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The Perfect Auto-Pick Draft

Talk about a misleading title. A perfect auto-pick style draft doesn't exist. Having your team drafted this way means giving up control. It means removing emotion, gut instincts. A cold, heartless computer algorithm decides who will be in your starting lineup on opening day.

The best draft will always be a late August afternoon with nine or eleven of your closest buds and Bud Lights (however I recommend going light on the latter until after the draft). Trash talking and heckling are mandatory, as well as careful opponent reconnaissance and possible sabotage ("you know, I heard that Mooch promised the starting gig to Garcia…"). Alas, no such frivolity exists with an auto-pick draft.

Does that mean you should only participate in live drafts? Of course not. While I firmly believe that every person who takes fantasy football seriously should set aside some time to draft a team first hand, it would be foolish to insist on it every time. Although it's not ideal, the auto-pick draft is a fair, convenient way to fill out rosters. Each owner is drafted by the same rules, and the inevitable problem of scheduling a common draft time is eliminated.

In fact, such a draft has some advantages in the long run. Since you cannot completely control your selections, you are bound to end up with players you have not rostered before. No matter how much you study the sport, nothing beats first-hand experience. Is a player consistent or does he tend to have a few big games that skew his statistics? How often is he injured? Perhaps more importantly, does his coaching staff announce starting decisions early enough for you to find a suitable replacement? Human nature causes us to gravitate toward players we are familiar with, so being exposed to more players will help you draft and play better in all your leagues.

Now that I've waffled more than a politician, let's determine the best strategy for filling out an auto-pick roster.

Two Types of Auto-Pick Drafts

There are two common types of auto-pick drafts:

  • Single-List Draft - You create a single list of players, mixing different positions based on overall value. This is the most common style of auto-pick draft.
  • Multi-List Draft - You supply the drafting program with a different player ranking list for each position. In addition, you also tell the program what to draft in each round (running back in the 1st, wide receiver in the 2nd, quarterback in the 3rd, etc.). Therefore, your drafted roster will have the positional makeup you desire.

I am not a big fan of multi-list drafts. To start off with, you need to know your draft position before telling the program what position to fill in each round. With that information, you must guess what players will be taken ahead of you. For example, if you're picking toward the end of the first round, you may elect to draft a wide receiver, thinking all the top-tier running backs will be gone.

The second problem I have with this style of draft is the lack of flexibility. What if you decide to go with a receiver with the 10th pick and the run on RBs didn't materialize? You're stuck drafting a WR in the first round, even though a stud like Edgerrin James may still be on the board.

Fortunately, most programs utilize a single-list format, so that's what I'll focus on here.

For example purposes, I'll assume a 10-team league starting 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 K, 1 Def, and 6 reserves for a total roster size of 15. This is the public league configuration of a very popular online provider. I'll develop an example as we go along, finishing up with an actual list and draft for analysis.

Preparation for a Single-List Draft

The Money Players
The core of your roster will be filled in the first 4-5 rounds. Here is where you pick the players that will have the biggest impact on your team. Fortunately, you have the most influence in the early rounds of the draft.

If you're reading this on Footballguys.com, you already know about value-based drafting, or VBD. I'll refrain from piling on more praise, other than to say I feel it's by far the best tool for any draft, but especially single-list auto-pick drafts. Nothing beats a VBD cheat sheet, customized for your league's scoring system, rules, and roster requirements. On the other hand, the absolute worst thing you can do is not use a customized cheat sheet. The league provider site's default ranking may be extremely illogical, not to mention you will likely be drafting from the same ranking list as others in your league.

Let's get started. Using your VBD cheat sheet, fill out the first 40-50 list entries. You are not concerned with which positions are drafted. You are only interested in maximizing value. Most automatic drafting algorithms wait until each team has filled out its starting roster before drafting bench players (more on that later), so don't be worried about drafting three kickers in the first five rounds. The computer won't allow it.

As an example, let's assume your draft starts like this:

Round 1: Edgerrin James
Round 2: Torry Holt
Round 3: Rudi Johnson
Round 4: Tony Gonzalez
Round 5: Michael Clayton

Notice that you still don't have a QB. No problem. You still have the opportunity to fill out the rest of your roster with quality players.

Understanding the Machine (Part I)
Let's pause for a moment and discuss some of the logic used in most automatic drafting algorithms.

I'm sure every algorithm is a little different, but each has the same purpose: to evenly distribute players and set up a competitive league. Said another way, the programmer forces the algorithm to make "intelligent" drafting choices.

