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The NFL’s Race to the Bottom Is Starting to Crystalize

The 2019 draft doesn’t look like it has any tank-worthy passers, but the Raiders seem committed to their quest for the top pick anyway

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one knows much about the NFL draft in November. Bowl games haven’t been played, and scouts and pundits haven’t yet truly dug into the tape and stats. The fluctuations of recent quarterback prospects demonstrate just how much the draft landscape can change from November to April: Around this time in 2015, Paxton Lynch was seen as the top overall quarterback, and Carson Wentz had barely eked his way into first-round consideration. At this time two years ago, DeShone Kizer was thought to be the top QB available. Last November, Baker Mayfield was rated far behind the other passers in his class.

Five months from now, the 2019 draft won’t be anything like our current projection. But even with that caveat in mind, holy hell, this year looks like one when you absolutely should not tank to nab a franchise passer.

As bowl season creeps closer, there doesn’t appear to be anyone resembling a generational QB prospect in this class. Oregon signal-caller Justin Herbert, the tentative top draft-eligible passer on the board, reportedly wants to return to school for his senior season. And even if he does leave school, he’s stumbled this year, notching a lower completion percentage, passer rating, and yards per attempt than he averaged last season. In lieu of Herbert, the top passer could be Missouri’s Drew Lock, who has played decently as of late but has a habit of disappearing in Mizzou’s biggest games. The rest of the class right now—including Will Grier, Ryan Finley, Dwayne Haskins, and Daniel Jones—seems to change in standing every week. No one has risen to the top of the pool.

Instead—somewhat paradoxically—this draft will be headlined by the side of the field that has been marginalized during this NFL season: defense. The class is led by Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, and a slew of other defenders: 22 of the top 32 players on Todd McShay’s October 30 big board play defense.

So the teams racing to the bottom aren’t looking to grab the next Peyton Manning or John Elway. Instead, they’re hoping for the next Bruce Smith or Aaron Donald. The lack of QB talent and depth of defensive talent is oddly fitting: Almost every team currently at the bottom of the NFL standings doesn’t need a quarterback. The 49ers have Jimmy Garoppolo, the Cardinals have Josh Rosen, and the Jets have Sam Darnold. The Raiders may be ready to move on from Derek Carr, sure, but there’s a good chance they’ll keep him around for a while longer. And the Giants, well, they should be ready to part ways with Eli Manning, but who knows what the hell they’re thinking.

All of this could change by April, but right now this year appears—for the moment, at least—to have the lowest stakes of any tanking race since 2013. Still, let’s take a look at which teams have the inside track to Bosa, Oliver, or whichever player will be at the top of big boards come April:

Oakland Raiders (1-8)

The Raiders are the clear favorite for the top overall pick in the draft. They’ve lost eight of their nine games by eight points or more, and their lone win came in a game they probably should have lost: a litany of questionable calls swung the contest for Oakland. Football Outsiders gives Oakland a 54.5 percent chance of claiming the top pick, and The New York Times has those odds pegged at 46 percent.

The Raiders’ chances of finishing last will vault even higher if the team loses to the Cardinals on Sunday. That’s the last easily winnable matchup the Raiders have left (so much that any game of football can be described as “easily winnable” for this squad). After Arizona, Oakland has a hellish stretch to end the season: at Ravens, Chiefs, Steelers, at Bengals, Broncos, at Chiefs. It’s possible that the Raiders’ Week 17 date with Kansas City will be a breeze, if the Chiefs have the top seed in the AFC wrapped up and choose to rest their starters, but at that point the Raiders may have an incredibly strong incentive to lose to secure the top overall pick.

I don’t really believe NFL teams tank. Players have short careers and coaches have short leashes—and the sport is too brutal to spend time intentionally losing games. But the Raiders could be different. They gave Jon Gruden a 10-year contract, making him one of the few coaches who can weigh long-term returns against short-term gains. They traded away Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper for draft capital, showing that they’ve been looking to the future since before this season even began. And they’re leaving for Las Vegas in 2020; the fans the Raiders alienate by losing now won’t be the same ones buying tickets in two years.

