NFL's 'Tanking for Trevor' Campaign Shaping Up to Be a 2-Team Race

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 31, 2020

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 13: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers warms up before the College Football Playoff National Championship game against the LSU Tigers at the Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The LSU Tigers topped the Clemson Tigers, 42-25. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Let's start by getting this out of the way: NFL teams do not really "tank," especially not in the hopes of landing one specific college prospect.

The Dolphins did not really "Tank for Tua" last year, though they may end up drafting Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa anyway. Instead of losing on purpose, they tried their hardest all year and actually ended up out of position to draft LSU's Joe Burrow, the top quarterback in this year's class. And while some Browns fans keep retconning the team's 1-31 record in 2016-17 into what they hope will eventually be a triumphant narrative (Tank Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Moneyballer), what the organization really proved three years ago was that too much talk of tanking will get everyone fired. 

So "Tank for Trevor" is more of a fun headline/rallying cry than a reality. With that said, some teams look like they are going to stink this year, and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is currently the best quarterback prospect in the class of 2021. So if some team just happens to spend 2020 eating cap space and noodling at quarterback and then accidentally ends up in position to select a guy who has already led his team to two national championship games, all's well that ends well, right?

Let's look at some teams that have positioned themselves to be in market for Lawrence or some other top quarterback prospect in 2021. We'll start with some teams that probably couldn't tank if they tried. Then we'll get to a pair of teams so good at losing that they could find themselves at the top of the 2021 draft board.


Unlikely Tankers

New England Patriots

Signs they are tanking

The current quarterback depth chart starts with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer, a fine tandem if all you hope to win is a fourth preseason game or a Music City Bowl. The skill position corps is still mostly populated by the guys who made Tom Brady look old last year.


Signs they are not tanking

Suggest "tanking" to Bill Belichick and he will glare at you until your skull melts. But beyond that, the Patriots retained veterans such as defensive backs Jason and Devin McCourty, guard Joe Thuney and special teams ace Matthew Slater. A team planning to bottom out and start over would likely shed many of those salaries. 


What's really happening

Belichick has a plan, and it probably isn't "replace Tom Brady with Andy Dalton and see if anyone notices." It also isn't "let's cut everyone and build for 2027." Even with a Stidham/Hoyer tag team at quarterback, the Patriots will be too competitive in the weak AFC East to sink all the way to the bottom of the standings and the top of the draft board.

The Patriots rebuilt on the fly in years past by finding premium talent at rock-bottom prices (Randy Moss, 2007) and by turning other teams' tarnished prospects into treasure (Danny Shelton and Kyle Van Noy were recent examples). Look for them to be one step ahead of the market when they do start making moves. Or perhaps Stidham is more than he appears to be and the Patriots are already one step ahead of the market. 


Carolina Panthers

Matt Rhule's arrival likely means the Panthers won't be looking to win big right away, but with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, they likely won't struggle enough to be in position to draft Trevor Lawrence.
Matt Rhule's arrival likely means the Panthers won't be looking to win big right away, but with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, they likely won't struggle enough to be in position to draft Trevor Lawrence.Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

Signs they are tanking

Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Kalil and Julius Peppers are gone for various reasons. In their place are Teddy Bridgewater and several members of the 2015 Temple Owls.


Signs they are not tanking

Bridgewater's contract virtually guarantees him two seasons to prove that he can be a franchise quarterback, and he's been too good in past stops to lead a team to a swan dive in the standings. Newcomer (and Temple alum) Robby Anderson is a bona fide deep threat whose arrival indicates that the Panthers plan to be semicompetitive while rebuilding under new head coach Matt Rhule.


What's really happening

By letting go of aging/injured vets and bringing in "his guys," Rhule is conducting a traditional new-regime roster makeover. There's no urgency to win right away, so he'll spend this season implementing his program and building around Bridgewater while keeping his future options open at quarterback. That may result in a mediocre win-loss record, but it won't look at all like "tanking."


