increase the bid by $10, buy my busts if the price is right, etc. My goal is to keep everyone else off balance. Call it "schizophrenic drafting," if you will.

Christopher Harris: I tend to be fairly conservative when the high-dollar players are flowing early, but sometimes it actually pays to be the first person in on a position before the market gets set. For instance, once everyone knows that a premium wide receiver is being drafted for around $30, that's the number they tend to bid toward. If you throw out a top wide receiver you want early, occasionally you can catch your fellow drafters being gun-shy, and save a few bucks.

Dave Hunter: As boring as it sounds, I spend early and often. I want at least one superstar running back and wide receiver on my roster, so I usually find half of my budget gone after the first go-round of bids. There's nothing worse than leaving a whole bunch of money on the table. I also like to wait on quarterbacks due to the depth at the position. Landing a $5 Matt Ryan on my roster over a $50 Aaron Rodgers is key if I want my dollars going to running back and wide receiver.

Eric Karabell: I like to spend money early and often in football auctions (rarely in baseball, though), and I don't mind going a few bucks over budget to get what I want, even at the expense of bench depth. Yes, it often results in "stars and scrubs" teams, but I hate failing to go the extra dollar for a top-tier running back like LeSean McCoy and then being forced to spend nearly as much for, say, Ahmad Bradshaw. I suppose it sets the market, but really, I worry about the budget only after I acquire three or four stalwarts.

Jim McCormick: While seemingly simple, my approach to auctions is to be aggressive in going after the team I want. Balancing being budget-conscious and paying for the talent you prefer is vital, but being too patient and frugal could leave you with too much money and lesser talents left to purchase.

Brendan Roberts: Don't fall prey to the foolish plan of a "balanced" roster without any star players. Even as volatile as fantasy scoring is from year to year, star players win fantasy games, period. You wouldn't give up your first-round pick in a draft in exchange for, say, two additional fourth-round picks, would ya? So why would you try to be "sensible" and avoid spending big on a top running back, quarterback or receiver? That strategy could work in baseball, but not football.

In addition to some of the tips below, I've collected some of the ESPN fantasy staff's favorite auction strategies, which you can read to the right. Here are some of my personal favorite, time-tested strategies:

Set the market early. In the early days of auctions, it was commonplace to hear the piece of advice, "Don't buy a single player in the first hour of your auction. In fact, don't even show up for the first hour; that way you won't buy anyone." Here's another winner: "Never nominate a player you actually want early in the auction." The problem with those two strategies, however, is that everyone has heard that advice, and the pendulum has therefore swung back the other way. I have seen countless auctions in which the best bargains were among the first 10 players sold because everyone was conservatively bidding.

If you see a player you want, consider going against the grain, throwing his name out at the beginning, and attempting to set the market at that particular position. You might be surprised; you might throw Aaron Rodgers out for $35, find that no one in the room is prepared to pay that much on a quarterback right off the top, then chuckle when you watch as Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford all sell for $40 or more in subsequent rounds.

Budget your positions. Do not, under any circumstances, enter an auction without at least a vague sense of how much you're willing to spend to acquire talent at a specific position. A few examples: If you're dead set on getting one of the top quarterbacks, budget $40-50 for the position, target a Rodgers, Brady or Brees, and adjust your calculations at the other positions accordingly. (A mistake inexperienced owners make is to target one of them, fail to budget their running backs, then blow their budget by first purchasing a $50 and a $30 running back, leaving little funds for, say, wide receiver once the $45 quarterback is also bought.) If you want two top-shelf running backs, budget, say, $50-60 for one and $40-50 for another, and again adjust. In both examples, and any other, the key is knowing where the extra funds will come from. Are you going cheap at quarterback? Tight end? Maybe at No. 2 wide receiver? This is a decision that needs to be made beforehand, because "bargain hunting" is a difficult plan to adjust midstream.

That's not to say you shouldn't ever adjust your budget midstream. In the quarterback example, for instance, if all of your top targets sell for $5 or more above your projected prices, do some quick math to shuffle around your funds, but make sure you do that math. Don't guess. Better yet: If you find that you budgeted $35 for a quarterback, but your target sold for $25, that's a win-win. Now you can toss that $10 savings into other positions you hadn't been expecting.

