Strategies and advice for fantasy football auction drafts

In auction leagues, you don't need luck of the draw for a chance to get David Johnson on your team. John Froschauer/AP Photo

Picture it: You've decided this season that, entering your draft, that David Johnson is your first-round target.

While he's typically going third overall in most drafts, you'd be willing to select him with the No. 1 pick, if given it. You're that all-in on Johnson, believing his dislocated wrist won't be an issue, and besides, you're convinced it's still less of a worry than had it been a leg issue. Plus, you take him at his word that he's going to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 1,000 yards' worth of passes this season.

Then you arrive at your league's draft and promptly draw the No. 7 spot in the draft, assuring you zero chance at getting David Johnson this season.

Who needs this kind of stress?

The truth is that the draft format, while a traditional, simple-to-arrange and quicker (read: less time-consuming) method for player dispersal, is inherently unfair. An individual, as in the above example, willing to invest a significant portion of his/her budget in one player -- in serpentine-draft terms, this would be the theoretical equivalent of trading a first- and second-round pick for the No. 1 overall pick and a 10th-rounder -- should be allowed to do so. Fantasy football is one, big player marketplace, and I'm of firm belief that a league's managerial corps should set the market.

From my own experience, I find the annual charade in one of my longest-standing home leagues, a 10-team, two-quarterback league, in which the manager who draws the 10-spot groans as if the assignment is some sort of death sentence.

Folks, there's a simple solution to all this: Have an auction.

Kiss goodbye the stress over your draft position, the difficult choice of when to address your quarterback and tight end positions, the inevitable struggle dealing with the manager who drafts Johnson in the aforementioned example asking you, "So, what's he worth in trade to ya?" (not to mention the headache of your league's other managers fretting over you then making a "fair" trade), and the frustrating thought we often have when calculating each pick, "It feels like it's too soon to pick him this round, but will so-and-so-player-that-I-love make it back to my next pick?"

In an auction, you can roster any player you want at any time -- equal access to all players. If you feel that strongly about David Johnson, OK, then you can have him -- so long as you're willing to pay $1 more than your counterparts might (and you have the requisite funds to do so). If you want to build a top-heavy, star-studded team featuring David Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Travis Kelce and Aaron Rodgers, you can, so long as the combined prices of those four fit within your team's budget.

They might be surrounded by nothing but $1, dart-throw types -- this is what we'd call a "stars-'n'-scrubs" strategy -- but this is the one player-dispersal format in which you could make it work. Again, open access to all players.

How an auction works

Each team in an auction is provided a predetermined budget, traditionally $200, with which to "purchase" a roster, typically 16 players in ESPN leagues. Players are nominated for bidding in a preset order, just as there is a set order for a draft, as each team sets an opening bid at a specific price (which does not have to be $1) for a player. Any team in the league can then increase the bid, by as little as $1 or as much as $50 or more at a time, and that process continues until no other team is willing to increase the active bid on the player.

An auctioneer -- for a live auction, you'll want to pick an entertaining-but-forceful and organized individual to fill the role -- counts down bids, "Once, twice, SOLD!" and the player is assigned to the winning bidder. Then the process restarts with a new nomination. This continues until every team has filled every available roster spot, and no team can exceed its budget while doing so.

Sounds simple, right?

Wrong. Success hinges upon strategy.

Strategy is essential in an auction, and that isn't suggesting that a cute, aptly named strategy is required. All "strategy" means is careful preparation, a plan of action at the auction table and the ability to adjust on the fly.

Unlike a draft, an auction moves swiftly, requires attention at every moment (rather than potentially only when it's your turn) and makes it much less likely that one can hide behind a ranked list of players from any source with minimal research. Preparation is paramount -- the most-prepared managers, the ones who know their desired prices for any player at any moment -- are the ones who most often enjoy success in auction formats.

Your cheat sheet

Perhaps nothing is more critical to your auction preparation than your cheat sheet. This is an effective price list of players, with whatever other notes you wish to include. If you don't know what you plan to pay for a player in advance, how are you going to decide what to pay in the middle of the action at the auction table?

