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Auction draft strategy

6/30/2009

Allow me to paint you a scenario.

You're a huge Adrian Peterson fan. You've followed his career every day since his two-touchdown outburst in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in 2004, bought his jersey when he was drafted seventh overall by the Vikings in 2007, and smiled from ear to ear as he carried your fantasy team to a championship just this past season. For his efforts, he's the guy you want most on your 2009 squad.

Then, as you stroll into the draft room, you learn, sadly, that you're slotted in third in the draft order. Your hopes dashed, you have to "settle" for Maurice Jones-Drew, but it's not the same. In your heart, this doesn't feel like a "you" team.

Sound familiar?

What if I told you that you don't have to worry about someone swiping "your guy" at the draft table? Pretty appealing, right? There's an easy way to ensure you have full control of your fantasy football roster; and that is by playing in an auction league.

Not that the sole reason you should participate in an auction league is eliminating the sweating over your draft position. Again, in this format you get full control. Are you completely jazzed up to get Peterson, Drew Brees and Larry Fitzgerald onto the same roster? In an auction, you can. All you need to do is pay the market price, and any individual player you want is yours.

No more having to accept that your first pick is your top player, your second is probably your second-best, and so on, nor having to worry about in what round you need to think about picking your quarterback, or tight end, or defense. Want a team like the one mentioned above, stacked with studs? Feel free. Want to spread the risk, take a team that in a draft format might be entirely comprised of sixth-rounders? Go ahead.

With an auction, no longer must the fantasy owner ever utter the statement, "Boy, I sure hope I don't get stuck with the so-and-so draft position."

So how does it work?

If you're a rookie to the auction-draft format, I'll give you the rundown of ESPN's standard auction format. Each team is allocated $200 with which to buy 16 players; nine starters (QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 RB/WR, 1 TE, 1 K, 1 D/ST) and seven bench spots. (Yes, your budget also must be used to buy your bench players.)

With that money you can buy any player for whom you have both the funds remaining as well as the roster spot to place him. Each team proceeds in order nominating a player for a starting bid price, and any team can then bid up that player until he settles at a purchase price. That's done with your traditional "going once, going twice, sold" call -- like if you happen to attend, say, an antiques auction -- at which point the player belongs to the team that registered the highest bid. Teams continue the nomination, bidding and selling process until all rosters are filled.

Here's the best part: There's no requirement on nomination order. Want to fill your kicker spot first? Feel free to nominate Neil Rackers in your first turn. Hey, you never know, you might get him for the $1 minimum, getting that position out of the way quickly!

One caveat: As a long-time auction player, it'd be my advice that owners new to the format try to find a league populated by other novices. Experienced auction players tend to know a few more tricks than the rookies do, and can often pull a fast one on a less-knowledgeable auction owner. Or, if you're joining an auction for the first time and are facing stiff competition, it might be worth doing a few test auctions before attempting the real thing in your most competitive leagues.

Nomination strategy

Yes, you can nominate your players in any order of your choosing, but like with the construction of a fantasy roster, experienced auction players will tell you there's an art to your nomination order. Throwing out names haphazardly might lead you to a costly mistake, say, buying a $1 Daunte Culpepper in the early rounds when you only threw out the name in the hopes someone would bid you up and (poorly) fill his/her quarterback spot.

Get money off the board early. The best names to nominate in the early rounds tend to be players that fit two criteria: One, they're players you probably don't want, and two, they're players you're sure that most everyone else will. The best way to identify such candidates is to make a list of "stud" players you value less than what you'll see on our live draft and auction results pages; in most leagues those tend to be overhyped rookies, boom/bust players, players on your local team or names recently in the news. Getting said players off the board, while burning some of your competitors' auction dollars, can only help create more value selections for you in the latter stages.

Never nominate a player you aren't willing to buy. I repeat, never, EVER do this. You'd be surprised how often someone believes, say, that everyone in the room is convinced this is Vernon Davis' breakout year and that he'll sell for an inflated price, then tosses him out for $5 … and winds up stuck with him. Be confident in every pick you make, even the ones you don't like. Going hand in hand with the previous point, even if your intent is to get some auction dollars off the board with your nomination, make sure the name you call and the opening price you bid is one you'd be willing to pay. For example, even if you're not a Michael Crabtree fan but think he'll be a hype machine that eats up auction funds, decide in advance whether a $5 bid if palatable for you if you're wrong on your assessment. Once you're stuck with him for that price, you're stuck with him.

Keep tabs on everyone's rosters heading into the late rounds. Thought I'd suggest "nominate only the players you want in the late rounds," right? Well, that's obvious advice, which even the intermediate auction player knows. More relevant to the cause is that knowing where your counterparts stand, both in terms of available roster spots and funds remaining, can be critical toward late-round success nabbing sleepers. I can't tell you how many times an owner lost out on a desired bid because he or she failed to realize that another team needed a player at that specific position and had exactly $1 more in funds with which to fill it. Sure, nominate the players you want late -- again, obvious advice -- but know where you (and your opponents) stand, too.

Auction prep

It's a critical step toward determining auction-league success; countless owners stroll into an auction with a rough cheat sheet with sketchy (or worse, no) projected prices, then watch in horror as they've completely underestimated the readiness of their opponents.

