It is where college kids can be turned into instant millionaires overnight and NFL teams can be turned into Super Bowl contenders. Of course, things don’t always go to plan and poor drafting can lead to general managers finding themselves out of work and NFL clubs facing a good few years of struggles.
It is not overstating the fact to say that it can be three days that can make or break a team’s season.
What is the NFL Draft?
The NFL Draft is the annual selection process of the best players in college American football. It is deemed to be one of the most pivotal means of ensuring competitive balance in the NFL.
Over seven rounds, the 32 NFL teams take it in turns to select the leading young players in the United States. The team with the worst record from the previous season goes first and the order is based on how each club performed the previous year.
For example, the 2012 NFL Draft will kick off with the Indianapolis Colts, who had the worst record in the league in 2011. It will continue with the team with the second-worst record (the St. Louis Rams have traded their selection to the Washington Redskins), the third-worst record (Minnesota Vikings) and so on, all the way down to the Super Bowl champion, who will pick 32nd and last in the opening round.
When is the NFL Draft and where will it be held?
The NFL Draft takes place at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The first round will take place on Thursday April 26 and can be seen live in the early hours of Friday April 27 on ESPN (coverage begins at 1:00am).
Rounds two and three will be held on Friday April 27 and rounds four through seven will be covered off on Saturday April 28.
How long do teams have to make their picks?
In the opening round, teams have 10 minutes to make their selection. Each team has a representative on the floor at Radio City Music Hall and they will liaise with their head coach, general manager and other football personnel folks back at team headquarters.
When a coach or general manager has decided on his pick for that round, he will speak with his team representative on a secure telephone line and that representative will then hand the pick in to NFL officials in New York. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will then read out the selection (Goodell reads all first round choices).
If a team fails to make a selection within their allotted 10 minutes, they fall down the draft order and the club picking below them gets to make a selection. This is rare but it famously happened in 2003 when the Minnesota Vikings – who were picking eighth in round one – failed to get their choice to the Commissioner in time.
The Carolina Panthers moved ahead of Minnesota in that draft and chose offensive tackle Jordan Gross. The Vikings insist they still got their man with the ninth pick as defensive tackle Kevin Williams became a rock on their defense for many years.
Teams have seven minutes to make their selections in round two and five minutes per selection from round three onwards.
Do teams have to pick in their allotted slot?
Teams do have the flexibility to change their draft position and can do this via trades. Most NFL Drafts feature a host of trades as teams with a particular need move up to grab a player before their rivals, while those in no desperate rush to add a pick can move down in exchange for more picks in lower rounds.
This year’s NFL Draft has already featured a massive trade. The Washington Redskins have moved from number six overall to second spot after a trade with the St. Louis Rams that should enable them to draft their quarterback of the future – either Andrew Luck or, more likely, Robert Griffin III.
The Redskins swapped places with the Rams in round one this year and also gave St. Louis their second round pick in 2012 and their first round choices in the 2013 and 2014 Drafts. That seems like a lot, but the Redskins are desperate for a game-changing quarterback.
The Rams, on the other hand, already have their quarterback in Sam Bradford but could use the additional picks to improve a relatively weak roster. Therefore, the trade has been dubbed as a win for both teams.
Is drafting players considered the best way to build a roster?
Generally, yes. The most successful teams in recent NFL seasons – the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers – are all teams that are traditionally quiet during the free agency signing period.
These clubs prefer to sign young, talented players out of college and train them their way, rather than overpaying for veterans who began life at other clubs and might come on board with bad habits.
The ethos of drafting for talent is one shared around the league, as former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris told nfluk.com: “We believe in drafting talented players and keeping them in our building by re-signing them. We don’t ever want to have to go outside of our building to sign players and we’ll use free agency to cover the mistakes we made in the draft.”
Now, that’s not to suggest that teams won’t indulge in the occasional free agency splurge (the Bucs themselves spent $140 million in one day earlier this month) but traditionally drafting is seen as the best way to build a roster.
How has the NFL Draft evolved over the years?
The NFL Draft has gone from being a low-key, internal league affair in which teams were able to stock their rosters with minimum fuss to a three-day extravaganza that draws better ratings on television than the NBA basketball finals.
That is pretty amazing when you consider that the primary action in any NFL Draft sees a man in a nice suit stand at a podium, read out a name and then pose for a photo with the young player on stage!
The first NFL Draft took place at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia on February 8, 1936 and it featured 96 player names scribbled on a chalkboard. There was no media coverage and the NFL Draft remained a relatively low-key, midweek event until fledgling sports station ESPN showed an interest in 1980.
The TV station asked then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle if they could broadcast the NFL Draft. While Rozelle did not think the annual selection of college players would make good viewing, he agreed and the NFL Draft has gone from strength to strength ever since.
In 1988, the NFL moved the Draft from a weekday to a weekend and ESPN’s ratings soared. In 2010, the NFL Draft became a three-day event running from the Thursday until the Saturday and ESPN was joined by the NFL Network as broadcasters covering the action live.
