Why an NFL auction would be far superior to a draft—for players, teams, and fans

NFL Draft lioRealistic rating: 8.0

Pretty much every astute fantasy player knows that auctions are far superior to drafts. Here are the three primary reasons:

1. More fair: If there’s a superstar head-and-shoulders above everyone else, then a team with the first pick in a fantasy draft lucks into a huge advantage. Conversely, if the top players are about equal, then the team with the first pick is at a disadvantage, since the teams picking behind him are still getting roughly the same caliber of player in the first round, and then that team has to pick last in the 2nd round. It all comes down to random luck of the distribution of player talent.

This randomness disappears in an auction, where there isn’t any lucky advantage or unlucky disadvantage to be gleaned from having particular picks. Every team has the opportunity to pick every player and to pay exactly how much they believe that player to be worth. Because of this, auctions are much more liquid then drafts, as auction dollars are a much more granular measure of value than draft picks.

2. More research/availability: In drafts, if you have the first pick, you’re pretty much locked into taking Peyton, AP, or one of the other handful of elite RBs. That’s all you really have to think about. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have the last pick, it doesn’t matter what your opinion of AP is. If you think he’s going to have the greatest rushing season in NFL history, you don’t have any opportunity to put your money where your mouth is (unless you trade picks, which seems to be a rare occurrence due to the aforementioned liquidity problem).

3. More strategy: There’s an element of strategy in auctions that isn’t very prevalent in drafts. At any given time, the number of teams that need a particular position and the total money is left across the league has enormous implications on the values of players, causing them to constantly fluctuate—and teams can do things (whether that be nominating specific players or positions or driving up the price on certain auctions) to manipulate those fluctuations to preferred conditions.

Application to the NFL (and NBA/MLB/NHL)

These draft issues are largely prevalent in the NFL too. While many teams do trade picks, the vast majority simply pick from where they’ve been assigned in the draft order, which surely doesn’t fit with their specific values/needs if they had the choice.

For example, only a handful of teams at the top of the draft were really researching the likes Jadeveon Clowney as they were the only teams with the means to select him. Thus, more likely than not, the Texans did not value Clowney more than every one of the other 31 teams, yet they still ended up with him. In fact, it’s highly likely that the vast majority of the 256 players drafted did not go to the NFL franchise which actually valued them the most. Again, the less liquid nature of drafts creates market inefficiencies. Auctions are the opposite. With each bidding party having a very granular amount of funds, they can pick and choose exactly how much they value each player available, and players will go to the teams that value them most the vast majority of the time.

Proposal I: Auction draft

Let’s say each NFL team had an allotted amount of auction “money” (I say “money” because it would be a nominal amount) with the worst team from the previous season having the most money to spend and the Super Bowl winner having the least.

Let’s say we use the modified draft pick value chart created by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. Here, I’ve totaled the values of the seven picks each team is currently allotted based on their draft order. I’ve then multiplied that sum by 10 to have a more granular “dollar” amount. If these draft picks were converted into auction dollars, here’s how each team’s starting funds would look:

NFL Auction Values

As you can see, there’s a steadily declining distribution of funds down the auction chain. But how can this change things in practice? Here are some examples:

Kansas City was assigned the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 draft based on their 2013 record, and they selected a defensive end with that pick—but say they really loved Clowney and were willing to pay much more for him. As draft picks aren’t very liquid, it might be hard to find a trade that’s fair for both sides. In an auction, though, Kansas City can simply decide to allocate as much of its budget as it wants toward Clowney, and if Houston decides to match, then they have greater starting funds with which to outbid them.

Or say Houston, which has many holes to fill, decided not to spend a big portion of their budget on Clowney and take the standard one each of a 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd-, 4th-, 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-round caliber players. They could instead spend their $10,727 on seven 2nd round-caliber players (i.e. the 33-64th best players available; avg cost $1502) allowing them to plug in a very solid player at many different slots.

(In fantasy, this is known as the “stars and scrubs” vs. balanced roster strategies, but these plans have much more adaptability to NFL teams, which must account for their already rostered players when drafting rather than starting from scratch like most fantasy leagues.)