The first fundamental rule employed by most algorithms is that all teams will draft complete starting lineups before any reserves are drafted. This is a very useful piece of information.

Since our 10-team league starts nine players each week, the following will be off the board by the end of Round 9:

10 quarterbacks
20 running backs
30 wide receivers
10 tight ends
10 kickers
10 defenses

This means no matter how you build your draft list, you are guaranteed one of your top 10 quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers, and defenses. Similarly, both of your starting running backs will be in your top 20 and all three of your starting wide receivers will be in your VBD's top 30.

Filling Out Your Starting Lineup
Okay, so you have five core players. At this point you are probably wondering why you can't continue the VBD method for the entire draft. Sounds logical, but any real FootballGuy knows that after about 50 players Black-eyed Joe recommends you "draft by position lists based on need." But how do you know what you need? After five rounds your roster could consist of almost any combination of position players. But all is not lost. We can still direct the algorithm to make logical choices.

First, you must rank each POSITION based on its value to your roster. Here's where it's extremely important to know the rules of your league. Does your league start three wide receivers? If so, a strong group of receivers will be desired. Does your league utilize a flex (RB/WR) position? This places more value on running backs. Do passing touchdowns count 6 points or only 4? You'll notice in a minute that Peyton Manning is #1 in our example below. This is because all TDs are worth 6 points. By asking these questions you go a long way toward filling out the rest of your list. If you have trouble, start by looking at your VBD list so far. What positions are most common on the list?

While valuing each position, you should also take advantage of how the algorithm works. If you feel the draft is deep at a position, lower it in your valuation. For example, many people (me included) believe this year contains a large number of mid-level quarterbacks. Therefore, I move QBs down my valuation order, even though the position typically scores the most points. Remember, my worst-case scenario still lands me someone in my top ten.

Hold the nachos a second. Doesn't that preclude you from getting a top-tier name like Peyton Manning or Daunte Culpepper? No, because your well-crafted VBD list already contains those guys in your top 40-50 players. Culpepper will be yours if he is available and has the most value of all players left on the board.

For the sake of our example, let's assume our position ranking goes like this:

  1. Running Backs
  2. Wide Receivers
  3. Quarterbacks
  4. Tight Ends
  5. Kickers
  6. Defenses

Starting with the most important position (in this case running backs) add players until your list contains the number of required starters PLUS two reserves for each team in the league. In our example, 20 starting running backs will be used each week. Finding the last running back in your VBD rankings, add backs until you have a total of 40 on your list.

Repeat the process for your second-most valuable position, in this case, wide receivers. In our league, 30 WRs will start each week, so we'll put 50 total receivers on our list.

Continue down your positions, only including the number of starters plus one reserve. That would be 20 QBs, 20 TEs. When it comes down to kickers and defense, I recommend only listing the number starting in the league, or 10 Ks, and 10 Defs in this case. These positions are less critical, plus it doesn't hurt to encourage the algorithm to choose the players you want by giving it more choices at those positions.

Our example above has drafted two running backs, two wide receivers and a tight end. Our starting lineup is satisfied at RB and TE, while we still need one WR, a QB, a kicker, and a defense. By grouping players at each position and then ordering the positions based on value, we are instructing the algorithm to fill out our starting lineup based on the importance of each position. In our case, the program will skip over all our running backs and draft the next most important position, a wide receiver. [Note that players will continue to be selected from our VBD list as long as they fill a starting lineup requirement.] Based on our rankings, a receiver should be chosen next, followed by a quarterback, kicker and defense.

Understanding the Machine (Part II)
The second fundamental rule of the drafting algorithm is to prevent any team from stocking up at one position. To do this, the program will give each team a bench containing a pre-determined positional makeup.

A typical auto-picked bench will consist of one player at each position, or possibly two at one skill position and only one reserve kicker or defense.

The bad news is you end up with a more generic roster than you would have if you had participated in a live draft. The good news is it limits the number of players drafted at the critical positions, thus leaving you a healthy pool of free agents available on your waiver wire.

Personally, I prefer my bench to look something like:

1 quarterback
2 running backs
2 wide receivers
1 carousel player

This gives me solid backups at each of the three skill positions, plus a "carousel player" to be used for waiver wire pickups during tight end, kicker, and defense bye weeks. (Obviously, these three positions must have different bye weeks, so some planning is involved.)

Unfortunately, the program forces the typical bench to look more like:

1 quarterback
1 running back
2 wide receivers
1 tight end
1 kicker

This isn't too bad for QB and WR positions, but it leaves us terribly thin at RB, our most valued position.