If there’s an NFL team that would really tank, it’s the Raiders. Again, the players won’t be trying to lose games—they’ve got careers to think about, even if many of them want to get out of there—but Gruden and the rest of Oakland’s decision-makers don’t appear to have been thinking about winning at any point in 2018. There is no reason for that to change down the stretch.

Arizona Cardinals (2-7)

The Cardinals are 2-0 against the 49ers this season and 0-7 against everyone else. It goes without saying that they won’t have another date against the Niners in which to pick up a third win. In fact, their upcoming schedule spells trouble: After the loser bowl against the Raiders, they’ll play at the Chargers, at the Packers, home against the Lions, at the Falcons, home against the Rams, and at the Seahawks.

If anyone can lift the Cardinals past a few of these teams and send them tumbling down the draft order, it’s interim offensive coordinator and play-caller Byron Leftwich. He actually knows how to use David Johnson!

Johnson had 183 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against the Chiefs on Sunday in what was easily his best performance of the season. But even if Johnson returns to form, the Cardinals are by no means saved: His two touchdowns were the team’s only two of the day. A Johnson comeback would be a nice story with major fantasy football implications, but the Cardinals would be terrible regardless.

San Francisco 49ers (2-8)

In Week 10 of last season, the 49ers began to derail their chances of getting the top pick in the draft. After going 0-9 to begin the season, the team beat the Giants in Week 10, and then put Jimmy Garoppolo on the field after a Week 12 loss to the Seahawks. The result was five straight wins to close the season, a 6-10 record, and the ninth pick in the NFL draft. Though the 49ers didn’t need a QB last season, they effectively played their way out of a chance to pick Denzel Ward, Bradley Chubb, Quenton Nelson, or Roquan Smith. They also lost the chance to trade down. They could have benefited from being the team to swap with the Jets or Bills, who both traded up to draft a QB.

After quarterback Nick Mullens looked like Joe Montana last Thursday night, it felt like a similar rally might be in the making. But after San Francisco’s Monday-night loss to the Giants, that probably won’t the case. After a bye, the Niners will get the struggling Bucs, but also the Seahawks (twice), Broncos, Bears, and Rams. It’s hard to see the Niners sweeping the lot of those teams, like the way they finished the season last year.

But the 49ers will get a bit of the same boost as the Raiders will in Week 17. They’ll play the Rams, a team that may be resting its players. That means that Week 11’s Kansas City–Los Angeles Monday Night Football matchup carries some race-to-the-bottom stakes: The winner will be more likely to rest in Week 17 and therefore could help send the 49ers or Raiders to the top overall pick.

New York Giants (2-7)

The poor Giants wanted to make a run in 2018. It’s why they drafted Saquon Barkley with the no. 2 pick in the draft; why they stuck with Eli Manning in the offseason; and why they signed Nate Solder, Patrick Omameh, and Kareem Martin in free agency. After all, the team won 11 games in 2016, and 2017 was a season from hell, injury-wise. How hard could it be to get back to those heights?

Well, two wins and seven losses later, it’s safe to say the team’s plan isn’t working. In winning Monday night, though, the Giants hurt their shot of grabbing the no. 1 pick. They’ll play the Buccaneers next week, another winnable game. While New York is certainly the worst squad in the NFC East, none of the division’s other teams are so great as to make those games lost causes. After that, the Giants have remaining dates against the Bears, Titans, and Colts. They’ll be the underdog in virtually every matchup going forward (though their game against the Bucs is a pick ’em), but it’s easy to see them picking up another win or two on the season.

New York Jets (3-7)

With three wins already in the books, the Jets have comparatively slim odds to get the top overall pick, though they’re well on their way to a high selection. But if there’s a team that could make a run to the bottom of the standings, it’s the Jets. Even the math says so:

We can’t count on those losses before they’ve happened, but the Jets are a team to keep an eye on. After their monumental blowout loss to the Bills, they seem like they may be ready to pack it in. Head coach Todd Bowles is almost certainly a lame duck, and, before a foot injury sidelined Darnold, the rookie QB was struggling. It’s more than likely that the Jets will knock off someone in the next seven games, but it’s also easy to see a future where this team limps to 3-13.