Your cheat sheet should list every player you anticipate can or will be selected during the auction, in ranked order from most to least valuable, separated by position, with a price tag applied to each. You can get a head start with our cheat sheets for all auction leagues of all types of scoring formats here. Although I like to craft my own cheat sheets, I have on many occasions used premade cheat sheets like those as a starting point for my leagues.

Always ensure that the total value of the players you price adds up to the total amount of the league's available money for the auction. This means that in a 10-team, $200-cap league, your total player prices for all positions must equal $2,000 -- not a cent more, not a cent less.

Also make sure you are comfortable with the percentage distributions to each position, and so long as yours don't vary too far from the norm, feel free to craft these off your own budget plans by position. This means that if you plan to spend only 10 percent of your budget on quarterbacks, so long as you believe that your league as a whole shouldn't vary too far from that number, then every quarterback on your cheat sheet should total $200. Make sure that your percentages are within a reasonable range of what you expect the market to pay at each position.

In my experience, quarterbacks usually comprise about 6-8 percent of a league's auction budget, running backs about 45-55 percent, wide receivers 38-42 percent, tight ends 4-8 percent and kickers and defense/special teams between half a percent and 2 percent.

For maximum detail, use cents when applying prices. After all, it's easy to define a "value tier" at running back by listing Marshawn Lynch, Tevin Coleman and Royce Freeman for $13, but using cents can help you differentiate by personal preference among these three. For example, I might list Lynch at $13.42, Coleman at $13.09 and Freeman at $12.75 on my sheet, as that's the order in which I rank them in PPR. Feel free to be as detailed as you wish; the greater the detail, the easier your decisions at the auction table.

If you're joining a pre-existing league for the first time, it's also a good idea to ask your commissioner for past years' auction results so you can get a feel for your competition's bidding tendencies. Three years' results would give you the best sense, especially as it pertains to percentages spent on each position.

From prices to a plan of action

There's a definite difference between your cheat sheet and your auction strategy. Once you've completed your cheat sheet, you need to decide what kind of team you want to build. Most critically, you need to decide the percentages you're going to spend at each position, especially if they vary from the numbers I suggested above.

For example: If you're planning to spend on a quarterback, which is a wiser move the larger the league (think 14-plus teams or a two-quarterback or "superflex" league), then you'll likely need to budget closer to $25-30 to secure Aaron Rodgers, or $18-22 for Russell Wilson. You'll also need to adjust either your cheat sheet as a whole or the tiers you plan to target at the other positions to help fit your budget.

This is different from creating your cheat sheet: That's pricing players across the entire league, as opposed to addressing personal preferences. If you decided while compiling your cheat sheet that you wanted to spend $1 on a quarterback and therefore allocated $10 total to all quarterbacks, you did it incorrectly and need to return to the previous step. After all, your league is not going to buy 10 $1 quarterbacks, and if you set your cheat sheet up that way, then almost every other player you aim to roster is going to look like a bargain compared to his asking price because your prices at every other position are going to be higher than the league can afford.

That doesn't mean you need to lock yourself into predetermined percentages or be completely inflexible. These are merely guidelines as you begin the auction process, but if midway through the auction you find that quarterbacks are selling for far too cheap compared to your prices, you might want to quickly reallocate some of those funds to another position so you don't get left without a good player there. Even better: If you buy your quarterback for $5 less than your cheat sheet price and the rest of the quarterbacks are going for close to your price list, that's an additional $5 you can allocate to other positions midstream.

Make sure you also go through your price sheet to determine nomination candidates for when it's your turn. Hype machines you don't want tend to be ideal choices; you want to mark off any player you think might sell for significantly more than your listed price, so that you can nominate him early and get some money off the board.

This is where a "Notes" column can come in handy, and it's a key feature of any of my own auction cheat sheets.

