The Definitive Numerical Guide to Fantasy Auction Drafts

When I first started playing fantasy football sometime around half my life ago, it was difficult for me to say “fantasy football” without cracking up. I was 13, and “fantasy” was a loaded word. I was at a time in my life directly between when my definition of “fantasy” stops including unicorns and wizards and spells and long nights playing “Gauntlet Legends” in a friend’s basement and starts becoming one that is hormonally driven and I’ll leave it at that because my mother reads this blog too. The intersection of “fantasy” and “football” was basically an all-girls version of quidditch.

Now I’m 26 and again my definition of “fantasy” has changed significantly. I’m genuinely in love with football, but I’d rather pair it with math and numbers and analytics and projections and spreadsheets. I mean, I’m still cool and I have friends and everything, but when fantasy football season rolls around, all I want to do is start calculating. Which is fantastic, because last year, one of my leagues made the move from a snake draft to an auction draft.

Auction-Fantasy-Football-Draft-450x311The auction draft is one of my favorite things in the world, it’s a math-based game about drafting football players. By any account, “Football,” “Math,” and “Draft” are three of my favorite five words. Which is why I was sincerely disappointed when I trolled the internet for some auction strategy tips and couldn’t find anything. Well, nothing serious at least. I’m looking for real tips that say something like “your team is most effective when you spend XX dollars on XX running back.” I don’t want to read some stupid beginner’s guide to auction draft strategy with hard-hitting tips like “practice in a mock draft before doing your real draft” or “you have to leave a dollar for a kicker.” This isn’t child’s play.

Which is why I decided to write my own guide. Like all fantasy guides, this comes with the caveat that it’s just opinion, and all the back-end science in the world can’t do much more than increase your odds of winning by a couple of percentage points. But isn’t that what we’re all after anyway? These are tips from someone who would love to excite the world about auction drafting and revels in the idea of communicating with similar-minded people looking for real, meaty auction advice that doesn’t suck.

Sure, the guys who play against me in my league will read this and could use it against me when they draft against me. I know that and I’m ok with it.

The tips below have been gathered from my experiences collected from a few years of auction drafting and tailored specifically to the 2013 crop of players, without any more setup, in no partiuclar order, here’s

The Definitive Numerical Guide to Fantasy Auction Drafts

  • Sorry, Yahoo, none of this is happening

    Sorry, Yahoo, none of this is happening

    Don’t believe those numbers that your hosting site gives you for projected cost: I guess it might help you figure out how much you can drain out of another owner when nominating a player you don’t want, but that’s about it. Don’t think you’re overpaying for Adrian Peterson because your site tells you he’s projected at $60 and you pay $65. I’m not entirely sure that those costs take into account how much league size changes values. In a 10-team league, there are 2000 dollars available. In a 12-league league there are 2400 dollars available for the same player pool, obviously the price of players won’t be the same in both.

  • Nominate a kicker first: Almost all of your first-round players will be top-tier running backs because owners will want to build teams knowing who the cornerstone is. There’s nothing wrong with that. You should be interested in who your high-point RB will be as well. But in all those rounds, the owner doing the nominating is at no advantage. He will start Adrian Peterson at $1 or even $50 or $60 and then everyone will have a chance to jump in the bidding at any price. Every owner has the same price in mind for a kicker and it’s $1. Whether you get your top-rated kicker or your 10th-rated kicker, you’re only going to spend a dollar, so throw out the best one and you either get him for the cheapest price possible or someone else has to pay double their budget for a throwaway position. Win-win. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it my ideal auction draft, the first round is all kickers.
  • There are not enough solid running backs for everyone to have one: In all the mocks I’ve done this year, a top-tier fantasy RB will cost you around $60-65, except Peterson, who will cost 70ish. If you want one of these players, you’ll need to budget appropriately: AP, Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles, CJ Spiller, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris. My advice is to do your research and if you like one, come prepared to drop $65 on him. Get it out of the way early. Also come prepared with a player in the $20-25 range that you like as your RB2 and know that you need to get him out of the way early too, because your strategy may need to change  if you can’t get him for your price.
  • Calvin Johnson sure looks like a good option (more than 30% better than the second-best receiver), but the $50 to buy him can get you more.