Address the kicker position quickly. This runs counter to a serpentine draft strategy, where you should never select your kicker until the final round. The thought process is that if kickers are interchangeable, they should all sell for $1, and if you look at our standard auction prices, you'll notice that all nine that we priced -- you guessed it -- we did so at $1. It follows, then, that if you throw out your $1 kicker early in the auction, no one should outbid you. If you had a specific one you wanted, why wouldn't you nominate him quickly and get that spot secured? The worst-case scenario is that you'll get outbid, but in that event you'll get a nice little chuckle at the expense of your counterpart who just wasted an extra buck.

I've been known to make my kicker my first nomination, in fact, a habit that my competition occasionally finds annoying. But there's even value in the annoyance: The most vocal objectors are often the ones most likely to attempt to bid me up in the later rounds -- a sort of "stick-it-to-me-later" approach -- so noting them then helps me identify owners I might be able to saddle with an undesired player at an inflated price.

Track rosters. This might seem an overwhelming exercise, as you'll already be juggling your own budgetary concerns mid-auction, but one of the primary reasons I've advised you to budget in advance is that during the auction, it's critical that you track where not only you stand, but where your competition stands … both in terms of remaining funds and available positions. Be the geek: Bring the laptop, which quickly crunches the numbers, or failing that, track it on paper. Knowing how much money, and what roster spots, your opponents have remaining can help you steer your way into brilliant late-round sleeper-seeking. I can't count the number of times in which I've seen an owner lose on a desired bid -- and get visibly frustrated -- only because he or she failed to realize that another team had $1 more remaining, or that there were three or four other teams left who had the player's position left to fill. Know where everyone stands, and strategically select your late-round nominations.

Mastering the traps

Success in an auction isn't simply a matter of mastering a good strategy. It also involves avoiding some of the potential pitfalls:

Don't get caught up in bidding wars. If you're an experienced auction-league owner, you know them well, the heated battles like when Ryan Mathews' price goes, "$38-39-40-41-42-43-44-45-46-47 …" quicker than he can scamper 40 yards downfield for a score. In certain cases, such bidding wars make sense, but only when you have a clear sense of your limit before engaging. Allowing yourself to get hooked into a quick-fire bidding process might take you beyond your comfort zone before you even realize you're there.

Don't get attached to specific players. Like colleague Matthew Berry, everyone has "loves" and "hates" among individual players. Personal preference is fine, and encouraged. But there's a definitive difference between love for a player and out-and-out obsession, and it's the latter that can lead you down a straight path to busting your budget. Set your limits on all players, including the ones you love, perhaps setting those a few dollars higher. Be flexible in targeting them, but don't bend to the point where you need to overhaul your budget mid-auction.

Beware the "handcuff" pitfall. The "handcuffing" strategy -- where you draft one of your key running back's backups in an effort to protect yourself against unexpected injury -- is a simpler one to employ in an auction, if only because your ability to trump the bid eliminates any chance someone might sneak your handcuff away just before you were prepared to draft him. At the same time, there's a difference between paying the extra buck to secure your handcuff and allowing yourself to get bid up far above market value, just because your competition knows you "need" that player. For example, we haven't even priced Bernard Pierce, Ray Rice's natural handcuff, meaning that he's the kind of player you want to throw out for $1 … and then let go if things progress from there. I've seen far too many times where Rice's owner, in this example, would allow himself or herself to be bid up to $6-8, and at $6-8 on our pricing scale, I'd much rather "insure" Rice with a Steven Ridley ($8), a likely NFL starter, or C.J. Spiller ($7), a backup with a clearer path to a job and considerably more upside than Pierce.

Never, ever, ever nominate a player you aren't willing to buy. Just as with your "loves," you're going to have your "hates," and for years it was advertised that fantasy owners should always throw out their least-desired players in the early rounds of the auction, then bail out of the bidding. There's merit in that, but under no circumstances should you ever nominate a player or a price that you weren't prepared to swallow. For instance, many an owner might, after watching a rash of players sold for greater than his or her own projected prices, attempt to toss out a $1 player in the hopes that feverish bidding would extend into that nomination. A good example: A room full of New York Jets fans might wildly spend on Shonn Greene, Santonio Holmes and Tim Tebow in succession, each at greater than his current average auction price. The next team up for bid might then, despite zero interest in the player whatsoever, toss out "Mark Sanchez, $1," in the hopes the Jets-friendly room would take the bidding high into the single digits, only to cringe in horror when he/she hears crickets.

