Professional sports promote parity in their annual drafts by rewarding early picks to bad teams and late picks to good teams. In MLB and the NHL, it can take a while for those early draft picks to start making a major impact on the team, while in the NFL those impacts can often be felt immediately. Either way, there’s no denying the process promotes parity to some extent. There’s a problem with the system though. Take a look at the two lists of players below:
|Group A||Group B|
|Joe Burrow||Isaiah Simmons|
|Chase Young||CJ Henderson|
|Jeff Okudah||Jedrick Wills|
|Andrew Thomas||Mekhi Becton|
|Tua Tagovailoa||Henry Ruggs|
|Justin Herbert||Tristan Wirfs|
|Derrick Brown||Javon Kinlaw|
|Kyler Murray||TJ Hockenson|
|Nick Bosa||Ed Oliver|
|Quinnen Williams||Devin Bush|
|Clelin Ferrell||Jonah Williams|
|Devin White||Rashan Gary|
|Daniel Jones||Christian Wilkins|
|Josh Allen (Edge)||Chris Lindstrom|
|Baker Mayfield||Roquan Smith|
|Saquon Barkley||Mike McGlinchey|
|Sam Darnold||Josh Rosen|
|Denzel Ward||Minkah Fitzpatrick|
|Bradley Chubb||Vita Vea|
|Quenton Nelson||Da’Ron Payne|
|Josh Allen (QB)||Marcus Davenport|
Which groups of players stands out as the stronger group? Is it even close? Group A has eight starting QBs and star edge rushers like Nick Bosa. Group B is solid. It certainly isn’t bad. Devin Bush and Roquan Smith are good linebackers. Isaiah Simmons and CJ Henderson should be strong defensive players in the year’s ahead, but the only QB in the group is Josh Rosen and the overall star power is a notch lower. There’s little doubt Group A is better.
So what do the groups represent?
Group A are players selected with one of the top 7 picks of the NFL draft. Group B are players selected with picks 8-14 of the NFL draft.
|Andrew Thomas||4||2020||NY Giants||4-12|
|Justin Herbert||6||2020||LA Chargers||5-11|
|Nick Bosa||2||2019||San Francisco||4-12|
|Quinnen Williams||3||2019||NY Jets||4-12|
|Clelin Ferrell||4||2019||Las Vegas||4-12|
|Devin White||5||2019||Tampa Bay||5-11|
|Daniel Jones||6||2019||NY Giants||5-11|
|Josh Allen (Edge)||7||2019||Jacksonville||5-11|
|Saquon Barkley||2||2018||NY Giants||3-13|
|Sam Darnold||3||2018||NY Jets||Pick acquired|
|Denzel Ward||4||2018||Cleveland||Pick acquired|
|Quenton Nelson||6||2018||Indianapolis||Pick acquired|
|Josh Allen (QB)||7||2018||Buffalo||Pick acquired|
|Mekhi Becton||11||2020||NY Jets||7-9|
|Henry Ruggs||12||2020||Las Vegas||7-9|
|Tristan Wirfs||13||2020||Tampa Bay||Pick acquired|
|Javon Kinlaw||14||2020||San Francisco||Pick acquired|
|Devin Bush||10||2019||Pittsburgh||Pick acquired|
|Rashan Gary||12||2019||Green Bay||6-9-1|
|Mike McGlinchey||9||2018||San Francisco||6-10|
|Josh Rosen||10||2018||Arizona||Pick acquired|
|Vita Vea||12||2018||Tampa Bay||Pick acquired|
|Marcus Davenport||14||2018||New Orleans||Pick acquired|
With the NFL’s expanded 14-team playoff, there are 18 teams that miss the playoffs each year. If you estimate about four of those teams will be in-contention for a playoff spot late into the season, that leaves 14 teams that have no real hope of reaching the Super Bowl (hence the breakdown of the first 14 NFL draft picks above instead of a nice round number). This general notion is confirmed by looking at their records. All teams that used their own top 14 pick in the last three NFL drafts were below .500.
This is where the “worst record = best pick” model creates perverse incentives. There’s a disincentive for teams not in playoff contention to fight for additional wins. The only difference between winning three games and missing the playoffs and winning seven games and missing the playoffs, is the long-term benefit of getting a top 7 pick with a 3-7 record.
In 2019, the Atlanta Falcons were 3-9 and mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with four games remaining. They inexplicably won their last four games of the season. They still finished outside the playoffs, but with the 16th pick in the next year’s NFL draft. The 3-13 Redskins picked #2 in that draft. They selected DE Chase Young. Between him and the Falcon’s #16 pick, CB Jeff Okudah, DT Derrick Brown, and CB C.J. Henderson were selected. The Falcons took the third cornerback off the board with AJ Terrell from Clemson.
Terrell is a solid draft choice (my analysis). This certainly isn’t a knock on the selection made at #16. Rather, it is a call for NFL to fix a broken system, and until then, a call for fans and owners to stop rooting for pointless wins that undermine their future championships hopes.
When the Falcons beat the Panthers on December 8th, 2019 to improve to 4-9, Falcons fans celebrated on social media. But what were they celebrating? Certainly there was no benefit for the Falcons that season. They couldn’t win a division or make the playoffs as a wild card. All they did by winning that game was hurt their draft slot and thus their future odds of winning the Super Bowl.
Of course, it would be unethical for players or coaches to intentionally throw games to improve their draft picks, but owners forcing coaches to sit banged up players or even give extra minutes to rookies seems reasonable.
MLB doesn’t have this issue because the success of highly drafted first year players is both delayed (they play in the minor leagues for several years) and uncertain (early picks bust far more often than in other sports). The NHL and NBA partially avoid the problem through their draft lotteries which make it so the worst team isn’t guaranteed the best pick and thus lessen the incentive to lose.
The NFL could implement a lottery, which would help, but a more compelling idea might be a system that rewards the teams for earning wins after being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The worst teams are generally eliminated first, which would give them the most opportunities for post-elimination wins.
Using the 2019 Falcons as an example again, after they lost to the Saints on November 28th they dropped to 3-9 and were eliminated from the playoffs. They still had four games left and thus four chances to earn post-elimination wins. Since they won all four of those games, they’d be rewarded with a better draft pick (perhaps those wins count as -1 wins). Imagine how much more “right” their season finale against Tampa Bay, a game they won in overtime, would have felt if the victor got the (draft) spoils.
The NFL should consider ways to change the system so abject failure isn’t directly rewarded. Until they do, fans of any NFL team that is mathematically or logically eliminated from playoff contention, should stop cheering for pointless wins and start cheering for championships.