Today, the Draft is one of the most eagerly-awaited events in the NFL calendar as fans around the world clamour to see if their favourite teams can improve themselves dramatically in the course of three hectic and often nail-biting days.
Why does the NFL have a Draft?
The NFL loves competitive balance and thrives on the belief that any team can win on any weekend, no matter the opponent. Any Given Sunday is not just the name of a pretty good football movie – it represents an entire business ethos for arguably the most powerful sports league in the world.
The NFL wants wide open races to the Super Bowl, close games and, perhaps most importantly, the league likes to offer hope to fans of any team. In today’s NFL – as the San Francisco 49ers proved in 2011 – it really is possible to go from the cellar to the very top end of the league in just a single season.
Through the NFL Draft – coupled with a salary cap and revenue sharing among the 32 teams – the NFL has gone a long way to creating a level playing field, resulting in close games, unpredictable action on the field and television viewing figures that are literally through the roof and growing year on year.
Competitive balance is one of the real strengths of the NFL. This past season saw the St. Louis Rams knock off the New Orleans Saints in one of the surprises of the year. And such upsets – see Kansas City over Green Bay – are commonplace in the NFL and make the league so exciting to follow.
The NFL Draft allows the weaker teams to catch up with the stronger ones quicker than otherwise might be the case through the selection of the best college players in the country.
And the system works.
The past 14 Super Bowls have produced 10 different winners. Over the same time period, the Premier League has produced just three champions – Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. That’s pretty compelling evidence that the NFL Draft and other factors such as the salary cap create competitive balance that succeeds in the NFL.
We couldn’t really have an equivalent in the Premier League, could we?
No, because there is no college system feeding players into professional soccer. But the best way to imagine it would be to put every player planning to move clubs this summer into a pool.
From that pool of transfer-hungry players, the Premier League teams could make their selections. But under the NFL Draft system, the superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi would be more likely to end up with Wigan or Swansea than Manchester United or Manchester City.
That might not sit well with supporters of big clubs or the superstar players themselves, but there’s no doubting the fact it would create a much more level playing field.
How do top college players get the chance to be chosen in the NFL Draft?
College football is huge in the United States and the likes of quarterback Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are already household names across the country.
But most promising players appear on the radar of an NFL team the moment they start playing college football (the really good ones are well known even before then when they are just 15 or 16 years old). Only the very best high school players in the United States begin playing college football and only a tiny percentage of that group goes on to make the NFL. The NFL really is the best of the best, making it hard to break into that level of play.
NFL teams have entire scouting departments devoted to running the rule over young players in college football. They watch every single play those players make during their college career and also get to run the rule over them first-hand at the NFL Combine, which takes place in Indianapolis each February. That event is open to the top 300 players in college football and is an invite-only affair.
By the time it comes to the NFL Draft, each team in the NFL will have an extensive report on every available player – both physical and mental – and will be well prepared to make a selection based on their specific needs.
Of course, for the most part, those players who performed at bigger, more high-profile schools stand a better chance of being drafted. At the very least, they will be closer to the front of most scouts’ minds throughout the evalutation process.
Is drafting a player from the college football ranks an exact science?
No way. The fact remains that all the scouting in the world cannot predict how well a player is going to make the transition from college football to the game’s very highest level. And that’s what makes the NFL Draft so fascinating – all the good intentions in the world don’t necessarily mean things are going to work out for a team and the player they pick.
Not all NFL Draft selections work out as the teams would like. In 2007, the Oakland Raiders made quarterback JaMarcus Russell the first overall selection and signed him to a $61 million contract which included a $32 million bonus just for signing on the dotted line. After three disappointing seasons in Oakland, Russell can no longer find work in the NFL.
Ahead of the 1998 NFL Draft, there was a huge amount of hype surrounding the young quarterback pairing of Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Many scouts felt there was little to choose between the two, making a difficult decision for the Indianapolis Colts that much harder. The Colts took Manning with the first pick and the San Diego Chargers grabbed Leaf second overall.
Manning is a four-time NFL Most Valuable Player who has passed for 54,828 yards, 399 touchdowns and could own every meaningful record in the book by the time he retires. Leaf struggled through four seasons, passing for just 3,666 yards and 14 touchdowns before being kicked out of the league for good.
While there are many examples of high draft picks who have not worked out in the NFL, the reverse is also true and some of the greatest players in league history have been chosen very late in the NFL Draft (Tom Brady of the New England Patriots) or have not been drafted at all (quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Wes Welker are two prime examples).
You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get with a draft pick until they hit the field and start playing the games.
But with the NFL Draft, you know where you stand as a fan – you’re going to get excitement, drama and, perhaps most importantly, you’re going to have the hope that this is finally the year when your beloved team hits the jackpot and goes from run-of-the-mill to Super Bowl calibre.