Fantasy Football 101: Auction Drafts

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When you first start playing fantasy football, your first exposure to building your team is likely through the standard draft process. Some new fantasy players may not even realize that an alternative method of team building even exists. The traditional “snake draft” is easy to follow and understand; you pick players in order, kind of like the NFL draft, only the last person to pick isn’t punished with the last pick of each round, instead, they get the first pick of the next round. Back and forth we go for +/-16 rounds until you’ve built out your team.

The major flaw in this draft style is that, depending on your draft position, you will have no shot at rostering certain players on your team. Unless you completely buck the Average Draft Position (ADP) trends, your draft position – early, mid, late – will determine which players are typically available at each draft pick.

To combat this limiting factor, implementing an auction draft (sometimes referred to as a salary cap league) opens the door for each fantasy manager to build their roster however they see fit, so long as they have the available funds to do so. Each fantasy manager starts with a set number of make-believe dollars, typically $200. From there, players are “nominated” (in no particular order!) and each fantasy manager has the same opportunity to offer a salary for that player. The fantasy manager who feels the strongest about that player and proposes the highest salary will win the opportunity for that player to provide fantasy points to their team that season.

The beauty of an auction draft is the ability to build your team, your way, instead of being pigeonholed into a specific player or range of players at each pick. If you want to roster both Justin Jefferson and Ja’marr Chase, by all means, pony up the salary and do it!

If you’ve never played in a league that uses the auction draft format, I highly recommend it. It is both more exciting as you can participate in almost every single nomination, while also bringing more strategy and gamesmanship into the draft. Let’s dig into the nuances of each phase of the draft.

Nomination Process

The first difference between a snake draft and an auction draft is the nomination process. While each fantasy manager is set in a predetermined nomination order, there is no specific order that the players must be nominated. If you want to nominate your kicker as your first nomination, you can! (I don’t recommend this and will discuss why in a future strategy article…stay tuned!)

When it is your turn to nominate a player, the draft platform will give you a timer (typically 30-60 seconds) to make your nomination before it automatically nominates the top remaining player on the draft list.

The fun thing about auction drafts and the nomination process is mixing things up. Just because you’re in the first round of nominations, doesn’t mean you can’t nominate a player who is typically drafted in the 5th round of a traditional snake draft. This adds to the fun and strategy, resulting in players either being nominated “early” or “late” compared to the player’s ADP, which can drastically impact the final winning salary for that player. (I’ll get into nomination strategies in a future article focused on nominations!).

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After the top players are gone and some fantasy managers are running low on funds, the salary increases slow down dramatically. Eventually, only a few fantasy managers have enough available auction funds to compete for that player.

Proposing Salary Increases (Bidding)

Each time a player is nominated, the salary starts at just $1. Each fantasy manager can either propose a higher salary or “pass.” Early in the draft, the salary will quickly climb, often into the $40-$50 range, and even into the $60’s for some players. Spending 25%+ of your budget on one player is a bold move, but that is what it will take to get the top players.

Here too, gamesmanship can come into play. Unlike a snake draft where you have to hope a specific player will “fall” to you, the auction format allows you to use the salary proposal process to bluff your interest in certain players. Actively participating in a player’s salary increases indicates to your league-mates that you are interested in rostering that player. But, you could be bluffing and only driving up the salary because you know that your league-mate really likes a specific player or is a fan of that team. Often referred to as “price enforcing,” this practice works well in the early stages of an auction when everyone has most of their funds available, but gets more difficult when the funds start to dwindle. Price enforcement can lead to you rostering a player or a position that you did not want or need, so be careful!

Throughout the proposal process, there is a timer involved. Typically, when a new salary is proposed, the clock is reset to 10 seconds, and restarts the countdown to zero. As it nears zero, a bell, ding, or even an AI voice will countdown from 3, 2, 1. Here again, we can implement some gamesmanship and have some fun. Unlike proposing salaries early and often during the process, you can stay out of the salary proposal process until the very end, jumping in right before the player is won by a league-mate. Psychologically, your league-mates won’t be sure if you really wanted that player or if you were trying to drive the salary up a little higher.

Rostering A Player and Roster Construction

When that timer hits zero, the fantasy manager who proposed the highest salary is recorded as the winner and the player is added to their fantasy roster. The winning salary is deducted from the manager’s overall salary cap and the next fantasy manager’s nomination time begins, and the process repeats over and over again until each fantasy manager has a full roster.