Los Angeles Chargers

Signs they are tanking

Letting Philip Rivers leave after 16 seasons appears to signal the start of a rebuilding phase. Tyrod Taylor is currently their starting quarterback, and except for one trade (Russell Okung for Trai Turner) and some salary shedding (Melvin Gordon III, Thomas Davis Sr., Brandon Mebane), the Chargers have been largely quiet on the free-agent front.


Signs they are not tanking

"Say, we need to sell season tickets and PSLs after two years of playing home games in an Airbnb in the suburbs. Let's signal to our dozens of fans that we plan to stink for a year!"


What's really happening

The ever-thrifty Chargers will likely make lowball offers to Cam Newton and/or Jameis Winston and see how the Justin Herbert/Jordan Love second-tier prospect market shapes up as the draft approaches. They won't find the best replacement for Rivers, but they will find someone viable and budget-friendly, even if it turns out to be Taylor. Then they'll wobble into next season with enough young talent on defense and at the skill positions to be wild-card-competitive but with no real plan for going beyond that.

In other words, nothing can stop the Chargers from behaving like the Chargers.


True Tanking Contenders

Washington's lukewarm reception of Dwayne Haskins may open the door to the team's embrace of Lawrence, should it get the chance to draft him in 2021.
Washington's lukewarm reception of Dwayne Haskins may open the door to the team's embrace of Lawrence, should it get the chance to draft him in 2021.Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Washington Redskins

Signs they are tanking

New head coach Ron Rivera has cut loose several overpriced veterans of the past (Josh Norman and all of the aging tight ends), and he may be in the process of finally trading disgruntled left tackle Trent Williams. He also traded for quarterback Kyle Allen, the sort of low-key challenger a new coach acquires when he isn't certain that the quarterback-of-the-future really has a future.


Signs they are not tanking

Washington rarely has any one coherent plan, so owner Dan Snyder could get bored tomorrow and invest $200 million in Jameis Winston and Jadeveon Clowney or something. Also, the team holds the second overall pick in this year's draft. If Washington wants to wait until next year, it could simply draft Tua Tagovailoa this year.


What's really happening

Rivera is trying to rebuild in the traditional way. Acquisitions with Panthers pedigrees like Allen and Thomas Davis Sr. will provide scaffolding as he installs his system. Likely draft selection Chase Young will join a defensive front loaded with young talent, giving Rivera something to build around. Dwayne Haskins will get his shot, but most of the decision-makers who couldn't even vouch for him after he was drafted last year are gone now. 

Washington is likely to end up with a losing record and a need at quarterback in 2021. That's as close to "Tanking for Trevor" as any NFL team will ever get by design. But Washington faces stiff competition, because not all NFL teams do things by design.


Jacksonville Jaguars

Signs they are tanking

The Jaguars traded Jalen Ramsey for a pair of first-round picks last year, flipped Calais Campbell and Nick Foles for middle-round picks earlier this month and would love to trade disgruntled, franchise-tagged pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue to the highest bidder. (Someone at Giants headquarters must have cut the wires on Dave Gettleman's phone.) Meanwhile, Gardner Minshew II is the kind of quarterback who looks gutsy and inspirational while almost leading a comeback.


Signs they are not tanking

Head coach Doug Marrone was on the hot seat last year, and general manager Dave Caldwell has spent seven of his eight seasons in the first year of a rebuilding cycle. Both should be in win-soon mode to keep their jobs. The Jaguars also signed perpetually injured veteran tight end Tyler Eifert to a two-year deal, an odd move for a rebuilding team but a typical one for the Jaguars, who like to free up cap space so they can cause future cap problems.


What's really happening

If any team is likely to sink to the bottom of the standings simply by flailing helplessly in the water, it's the Jaguars. Heck, if they actually tried to tank, they would probably end up 11-5 by accident.

If the Jaguars do end up with the top pick in 2021 along with all of the extra picks they're collecting along the way, they desperately need to find someone other than Caldwell and Marrone to decide what to do with them. Otherwise, they will end up right back in the same place a year or two later. 


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.