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Game Planning for Auction Success

If you are new to auction drafts, preparation may seem stressful and daunting. It shouldn’t. Similar to business or investing, if you obtain reliable fact information, then couple the information with well-founded forecasts, you greatly enhance your chances of success. With proper preparation and game planning, you can reduce your stress level and enjoy the unique and fun challenges that auction drafts bring.

Over the last 12 years, I’ve participated in 3-4 annual live high-stakes auctions in Las Vegas immediately prior to Week 1. Based on my observations and experiences, this article explains my game-planning process for high-stakes auctions that increase my chances for success against some of the best players in the country.


Obtain Player Sale Prices Ahead of Time

To begin game planning, you must obtain the best price information available to know the expected player sale prices for your specific league. Why? The actual sale prices from completed leagues with the same number of teams, lineup requirements, and scoring rules are the most important planning information you can obtain. Several sources for obtaining completed auction prices, in descending order of accuracy and reliability, are as follows:

National Fantasy Football Championship (12 teams, QB/2RB/3WR/TE/1Flex) — The NFFC compiles its own Average Auction Prices for all players purchased in completed online auctions. The AAP provides not only the average mean price for each player but high and low prices for the player for a chosen range of time. The prices are highly indicative of current player prices.

Other online auctions with the same rules as your league — To prepare for my high-stakes FFPC auctions (12 teams, TE premium, QB/2RB/2WR/TE/2Flex), I complete at least three private online leagues with the same rules prior to my auctions in Vegas. I typically find these leagues on message boards such as FootballGuys and networking with other auction players. COVID has dampened the number of 2020 opportunities, however, making this information more difficult to obtain right now.

Completed slow auctions at MyFantasyLeague — This one involves work. How badly do you want to win? Using MFL’s “Find a League” function, you can scour MFL and find completed slow auctions. These completed slow auctions, even at low-entry-fee price points, provide accurate sale prices for same-structured leagues. Although slow internet auction prices would seem inherently different from live auction prices, I have found the sale prices are accurate and useful for game planning my high-stakes leagues.

Historical prices for past leagues — Compile the historical sale prices for all players sold in your auction league for past years. In a 12-team, 20-round league, list all sale prices for the 240 players sold. If you are new to the league, ask your leaguemates for any past auction results. Compiled over 2-3 years, historical sale prices remain fairly consistent among position players, although some price movement between positions occurs each year depending on recent trends such as heavy WR or RB. Although past prices will not reflect current sale prices, they will reveal league trends such as prices for QBs and TEs and mid-range RBs and WRs.

A fantasy website’s subjective player values — The least reliable source of actual price information is calculated by fantasy football websites based on player rankings. A website’s values are usually based on that site’s subjective player rankings and not indicative of actual sale prices. This is not to say the site’s subjective prices lack any value. If you are a strong believer in a site’s player valuations (such as Establish The Run), comparable auction values may provide some guidance in identifying which players may be value targets in light of their actual sale prices.

The combination of player prices from my private online auctions in August and completed slow MFL leagues has proven extremely accurate for my high-stakes auctions in Vegas. Having possession of actual current player sale prices turbocharges my game planning.


Game Planning is Not Just for Head Coaches.

With actual price information, our next step is to create game plans. I don’t mean preparing just one plan; I mean preparing multiple game plans. Why? Because by its nature, every auction is its own, evolving, unique creature. For example, which players get nominated first, which positions are quickly exhausted, which players will cause bidding wars, and which teams may be hoarding certain positions, among many variables, are all unknown factors entering an auction. The more game planning you do for different scenarios that could unfold directly correlates with a higher likelihood you possess a ready, thought-out plan to meet the auction unfolding before you.

For a high-stakes auction, I typically prepare at least 6-8 different game plans for potential team builds. Each game plan has a different construction focus (heavy RB, heavy WR, Zero-RB, balanced), a different budget for my starting lineup, or a different combination of those two factors based on my player targets. Here is my process for preparing game plans for a high-stakes auction:

1. Select budgeted amount for starters — First, select the amount to budget on a starting lineup. Depending on whether you prefer a “stars and scrubs” lineup or a more balanced team, you should budget somewhere between $140 – $180. In a $200 auction with a 10-starter lineup, I typically budget $170-$175 to fill my eight primary starting slots, plus $1 for a defense and $1 for a kicker.

2. Select foundation players to build your team — A non-negotiable for all of my high-stakes auction teams is buying 2-3 foundation studs to anchor consistent week-to-week production. Select players you really believe in.