Throughout the auction, as each fantasy manager adds players to their roster, trends will start to take shape. Since the general format of starting/bench positions is the same as any other fantasy football league, each manager needs to be aware of their league-mate rosters.  Since we don’t have to nominate players in any particular order, roster awareness and positional nominations become very important.

Additionally, each fantasy manager will employ a different strategy. 100 players may have already been nominated, but one team might only have two players and another might have twelve. It’s all up to that drafter and their strategy.

Auction drafters can often fall into similar traps as their snake draft counterparts. Where many drafters will feel obligated to draft a player based on his average draft position if he has fallen too far past that ADP,  auction drafters can feel that same pressure, feeling they must propose a salary simply because their going salary is below the average value posted by the draft platform. Don’t fall into that trap!

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Salary Cap Budgeting

First-time auction drafters often fall into one of two categories: overzealous or overly conservative. The overzealous drafter will be too excited at the prospect of rostering multiple studs and end up spending too much of their funds early in the draft, missing out on “value” players later on in the process.

Conversely, being too conservative is dangerous as well. Holding your funds too tightly will see you missing out on top-ranked players. Imagine starting your snake draft in round 4, because you were too scared to make your first few draft selections.

It’s extremely important to get a feel for your league-mate spending patterns and be ready to adjust as needed.  If multiple managers are being aggressive early, it can make the rest of the league start spending higher salaries as well. In this situation, it may be beneficial to be more conservative and let those other managers run out of salary quickly, so you can have more control over the middle of the draft. On the flip side, a league with conservative early spending is an invitation to get aggressive and acquire multiple top-ranked players for what will ultimately prove to be a great value.

Warren Buffett, the famous billionaire investing mogul, had no idea he was giving great auction draft advice when he said: “Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful.” Participating in an auction draft will find multiple instances of each of these moments.

Two seasons ago, in my home auction league, Joe Mixon was nominated and the salary increases were slow and not increasing like they normally do for a RB who was ranked in the top 10. Typically, a player with his ranking would see a salary in the high $30s, but as the countdown ticked away, his salary was stuck at $29. I frantically hit the +$1 button right before the final buzzer, anticipating that someone else would have also seen this low salary and got back in on the increases. To my shock and surprise, no one else proposed another $1 increase and Joe Mixon was suddenly on my team. I had no anticipation of spending $30 on another RB, as I already had two very good RBs rostered. The very next RB nominated was Myles Gaskin, who had a lot of preseason hype, and his salary quickly rose to $30 and higher. I felt great about my “deal” on Mixon, especially at the end of the year, when Mixon finished as RB4 and Gaskin, who was more expensive, finished as RB24.

It’s important to have a plan to spend all of your salary cap. You cannot take it with you after the draft, so make sure you spend it along the way.  Waiting too long to spend your salary could result in you leaving the draft with unspent money. Think of unspent salary cap funds as skipping a draft pick in a snake draft. If you leave the draft with $25 of unspent salary, that is akin to skipping your 5th-round draft pick in a traditional snake draft.

The Final Nominations

As the draft draws to a close, some fantasy managers will have already filled their rosters and will be removed from both the nomination and proposing process. During this stage, it’s imperative to pay attention to your nominations. The player you nominate may not draw any additional salary increases and will be added to your roster for the nominated $1 minimum.

All online draft platforms will require all fantasy managers to fill their entire roster and will limit your “max bid” to reserve $1 for each open roster spot remaining. If you have four open roster spots and $10 to spend, your max salary will be $7 ($7 to the current player, with the $3 reserved for the three additional roster spots).

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If you’ve never participated in an auction draft/salary cap league, you should definitely consider it. The ability to build your owner roster outside the constricted round-by-round draft process is exciting. There is a major misconception that salary cap drafts are significantly slower than traditional snake drafts. While this may be true for in-person drafts, online fantasy football platforms will roll along smoothly due to the site’s timers for both nominations and salary proposals. Any added time is well worth it for the opportunity to draft any player at any time.


steve larson says:

always a good plan….early throw out high dollar players you are not interested in….get others to spend their money or fill positions you want others at……..

Only way to draft…have lots of plans…then be ready to adjust….and knowing your league mates is key….Homers vs get their guys vs value seekers…….

If tiers…first guy in a tier usually cheapest….last guy in the tier most expensive…..

Patrick says:

I would disagree with the comment about not nominating a kicker first. I’ve opened up with a kicker nomination for $1 early in the draft when everyone has a lot of budget available. The result was some league mate spending 3$ on a kicker. While not a huge deal, I was happy to force league mates to do unnecessary spending on arbitrary positions.

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