And in terms of strategy, a team highly coveting a WR might decide to nominate stud QBs early, in the hopes of depleting other teams’ funds and driving down the cost of WRs.

The process

The auction would work by rotating which teams could nominate players, with a nomination requiring a minimum starting bid of, say, $10 and a minimum $1 raise. All 32 teams could buzz in, and the auction would end after 20 seconds of no higher bids. (Let’s pretend there’s no high frequency trading “Flash Boys” going on here—although that would definitely be something Bill Belichick would love to explore.) Then the next team would nominate a player, and the process would continue until every team was out of funds.

As far as broadcasting, don’t worry, Mr. $25 billion commissioner, there could still be a Thursday night primetime show in which the best players are selected. According to the Harvard study, the 32nd pick is worth 200.3 points, or $2003 in auction money. For the first night, each team would nominate a player, but the minimum bid on that player would be $1500 so as to ensure it’s all big names coming off the board. (Personally, I’d rather not have this de facto “first round,” since auctions are more fun and strategic when some studs are still lurking on the board late, but it’d obviously be hard for the NFL to pass up a free night of primetime TV rights.)

One of the best things about this is that you could in theory speed up the draft, because trading would be rendered almost entirely irrelevant (i.e. No team no longer has to trade up to get a guy.) This absence of trades would mean that you wouldn’t have to allocate much time between auctions. At the same time, though, there could be many more than 256 players drafted in an auction format.

Some other notes:

  • Compensatory picks could easily still be awarded in this auction, simply by calculating their value and adding them to each team’s total funds.
  • Draft money could easily be traded during the season and might facilitate more trades. Say two teams can’t find even ground. If they each had an auction money allocation, one could easily kick in a bit to smooth out any deal.

Finally, here’s the best reason for an auction: Who wouldn’t want to see Jerry Jones blow half his budget on Day 1 on some pricey college star?

From the players’ point of view

Auctions would be much more fair for the players as well. With the draft, rookie salaries are largely pre-slotted by each draft position, without much regard for discrepancies in actual value.

For example, in 2012, Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck were the consensus top two picks and were huge outliers in terms of talent/value compared to the rest of the draft. Yet, due to the rigid rookie pay scale, they only received a marginal pay upgrade over the No. 3 pick Trent Richardson. In an auction, rookie salaries could be scaled by the amount of auction money spent on them, making it a big more meritocratic. If the next Andrew luck comes along and causes a team to splurge $3,000 auction on him, his rookie salary would be in proportion to that amount.

Proposal II: Free agency

This idea’s a bit more radical: How about no draft or auction whatsoever—and instead players coming out of college are simply free agents who can sign with any team? An obvious objection would be that the best players would simply sign with the best teams, and the bad teams would stay bad in perpetuity, but is that really the case?

Teams that are rebuilding would allocate much more of their salary caps to prospects coming up from college, whereas contenders in “win now” mentality probably wouldn’t want to tie up much of their cap on young prospects who could take years to develop into their prime. Also, thanks to a hard salary cap, no team could horde all the best talent.

Another thing to consider is that teams are in a constant state of roster turnover. As great as the Broncos and Seahawks are today, every one of the players on their roster will have become a free agent in the next five years. Because the NFL isn’t anywhere near as star-driven as the NBA, and the best players aren’t global icons that want to gravitate toward NYC, LA, and other “prestige” cities, complete free agency isn’t something out of the realm of possibility in terms of competitive balance.

And from the players’ point of view, it’s probably the most fair of all, as they aren’t locked into playing for a particular team or for a particular salary. (Of course, since college players don’t have a seat at the bargaining table when it comes to negotiating the NFL CBA, they receive the extremely raw end of the deal and will continue to as long as current NFL players are the only players with a voice.)

The death blow to this free agency plan, though, is that it would remove a big prime time ratings event from the NFL’s annual TV calendar, which Commissioner 18 Games probably wouldn’t be too happy about.

Bottom line: In a vacuum, complete free agency seems like the way to go. An auction is pretty close, though, and certainly a lot more entertaining. Not only would a auction make draft night more fun and fair for fans, it’d also help during the season in facilitating more trades. And on top of all that, it’s more fair for the players too. Seems like a win-win-win.


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