3. Review actual prices for all 240 players in the inventory and identify price values — This exercise is vital to identifying underpriced players, from studs through mid-range players to end-game picks. If one or more underpriced players fits your desired team construction, budget them into the plan. If you believe multiple players are underpriced, you can add them and adjust the game plan to add budgeted dollars to other positions. Last year, one of my vital target purchases was Lamar Jackson because of his known cheap price point of $2 – $4, running ability, and high upside. I bought Jackson for $3 in two auctions in Vegas.

4. Select alternatives for all players — This is a critical preparation step if and when you fail to acquire a game-planned player, which often happens. Always select at least two viable backup plans with comparable prices and be ready to bid if one gets nominated. This is discussed in more detail below.

5. Compile multiple game plans — Creating multiple game plans may seem boring or arduous, but if you are a fantasy geek it is not. Be creative, as it is fun to experiment. Reduce your surprise factor. The more plans you have, the less anxiety you will have when bidding really starts cooking. Auctions move fast. It is difficult to adjust a plan well on the fly. With multiple plans, you will very likely have one nearly on point.

6. Prepare for the end gameSee end game discussion below.

Each game plan is intended to be a dynamic and easily-adjustable guide for your auction. After your initial player purchases, plug the players into the closest version of one of the game plans. Depending on budgeted prices, you can easily compare the purchased price and adjust the remaining budgeted amounts higher or lower for remaining starters. An example of an FFPC auction game plan for me in 2019 looked like this:

QB – L. Jackson ($3). R. Wilson ($3), Newton ($3)
RB – C. McCaffrey ($60). Barkley ($58), Kamara ($57)
RB – L. Fournette ($30). D. Freeman ($29), K. Johnson ($31)
WR – DJ Moore ($18). A. Robinson ($17), T. Boyd ($18)
WR – J. Landry ($11). C. Samuel ($9), J. Gordon ($10)
TE – T. Kelce ($42). Kittle ($35), Ertz ($32)
Flex – A. Hooper ($7) . D. Walker ($7), D. Njoku ($7)
Flex – S. Shepard ($7). C. Kirk ($7), L. Fitzgerald ($7)

Total starters budget = $178

This projected budget is on the high end of the spectrum, but one lower-priced purchase such as Alvin Kamara instead of Christian McCaffrey (+$3) or George Kittle for Travis Kelce (+7) adds dollars back into the budget. When that occurs, those dollars can then be added to purchasing a higher-priced starter or buying reserves. Adding or subtracting a few dollars also is easy to track on the game plan.

Possessing actual sale price information provides for reliable plans for a nearly infinite combination of proposed starting lineups. Play with the numbers. Plug in solid underpriced veterans. Create game plans that excite you, then get ready to execute one of them.


Executing the Game Plan

Armed with game plans, my foremost mindset for executing at a live auction is aggressiveness. Make it happen. If you want at least 2-of-5 essential foundation players, make it happen. If you want Christian McCaffrey, make it happen. With at least one prepared game plan budgeting in McCaffrey, you know what he will cost and what the rest of your team can look like.

My wife knows little about fantasy football, but she taught me a lesson one year. Just before I left for Vegas she told me – “Remember the Nordstrom principle. If you want it, buy it.” In other words, my expert-shopping wife knew the same underlying principle: Make it happen.

Heading into my auctions, I always have a preferred game plan. I want to know early in the auction the viability of executing it. If I miss out on key players early, then I know I need to move on to another plan. So, using the example plan above, I would need to know early if McCaffrey is going to anchor my lineup or not. Often, another team will nominate one of my key players early, so I don’t have to. But if I have an early nomination, I almost certainly will nominate McCaffrey and pursue the plan. Make it happen.

But aggressiveness does not mean reckless. It is very easy to overbid recklessly on several players and sidetrack a good game plan. We still must balance aggressive bidding with when to stop bidding, because all it takes is one other committed auction bidder for McCaffrey to foil a well-laid plan.

One of my key points of executing my game plan is to be unafraid to bid on backup players in the plan if they are nominated before my listed starter. Even if I want McCaffrey, there is no guarantee I will get him. In one of my auctions last year in Vegas, Saquon Barkley was nominated before McCaffrey. He fit my game plan and was a viable alternative. I bid on Barkley and won him for $62. I paid $4 more than budgeted, which caused me to necessarily adjust the game plan. McCaffrey came up soon thereafter, and after Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott were sold, a bidding war moved McCaffrey’s price to $64. I could have easily lost out on McCaffrey as the last top-tier RB, but I already had a backup purchased in Barkley who fit my plan.