Tricks of the auction table

These days, there are few "tricks" to exploit in auctions, as so much has been written about them and there is an annual increase in available information. In addition, I traditionally don't get too creative with my bidding, ideally "buying value" as described above, attempting to roster as many players beneath my listed prices as possible. Still, here are a few things you should try to gain an edge:

Set the market early. Back in the day, it was often written that the best strategy for an auction was to show up an hour late, after everyone has gone on an incredible spending spree, leaving you all the bargains for the later rounds. As we often see in fantasy sports, however, the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the opposite direction, and managers have become so conservative in some auctions that the best bargains are found in the opening minutes.

In fact, I often find that the first player sold at a given position, usually one of the most valuable and sometimes the top-ranked player at said position, winds up selling either exactly at or just beneath my listed price. This is called "setting the market" at a certain position: You nominate the best player at a position to get a sense of the maximum other managers are willing to pay.

Always be prepared to strike at any moment in an auction. If you're first up to nominate, have Le'Veon Bell listed for $61 on your cheat sheet and find that the bidding is slowing between $57-58, by all means buy him. Top-shelf players often generate conservative early bids because of managers' fear of tying up such a large percentage of their budgets so early, but there's a reason that Johnson is priced that way. If you've done your homework, you know that Johnson is worth the price you listed, and such a top-shelf player is among the likeliest to return his projected value.

What I've seen happen often in auctions is that Bell sells for exactly your $61 listed price, then Todd Gurley II sells for the same $61, maybe $3-4 above your listed price because the "market has been set." Then David Johnson, the final member of that top tier, sells for $64 -- easily $5 too much -- in a bidding frenzy because managers were afraid to be left out in the cold from that particular value tier. As Bell's manager, you got your Tier 1 running back, and now you have $5 more in your pocket than Johnson's manager.

Get the kicker out of the way. It has become a running joke of another one of my local leagues, in which kickers usually encompass the first two rounds of our auction, perhaps in part due to having read this paragraph in years past. Yes, it's boring to listen to the "Once, twice, SOLD," slower-paced countdown in the auction's early stages for a $1 kicker. But there's a reason: Kickers should never, ever sell for more than $1,because the value differential between the top and 10th-best projected performer at the position is minuscule. If everyone in your league is going to spend exactly $1 for a kicker, why wouldn't you want to be the first one to secure yours so that you'll get your choice? Besides, even if your competition raises your bid to $2, that's unquestionably $1 that owner wasted from his/her budget that could come back to haunt him/her later. Just get your $1 kicker in the next round.

Track rosters and team budgets. This can seem like an overwhelming exercise and certainly is time-consuming, but it's absolutely advantageous, especially in the auction's latter stages, when funds are tight and roster spots dwindling. Success, after all, doesn't hinge upon only the progress of your team. It's also about knowing where your competition stands, as far as ability to compete with you for your remaining targets.

I've been doing auctions for more than two decades, and I can't recall a draft in which an opponent didn't lose a bid because he/she hadn't been aware that another team had either more remaining money or a more pressing need at a particular position. At every given point in the auction, you should know exactly which teams have the ability to outbid you for a player and which teams are able (and/or likely) to roster said player, considering the construction of their rosters. This helps you craft your late-round nominations and often the bids themselves.

For example, if I've rostered Rashaad Penny, Chris Carson has remained out there until nearly the auction's conclusion and the only other teams who represent competition for his services have $2 remaining in their budgets and I have $3, I'd be much more apt to nominate him for $2 to avoid having to throw him out there for $1, see him bid up to $2 and have to go to $3. Tying this to a point in the next section, I'd probably be a lot more likely to let Carson go if his asking price were $3 and I had him listed for $2, even if it seemingly makes sense to bid as Penny's manager.

Even if you're afraid you might look geeky doing so, bring your laptop to track the rosters, if you must.