Back to the Draft

For our example, reserves begin to be drafted in round 10.

It's pretty safe to assume that by the end of round 9, all 50 of your VBD-list players will be off the board. However, if one of your top 50 players falls through the cracks, consider yourself lucky to be getting that caliber a player in the 10th round. Most likely though, at this point the algorithm will be looking at your position lists.

Remember, we valued running back as our most important position. Since you only have one reserve, it becomes critical that the first reserve you draft is a running back. Doing so insures you of acquiring the best reserve running back left on the board. Let other owners select backup quarterbacks, tight ends, or <gasp!> kickers in round 10. You'll gladly take the best available running back and move on.

When all is said and done, we want to encourage our bench to be drafted based on our positional valuations.

Let's do an actual draft. Here are our final rankings, including the actual draft results:

Rk
Player
Pos
Rk
Player
Pos
Rk
Player
Pos
1
Peyton Manning
QB
51
Thomas Jones
RB
101
Jake Plummer
QB
2
LaDainian Tomlinson
RB
52
Michael Bennett
RB
102
Tom Brady
QB
3
Priest Holmes
RB
53
Chris Brown
RB
103
Matt Hasselbeck
QB
4
Shaun Alexander
RB
54
Fred Taylor
RB
104
Aaron Brooks
QB
5
Deuce McAllister
RB
55
Carnell Williams
RB
105
Carson Palmer
QB
6
Edgerrin James
RB
56
Jerome Bettis
RB
106
Trent Green
QB
7
Randy Moss
WR
57
DeShaun Foster
RB
107
Drew Brees
QB
8
Willis McGahee
RB
58
Larry Johnson
RB
108
Michael Vick
QB
9
Domanick Davis
RB
59
T.J. Duckett
RB
109
Chad Pennington
QB
10
Corey Dillon
RB
60
Duce Staley
RB
110
Jake Delhomme
QB
11
Terrell Owens
WR
61
Ronnie Brown
RB
111
Byron Leftwich
QB
12
Clinton Portis
RB
62
Lee Suggs
RB
112
David Carr
QB
13
Daunte Culpepper
QB
63
Cedric Benson
RB
113
Brian Griese
QB
14
Donovan McNabb
QB
64
Michael Pittman
RB
114
Steve McNair
QB
15
Tiki Barber
RB
65
Reuben Droughns
RB
115
Jeremy Shockey
TE
16
Marvin Harrison
WR
66
Marshall Faulk
RB
116
Dallas Clark
TE
17
Chad Johnson
WR
67
Eric Shelton
RB
117
Alge Crumpler
TE
18
Julius Jones
RB
68
Chris Chambers
WR
118
Todd Heap
TE
19
Brian Westbrook
RB
69
Lee Evans
WR
119
Eric Johnson
TE
20
Rudi Johnson
RB
70
Ashley Lelie
WR
120
Chris Cooley
TE
21
Kevin Jones
RB
71
Donald Driver
WR
121
Jeb Putzier
TE
22
Curtis Martin
RB
72
Isaac Bruce
WR
122
Randy McMichael
TE
23
Torry Holt
WR
73
Jimmy Smith
WR
123
L.J. Smith
TE
24
Reggie Wayne
WR
74
Steve Smith
WR
124
Jerramy Stevens
TE
25
Jamal Lewis
RB
75
Larry Fitzgerald
WR
125
Bubba Franks
TE
26
Tatum Bell
RB
76
Donte Stallworth
WR
126
Marcus Pollard
TE
27
Javon Walker
WR
77
Eric Moulds
WR
127
Daniel Graham
TE
28
Antonio Gates
TE
78
Rod Smith
WR
128
Ben Troupe
TE
29
Tony Gonzalez
TE
79
Muhsin Muhammad
WR
129
Erron Kinney
TE
30
Joe Horn
WR
80
Eddie Kennison
WR
130
Freddie Jones
TE
31
Steven Jackson
RB
81
Brandon Stokley
WR
131
Jermaine Wiggins
TE
32
Darrell Jackson
WR
82
T.J. Houshmandzadeh
WR
132
Mike Vanderjagt
K
33
Ahman Green
RB
83
Deion Branch
WR
133
Adam Vinatieri
K
34
Kerry Collins
QB
84
Derrick Mason
WR
134
Jason Elam
K
35
Andre Johnson
WR
85
Plaxico Burress
WR
135
David Akers
K
36
Lamont Jordan
RB
86
David Givens
WR
136
Matt Stover
K
37
J.J. Arrington
RB
87
Keary Colbert
WR
137
Sebastian Janikowski
K
38
Drew Bennett
WR
88
Brandon Lloyd
WR
138
Ryan Longwell
K
39
Marc Bulger
QB
89
Santana Moss
WR
139
Jeff Wilkins
K
40
Baltimore
Def
90
Keyshawn Johnson
WR
140
Josh Brown
K
41
Kevan Barlow
RB
91
Justin McCareins
WR
141
Jeff Reed
K
42
Roy Williams
WR
92
Amani Toomer
WR
142
New England
Def
43
Hines Ward
WR
93
Mike Williams
WR
143
Buffalo
Def
44
Laveranues Coles
WR
94
Keenan McCardell
WR
144
Pittsburgh
Def
45
Michael Clayton
WR
95
Antwaan Randle El
WR
145
Carolina
Def
46
Nate Burleson
WR
96
Antonio Bryant
WR
146
Tampa Bay
Def
47
Warrick Dunn
RB
97
Jabar Gaffney
WR
147
Philadelphia
Def
48
Jason Witten
TE
98
Justin Gage
WR
148
NY Jets
Def
49
Anquan Boldin
WR
99
Charles Rogers
WR
149
Cincinnati
Def
50
Jerry Porter
WR
100
Brett Favre
QB
150
Atlanta
Def

