Should the NFL Have a Draft Lottery?

The NBA Draft lottery is right around the corner. Why doesn't the NFL use a draft lottery to determine who picks No. 1, and should they implement one?

The NFL has never had to deal with a frozen envelope conspiracy when it comes to deciding who will get to make the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL Draft. With the NBA nearing the holding of its draft lottery, it’s a good opportunity to look at the NFL’s process for determining the team who drafts number one overall, and why it’s not always as simple as it appears.

How Does the NFL Decide the Team Selecting No. 1?

Simply said, the NFL does not do a draft lottery. There’s no system where a collection of the teams who miss the playoffs are all assigned different odds depending on how badly they did during the regular season. For the NFL, simply put, the No. 1 overall selection is given to the team who finishes with the worst record in that given year.

Due to this, most teams every year work to make the playoffs because there’s no chance they’ll have a shot at picking No. 1 if they don’t finish with the worst record in the league. At times, there have been various situations where a team has either entered the season with low expectations, and they don’t make every effort to moderately improve, or where a team who is unexpectedly bad early on, goes all in to lose.

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Fans often jump on this with various “tank for…” campaigns. We’ve had “Tank for Tua,” “Suck for Luck,” and others. But by and large, the teams themselves play out their schedule knowing that unless they have the worst record, they won’t be picking first. In the NFL, the worst thing you can be is mediocre.

That said, there are times when multiple teams finish with the worst win-loss record in a given season. No, this does not then bring about a lottery.

The NFL Draft pick tie-breaking procedure is actually quite robust. In short, most times, this gets resolved by looking at each team’s strength of schedule. The team with the lower strength of schedule gets the higher selection in the tiebreak. Strength of schedule is the aggregate winning percentage of a team’s opponents.

Should the NFL Have a Draft Lottery?

There are both arguments for and against the concept of an NFL Draft lottery. Advocates for the lottery would say that it would make the offseason more exciting. Teams that don’t make the postseason but finish with win-loss records that remove them from the top 10 end up likely missing out on a team-changing player. So, in their view, just because a team finished with the worst record doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the worst team and most in need of the No. 1 pick.

The 2011 Indianapolis Colts are a prime example. A perennial title contender with Peyton Manning, when he went down with the neck injury that ultimately resulted in him leaving Indianapolis, the Colts finished that year with the worst record.

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This was the “Suck for Luck” season, and that’s what the Colts did. They then drafted what many consider to be the best quarterback prospect since John Elway and immediately were vaulted back into postseason contention the following year.

People against an NFL Draft lottery would point to several issues in trying to implement that system here in the NFL. For starters, more than half of NBA teams make the playoffs. Of the 30 teams, as many as 18 can be removed from qualifying for the draft lottery due to the play-in tournament.

This means that only 12 teams are thrown into the lottery. The odds for those teams are higher in being able to get the pick. In the NBA, the last seeds into the playoffs routinely have a losing record. This ensures a team who wins the No. 1 overall pick will have a losing record and not be a case of the rich getting richer.

In the NFL, only 14 teams make the playoffs, while 18 stay home. Of those 18 teams, multiple often have non-losing records. This means in a lottery, there’s a chance a team with a winning record could come out with the first overall selection, which would be a bad look for the NFL.

Likewise, because a mediocre team has zero chance of getting the No. 1 pick, they’re encouraged to compete for the postseason in the hopes of winning a championship. Since the beginning of the Wild Card system in 1970, six Wild Card teams have won the championship, and dozens have made it past the first round of the playoffs.

In the NBA, no 7 or 8 seed has ever won an NBA championship. Only several have ever made it out of the first round. The lottery gives mediocre teams a way out. They know that in an extremely top-heavy league with little parity, it’s more advantageous to get a shot at the first overall selection rather than a championship. They have calculated that the odds are actually higher for the former vs. the latter.

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In the NFL, teams believe that if they can get in, they have a chance. It’s what makes the last week of the regular season routinely compelling. Teams are giving it their all to be the last seed in rather than tanking for a draft pick. The reason the NFL has the most parity of any sports league is that every team has a chance — the value there outweighs the value of a draft pick.

The reason for that value calculation is that in the NBA, one player can routinely make the difference. The Cavaliers getting Lebron James instantly elevated them. That same year, the Denver Nuggets getting Carmelo Anthony took them from the No. 3 overall pick to the playoffs. In the NFL, one player is only a small piece of the puzzle, and the learning curve for rookies is so much greater.

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