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Draft strategy: Auction leagues

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 as a whole, sweat it every year. We prayed for the No. 1 pick -- and only the No. 1 pick -- in 2007, the season subsequent to LaDainian Tomlinson setting the single-season record for fantasy points.

Then many of us preferred a pick between four and seven in 2012, because we regarded seven running backs -- Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller -- as fairly interchangeable, and we didn't mind having others make those decisions for us while we reaped the benefits of a commanding draft slot in Round No. 2.

And, every year, death and taxes represent the only two worse fates for us than scoring the dreaded 10-spot ... ironic because the harder we root against getting stuck there, the more it becomes as inevitable we will as, well, death and taxes. We understand: Trent Richardson was the No. 10 pick on average in ESPN leagues last season, Alfred Morris No. 11, they finished the season 34th and 14th in terms of fantasy points among running backs.

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.

Gone are the frustrations of knowing that only three people in the room, three purely lucky individuals, will even have a crack at the top-three, "upper echelon" running back trio of Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles. Gone is the internal struggle of how early you should select your quarterback, or your tight end. Gone is the annoyance that is losing that 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 McCoy 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 16-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, "Ben Tate, $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

Here are some of my 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 bidding conservatively.

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 Calvin Johnson out for $37, find that no one in the room is eager to pay that much on a wide receiver right off the top, then chuckle when you watch A.J. Green, Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall all sell for $38 or more in subsequent rounds.

Budget your positions. Do not, under any circumstances, enter an auction without at least a general 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 $37-42 for the position, target a Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Drew 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 $42 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, the key is knowing where the extra funds will come from. Are you going cheap at quarterback? At 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 that 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 kicker 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 10 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 budget in advance is that during the auction, it's critical that you track where not only you stand, but 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 you 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 Jamaal Charles price goes, "$48-$49-$50-$51-$52-$53-$54-$55-$56-$57..." quicker than he can scamper 40 yards downfield for a score. In certain cases, such bidding wars makes 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 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've conservatively priced Christine Michael, Marshawn Lynch'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 Lynch's owner, in this example, would allow him or herself to be bid up to $4-6, and at $4-6 on our pricing scale, I'd much rather "insure" Lynch with a Toby Gerhart, a likely NFL starter, or a player with considerably more upside and a clearer path to regular carries than Michael.

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 will extend into that nomination. A good example: A room full of Washington Redskins fans might wildly spend on Robert Griffin III, ending in a sale price greater than his current average auction price. The next team up for bid might then, despite zero interest in the player whatsoever, toss out "Kirk Cousins, $1," in the hopes the Redskins-friendly room, or the Griffin owner him or herself, might take the bidding high into the single digits, only to cringe in horror when he/she hears crickets.

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 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 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 Redskins fans might be fervent Philadelphia Eagles haters, with no intention of buying Nick Foles. Heck, you might join in that opinion, yet see his AAP (average auction price) as higher than the standing bid and stand firm in the believe he should sell for at least what's reported on that page.

If you aren't prepared to buy Foles for his ESPN AAP, don't make the bid, because it's often unpredictable as to what point your opposition is going to bail out, leaving you on the hook.

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-number-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 to 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 their 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 only 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 smart move 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. Clichéd 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 possess an unwavering aim for perfection in 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 Ben Tate for $25?! He has never done anything in his career and is on a horrible team! What a stupid move." Stupid, huh? Says who? In my opinion, Tate at $25 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...