Could an NBA-style lottery work with the NFL draft?

Yahoo Sports

Who would the Jacksonville Jaguars have selected with the first pick in the 2019 NFL draft? Would Kyler Murray still have lasted until the third pick?

This interesting hypothetical is brought to you from NFL Research, which painted the fascinating mock NFL draft lottery scenario on Twitter:

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This all comes on the heels of the NBA’s draft lottery announcement, which has morphed from a 12-minute event that happened during halftime of a playoff game to an hour-long, standalone show with ridiculous hype, drawn-out speculation, TV theatrics and endless waiting for the results of a ping-pong ball drawing.

Did you say breathless hype and buildup?!

So, yeah, you now have the NFL’s attention.

Why might the NFL consider this idea?

The league that has turned the draft itself — as well as its biggest precursor, the NFL scouting combine — into a made-for-TV event that stretches over three days and three networks is most certainly going to discuss the merits of a draft lottery for its sport, too.

Because why not? It’s yet another event that could draw ratings, stir debate and stoke the excitement/anger of fan bases. This is publicity in a bottle, just waiting to be opened. And the NFL has never minded taking other sports’ promotional ideas and using them themselves, often to greater effect.

Now, whether it’s the right or fairest draft course is another matter entirely. But is it something that we could see the league going to in time? Absolutely. And we might argue that this next year-plus could be used as the trial-balloon period where owners or commissioner Roger Goodell casually drop the idea into media’s laps at some big league event and see what the responses are. This is straight out of the NFL media playbook. They do it all the time for other potential changes to the sport.

And over this next year and change, the league could decide whether or not to push for it for the 2021 NFL draft. Why the significance of that year? It’s twofold:

1. The NFL and NFLPA could be in the throes of a major labor strife that winter and spring;

2. It’s the Trevor Lawrence draft.

Anyone who watched Clemson’s national-title game win over Alabama saw a QB prospect who might have a higher ceiling (from an NFL draft vantage point) than any other passer in college football currently. And yet there also was a player who, because of the league’s rules, is not eligible to enter the draft for another two seasons.

Could the NFL install a draft lottery before Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is eligible in 2021? (AP Photo)
Could the NFL install a draft lottery before Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is eligible in 2021? (AP Photo)

Granted, a million things could happen over the next 700 days to stink-bomb Lawrence’s draft stock. That happens more than you might think. We see freshmen stars who look destined to be top-10 picks who fall out of the first round entirely. But Lawrence is a QB, and he already has a national title under his belt after one year. This example feels a little different.

Imagine the attention that would be given to the hypothetical 2021 NFL draft lottery if Lawrence maintains his current ascent. It would be the best diversion from a potential PR nightmare with the impending labor stoppage — a strike or a lockout, take your pick — in the hopper.

How would an NFL draft lottery even work?

The timing of it would be very interesting … do you conduct said lottery during the playoffs, a la the NBA? Or do you delay it? The clubs would want to know sooner rather than later, but the NFL might want to drag its heels in this particular instance.

Either way, it’s something you can bet the league will at least discuss — privately and internally before it ever happens publicly. The problem is that once they institute it, it’s likely here to stay. And the problem with the lottery, as any oxygen-breathing NBA fan will attest to, is that it’s patently unfair. One or two teams feel rewarded; another half-dozen or more get shafted.

Does it prevent NBA teams from tanking? You could make that argument. But is there an obvious tanking problem in the NFL? Not one that makes us think it’s something that needs to be addressed. Sure, there were obvious questions when the Indianapolis Colts were losing a ton of game without Peyton Manning the year of the Andrew Luck draft. And we also saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers “blow” a 20-7 fourth-quarter lead in Week 17 of the 2014 season – and that loss allowed them to draft Jameis Winston with the No. 1 pick.

So you tend to only see those situations arise when there is a quarterback prize awaiting the team with the worst record. Tanking is different in a team sport such as football. Whereas one Tim Duncan or LeBron James can completely change the fortunes of a five-on-five sport, adding one player – even a QB – doesn’t guarantee that. Neither Luck nor Winston has really been close to leading his team to a title.

Plus, there’s the issue of how the lottery choices might be weighted. In the NBA, there are 14 non-playoff teams and the new percentage system levels out the playing field quite a bit. That’s how you get the New Orleans Pelicans leapfrogging six other teams to earn the right to draft Zion Williamson. Hence why we threw out that Jaguars-picking-first hypothetical.

There are 20 non-playoff teams every year in the NFL, and tiering those top-pick percentages would be very tricky. The Arizona Cardinals, who had the worst record in the league at 3-13 last year, might not have a significantly better chance of earning the top pick than, say, the 7-9 Atlanta Falcons. People outside Atlanta might take serious issue with this.

The case against an NFL draft lottery

What makes the NFL great is hope. Hope that a last-place team can do well the next year, and that hope is backed by a long, money-can’t-buy history of it happening time and time again. Teams go from worst to first, and it is a legitimate reason why the NFL is nearly impossible to knock from its popularity perch.

Even the Cleveland Browns are good now! (We think.) They wouldn’t have that level of hope without them landing Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield, among others, by the way.

This is not to suggest that bad teams should be rewarded for their losing. But this is the biggest issue that we see. A few really unlucky lottery teams, missing out on the top picks because of a random number draw, might end up staying bad. That removes a little of the hope there, even as we admitted that the difference in one or two players theoretically shouldn’t make a team significantly better or worse.

Even with teams such as the Miami Dolphins sternly saying they’re not tanking this season, it’s certainly possible that there are clubs who know that short-term losing could lead to long-term gain. That especially holds true these next few years, with the 2020 draft looking stronger at quarterback and the 2021 draft possibly having the most ballyhooed, years-in-the-making No. 1 pick in Lawrence.

So we can see the merits on both sides of this. Yes, the league could benefit from a promotional standpoint. But yes, it also would be problematic and upsetting. Why fix something that might not actually be broken? That hasn’t stopped the NFL before, of course, but our money is on this never really turning to reality anytime soon. Even as fascinating as the idea might sound in the hypothetical.

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