As with a draft, it's important to scout and rank your players, and make your own decisions on who you like and dislike in advance. But the difference between a typical draft and the auction format is that in an auction, in addition to ranking your players, it's imperative that you set at least a suggested price tag for each player under your consideration. Bidding at the auction table -- or in the room on our site -- can be fast and furious at times, and "winging it" is a strategy bound to result in at least an error or two.

(On a side note, during the flow of the auction, deviating slightly from your price sheet is an acceptable strategy, especially in the event that, say, there's only one remaining "elite" quarterback and he's for sale at $5 over your list price.)

Since a typical ESPN auction league has 10 teams and a $200 budget per team, expect $2,000 total to be spent on players, meaning your price list, when added up, should come to exactly that number. Your league might have a different number of teams or budget; just multiply the two together and your price sheet should total the result.

To give you a sense of how many dollars to allocate per position, here's a breakdown by percentage of auction dollars spent by position in our 2008 ESPN Mock Auction:

Quarterbacks: 10.6 percent
Running backs: 53.7 percent
Wide receivers: 27.8 percent
Tight ends: 5.6 percent
Kickers: 0.9 percent
Defense/special teams: 1.5 percent

From my experience, no team that spends less than 40 percent of its auction budget on running backs tends to fare well during the season; running backs are at a premium especially in auctions, and besides, they're the toughest to replace during the year. In fact, I often see successful teams spending 50-plus percent of their budget on the position. It's not uncommon for a running back to cost north of $70; in the aforementioned mock, in fact, LaDainian Tomlinson fetched a hefty $75 price.

Generally speaking those 10-percent amounts for quarterbacks and 25-30 percent for wide receivers seem about right; obviously the talent of the player might dictate paying a little more or less than those numbers. Consider them useful guidelines.

It's also a good idea to resist spending more than $1 on your kicker or much more than that on your defense, barring, of course, your scoring system significantly altering the number of points a defense can offer you. It's for that reason I made reference of the "early $1 kicker" nomination strategy; not only does it get that position out of the way early, but if another team goes to $2, that's an extra buck spent that that team won't have in the later rounds. Besides, there's no shortage of useful kickers if you lose the $1 bid.

Auction strategies

A specific, creative strategy isn't mandatory to succeed in an auction -- no need to "get cute" -- but I'll detail the following two more popular strategies, for the creative thinker.

Stars 'n' Scrubs: It's pretty much the angle I referred to early on, the fantasy owner who is practically itching to own every "stud" player in the game, like Brees, Peterson and Fitzgerald. The thinking is sound: Elite players tend to offer the most points (Duh!), and some feel they're also the ones who present the least risk. Of course, the 2008 season might have poked tons of holes in that argument; top quarterback choice Tom Brady blew out his knee in the first game of the season and consensus No. 1 player LaDainian Tomlinson was outscored by 13 players, including five running backs.

Here's another troubling fact: In 2007, four players managed 280 or more ESPN fantasy points, and one -- Brady -- had 378. By comparison, in 2008 only one player had as many as 280: Drew Brees, who had 295. The gap in talent was considerably narrower. Nevertheless, that could be chalked up to a one-year aberration, and it's not like Brady's injury could have been predicted besides.

How "Stars 'n' Scrubs" works is that you buy nothing but elite players, especially in the early rounds, leaving nothing but $1 spots to fill out your roster at the end. Going that route presents challenges, though, and might be better left to the more experienced fantasy football owner. For one thing, an injury to one of your highest-priced stars might be the death knell to your season. For another, you must possess the utmost confidence in your ability to unearth $1 sleepers … otherwise you might spend the season signing every no-name, one-game standout trying to strike gold.

Balanced Attack: A more conservative approach, and more likely to be adopted by the individual who believes that the top players in the game are not at all trustworthy, the "Balanced Attack" dictates that you divvy up your auction dollars as evenly as possible, buying as many double-digit dollar performers as possible without breaking the bank for any one. The 2008 season might have been the most rational one in recent memory where the move might have made sense; it was not a good year for first- and second-round selections in the traditional draft format.

Of course, one of the drawbacks to conservative bidding is practically never winning a bid on a "next hot thing" player, and certainly it won't land you anyone considered close to a top-10 talent overall. You'll need to hit on several of your picks, getting $30 of value for $10, say, and likely do it without any of the "big-buzz" players on the board.

So what's my preferred angle? As a long-time auction player I've experienced success with variations on either strategy, though I've actually fared better going closer to "Stars 'n' Scrubs," including in 2008, when in one of my most important auction leagues I actually rostered an entire seven-man bench (plus kicker, defense and one wide receiver) of $1 players. My best advice: Go for value, and be prepared to adjust along the way. No reason not to adapt to either depending on the flow of the auction.

Final advice

One thing auction-league owners might fail to realize, especially when they're at the auction table and experiencing it happening, is that they're inevitably going to make a mistake (or three) along the way. Don't let your counterparts catch on; there's no better way for your auction to unravel than to let a mistake haunt you. I'll conclude with the one line I always tell owners as they walk into their auctions:

Never let them see you sweat.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.