No Whammy: What Will The 2021 NFL Draft Look Like If There Is No Season?


Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

The year 2020 will go in the books as a year unlike any other, and the juggernaut that is the NFL is not immune. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the league to develop and adapt new ways of doing things, at least in the near term.

The NFL began by conducting the 2020 draft virtually and remotely and it has served as a template for how the offseason has been conducted so far. Instead of rookie mini-camps and OTAs (organized team activities) teams have been forced to hold virtual classroom sessions to conduct installation meetings and to get rookies up to speed because players were not permitted at team facilities (unless they were rehabbing pre-existing injuries), however, the 49ers have received approval from Santa Clara county officials to begin letting players back into the facility. Quarterbacks and rookies will join rehabbing players once they pass consecutive COVID-19 tests.

Even though things are getting back on track and all signs are pointing to the season starting on time, there are still many hurdles that need to be cleared first. The NFL is doing what it can to clear some of the hurdles out of the way before they even need to be negotiated.

In a move to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the NFL has cancelled all of its preseason games and reducing training camp rosters from 90 players to 80 and each team must have its Infectious Disease Emergency Response Plan (IDERP) approved before the league will allow more than twenty players into the facility, but in a sport where twenty-two grown men crash into one another for sixty minutes, the risk of transmitting the virus cannot be fully mitigated.

So, what happens in the case of a large-scale outbreak? Would the start of the season be pushed back or possibly cancelled altogether? Either is a possibility and the timing of an outbreak would likely determine the outcome.

The NFL has had seasons that were shortened due to strikes in 1982 and 1987, but in both cases the season was completed, and a champion was crowned, resulting in a normal transition into the following offseason.

What happens if the season is not completed? How would the draft order be determined? Simply rerunning the order of the 2020 NFL draft would not properly account for the small (and sometimes large) fluctuation that happens from year to year due to injury and the like. Also, basing it off of a cumulative record over an arbitrary number of years did not seem right either, especially since the Browns would have such a distinct advantage given their ineptitude.

The National Hockey League faced this issue when the entire 2004-05 season was lost due to a lockout and used a weighted lottery to determine the draft order. Using the NHL as a model I applied a weighted lottery to the NFL.

For the purposes of this exercise, I divided the teams into four tiers using a combination of win-loss record, playoff appearances, playoff wins, conference championships, Super Bowl victories, and first-overall picks over the last four seasons (I chose four as the cutoff because the average NFL career is 3.3 seasons and it seemed to allow for sufficient turnover).

Tier 1 are teams that have not made the playoffs and have not had the first overall pick in the four seasons, from 2016 to 2019, the New York Jets, Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Washington Football Team all qualified for this tier.

Tier 2 is comprised of teams that have made the playoffs but did not win a game or have had the first-overall pick during the same four-year span. Those teams are the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins, Las Vegas Raiders, Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills, and Baltimore Ravens.

Tier 3 are those teams that have won playoff games but have not made it to the conference title game and those teams are the Los Angeles Chargers, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, and Seattle Seahawks.

Lastly, the Tier 4 teams are those who have made it at least as far as the conference title game. The Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, and New England Patriots comprise the final tier.

In order to separate the teams within the tiers, I used each team’s cumulative record over the four most recent seasons, with the team having the worst record being placed first in the tier, the team with the second-worst record being placed second, and so on and so forth (in the case of two or more teams having the same cumulative record, the most recent season was used as a tie-breaker).

All teams in all tiers are separated in the same way except for the teams in Tier 4 where Super Bowl victories were used in addition to cumulative record, for example a team with a Super Bowl victory is placed lower in the tier than a team with a better win-loss record.

In order to weigh the lottery, I set the maximum number of ping-pong balls equal to the number of teams in the NFL, thirty-two. The team with the fewest wins over the last four seasons in Tier 1 is the New York Jets and thus they received thirty-two ping-pong balls. The Washington Football Team was next and received thirty-one ping-pong balls followed by Tampa Bay with thirty and so on culminating with the New England Patriots with one ping-pong ball. The complete list is as follows:

New York Jets

Washington

Tampa Bay

Denver

Cleveland

Cincinnati

New York Giants

Arizona

Detroit

Miami

Chicago

Las Vegas

Carolina

Buffalo

Baltimore

Indianapolis

Los Angeles Chargers

Houston

Seattle

Dallas

Jacksonville

San Francisco

Atlanta

Tennessee

Green Bay

Los Angeles Rams

Minnesota

Pittsburg

New Orleans

Philadelphia

Kansas City

New England

I plugged each team into the lottery generator and weighted them as described above and what follows is the 2021 NFL draft order in reverse order from 32 to 1:

Figure 1: Picks 32-16

Figure 2: Picks 15-1

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