Player Drafted in Bold Red
Top 50 - Determined by VBD Ranking
Players 51-150 - Determined by Positional Rankings

So How Did We Do?

Drafting 8th in a serpentine draft, our starting lineup looks like:

  • Round 1: Priest Holmes (ranked RB2 on our board)
  • Round 2: Deuce McAllister (RB4)
  • Round 3: Terrell Owens (WR2)
  • Round 4: Reggie Wayne (WR6)
  • Round 5: Kerry Collins (QB4)
  • Round 6: Roy Williams (WR12)
  • Round 7: Eric Johnson (TE8)
  • Round 8: Mike Vanderjagt (K1)
  • Round 9: New England (Def2)

Not bad! Each of our starters is ranked in our top 12 at their respective positions, with an overall average positional ranking of 4.6. We're a little weak at tight end, but landing Vanderjagt and New England in rounds 8 and 9 was a coup. Now for our bench:

  • Round 10: J.J. Arrington (RB21)
  • Round 11: Donte Stallworth (WR27)
  • Round 12: T.J. Houshmandzadeh (WR33)
  • Round 13: David Carr (QB18)
  • Round 14: Chris Cooley (TE9)
  • Round 15: Jeff Wilkins (K8)

The first thing to notice is our backups were drafted in the order we chose, based on our positional valuations. We lucked up with Arrington. He was 37th overall in our rankings, yet we still picked him up in round 10. If he secures the starting gig in Arizona, we're golden.

In general our bench looks pretty good too. We picked up solid backups at running back and wide receiver, while grabbing a serviceable second quarterback. As we anticipated, the program "forced" us to draft backups at tight end and kicker instead of giving us additional depth at a more valuable position. On the bright side, only 30 running backs were drafted, leaving some good talent on the waiver wire.

After the Draft

Once the draft is complete, there's still work to be done. Like we just discussed, your bench won't have an ideal positional makeup. Now is the time to get your feet wet in the free agent pool.

Carefully study your roster and identify its weak points. Then go to the waiver wire and place claims on players you think will make your team stronger. Thanks to the algorithm's method of spreading players equally, there will undoubtedly be some good players out there waiting for you to pick them up. So drop that extra kicker and pick up Larry Johnson or Cedric Benson (both went undrafted in this league). As a matter of fact, our first order of business in this league is to drop Wilkins and pick up Johnson as a handcuff to Holmes.

Now is also the time to check for bye week conflicts. One of the worst things about the auto-pick format is there's no way to avoid drafting players with the same bye week. If it happens to you, see if you can pick up an extra player to help. You should also glance at your opponents' rosters to see if they have a similar bye week conflict. A trade of similar-talent players could ease both of your problems.

It looks like we got lucky in the bye week department. Stallworth and Houshmandzadeh have their byes in week 10, but that still leaves us with three starters for our lineup.

Conclusion

So there you have it. I have used this method in at least a dozen drafts with considerable success. Was it a perfect draft? Maybe not, but it's certainly a lineup we can be proud to start the season with. Use this method and force the algorithm draft accordingly.

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