That's not to say that Sanchez for a buck is a terrible buy. But if you weren't interested in him, he eats up a roster spot you might have preferred to use on a desired target. It is a decision bound to haunt you in the later rounds.

Be conservative about "price enforcing." This goes hand in hand with the previous advice, in that you shouldn't ever bid up your competition beyond a price with which you feel comfortable having purchased the player; bidding players up to what you perceive a market value to be is what we call "price enforcing." Our average auction prices don't equal a dead-set, written-in-stone price guide; they're merely an evaluation tool to give you a sense of market value over thousands of live auctions in ESPN leagues. But every auction is different, and returning to the above example, that room of Jets fans might be fervent New England Patriots haters, with no intention of buying Tom Brady. Heck, you might join in that opinion, yet seeing his AAP (average auction price) a healthy $45, you're firm in that he should sell for at least that much even though you have no interest. If you aren't prepared to buy Brady for $45, don't make the bid, because the point at your opposition is going to bail out, leaving you on the hook, is often unpredictable.

Keeping your cool

Attitude and composure are two of the most important traits of a successful auction participant, silly as that might sound. It's the person who is steadfast yet flexible, solemn yet jovial, and confident, confident, confident, who is the most likely to have "won" the auction upon its conclusion. A few things to remember:

Make your price list as detailed as possible. The A-No. 1 mistake a fantasy owner could make entering an auction is failing to arrive with the proper materials. Someone else's price list will not suffice; you need to adjust the pricing to fit your personal opinion of the players, as well as the framework of your league. Our auction prices, and average auction values, are based upon a $200 cap where only two wide receivers (plus a flex) start per week. Perhaps your league has a different cap, $100, $250 or even $300? Do you start three wide receivers instead of two? Are there individual defensive players (IDPs), rather than team defenses? All of these factors affect prices, and adjusting our price list to your given league isn't necessarily as easy as, say, "$300 means I multiply the prices on the $200 list by 1.5." Sometimes, the extra money gets shuffled only into the top tier of talent, or only into wide receiver (the 3-active-WR format, for one), or only into the lower, prices-in-the-teens groupings.

One handy tool is to ask your league's commissioner for the most recent season's auction results, to get a sense of value tiers and individual bidding habits. If unavailable, try to locate a mock auction -- we host many of these -- that fits your league's specific rules set. But whatever you do, make sure that you arrive at the auction with a detailed, accurate price sheet: In a 12-team league with a $300 cap, that means all of the money allocated on your sheet must total $3,600, and there must be enough listed players for sale to fill every available roster spot.

Never let them see you sweat. As cliché as that line may be, it's the truth. You will never make a mistake in your auction because you never made a mistake in your auction … even if in your mind, you absolutely just made a mistake. A winning team need not have a perfect auction; a winning owner needs to bring the closest manner of perfection to each individual moment of the auction, forgetting about the moment ago, when he/she fell just shy. Frustration -- especially visible frustration -- is the worst trait to exhibit at an auction. The guy sitting next to you who says, "I'm having a terrible auction," is showing you his 7-2 off-suit hand. That is the person I'm going to feast upon the entire remainder of the auction, because I know he's going to approach every remaining bid nervously and haphazardly. (Yes, this actually happens a lot.)

Don't get rattled. Fantasy football owners -- especially a roomful of guys -- tend to engage in smack talk to the highest degree mid-auction. There's little doubt that, during the process, you're going to hear some degree of criticism, be it an opinion of yours, a buy you made, or, frankly, the personal exploits of your mother. For example: "You just bought DeMarco Murray for $27?! He sucks!!! What a stupid move." Stupid, huh? Says who? In my opinion, Murray at $27 is a steal, showing that there are varying takes on every matter.

Such statements are designed to rattle an owner, and should be brushed aside without a second thought. When it comes to your stance at the draft table, your draft sheet is the definitive source on the matter. Always remember: You are the most knowledgeable owner at that draft table, mostly because you read this column, read the dozens of valuable advice columns on this site, prepared a detailed price list, executed a perfect draft strategy and … kept your cool.

Now go get 'em, you freshly crowned auction expert …