Thursday, February 11, 2016

The NFL Draft should be an Auction

I've been thinking about the NFL Draft a little bit, which is where all of our attention drifts to once the glow of the Super Bowl has passed (Good for the Broncos, by the way). So much time gets spent on the Draft - particularly player evaluation and mock drafting - but no one really seems to ever dedicate time to discussing the draft's format. The draft format hasn't changed much as long as I can remember, apart from it becoming more popular on TV. People increasingly love paying attention to the draft, so that's probably why we don't hear about format.

But I think the draft is broken. The NFL draft should be an auction.

Anyone who has played fantasy football and drafted in both traditional snake and auction formats will agree with me if they think about it for more than a second. Not only are auction drafts more fun, they're much more strategic in nature.

The current NFL draft format is restrictive - teams are placed in order depending on record/playoff success and are assigned picks in that order. Sure you can trade them, but the boundary conditions are extremely fixed. If a team wants to pay more to get a certain player, there's no guarantee they can be successful, because draft picks aren't nearly as liquid as dollars.

An auction fixes the liquidity problem -- and would unleash the free market forces on the NFL draft.

Let me explain what I'd propose...

Rather than assigning teams a draft order - each team is allocated a pool of credits, based on their record/playoff success. Instead of the worst team getting the 1st pick, the 33rd pick, the 56th pick, and so on...that team gets 10,000 credits. The next worst team gets slightly fewer credits, maybe 9,500. It's a declining scale (exact math to be determined).

But each team gets a pool of credits based on their performance. And that's it.

Again, starting with the worst team, team's nominate a player for the auction process. And then teams bid. And the highest bid gets the rights to the player. And you do that until all the credits are gone.

Why do I think that's the best case? I'll give you a few reasons.

- Player Evaluation and Valuation will become MUCH MORE important - Switching to an auction format completely removes the safety net of a regimented draft order that's currently protecting the worst teams. If you are an NFL GM and you attempt no trades during the draft, you have a select set of picks and you simply pick the best player on your board when it's your turn. No big deal. But in an auction -- every credit becomes valuable, and every player is potentially up for grabs.

When each player is nominated, each team has to be prepared to bid. In an auction, every team has at least a shot at an Andrew Luck. The need to accurately evaluate players becomes much more important when you have to be prepared to actively bid against 31 other teams to get them.

- Facilitate liquidity in the market - Here's an example that's relevant for Eagles fans. In last year's draft (which seems like forever ago), Chip Kelly was reportedly very enamored with Marcus Mariota. The entire run-up to the draft was full of speculation the Eagles were going to trade everything but the kitchen sink for a high enough pick to draft him. But the Titans weren't really interested, and they couldn't make a price work. Too bad for the Eagles (or any other team not with the highest pick), you simply can't make a serious play for the player you really want. An auction fixes this.

In an auction format, you no longer need to match needs with a specific trade partner. All the Eagles would need to do is find ANY OTHER team and trade for some of their credits -- and then use them to outbid the Titans. An auction format's currency facilitates exchanges. Trades for credits would allow teams more flexibility to build up the stash for players they desperately want, whereas today they're shut out.

- Personnel Staff Performance will become MUCH MORE visible -
This is the one I'm most irrationally excited about. Because at the end of every draft, all we have to evaluate NFL GMs on is the list of players they pick (and the trades they make). Unfortunately, we have no idea what teams' actual preferences were, because we don't see their draft boards.

But in an auction format, where the bidding would be public, now you'll KNOW which teams like which players and by how much. Suddenly a team's entire bidding history reveals much more about their evaluation skills AND their future strategies. The Eagles didn't take an offensive lineman in the last few drafts. That seems like a miss (particularly in hindsight), but what we don't know is who they were interested in taking. In an auction, we could see if they bid on several lineman and just missed out, or if they instead chose to forego the position for some other reason.

GMs would be much more accountable to the media and fans, because there would be more transparency. I think that would be a great thing.

- The Draft will suddenly become DRAMATIC - I'm apologizing to the NFL, because while I love the game and love the draft, it's boring as hell. It takes forever for teams to pick, there's not really much intrigue, rarely are there big surprises.

It would take literally one pick in an auction draft to show the fans how much more dramatic it could be. Imagine how it looks when every team is suddenly in on a top-flight prospect. Imagine when it looks like two rival teams are only bidding against each other. Imagine when your favorite team is going back and forth over a player you desperately want.

That's some drama -- and your team could jump in at any point -- so how can you turn it off?

Some people might disagree with the whole draft auction idea - but I don't think there are a lot of great arguments against it.

You could argue it wouldn't translate well to TV - but I think you could fix that easily. You could argue that it's technically more complicated and could break down -- but I think you could minimize that risk.

The only real argument that carries some weight is the fact that a bunch of old white guys sitting around, literally having an auction for the rights to a bunch of young predominantly African-American men.

Obviously, the optics of that are more than a little unseemly.

That's why I suggested credits instead of dollars - but that's not really that much better.

I can't say I have a great answer to that concern. But I still maintain that the strategy, the intrigue, and the drama, would elevate the draft from a relatively dull affair to something as dramatic as the Super Bowl (at least for me!)

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