    Calvin Johnson sure looks like a good option (more than 30% better than the second-best receiver), but the $50 to buy him can get you more

    Buy RBs and QBs, but don’t pay big bucks for a top WR: You’ll see this in my math explanation below, but I calculated the marginal value of every player in the game and divided it by how much it costs to buy him. Here’s what I found: RBs and QBs are the only thing you should spend money on. Of course, these are the big-point players, but for what they get you, WRs are not worth the high costs we see in auctions drafts. In general, my math has RBs getting you an average of 3.80 points per dollar spent on them and QBs getting  just higher at 3.82. Not a single WR is above 2.84 and the average for the crop as a whole is 1.76. TEs aren’t as bad as WRs, but they’re still a terrible investment at 2.31 on average. Interestingly, the TE who draws the most attention (Graham) is worth about 2.31 points per dollar. So don’t buy him.

  • Don’t come to the draft with a budget, come with players in mind: Most auction advice will tell you something like “plan on budgeting $80 for your starting RBs, $25 for a QB, etc.” but that’s a sure-fire way to end up with no money left and holes all over your team. It’s great to have an idea of what your money will get you, but you don’t bid on Generic $60 RB, you bid on CJ Spiller or Jamaal Charles. It’s no going to do you any good to say that you want to spend $30 on your top two receivers. It’s a lot better to come in and bucket the WRs into approximate values and come in saying, I’ll spend $60 to grab Victor Cruz and Vincent Jackson.
  • Buy at the beginning of tiers: If you’re having trouble with the previous point because you don’t want to over-commit to players and would rather search for the value in a tier of players, look early. Once most of a tier is gone, owners go crazy to claim what’s left. For example, I did a mock draft this year that saw Peterson go for 73 at the first nomination. After that, the pack of RBs I mentioned earlier all went in the next 15 or 20 picks. At the end of the draft, the second most-expensive player was Alfred Morris ($68) and the third most-expensive was Trent Richardson ($67), two guys kind of at the tail end of that tier of backs. Why did that happen? Because a handful of owners collectively said “I need to get a top RB and they are almost all gone!” In the email recap of the draft, I noticed that the second RB off the board, Arian Foster, went for the best value at only $53. When he was thrown out second, everyone thought they could just wait and get one of the RBs later, and someone stole Foster.
  • Don’t bid with one second left and think you’re cool: Every year, someone in your draft is going to be this jackass and wait until there’s one second left and bid on a player. This doesn’t give you any advantage, and all your friends will hate you. Plus, it makes the draft drag on way longer than it has to. Some of the auction draft strategists out there will tell you that this tactic is unnerving and it’s always better to knock your opponents off their game by annoying them. The people who give advice like that are assholes. Fantasy football is about having fun with you friends, it’s not about making them angry to try to beat them in a game. Plus, I still remember which one of my friends does this (Dave) and I’l probably hold it against him forever. You don’t want to be this guy.
  • Pick a balanced lineup over stars and scrubs: This is the question that every auction drafter has to answer. My advice: two $30 players will always outscore one $60 player, that’s just how the math works. Stay balanced. In general, I like to budget for two equally-valued RBs and three equally-valued WRs. This year, there’s plenty of points to go around in a PPR lineup of Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Eric Decker and Danny Amendola and those five players will probably only take about $130 of your 200 budget. From there, you could add high-end bench players or spring for one of the costly QBs or Jimmy Graham. If you want to go stars and scrubs, you better have faith in your ability to pick successful $1 players. You also need to have a lot of patience since you’ll most likely be waiting a few hours in between purchases.
  • AP will help you win more than anyone else, but even he has a price. $66 to be exact.

    AP will help you win more than anyone else, but even he has a price you shouldn’t exceed. $66 to be exact.

    No player is worth getting at any cost: This is probably the most fundamental value of auction drafting. You cannot go into a draft with the mindset that your team-building strategy only works if you can come out with a specific guy. When someone nominated a player you want, pick a max dollar value before you bid and cut yourself off when you get there. It’s hard, but there are always other fish in the sea. If you get into the death spiral of bidding one extra dollar with a few people, someone is going to overspend pretty drastically and it better not be you.

