The joy of the Salary Cap Draft

Yahoo Sports

I’ll be transparent about one thing as we turn the subject to Salary Cap Drafts; a lot of this is going to be a review. It’s been one of my favorite subjects for years, and themes will inevitably be familiar, a revisiting of things I’ve already written. I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel where it’s not required.

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Why do a Salary Cap Draft as opposed to a Standard Draft?

The Salary Cap format is more dynamic and more interesting. You have to, in theory, defend the entire room. You can roster any player in the entire league. No more of that “I drew the 11 slot, guess I’m out on McCaffrey” feeling. Anything is possible. Toss out a player’s name and see who will devote the most budget to that player.

You’ll also have much greater freedom for roster construction. If you want two Top 5 players on your team, it’s doable. If you want a collection of very good players but no true superstar — a more “spread the risk” strategy — knock yourself out.

Doesn’t a Salary Cap Draft require a bigger time commitment?

Is it longer, yes. A lot longer, not really. It all comes down to what your Draft Room settings are (very customizable on Yahoo), or how efficient your in-person draft director is.

When are the tips going to start?

Right now. Here are my five commandments for a successful Salary Cap Draft:

1. Get money off the table

Many of your early nominations should be the best or buzziest players you don’t want. The sooner you can get your opponents stripped of leverage, the better. Keep in mind, players you don’t want land under two headings: Players you were opposed to before the Salary Cap Draft started, and players who don’t make sense in your roster after you’ve started to assemble it. If you landed Travis Kelce in the first wave, a play on George Kittle probably doesn’t make sense to your roster shape. Instead, nominate Kittle and get out of the way.

Travis Kelce and George Kittle are probably the two best tight ends in the league — that doesn't mean you should bid on both of them in a salary cap draft. (Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Travis Kelce and George Kittle are probably the two best tight ends in the league — that doesn't mean you should bid on both of them in a salary cap draft. (Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2. Vary your nomination style

Those new to this format will fall into exploitable patterns. Some managers will chase most of the players they nominate, while others will jump out of the way with any player they introduce. Try to mix up your style. You don’t want your opponents to get an easy read on you.

It’s also a good idea to nominate against the flow sometimes, keep your opponents off balance. Maybe you toss out an insurance back before a primary back or a designer defense after a run of top-tier wideouts. There’s no rule that says the Salary Cap Draft has to proceed in a linear fashion; heck, it’s more fun when it doesn’t. Tell the story out of order sometimes.

3. Make your move when your opponents still have alternatives

The worst moment in any Salary Cap Draft is when the entire room realizes there’s only one good thing left at a position (or in a tier of a position), and too much money on the table to fight over it. That’s when inflation kicks in — and three minutes later, someone wants to throw a tablet out the window.

It’s not always the easiest thing to recognize, but the key is to try to make your moves when your opponents still have options. If your rivals can imagine reasonable alternatives still left in the pool, it makes it easier for them to allow you to sign the current player without a prolonged wrestling match.

4. Know when to let a reasonable bid go

A heady basketball defender recognizes that not every shot needs to be contested or fully defended. Sometimes the opponent has an uncontested layup and it’s better to let the basket go, lest you commit a cheap foul, and put yourself into an even worse position.

Why would you let your opponent get a solid selection? Maybe the salary to land someone makes sense in a vacuum but it’s actually going to cripple that manager’s budget going forward. Perhaps the player doesn’t fit the shape of your opponent’s roster; maybe the bid was a defensive bid that wasn’t intended to be a winning one. And sometimes letting a reasonable selection go by will set you up to get a similar player at a similar salary later; it’s a retraining of the room.

You won’t always have time for deep thinking in a Salary Cap Draft — they tend to move at a blistering pace — but always be asking yourself, “What would winning this bid do to my opponent’s roster?” Maybe they are winning the battle but losing the war.

5. Get to key numbers in the endgame

The first thing I try to remember before the endgame commences is to not get stuck on $1 salaries if possible. This singleton area might not be so terrible if most of the room is also joining you — many Salary Cap Drafts morph into a de-facto draft at the end — but generally, I want some say in what my final players look like, and with that, I try to keep some slush money available for the final names.

(The burden of nomination can be brutal if you’re in dollar days while most of your opponents have extra cash. Toss out a lousy player, and you’re stuck with him. Mention a good player and the bids fly, trumping your singleton. And then you have to wait for another full round. Unless your assembled roster is already a juggernaut, it’s a lousy feeling.)

When the endgame is upon you, take a moment to recognize the maximum bids of everyone else in the room (and if you have a break or extra time, also consider what positions they need to fill). Many times in the endgame, the first person to shout out (or key in) “two” or “three” gets a player of consequence. It’s critical at this juncture that you are locked into the nominations and ready with a quick response, as needed.

Let’s leave four bonus thoughts before we close this Salary Cap Draft discussion

- When you get close to completed, shape the potential bids of your final few players. Say you have $13 to sign four guys — fiddle around with how you might be able to spend this. You could go max on a $10 salary and take three singles, or maybe a $6-3-2-2 split, or $4-3-3-3. Take your prospective skeleton and see if it might fit some players remaining on the board.

— If the room is filled with new Salary Cap Draft players, usually the early spending is crazy and the bargains are plentiful later. In experienced rooms, it’s often the opposite; the early wave is commonly the best time to make a move. These are not foolproof rules, but I’ve seen them repeat often.

— If you have to “overpay” for someone’s services, make sure it’s for someone you want or something you really need on your team. Nothing is more soul-crushing than using your surplus on a mediocre mid-game player simply because there’s no one else to use it on.

— I don’t get hung up on exact draft salaries and a specific, exact cheat sheet. Every draft is obviously contextual, and any Salary Cap Draft is its own collection of ebbs and flows. As with most fantasy strategies, being flexible and open-minded is to your advantage.

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