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Could NFL Teams Tank Like NBA Teams?

Purposely tanking has been a fixture in the NBA for years, but could this tactic translate to the NFL where draft slots are guaranteed in accordance with a team’s record?

NFL Draft Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The NBA draft lottery took place last week and the sports world was flipped upside down when the Pelicans won the #1 overall pick with only a 6% chance of reaching that result. The three teams that most obviously tanked this past season came away disappointed.

The Knicks, Cavaliers, and Suns all shared a 14% chance of receiving the #1 pick, but instead received the #3, #5, and #6 picks respectively. I didn’t do well in statistics class back in college, but I feel like a 14% chance isn’t a probability I would rely on. You’re 86% more likely not to get the top pick after all.

Why did these teams assume they were going to win the #1 pick with such a relatively low chance? All year, the media has been acting like it was a given the Knicks would receive the top pick. A Knicks fan even got a Zion Williamson tattoo before the lottery ever took place.

Perhaps the Knicks forgot the new NBA draft lottery rules, which were implemented this year for the first time since being altered in 2017. Previously, the team with the worst record had a 25% chance of receiving the top pick.

But now the three teams with the worst records share a 14% chance, while the remaining lottery teams’ odds are reduced gradually between 1.5% and 2% per draft slot. If you want to read more about the changes and how the NBA draft lottery is conducted, this is a good reference tool.

After learning more about the NBA draft lottery process, I wonder why NBA teams have been trying to tank at all. In the NFL, the team with the worst record is 100% guaranteed the #1 draft pick. Yet, NFL teams can’t seem to tank even if they try.

Sure the Browns did a good job of making it appear like they were tanking on purpose in past years, but I find it hard to believe all 53 players were collectively doing so. A big reason why NFL teams can’t tank might be the lack of fully guaranteed contracts.

In the NBA, player contracts are fully guaranteed so there’s less pressure for players to play well or rush a return from injury in order to keep their jobs.

In the NFL, contracts are rarely fully guaranteed so players who don’t perform well or remain injured for extended periods of time are in danger of being cut, whether they are vested veterans or rookies.

Try telling a running back who has been bubbling between the practice squad and active roster to throw a game. Try telling a cornerback who’s entering a contract year to throw a game.

Even if a player who touches the ball often, like a quarterback, was convinced to manipulate a game’s result, the majority of that player’s teammates would have to do the same for the plan to work.

One prideful player could ruin the whole enterprise. Besides, there are just too many players on an NFL team with too little incentive to ever try doing that.

Why would an NFL player want to throw a game when the result could be their team drafting their replacement with the pick they received due to losing so many games. There are only 15 players on an NBA active roster, while there are 53 on an NFL active roster.

Quality NBA level players are much harder to replace. How else do guys stay in the league for 20 years without a young upstart stealing their roster spot? Sure, Steph Curry made the All-Rookie Team the year after he was drafted, but he didn’t make his first All Star team until 5 years later.

It generally takes longer for NBA talent to develop. In the NFL, where an average career is less than three years, players are under extreme pressure to play at the highest level immediately.

In addition, quality NFL level players seem far more plentiful than their NBA counterparts. The Saints have almost 90 players on their current offseason roster. That means 37 players aren’t going to make the final roster.

There are 32 teams in the NFL, so every year that means approximately 1,184 players are desperately trying to make an active roster. That’s a lot of incredible athletes vying for only 1,696 treasured jobs, and that’s not even including practice squad spots.

Once a select few of these players have the good fortune of making and staying on an NFL active roster, what makes you think they would risk that by tanking their performance?

The NBA did well to alter the draft lottery landscape in order to avoid future tanking, but it seems the NFL will never have to worry about that becoming a problem in their league.