The draft in the NFL is seemingly quite simple. The Number 1 pick goes to the team with the worst record from the previous season. Each team then picks starting in reverse order of performance until we’re back to the worst team again. Currently the draft consists of seven rounds.
The reason why this occurs is also quite simple; competitive balance. As College football is such a high standard in the US, teams are picking from almost ‘NFL ready’ players. That means then you can pick the best player in the country to add to your team, thus raising standards with the aim of becoming more competitive.
Some recent number one draft picks include Andrew Luck, whom the Colts ousted Peyton Manning for, and prompted a race to the bottom ‘Suck for Luck’ campaign amongst fans in order to acquire his talents, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Eric Fisher, who is now part of the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. Those teams went from being the worst to some of the most competitive in the NFL in a short amount of time.
But are perverse incentives at play to get the best college players? Is it worthwhile for a team with a losing record halfway through a regular season and no hope of a playoff spot to perform badly to ensure they get a high draft pick? For instance as of last week Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-7), Jacksonville Jaguars (0-8) and Minnesota Vikings (1-7) are all front runners, or back runners if you will, for the number one pick in next year’s Draft. If they continue their poor form, they will be rewarded with an incredibly talented college footballer such as Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from University of Louisville, Defensive End Jadeveon Clowney from University of South Carolina or University of Oregon’s
Quarterback Marcus Mariotta. These are just examples, but all of them are athletically ready for the NFL.
Every team has different positional needs, so to have the number one overall pick a team must ensure it has the worst record. An astute acquisition can change a franchises fortunes for a future decade. John Elway probably being the most famous number one draft pick of all time by the Baltimore Colts but was traded later to the Denver Broncos where he won two Super Bowls. That same draft Dan Marino and Jim Kelly where both drafted in a particularly vintage year for QB’s.
Of course getting a high pick does not mean the chosen player will turn around the franchises fortunes and also low picks can also develop into Super Bowl winners (Tom Brady was drafted as 199th overall pick in 2000), but surely the option of having a high pick is better than not.
So what’s stopping NFL teams from angling for this number one overall pick? In the NBA for example a lottery system has been introduced as to not give the worst record team an automatic number one pick. All 14 non-playoff teams have a chance, although not equal, to get one of the top 3 picks. Its weighted so the worst teams have a higher chance of a top three pick. Beck Taylor and Justin Trogdon, in a paperpublished in 2002 in The Journal of Labour Economics showed that NBA teams, prior to the lottery introduction, were more likely to lose, then would otherwise would be the case, if there was an incentive of a high draft pick. However an interesting point is one player drafted will have a much greater effect on a basketball team than an American Football team. One player can only take a team so far. This uncertainty of one players success reduces the incentive to do everything you can to improve your draft position in the NFL.
An argument against teams wanting the worst record is that players and coaches alike, need to perform to their highest ability constantly to ensure contract extensions, lucrative bonuses and playing time due to the extremely competitive nature of the industry. A high draft pick may mean one player being cut from the roster. That player has absolutely no incentive to perform poorly. This is sport and those that have made it to the level of the NFL have spent their entire careers being the best or striving to be. That attitude is not easily changed.