NFL parity is dead. Long live tanking.
The New England Patriots rule the league, while other teams have already started to make NBA-like moves with one eye toward the future instead of the present.
The New York Jets reside at the epicenter of this approach because of a mass exodus of veterans this offseason and an unstable quarterback situation.
"I mean, I don't tank nothing," defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said, per NJ.com's Darryl Slater. "So that's all opinions outside of this organization. We don't come here—and we're not going to go through training camp, and have 14-hour days—to go tank a season. I'll be damned."
Of course, players and coaches aren't intentionally throwing games when their jobs are on the line. But they're operating at the behest of the front office and the team's ownership group.
The concept is simple: A team minimizes its long-term investments in overpaid and overaged veterans while simultaneously maximizing salary-cap space and draft capital. This is done through the deconstruction of the roster.
The idea became more popular within the past year when the Cleveland Browns began a strip-it-to-the-studs rebuild and placed the NFL's youngest roster on the field. The approach led to a 1-15 campaign and the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft, where the organization selected Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett.
"The thing that worries me is that the Browns essentially tanked the season last year and no one said—except a few of us—said anything about it," Hall of Fame front office executive and NFL analyst Bill Polian said on ESPN's Mike & Mike (via Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith). "And it may well be that this is something that can spread around the league, and I don’t think that's good for the sport in the long run. Because in the end it robs the customers of the chance to see a competitive team."
Polian's comments could be considered ironic because he once constructed a decaying Indianapolis Colts roster that finished 2-14 overall after Peyton Manning's neck injury. The lost season gave Indy the 2012 No. 1 overall pick that was used on quarterback Andrew Luck.
What the Browns attempted isn't anything new nor will they be the last team to take the same approach. When something isn't working, the next logical step is to tear it down and start anew.
Each NFL franchise plans on being competitive, but certain deficiencies become too arduous to overcome. For example, a team without a consistent presence behind center cannot compete in a quarterback-driven league.
Thus, those franchises with a massive need at the game's most important position are already tantalized by the potentially incoming quarterback crop for the 2018 draft class. An awful campaign this fall could prove to be worth it if one of these squads are placed in a position to select USC's Sam Darnold, Wyoming's Josh Allen or UCLA's Josh Rosen. The upcoming crop of signal-callers is viewed far more favorably than the one from the 2017 draft.
These quarterback prospects serve as the gold at the end of the rainbow, and five teams are comprised in such a manner to compete for the No. 1 overall pick next April.
New York Jets
The Jets are the early betting favorite to be the NFL's worst team this fall. Their roster isn't built to compete on a weekly basis.
Starting at quarterback, the 37-year-old Josh McCown will be given yet another opportunity to start despite poor play at his previous stops. McCown is a tremendous presence in the locker room and an experienced mentor for young signal-callers. Yet his propensity to force plays and make crucial mistakes has been an issue at every stop.
The team has two young quarterbacks on the roster to develop in Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. The Jets can learn more about their future playing one or both than trotting a journeyman onto the field each week who still consistently loses games.
The quarterback position is merely a microcosm of the entire roster's deficiencies.
This offseason, the franchise parted ways with multiple high-profile veterans. Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Nick Mangold, David Harris, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Clady, Breno Giacomini, Darrelle Revis, Nick Folk and former first-round pick Calvin Pryor are all gone.
In return, the Jets signed McCown, Kelvin Beachum and Morris Claiborne as free agents. The incoming talent won't make up for the lost production even with the inclusions of safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye at the top of this year's draft.
J-E-T-S faithful are in for a long season with the driving thought the team will be bad enough to select at the top of the 2018 draft. New York will have plenty of competition, though.
The Browns would have to become the second team in NFL history to finish 0-16 to be any worse than they were last season. The one-win Browns are now in the second year of their overhaul, and progress is being made. But is it enough to improve to such a level that they're no longer considered one of the league's worst teams?
Cleveland is the poster boy for tanking since the team amassed over $100 million in cap space going into the offseason with a treasure trove of draft picks to build the roster.
The front office made major moves in free agency to solidify the offensive line with the additions right guard Kevin Zeitler and center JC Tretter. The organization also signed left guard Joel Bitonio to a long-term contract extension.