Related, I strive to purchase a player before the players in a tier become scarce. In other words, I avoid the bidding-war pitfall on the last player in a tier. This is essential for maintaining the integrity of your budget. Bidding wars can occur at any known tier drop off at any position. I’ve repeatedly witnessed players over the years spend $4 – 8 more dollars than necessary on the last player in a position tier simply because they sat too long and lacked the necessary aggressiveness to buy earlier alternatives.

Because I know current prices, I am prepared to bid on almost every player. With every nomination, I always ask whether the player could fit into my plan. If he does, I’m active. I will simultaneously bid and price enforce many players up to within $3-4 of their actual price, and then stop. If I win the bidding, that’s acceptable because he is a bargain, fits the plan, and I can reallocate money to another starter. Be advised, however, that buying too many bargain players, particularly early in the auction, can negatively affect the game plan quickly.

Another point is critical for executing a game plan. Make certain you keep track of the ongoing team construction of every team in the auction, because information is power. You must be aware of which teams still need to fill specific positions to finish their starting lineups. For example, if you are waiting to buy a QB, you need you know who still needs a QB. This is important if you are targeting a cheaper QB (like Lamar Jackson in 2019) for the timing of the nomination and buying him at a cheaper price. Many online auction sites provide an auction chart to simplify this process. Some of my auction friends use Excel programs on their computer to track rosters and remaining money for each team. On this point, I am old school. In every live auction I fill in a printed Excel spreadsheet listing all 20 roster spots and starting lineup requirements for all 12 teams. This allows me to see all teams’ constructions and all remaining player inventory in my field of vision at the same time.


Game Planning the End Game

The end game is to solidify your roster with key contributing players. Fantasy players employ varying strategies during the last 1/3rd of the auction to fill their rosters. Some players hold onto $30 – $50 to buy multiple $2 – $5 players and fill their last 6 – 8 roster spots. Some players, after spending big on studs, have only $10 remaining to fill 8 – 10 rosters spots. I’ve witnessed skilled auction players use each of these strategies with success. Because my strategy involves buying multiple foundation pieces, I most often employ a hybrid of these two strategies and have at least four $1 purchases to close out my roster. Regardless of strategy, one invariable exists:

You must game plan for the end game.

Game planning for the end game is not difficult – it simply takes preparation. You need to create a list of desired $1 and $2 players for each position. With actual price information, you will know who these players are and whether they typically go for $1 or $2. During the auction, you obviously will need to purchase backups. With a pre-made end-game list, you can easily and repeatedly scan the list for key players and the remaining inventory of players for a certain position. It is a lousy feeling to forget a key player and miss a chance to nominate and/or buy him for $1. With a pre-made list, you greatly reduce the risk of missing out on that player.

If you lack actual price information, some end-game player prices may also be gathered from alternative but less reliable sources: 1) In a similar-rules redraft league, review the last 60-70 players picked. These players usually correlate to $1 or $2; or 2) On a fantasy website’s list of auction player values such as ETR, the listed $1 and $2 players will be somewhat accurate because the prices for end-game players typically have low price variance. Be advised, however, that actual sale prices for certain players may vary significantly.

Knowing which players to nominate for $1 or for $2 in the end game, and at what point of the auction, takes both a feel for the auction and skill. To maximize your chances of winning a bid, you must know a) actual sale prices for players, b) how much money each team has remaining, and c) the status of the other teams’ constructions. For example, if Tony Pollard almost always sells for $2, and I want him for $2, I need to review the Elliott owner’s team for the amount of money remaining and the status of his RBs. Does he have the $ to go $3? Can anyone else go $3? If a couple teams have $40 remaining and roster spots, I will likely wait on nominating Pollard. But often the best analysis is for naught, as you cannot control when one team believes the player is worth that extra $1.

From my two completed $150 NFFC auctions to date this summer, one in June and one in July, examples of my end-game purchases are Chase Edmonds for $2, Sterling Shepard for $2, Jace Sternberger for $1, Steven Sims for $1, and Hunter Renfrow for $1. Antonio Gibson went for $1 in both. (!) One note – if you want high-upside backup running backs (particularly in Zero RB), be prepared to spend at least $2 – $3 for players such as Pollard, Edmonds, Boston Scott or Darrynton Evans. You aren’t the only player chasing upside.


Go Execute

It is nearly impossible to execute a specific auction game plan exactly as prepared. No auction will be flawless. The split-second decisions come too quickly, and many variables exist for the remainder of the auction to ensure the correct decision process each time. But with thorough game planning, aggressive buying, and discernment of the developments on the draft board, you can amplify your ability for a successful auction. Happy bidding!