Why a fantasy football-style auction would improve the NFL draft | Sport

Back in the distant past when fans could watch live games, the 2019 NFL regular season ended with a flurry of dramatic moments.

Green Bay mounted a comeback to clinch a first-round bye. Many of the other NFC playoff seedings were determined by a frenetic finish in Seattle. In the AFC, the mighty Patriots were denied a first-round bye when the Miami Dolphins came to town and pulled off the shocker of the season.

And yet many eyes were looking at the bottom of the standings. No, the NFL hasn’t suddenly instituted promotion and relegation, though the remaining fans of the dreadful Washington team may appreciate it at this point.

For weeks, the focus was on draft position. Which team would be lined up to get LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who opened the national college football playoffs by shredding Oklahoma’s defense with seven touchdown passes in the first half? Or maybe Chase Young, the Ohio State pass rusher who is likely to give NFL quarterbacks nightmares for years to come?

Draft position is, of course, decided by taking the inverse of the previous year’s standings. If two teams have a 2-13 record entering the last week of the season, they have a vested interest in losing that last game. And that should change. It won’t, because the current system is the product of decades of minor adjustments that were painstakingly negotiated between the league and the players union, but it should.

Fortunately, not every team subscribes to the philosophy of “tanking” a season. The Dolphins had an atrocious start to the season but fought back down the stretch, dropping a few spots in the draft order in the process.

The NBA and the NHL have addressed the tanking problem with a lottery system in which the worst team in the league is not guaranteed the No1 pick. The annual drawing keeps teams from racing to the bottom, but it also introduces an element of random chance. The NFL can do better, using a mechanism that will look familiar to old-school fantasy sports players. Have an auction draft.

Here’s how it works in fantasy leagues: the first person to make a pick is simply putting up a name for bidding. Each fantasy player has a salary cap. If your cap is $200 and you spend $150 on Christian McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley, you’re going to spend the rest of the draft figuring out which third-string tight end is worth $2.

The NFL already has a salary cap, so the amount of money available for bidding can be determined rather easily. If a team cleared house, maybe it has $40m to bring to the table. If that team is weighed down after giving Kirk Cousins $84m over three years, it will watch a lot of draft targets go elsewhere.

To keep things relatively simple, the NFL would have to institute a standard rookie contract with a set length, maybe three or four years with predetermined options and bonuses, so teams are bidding in a controlled environment. Whoever can offer the most money gets the player.

It’s not a free-agent frenzy that takes months to play out. The NFL can still stage an event that draws live crowds (once the pandemic is out the way) and TV viewers.

Players and their agents will love it. As it stands now, NFL teams have all the leverage once a player is drafted. In the NBA or NHL, a player can always choose to go to Europe instead, as some National Women’s Soccer League draftees have done in recent years. Many baseball players still have the option of going to college instead. Apart from a move to the relatively poorly paid Canadian Football League, an NFL player had nothing but the threat of holding out, eventually costing himself his rookie season, and that threat all but went away with the adoption of the rookie wage scale. Under this system, bidding would drive up top players’ pay.

Veteran players may be worried that a team will clean out their roster to have more money to spend at the draft. The league can guard against that problem by declaring a minimum number of players or a minimum amount of guaranteed money on the books on draft day.

This system would keep intact the parity on which the NFL has always insisted, even if the Browns and Patriots have shown that parity mechanisms only go so far. A team’s success will still be determined by how well they build a roster within a salary cap and how strong of a coaching staff they can assemble.

As with any draft system, the league can always tinker. Maybe the teams that don’t make the playoffs can get some cap relief. Maybe the first few picks can be restricted to the league’s worst teams. Maybe the auction system could be used only for the first round or two, with the next few rounds proceeding in more traditional fashion.

In any case, teams will no longer have any incentive to prefer a 2-14 season to a 5-11 season. And then the only “tank” we’ll hear about is a 300lbs lineman who runs a 4.85 40-yard dash.

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