We are in the slowest part of the NFL offseason. So why not throw around some absolutely crazy ideas that will never happen.
Re-align the league
College football is currently undergoing a seismic re-alignment as schools chase the money. Hope you enjoy the future UCLA-Minnesota rivalry and the burgeoning UCF-Cincinnati rivalry. Let’s get the NFL in on the action.
An NFL realignment wouldn’t be about money, it would be about entertainment. The league’s divisional and conference structure has been unchanged since the Texans entered the league in 2002. Rivalries have gotten a little stale since then. Eagles-Cowboys, one of the biggest rivalries in the sport, hasn’t been an actual big game in years, they’ve either played so early in the season to make the impact feel minimal, or later in the season when key starters have been missing or rested.
For two seasons, eliminate divisions. The AFC and NFC would be two 16-team conferences, top 7 teams make the playoffs, no more teams with a losing record hosting a playoff game. They might still get in, but they’ll have to travel. For those two seasons everyone plays their former division rivals just once a year: at home in one season, on the road in the other. Only playing a team once rather than twice would raise the stakes. No evening out a loss in the rematch; everything matters in that one game.
After this two-year period the NFL can rearrange the league however it wants. Two divisions per conference? Why not. Or keep four divisions but swap entire divisions between conferences? Do it. Switch up some AFC and NFC teams? Sure.
We’d get used to a new alignment. The Seahawks have spent longer in the AFC than they did the NFC, and they had no problems developing new rivalries when they moved to the NFC West in 2002. We’ll get used to a Week 18 game between the Titans and Colts to determine who faces the Lions in the playoffs, or the Dolphins playing the Bucs to determine a division title.
Change the way the salary cap works
Every league with a salary cap has their own specific rules. Let’s borrow a few.
Part 1: Designated players
The NBA, NHL, and MLS have limits on how much of the salary cap a single player can earn, 25% for the NBA, 20% for the NHL, and 12.5% for MLS. The NFL has no such limit, at some point it could be ugly. Top QBs are not going to agree to not to get more than their peers did, so the end of this escalation is not going to come from the player’s side. The simplest and most realistic solution is an NBA-style max contract. 20% of the salary cap but fully guaranteed (for 2023 would be $45M guaranteed). But that’s not as much fun as we could get from fixing this potential issue.
Another way is a Designated Player-type of rule. In MLS, Designated Players can earn unlimited salary but count against the salary cap for only 12.5% of the cap. A similar structure in the NFL would allow QBs to get their money without hamstringing their team’s ability to surround them with talent, but we can still get the drama of protracted and contentious negotiations as players and teams disagree on how much the contract will be worth. Players get their money, everyone else gets their talking points.
Part 2: Allow cap space to be traded
This one isn’t that crazy, other sports essentially already do this. In the NHL a team trading away a player can retain up to half of the player’s contract. In MLS there is a pool of “money” (it’s not actually money) that teams can use to trade straight up for players or draft picks, or they can use it to reduce a player’s cap hit (but not their earnings). In the NBA you can straight up swap a draft pick for cash. Sending money in trades has happened for decades in the MLB and has happened in the NHL. Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky were both traded in deals that involved a monetary amount. We’ve already seen trades in the NFL where teams eat dead money in exchange for draft picks, most famously the Browns giving up a fourth-round to the Texans for Brock Osweiler, a second, and a seventh. Osweiler never played a down for them, the Browns simply bought a second-round pick. More recently teams have restructured an outgoing player’s contract to take on a dead cap hit in order to get a good draft pick in return, such as the Bears trading Robert Quinn to the Eagles for a fourth rounder.
So let teams trade cap space for draft picks one for one. There will have to be some guardrails, as there are in other sports. In the NHL you can only retain salary on three trades, in the NBA there is a limit on the amount of cash you can trade for a pick, (this season it is $6.4M), and the MLS pool of “allocation money” is also limited.
The challenge with this is deciding what a proper amount is, because in the NFL salary cap space rolls over from one year to the next, unlike other sports. You don’t want teams giving away first-round picks because they can’t manage their cap, but you also want to encourage teams to use it.
Would the total cap space of the equivalent rookie contract be enough? The total value of a rookie contract for 2023 ranges from $38M for the No. 1 overall pick to $3.9M for a seventh rounder. The league will never let an owner give up the No. 1 pick for nothing tangible in return, but trading a sixth for $4M in cap space would help teams out.
Make an actual developmental league
This is insane because owners will never go for it. The benefits to the league for player development are obvious. (As to why the NFL doesn’t just let the XFL and USFL use their players, it’s because the NFLPA will not allow their members to participate in non-NFL games.) The league has had some minor interest in being a part investor in a spring league, they basically told the Alliance of American Football to check back with them in a few years, but the league folded midway through their first year in 2019.
But owners don’t want to put up the money for a fully owned spring league, a big reason why they closed NFL Europe was that they didn’t want to pay for it. But times have changed since then. Live TV is a huge money maker. The XFL and USFL average over 600,000 viewers for their games. That’s not a ton but that’s more than an average MLS or afternoon college football game. Not bad for two competing leagues with players most viewers have no knowledge of and teams that nobody has any connection with. A proper developmental offseason league with recent draft picks and other young players under direct contract with NFL teams would draw more viewers, which could command a decent TV contract.
Eliminate the draft
This one will never, ever happen without the federal government declaring drafts illegal, which would throw American and Canadian sports into complete chaos for a few years. But let’s assume for a moment the draft was eliminated for whatever reason. What would happen?
One benefit is that it could completely eliminate tanking. Tanking isn’t much of an issue in the NFL as it is in other sports, but it exists. But with no better draft picks to play for, there is no reason for a team to not try to compete. Which opens everything up for everyone.
Rather than reward bad teams with top prospects on “merit”, every team would have to earn the rookies they sign. But this wouldn’t cause the NFL to get top heavy with a handful of teams hoarding the best players like we are seeing with college football. Caleb Williams is not going to sign with the Chiefs or Bills, because he’s not going to get playing time there. But he might also not sign with, say, the Raiders or Texans because of the direction those franchises are going. Maybe instead he signs with the Lions, a good team in need of a long term solution at QB, or maybe he signs with his home town Commanders to kick off a rebuild under new ownership. Everyone would have a chance. That’s parity.
With no draft there would, or should, be no rookie wage pool, which would take us back to the pre-2011 CBA days of top rookies earning top dollar. During the 2011 lockout the first thing ownership and the NFLPA agreed on was to limit the amount of money rookies could earn. The owners, who love not spending money, didn’t want to pay unproven rookies drafted with top picks contracts in line with established starters, and the NFLPA wanted that money spread out to veterans. Unfortunately it backfired on the NFLPA. Rookies are now more valuable than ever because they’re so cheap, which has squeezed out veterans from backup and role playing jobs. In 2010 34 WRs and TEs aged 31 or older caught a pass, in 2022 only 20 did. In 2010 114 defensive players aged 31 or older played in a game, in 2022 only 88 did. With veteran role players and rookies on a level playing field for contracts, veterans should benefit. Contending teams can fill the spots that late round draft picks occupy on their rosters for a similar price.
Everybody wins here, unless your team isn’t trying.