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What if draft order was random?

NFL Draft Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

An idea that I’ve been mulling over this weekend is challenging the concept that determining NFL draft order by your record in the most recent season, including tiebreakers when records are the same, is a valid way to gain league parity. Under scrutiny, which the draft order is rarely subject to from the media, I’m not so sure that’s true.

And I’m not so sure that it is “fair.”

This is not to say that determining draft order by record is unfair either, but what’s the harm in challenging long-held beliefs? Plenty of people are challenging concepts like “passer rating is a good stat,” “yards are a good way to measure the quality of a player or team,” “sacks are the fault of the blockers alone,” and “the NFL playoffs should consist of six teams after a 16-game schedule.”

We challenge. We leave many things alone. We change some things. The NFL adapts year after year after year and the game we see today is much different than the one that existed 50 years ago, 5 years ago, and 5 months ago. I don’t know that draft order should be determined by anything other than your record from the most recent season, but I also don’t think that words like “fair” and “parity” are nearly as synonymous with draft order as we pretend that they are.

Number one: Your win-loss record does not determine the quality of your team.

The Steelers were 8-8. The Texans were 10-6. I think Pittsburgh was a better team last season. That’s only my opinion, but it is also the outcome of DVOA rankings. Pittsburgh was 18th, Houston was 19th. The Cowboys were 6th. Dallas is picking 17th this year but they could have the talent of a team that would have made it to the NFC Championship game, if not more.

“You are what your record says you are” is a more fair way to determine playoff teams than it is to determine draft order, if the draft order is meant to increase the odds of a worse team getting better. Speaking of which...

Number two: Teams are not the teams they were last season.

Using the Steelers as an example again, Pittsburgh had the number three defense in the NFL last season by DVOA. It was a fantastic unit and where they struggled was at quarterback thanks to an injury suffered by Ben Roethlisberger. Expectations are that Roethlisberger will return and with no draft help at all, the Steelers are going to be a popular pick to reach the playoffs and to improve their record. Of course, Pittsburgh traded their first to the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick (helping that aforementioned Steeler defense) and now pick 18 belongs to Miami.

Then we can look at the Dolphins, who are picking fifth because they went 5-4 over their last nine games. But by DVOA, there was no worse team in the NFL than Miami and it wasn’t that close. Many would agree that the Dolphins are the team most in need of help, but four teams choose before they do. And some of those teams will be better — or worse — before the draft starts.

Look at last year when the San Francisco 49ers were picking second and selected Nick Bosa. Were the Niners the second-worst team in the league by anything other than record? They lost Jimmy Garoppolo in less than three games. They were bound to be better and you could argue that even with no first round pick in 2019, San Francisco was going to contend for the playoffs. The fact that they were able to add Bosa put them in a more favorable position to reach the Super Bowl and that was their right based on how the league determines draft order.

Not on who you will be, and not really on who you were, but based on how many outcomes you lost regardless of the reasons for those losses.

The Bengals don’t seem like the worst team in the league or the one that needed Joe Burrow the most, but they will get Joe Burrow. They will also get back Jonah Williams, their first rounder of a year ago. They could re-sign and return A.J. Green. They will go into their second season of implementing Zac Taylor’s offense.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that by the time the draft arrives, Cincinnati will look like a perfectly mediocre team and yet if the Titans managed to lose Derrick Henry and Jack Conklin and Logan Ryan in free agency, maybe they’d be immediately downgraded from that team we were all enamored by in January. Tennessee picks 29th.

The Carolina Panthers pick seventh but spent almost all of 2019 without Cam Newton. They could return Newton — or trade him — but they won’t be the same team when the draft comes. They’ve lost Luke Kuechly to retirement, will lose some players from their defensive line, and they ranked 31st in DVOA. But they aren’t picking second. They have six teams ahead of them.

Teams are already making cuts, saying goodbyes to franchise leaders, assessing trade options, and once free agency hits, dramatically altering the make-up of their 90-man rosters. We know that 2020 draft order is not 2020 team-quality order because it is based on 2019 win-loss record only. This is indisputable.

