Auction Draft Strategy: Keepers and Price Inflation

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Editor’s Note: Check out all of our auction content including how to nominate, building a budget, and finding value in an auction draft.

Auctions are still a niche part of fantasy football and keeper strategies for them are even nichier (was that a Mooreism?). Part of the reason is due to the major variations in settings, values, and overall league structures that prevent information that can be easily and generally applied across the board. Throughout this article, I’m going to be using an example to highlight the process you should be following. The prices I quote throughout this article are realistic, but it’s the process that is the most important takeaway.

Before you read any further, I want you to pick three keepers from the following four options:
Jay Ajayi $3, Jordy Nelson $42, Michael Thomas $7, Davante Adams $1.

The question above is one of the most common questions when it comes to keepers in an auction league. Typically, the responses are simply based on the keeper price difference from the stock Average Auction Values (AAV). One of the constants when playing in an auction league with keepers is the inflation it will create on the unkept player’s prices. This inflation must be kept in mind when determining your keepers and preparing for your auction draft.

Price Inflation

Before we can dig into keeper strategies in an auction league, there is a major topic that is often overlooked and must be addressed. Typically, auction keeper leagues will allow owners to keep players at last year’s price, or a price slightly higher. This creates significant discounts, especially on players who broke out the previous season. For example, many owners may have drafted Jay Ajayi for just a few dollars in 2016. This year, they could be keeping a top 10 RB who’s AAV is in the mid-$30’s. When expanded to include multiple keepers for each team, you end up with many players being kept well below their normal value. Going back to the Jay Ajayi example, let’s assume that Ajayi’s AAV is $35, but the owner can keep him for the price he was drafted at, which we will say is $3. There is a $32 variance between is kept value and his AAV.  Now let’s assume that this owner can keep a total of three players. Each other player is probably also being kept below their AAV. When combined, the owner will end up having multiple players worth far more than their actual cost.

Using the players and values I referenced above for a team with three keepers in a $200 auction; Jay Ajayi $3, Michael Thomas $7, and Davante Adams $1. According to AAV from both the Baller’s UDK and ESPN, these three players are worth approximately $35, $39, and $16, respectively. This team is keeping $85 worth of players for just $11. The $74 variance between keeper value ($11) and expected value ($85) shows how much MORE money is available to be spent at the auction. Essentially, using this team’s keepers gives them the equivalent of someone starting the auction with $274 instead of $200. While every team is different, it’s safe to assume most owners will find similar value on their team with their keepers. If each team has an extra $75 to spend at the auction, it will create an inflation on the prices of available players. General prices will inflate as more money chases less talent.

Calculating Inflation

The first step to calculating your league’s inflation is to identify expected keepers. This boils down to league knowledge and history. Look through each roster and make an educated projection on who each team might be keeping. At this stage, league knowledge is by far the most impactful way to get as many projections correct as possible. Simple things like knowing your league mate’s tendencies, favorites teams/players, etc. will help you be as accurate as possible. It’s not crucial to be perfect, but it is important to get as many correct as possible. If you can get 75-80% of the keeper projections correct, you’ll be very pleased with the outcome of your keeper inflation projection.

Dylan Buell / Stringer

Caution: Math Ahead!

Once you’ve projected each team’s keepers, create a list of both their keeper price and their AAV. Add both up to create a keeper total and value total. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll share an example based on my personal home league with 12 teams. In that league, the 36 keepers total price is $557, while their AAV would be $1,021. First we subtract the keeper price ($557) from the total auction dollars, $2,400 in this example of a 12 team league; $2,400 – $557 = $1,843. Next, add up the AAV of the keepers, in this example $1,021, and subtract from total auction dollars. $2,400 – $1,021 = $1,379. What we find is that we have $1,843 of available auction dollars to be spent on just $1,379 worth of player valuations.

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Auction Total $2,400.00 $2,400.00
Total of Keepers $557.00 $1,021.00
Available Auction Funds After Keepers $1,843.00 $1,379.00

If we take the post-keeper available funds ($1,843) and divide by the AAV based value ($1,379), you have: $1,843/$1,379 = 1.34. Converted to a percentage, you have a 34% inflation rate. This will be applied across the top available players. Why not the lower ranked player? As teams “overspend” on the top available talent, they will end up with a normal amount of funds available at the end of the draft for the last few players in the $1-$5 range, and those players will be purchased for face value.

Available Funds $1,843.00
Available Player Value $1,379.00
Inflation Rate 1.34

When you apply a 34% inflation rate to the top available players, you’ll see some surprising numbers. Let’s use a player like Todd Gurley as an example. After being one of the top drafted RB’s last year, owners will be unlikely to keep him at his price. This year, his RB12 ranking brings an AAV of approximately $30. In a keeper league with the inflation, we can realistically project him for a valuation of $40 ($30 x 1.34 = $40.2). When applied across the projected available players, you’ll see what those players are really worth, when factoring in the league having more funds to spend on fewer players and lesser talent.

Additionally, when projecting keepers, you will get a sense of each team’s roster construction and positional needs. If many teams are keeping RBs, you will recognize that they may be bidding wars on a top-ranked RB if they are not kept, while WR bidding may not be as contested. Going back to our example, let’s assume that 10 of the top 14 RBs are being kept, leaving Todd Gurley, Marshawn Lynch, Leonard Fournette, and Christian McCaffrey as the top available RBs.