Avoiding auction pitfalls

Don't get caught up in bidding wars. Rapid-fire bidding can be addictive, but it can also lure you into exceeding your planned price on a player, mainly because it doesn't afford you any time between bids to think. In the early stages of an auction especially, if Rob Gronkowski's price tag goes, "$30-31-32-33-34-35-36-37-38," quicker than Tom Brady can feed him the ball over traffic in the end zone, and you have Gronkowski listed for only $33 on your sheet, let him go. Feel free to dive into a bidding war in the early stages, before a player reaches your listed price, even if it's only in an attempt to vary your bidding habits, but make sure you know your limits.

Don't pay premiums for "handcuffs." Back to the Carson example above, having him as an insurance policy for Rashaad Penny is not essential. What is essential is maximizing value across your roster, and handcuffs are one of the worst ways to do that. Too often, Ronald Jones II's nomination is going to almost immediately lead to the subsequent nomination of Peyton Barber because "that's Jones' handcuff," and of course Jones' manager is going to also want Barber. While securing Barber isn't a foolish move, exceeding your projected price for him -- say, spending $6 when you listed him for $1 -- is. It's a much, much wiser strategy to save that $6 for a running back with a clearer path to a starting job: say, an Aaron Jones, Nick Chubb or C.J. Anderson.

This is especially true if you feel you got a bargain on the starter -- Ingram for $16, for example -- to provide you "profit to spare" that can be invested in his backup. This is a common trap. The point is not to give your profit back by spending it elsewhere on your roster but to accumulate as much potential profit across the board as you possibly can.

Don't fall in love with players. If you've spent the requisite amount of time detailing your cheat sheet, this one shouldn't be a problem. Fantasy managers have a way of overrating upside, big preseason developments and big-play receivers. If you've done the research on every player's true skill, you already have a good, predetermined price tag for every player in the league, so there's no reason to deviate from it. Don't try to talk yourself into certain players for arbitrary reasons, don't chase young players for the sake of building a young roster, and don't spend for "upside" because "upside is what wins leagues." (What upside also does is land you a roster of nothing but risk/reward players and make it very difficult to know what to expect from your team weekly.)

Also, though it might seem obvious, if you play in a certain region of the country, don't get caught up in bidding wars for local heroes. Jimmy Garoppolo might be a popular breakthrough pick for many analysts this season, this one included, but he is not an $12 player in an auction league, even if the auction is held in the San Francisco Bay area.

Don't make a bid you're unwilling to roster. Ever. Related to the previous point, don't, in that Philadelphia-area auction, decide to nominate Garoppolo for $10 because "obviously someone else here loves him and will bid him up." Assume the room is smart, and let the competition fall into mistakes, rather than setting yourself up to make the mistakes. If you listed Jimmy Garoppolo as a $4 player on your sheet, there's only one bid to make: Garoppolo for $4 (if not less).

In addition, don't excessively price-enforce, at least not with bids you aren't willing to accept. "Price enforcing," for those unfamiliar, is bidding players up to what you perceive is their market value. I've found in auctions in recent years that owners are notoriously conservative with their bidding, so if you're price enforcing, you might not be bidding to a perceived market value -- you might be setting it yourself and for a player you didn't want.

Don't let yourself get rattled. Mistakes aren't good in an auction, but they also shouldn't be treated as soul-crushing events. I've made my share of mistakes in auctions and had to quickly move on from them, so as to not dwell upon them, lose my focus and make even more, likely worse mistakes. Remember, the auction moves extremely quickly, and there are many opportunities to correct mistakes in the later rounds. Here's a good suggestion for your auction demeanor: You didn't make a single mistake and in fact did PERFECTLY. Confidence, consistency with your strategy and a calm-and-composed approach are essential at the auction table.

One more thing: Don't forget to read through our comprehensive Draft Kit, which includes many tips that are every bit as apt for auction- as draft-format leagues. Most importantly, make sure you always run your league's specifications through our Custom Dollar Value Generator, an essential tool I use for every one of my leagues, even if only for a comparison or starting point for my own research.

Now go get 'em, you auction-league veteran! You're gonna be great.