The Chargers went 5-11 with Philip Rivers, who is now gone after 16 seasons. They lost nine games by one score or less. What if they had lost six instead and went 8-8? What if they had tanked three additional games and went 2-14 and were getting Burrow? What if they are indeed going from Rivers to Tyrod Taylor? What if they sign their top three free agent targets? LAC will be a much different team in April than they were in December.

Some of these changes, like some of their losses, will be affected by luck and NFL draft order is already determined by a major factor of “luck” as is. What if the league just pushed harder into the luck factor?

Number Three: Sports are largely luck-based, and we don’t account for that

A player gets injured? Bad luck. Dak Prescott is actually fantastic? Good luck! The ref makes a crappy call? Bad luck. The opponent’s game-winning field goal attempt dinks the upright and is no good? Good luck! For you!

I think that coaches are fired, players are benched or cut, depth charts are dramatically changed, and franchises are even moved largely based on good and bad luck. What happens if Buffalo’s good luck to get them to 10-6 regresses to bad luck that puts them back at 5-11, as so many Bills teams are wont to do? Shouldn’t we almost expect that?

But draft order is not meant to help the teams that may need it the most, it is only meant to serve as a band-aid towards parity by claiming that your record last season must be an indication of your destiny next season. I don’t think any reasonable person would believe that absent a draft, all 32 teams would simply repeat their performances in 2020.

The Green Bay Packers went from 6-9-1 to 13-3 and their first pick was Rashan Gary, and he barely played. They weren’t going to be that bad of a team again. They didn’t flip it around because of Gary.

The draft order method was the NFL’s best attempt at being “fair” and it was a decision made decades ago and nobody questions it because we just assume that this method of draft order is “right.” And maybe it is! There are any number of ways you could determine draft order and I’ve yet to hear a naturally-foolproof method towards fairness or parity.

What if a NCAA tournament-style committee simply went in a room and determined an order based on what they believed would be most fair and geared towards parity?

What if it was based on your DVOA or FPI or 538?

What if every team that missed the playoffs had to participate in games in which the winners would get better draft compensation?

What if draft order didn’t come out until after free agency, when we had a better idea of which teams were improved and which weren’t — even though we can’t really know that in April.

Or what if we borrowed from one of the most true things I know of in the universe — that a massive chunk of what goes into success is luck-based — and randomly assigning teams draft picks based on nothing more than God’s plan? The more I thought about it, the more I kind of liked the idea because it actually seemed a little more fair to me than assessing team value based on what they did a year ago, when certain players were injured, or certain calls determined outcomes of games, or certain coaches were fired anyway already setting in motion a change in the franchise, or certain starters were benched for Weeks 15-17.

The reality is that over a long enough timeline, I think it evens out. And I also think that a change in how draft order is determined could be more fair to the prospects and we’d see elite college athletes sometimes going to high-quality franchises who’d give them a better shot at success than some of the teams who are consistently rewarded for their consistent failures.

We reward bad teams with good draft picks and good prospects with bad teams. That’s not how rewards worked when I was a kid.

In the case of the LA Chargers, I used a random number generator to assign them new picks in each of Tom Telesco’s eight years as general manager.

Here is where they actually ended up picking in every draft since 2013:

2013: 11

2014: 25

2015: 17 (traded up to 15 for Melvin Gordon)

2016: 3

2017: 7

2018: 17

2019: 28

2020: 6

And here’s what happened when I used a random generator to give them a new pick in the order:

2013: 3

2014: 19

2015: 1

2016: 7

2017: 28

2018: 26

2019: 8

2020: 9

How does this alternate history change the Chargers’ fortunes?

2013: Coming off of a 7-9 season under Norv Turner and headed into the first year of Mike McCoy, the San Diego Chargers picked D.J. Fluker with the 11th overall pick. In a randomly-generated year, they get pick three. The good news is that it is a better pick, the bad news is that 2013 was an awful draft. We can’t know what teams would have picked 1-2, but this move would have given San Diego the options of perhaps Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel, or Lane Johnson instead of Fluker.