  • Use a snake draft as you guide: This year, the first  two rounds of every snake draft will see 24 players taken. Of those, about 15 will be running backs, two will be QBs, six will be WRs and Jimmy Graham is Jimmy Graham. Your auction team will look similar. You can buy two great running backs, but don’t expect to get a top QB or start a top-tier WR. You can go with Brees or Rodgers, but you’re going to have to be cool with Darren Sproles or Lamar Miller starting 10 or 12 weeks for your team. Know what your money will get you. As far as my money goes, it’s always with two RBs, both in the $40 range and a high-dollar backup. The depth at WR makes the prices for the top five or six irrational, so I’d advise staying away from the RB/WR style of team-building.
  • A dollar goes a lot further than you think: A word of advice: at the end of your draft, you’re going to look at all the bench players and fringe starters that were selected for $3 and you’ll be amazed at the value. Keep that in mind when you’re one-upping someone for interchangeable mid-round receivers. When everyone has $10 and you have $25, you’ll feel like a king.
  • Spend all your money: It’s great to get undervalued players, but a team full of $10 and $20 players is going to leave you with plenty left over. Even if it’s not worth $50 to buy Dez Bryant, he’ll undeniably score more than a $20 receiver. Do the work ahead of the draft to know you’ll spend your extra dollars.

As a way of closing, let me suggest players who seems to be extremely valuable in auction drafts this year. To find this out, I started by averaging the yearlong projections from eight fantasy sites that I respect to get an expected point total (EPT) for each player this year. From there, I sorted each player into positional categories and subtracted the EPT of the best player at each position who is going undrafted more than half the time (courtesy Yahoo!, which I use for most of my leagues).  In essence, that player’s value is what you can always get off the waiver wire, so points beyond that are the true value of a player.

Once I have each player’s added value, I divide it by his projected auction cost (again thanks, to Yahoo!) to get his value added per dollar spent (AV/$).

Danny Woodhead wont be a starter on your team, but he gives your bench a lot of bang for your auctino buck.

Danny Woodhead wont be a starter on your team, but he gives your bench a lot of bang for your auctino buck.

This is where it gets fun. I added up the total values of all the QBs, WRs, RBs and TEs in the game and got a total of 6,652.4 points. Each 12-team draft that starts with $200 will have a total of $2400, ideally 24 of those will be spent on kickers and defense (which aren’t counted in the total point value mentioned earlier), so the truth of the matter is that $2376 is buying 6,652.4 points of real, solid, actual fantasy value. Or in other words, every dollar should get you an expected return of just about 2.8 value points.

Here are the players who I project to get way more than 2.8 points for every dollar spent on them. The prices I’m using are just averages and certainly don’t reflect the market in your league, but odds are, these guys are undervalued:

Running Backs

  • Danny Woodhead (14.91 AV/$)
  • Daryl Richardson (8.81)
  • Shane Vereen (6.86)
  • Giovani Bernard (6.72)
  • Ahmad Bradhsaw (6.62)
  • Darren Sproles (6.01)
  • Reggie Bush (4.69)
  • Lamar Miller (4.65)
  • Ronnie Hillman (4.45)
  • Eddie Lacy (4.01)
  • DeMarco Murray (3.67)
  • David Wilson (3.17)

Quarterbacks

  • Josh Freeman (11.03 AV/$)
  • Andy Dalton (5.34)
  • Carson Palmer (4.98)
  • Eli Manning (4.75)
  • Tony Romo (4.72)
  • Robert Griffin III (4.61)
  • Peyton Manning (4.55)
  • Andrew Luck (4.52)
  • Basically any quarterback you take is well worth the money, especially your backups. My leagues are 6 points for a passing TD, so the QB is a little inflated, but it’s still a super beefy position this year.

Wide Receivers

  • Not a single wide receiver is significantly undervalued in the auction draft this year. In fact, by my calculations, only one is getting more than the magic 2.8 points/dollar and it’s Pierre Garcon at 2.84.

Tight Ends

  • Jermichael Finley (5.73 AV/$) is the only one worth mentioning.

Happy auctioning. Let me know how your drafts go.

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