Caution: Psychology Ahead

As explained in my budget building article, league-wide spending at a specific position can often be determined ahead of the draft, since there is a fixed total of funds to be spent overall. Unsurprisingly, with many owners using similar AAVs and/or your draft platforms AAVs, overall spending is often consistent to re-draft leagues. Considering the players that are kept, there is now a significant amount of money chasing the top available RB, in this case, Todd Gurley. Most owners will see the listed AAV of a player like Gurley at $30 and be hesitant to bid him up too far beyond $34-$36. Meanwhile, you have the knowledge that his adjusted value is closer to $40. While winning Gurley for $38 might seem like over paying, the inflation caused by the depressed values of the kept players makes this a reasonable deal. The key is to look past the stock draft platforms AAVs while it holds some of your league mates back from spending up to the adjusted values.

Using Inflated Values to Determine Keepers

Now that we’ve established projected keepers for your league mates and inflated values for the available players, we can dive into which players you should be keeping and at what price points. I often see replies to auction keeper questions suggest keeping “the players for the lowest prices”. This initially seems like a great idea; keeping a player who is the cheapest gives you more money to spend at the auction. However, keeping a player based solely on their price related to their stock AAV does not account for the overall lack of top available players, specific positions and/or needs of the other teams. Let’s go back to our sample keepers from above. Along with Ajayi, Thomas, and Adams, you also drafted Jordy Nelson last year for $42. AAV shows Nelson at $45 ($3 more than your keeper price), Jay Ajayi at $35 ($32 more than keeper price), Michael Thomas at $38 ($31 more than keeper price) and Davante Adams at $16 ($15 more than keeper price).

Player Keeper Price AAV Savings
Jay Ajayi $3 $35 $32
Jordy Nelson $42 $45 $3
Michael Thomas $7 $38 $31
Davante Adams $1 $16 $15

At the start of this article, I asked you to pick three keepers. I would assume many would plan to keep Ajayi, Thomas and Adams due to having the largest savings overall compared to AAV and the lowest prices. It is at this point that I would suggest digging deeper into the expectations of price inflation and player scarcity prior to making a final decision. Let’s assume that Ajayi and Thomas are no-brainer keepers and it’s now between Nelson for $42 and Adams for $1.

While most people would suggest keeping Adams since the savings is far greater, it is also common for people to suggest “you can just get Nelson back at $42, since it’s close to his AAV”. I contend that there is a hidden cost is keeping the lower ranked player. The inflation will impact the higher priced player far more than a lower-priced player. In this case, using the 34% inflation rate, Nelson’s $45 AAV would increase by $15 up to $60, while Adam’s $16 AAV would increase by $5 up to $21. Now, comparing the keeper price to the inflated AAV, Nelson has a savings of $18 and Adams $20. Suddenly, the keeper value of Nelson is much closer to that of Adams. Additionally, you must consider where your players fall on the list of the players potentially available at the auction.

Player Keeper Price Inflated AAV Savings
Jay Ajayi $3 $47 $44
Jordy Nelson $42 $60 $18
Michael Thomas $7 $51 $44
Davante Adams $1 $21 $20
Using Tiers to Help Make Your Keeper Selection

If most of the top 10 WRs will be kept, not keeping Jordy Nelson would make him one of, or perhaps the only WR in his tier or top couple tiers. This will create a significant amount of attention from your league mates to acquire the only top WR available. This will not only bring Nelson up for nomination earlier in the process when more owners have more funds to spend but will inevitably lead to a bidding war over the only top WR available. Conversely, it is highly likely that most of the players in Davante Adams’ tier, and the tiers around him, will be available at the auction. This all goes back to economics class and supply and demand. With Nelson, you have a small supply and huge demand. With Adams, there is a greater supply with reduced demand as there more options in the same/similar tiers that will spread the spending out and reduce bidding wars. It will also allow the players in those tiers to be nominated later in the process when owners have less available funds to spend.

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Throughout this article, I’ve focused on RBs and WRs. If you’ve read any of my previous work, you’ll recognize why. If you’re new, I simply don’t value QBs high enough to make any of them worthwhile keepers, unless you play in a 2-QB type league. In a standard start 1 QB league, you would need to have a top 3-4 QB for under $5 to be considered a worthy keeper over an RB or WR. The TE position is similar to QBs. At this stage, we really haven’t had any breakout QBs or TEs that have vaulted to the elite tiers that would have been previously drafted at a low enough price to create the value. Since most leagues require some combination of 4-6 RBs and WRs, that is where your keeper focus should remain, outside the most extreme circumstances.

Wrap Up

In the opening, I asked you to select three keepers. I imagine that many of you initially selected Ajayi, Thomas, and Adams as the keepers. As you can see by the example laid out above, my belief is that you should be keeping Nelson, not Adams. Locking up one of the top players in the league with no bidding competition is often overlooked by those who are simply chasing value.

Keeping Adams would give you $41 more auction dollars to spend, but when you consider that Nelson will probably go for an inflated price of $55-60 and there are only a few top 15 WRs potentially available, is it worth it? If you kept Nelson at $42, you would not have to bid against anyone to acquire him. As stated in the intro, every single auction league is different. Variations in the rules, settings, and owners will change how you implement this process. But when implemented correctly, it will point you in the right direction of which players to keep and how to build your next championship team!