NFL Draft 2021: Into the Wild Grey Yonder

If you had told me back in January that the 2020 NFL season could be cancelled due to a once-in-a-century pandemic, I would’ve most likely just noddingly said “Okay” and carried on, as nothing truly surprises me anymore. But, for the sake of productively arguing over the internet, let us assume that the NFL is faced with its doomsday scenario: the season is cancelled. Massive financial losses and potential season ticket holder lawsuits aside, the question at the forefront of my mind would be this: How would the league determine the order of the draft in 2021?

As you should know by now, the order for the NFL Draft is determined by the performance of each team over the course of the prior season. The first twenty picks are based solely on records for the teams which missed the playoffs, from the basement dwellers to the teams who just missed the bus to their funeral. The next twelve picks are then sorted among the finishes for each respective playoff team, from the wild card round to the Super Bowl.

But if there is no regular season, and subsequently no playoffs and Super Bowl, then how would the order for the draft be determined? As far as I am concerned, the NFL has no formal mechanism for such a situation. Even during the Great Depression and World War II, the season was still played and the draft was still held, so if this scenario plays out like I think it potentially could, then this would truly be a first for the league. But we still circle back to the elusive question of how.

Interestingly enough, we actually do have an example to look towards for an idea as to how the NFL could determine the draft order without a season. We needn’t look no further than the old money skate club, otherwise known as the NHL. In 2004, due to a desire among ownership to curtail spending on rising player salaries, the league attempted to implement a formal salary cap system. Standing in staunch opposition to this was the NHLPA. After attempts at collective bargaining between the league and labor union failed, a lockout was implemented, and the NHL subsequently lost the entire season.

When the lockout officially ended, the NHL Draft had to commence without a season to base its official order around. Modifying their traditional draft lottery for such a circumstance, the league utilized a “weighted lottery.” This was done by measuring the playoff appearances over the past three seasons, as well as the first overall picks of the past four drafts. Teams that did not qualify for the playoffs received three lottery balls, teams which had either one playoff appearance or the first overall pick during that span received two balls, and all other teams received only one ball. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the lottery, drafted Sidney Crosby first overall, and the rest is Stanley Cup history (three to be exact).

My proposal for the NFL, if the season is cancelled, is to use a system similar to what the NHL had done in 2005. However, the NFL does not utilize a draft lottery system and I doubt they ever will. But they can still track the performance of teams over the course of multiple seasons, similar to how the NHL did, which is the basis for my proposition for how to determine the order of the 2021 NFL Draft if the 2020 regular season is cancelled.

According to my mathematical model, I calculated the overall winning percentage for each team over the course of the 2018 and 2019 seasons. I felt that just using two seasons was appropriate for the sake of performance consistency, with a few exceptions of course, but for the most part the records of most teams in the league have not changed greatly over the course of two years. As for determining tiebreakers for some groups of teams with similar win percentages (.344; .375; .531; .563; .656; .750), I decided that the best method to use would be to calculate their overall strength of schedule over the course of those two seasons. It should only make sense that the team with the tougher schedule in their respective grouping would go first.

1 Cincinnati Bengals 6-10 2-14 8-24 .250
2 Arizona Cardinals 3-13 5-10-1 8-23-1 .266
3 New York Giants 5-11 4-12 9-23 .281
4 Detroit Lions 6-10 3-12-1 9-22-1 .297
5 Washington Football Team 7-9 3-13 10-22 .313
6 Las Vegas Raiders 4-12 7-9 11-21 .344
7 Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11 6-10 11-21 .344
8 New York Jets 4-12 7-9 11-21 .344
9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11 7-9 12-20 .375
10 Carolina Panthers 7-9 5-11 12-20 .375
11 Miami Dolphins 7-9 5-11 12-20 .375
12 Denver Broncos 6-10 7-9 13-19 .406
13 Cleveland Browns 7-8-1 6-10 13-18-1 .422
14 Atlanta Falcons 7-9 7-9 14-18 .438
15 Buffalo Bills 6-10 10-6 16-16 .500
16 San Francisco 49ers 4-12 13-3 17-15 .531
17 Indianapolis Colts 10-6 7-9 17-15 .531
18 Los Angeles Chargers 12-4 5-11 17-15 .531
19 Pittsburgh Steelers 9-6-1 8-8 17-14-1 .547
20 Dallas Cowboys 10-6 8-8 18-14 .563
21 Tennessee Titans 9-7 9-7 18-14 .563
22 Philadelphia Eagles 9-7 9-7 18-14 .563
23 Minnesota Vikings 8-7-1 10-6 18-13-1 .578
24 Green Bay Packers 6-9-1 13-3 19-12-1 .609
25 Chicago Bears 12-4 8-8 20-12 .625
26 Seattle Seahawks* 10-6 11-5 21-11 .656
27 Houston Texans* 11-5 10-6 21-11 .656
28 Los Angeles Rams* 13-3 9-7 22-10 .688
29 New England Patriots 11-5 12-4 23-9 .719
30 Kansas City Chiefs 12-4 12-4 24-8 .750
31 Baltimore Ravens 10-6 14-2 24-8 .750
32 New Orleans Saints 13-3 13-3 26-6 .813

*Denotes that team traded their 2021 first round pick. The Jets will receive Seattle’s pick, the Dolphins will receive Houston’s pick, and the Jaguars will receive LA’s pick.

At first it may seem like a fair draft order, but I admit that there are some glaring imperfections that can hardly be called “fair” to some. Remember when I said that most teams’ performances stayed relatively similar over the course of the 2018 and 2019 seasons? The key word there was most. Perhaps the most glaring flaw of this formula is that a team like the San Francisco 49ers, the defending NFC champions, managed to land a pick in the top half of the first round. Yes, one could argue that had Jimmy G not gotten injured early in the 2018 season, the team would’ve finished better than 4-12. And while I believe that to be the case, I can’t change their position based on something as abstract as potential.

This is very similar to the case of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who nabbed both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in the off-season, would wind up with a top ten pick. Yes, the Buccaneers look like a very impressive team on the surface, but according to data from the past two seasons that isn’t the case. If the 2020 season isn’t played, then how am I to assume that the team will truly be better than it has been? Once again, potential is too abstract to be quantified, at least to my knowledge.

On the flip side, I can understand why some would be weary of the Cincinnati Bengals once again holding the first overall pick. But their total record over the course of the past two seasons combined has been 8-24—the worst in the league. Similar to the case of the Buccaneers, I can’t measure how good the team might be in 2020 with Joe Burrow under center, I can only go off of what they already have done, and it was bad enough to land them the number one spot for a second consecutive year. Do I think they’ll be better than 2-14 in 2020? Yes. But if there is no regular season to be played this year, it would only be meaningless speculation. If you’re a Bengals fan reading this, you’d better hope that the season is cancelled.

By no means is this system of determining a hypothetical order perfect, I doubt any form of mathematical equation for something like this can be. Obviously, I hope it doesn’t have to come to this, but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. With some of college football’s major conferences suspending their seasons, one must wonder how close the NFL is to doing the same. Given the overtly physical nature of the sport, football players would seem to be the ones most at risk from the virus if they were to catch it. But only the unyielding hand of time will give us the answers we so desperately need. Or the 2020 season will be played as planned and this was all for nothing, in which case please disregard this article and know that you aren’t getting the time back that you spent reading it.

(Cover Photo: Jeff Curry – USA Today Sports)

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