2014: The pick improves from 25 to 19, which may not have changed anything. Perhaps the Chargers still select Jason Verrett. Perhaps they eyeball Brandin Cooks, Dee Ford. Who knows if the order causes a player to slip like Zack Martin or C.J. Mosley. But it only helps San Diego a little.

2015: Well, here’s the big one obviously. I swear it randomly got the Chargers the first overall pick. Is that a good thing? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked Jameis Winston over Marcus Mariota that year and the Chargers had a 34-year-old Philip Rivers at the time. Not necessarily time to move on. Telesco may have had to bite the bullet and trade down, rather than what he actually did, which was trade up for Gordon. Players like Dante Fowler, Amari Cooper, Brandon Scherff, Leonard Williams, and Todd Gurley were in the top 10, in addition to Vic Beasley, Kevin White, and Ereck Flowers.

2016: And now a move that hurts them — see, the luck evens out anyway — costing them the opportunity here to draft Joey Bosa. At pick 7, the 49ers selected DeForest Buckner, while Conklin, Leonard Floyd, and Laremy Tunsil went soon after. They’d have still had a chance at a good player but some years you get good luck and others, you don’t. Sort of like everything else!

2017: This one really dings the Chargers, putting them at 28th, instead of their original selection at 7, which they used on Mike Williams. Was the benefit of picking first in 2015 — or the hope that you can go 13-3 and still get a good draft pick if this were the way draft order was determined — worth some of those years where a bad season doesn’t reward you with a good pick? Even at 28, T.J. Watt and Ryan Ramczyk were still available.

2018: From 17 (Derwin James) down to 26, which is when Calvin Ridley came off the board. Terrell Edmunds and Lamar Jackson were still on the board, as was Darius Leonard and Nick Chubb and Courtland Sutton.

Another interesting wrinkle here would be that if a team trades a future draft pick, you can’t try to assess how high or low that pick might be. If you’re a good team trading your 2021 first rounder to a team this season, maybe it’s pick 31 if you’re the Chiefs. But if you’re the Chiefs, and it’s determined randomly, maybe you’re giving up a top-3 pick and you don’t know it yet. Randomly assigning draft order definitely increases the excitement and risk of trading a future pick.

2019: Another good one for LA, as they could have been coming off their 12-4 season and picking seventh instead of 28th. Fair? Explain fair to me! What’s fair? Parity? Explain how the Chargers going from 12-4 to 5-11 increased the quality and watchability of the NFL on any level. On literally any level. I have no actual dog in the fight but I think challenging “conventional wisdom” is more than fair.

Instead of Jerry Tillery, the Chargers could have potentially been choosing between Josh Allen (pass rusher), Ed Oliver, Devin Bush, Jonah Williams, etc. And maybe they end up with a player who is not so good. (I’m pulling for you, T.J. Hockenson.) That’s also part of being lucky.

2020: What if LA was choosing ninth instead of sixth? It’s not that big of a deal and you’d know that some years you could win and it wouldn’t punish your odds of a good pick the following year.

Overall, I think high draft picks are overrated anyways. But in assessing what determines draft order, I still don’t think it’s what I would call the “fair” solution towards “more parity.” The way that the NFL determines draft order has not helped the Browns. It has not helped the Jaguars. It has not helped the Jets. It has not—you get the idea.

The Steelers and Patriots and Seahawks are rarely, if ever, picking in the top 10. They win a lot. Does this mean that they deserve some top-10 picks, even when they win? Would it have brought down the league if New England had come away with the number one pick in this draft? To get to replace Tom Brady with Joe Burrow? We don’t even know what Burrow is yet. The best QB in this draft could go in the third round.

I’m not advocating for a randomly-generated draft order but I am always game to question the norms we’ve come to accept, even if it simply helps us appreciate them more or understand them better.

Do you think we have the most fair way to determine draft order already or could there be a better way?