To offset the loss of last year's leading receiver, Terrelle Pryor, the Browns also acquired Kenny Britt.
During the draft, vice president of player personnel Sashi Brown concentrated on making the team bigger, faster and more athletic. The team's three first-round selections were Garrett, safety Jabrill Peppers and tight end David Njoku.
Selecting 10 players a year after taking 14 players in the 2016 draft is a great start to change the face of the roster. However, this means the Browns are very young.
This is still a team with neither an identity nor a quality starting quarterback, and the defense will undergo a scheme change under its third defensive coordinator in three years. The Browns clearly have a plan, but it's far from reaching fruition.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams finally cut ties with head coach Jeff Fisher and entered the modern NFL with a offensive-minded head coach and new philosophy. However, Sean McVay is only 31 years old and a first-time head coach. There will be growing pains, especially since the roster is far from complete.
McVay's primary goal is preparing 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff after an abysmal rookie campaign. The Cal product finished his first year with a 54.6 completion percentage, a five-to-seven touchdown-to-interception ratio and generally looked overwhelmed.
To get Goff up to speed, McVay installed the majority of his offense during minicamp.
"If that's what we have in," Goff said, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "I'd say I've understood all of it and grasped all of it so far."
How successful the Rams are this season will ultimately land on the quarterback's shoulders. The roster features a few defensive standouts in tackle Aaron Donald, end Robert Quinn, linebacker Mark Barron and cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
Los Angeles needed an injection of talent on offense outside of the running back position. Even Todd Gurley regressed in his second year. If Goff is going to be successful, he'll need a solid surrounding cast to deliver when he makes the right throws. This remains in question with Tavon Austin, Robert Woods and rookies Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds as his top options in the passing game.
McVay is implementing brand-new schemes with multiple new roster pieces. It'll take time before it all comes together.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers undertook an even more intensive rebuild than their NFC West counterpart. While the Rams hired a first-time head coach, Les Snead remained the team's general manager. After two years of false starts, 49ers CEO Jed York fired general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly (who was only around for one year) and hired John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan to replace them.
The organization understands this is a long-term project. Otherwise, York wouldn't have offered six-year deals to both Lynch and Shanahan. A once-proud franchise was in disarray and needed a unified vision.
With the franchise's approach under Lynch and Shanahan, the 49ers appear to have the right leadership in place for the organization to experience a rebirth. However, expectations need to be tempered.
To reflect the team's new direction, multiple free agents were signed. The 49ers were aggressive in pursuing and acquiring quarterback Brian Hoyer, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, linebacker Malcolm Smith and wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon.
Shanahan brings one of the NFL's most complicated offenses a year after the team operated in one of league's simplest under Kelly. Hoyer has experience playing for Shanahan, and his knowledge of the scheme will help the transition. But he's far from the type of quarterback a team wants leading the way for an extended period. In fact, Hoyer has yet to start for a full season.
The 49ers crushed the draft process, yet question marks remain where all of the talent fits in Robert Saleh's defensive scheme. Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster can be difference-makers, but the 49ers need to cater their system to their recent first-round picks.
Fans hate hearing the saying, "It's a process." Yet it rings true, especially for a team that experienced as much turmoil as the 49ers have in recent years.
Former head coach Rex Ryan and previous general manager Doug Whaley never saw eye to eye during their time together with the Bills. Both are gone, and it's up to new head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane to clean up the mess.
Three of the team's top four wide receivers from last season have signed with other organizations. The New England Patriots snatched LeSean McCoy's backup, Mike Gillislee, away by working the restricted free-agent market. The defense's leading tackler, Zach Brown, wasn't retained. The team's top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, also left to join the Patriots.
Buffalo still isn't fully committed to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, either. While the two sides agreed to a restructure his deal this offseason, Taylor is essentially operating under a one-year contract. The team can avoid $9.44 million of his $18.08 million cap hit next season if he's released, per Spotrac.
With McDermott running the draft, the team started to build toward the future by trading the 10th overall pick in exchange for first-round selections this and next year. Clearing cap space, adding assets and stripping the roster of unwanted veterans, Buffalo is checking off the boxes toward tanking and trying to build long term.
As such, the Bills could be battling the AFC East rival Jets for the top pick by December.