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Does Tanking Work In The NFL?

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Bill Barnwell weighs in

NFL Draft Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Over the past year, there has been a lot of talk about tanking in the NFL, with the Browns often at the center of it. “Tanking,” or purposely setting a team up to lose in order to earn a higher draft pick, is common in three of the four major sports, with the exception being football. However, with the Browns last season and maybe a handful of teams this season, that seems like it might be about to change. In a recent article for ESPN, Bill Barnwell lays out some general guidelines for how tanking might be different in the NFL, and weighs in on the pros and cons of the strategy relative to other sports:

Pros

  • There is no draft lottery, the pick you earn is the pick you get
  • It’s easier to retain superstars
  • High draft picks have more trade value

Cons

  • One player has less impact
  • It’s harder to scout players
  • The season is too short to reliably tank

There’s a lot more to it than that, including an outline of how teams might approach the draft, free agency, and the quarterback position, so I recommend heading on over to read the full article. Toward the end of the article, Barnwell mentions some teams that might benefit from tanking, and it’s no surprise that the Browns come up. Barnwell believes that the worst is over for the Browns, and that they’ve done a lot of good work hoarding assets. Now it’s time to use them.

On the question of “does tanking work,” Barnwell comes down on the “probably not” side of things, for the reasons listed above. Simply put, there’s too little control over the outcome of an NFL season or NFL draft for the strategy to work in the long run. That isn’t to say some parts of the overall tanking strategy aren’t good practice, such as trading down to acquire more draft picks. But it is his intuition that intentionally bottoming out won’t work in most situations. I disagree, and the reason why is something I feel was overlooked in the article. NFL teams can roll over salary cap space. This is unique in pro sports, and it is a resource that is entirely predictable. I don’t believe NFL teams do or will tank for draft picks. I believe NFL teams are tanking for cap space. By intentionally spending far below the cap, teams can build up a reserve of extra money that they can then use during a window of contention to keep their team together or supplement it with good free agents. This roll over cap space is not subject to any of the cons listed above, it is entirely within a team’s control and it has an obvious benefit. I believe this is the new way forward in the NFL for rebuilding teams, with the Browns at the cutting edge. Time will tell how effective it is.