The Game: Part III – The Draft


Some believe that the NFL draft is illegal.  They will point out all of the legal information about anti-trust law and blah, blah, blah.  Yet the NFL Draft is more watched today than some playoff games for other sports.  In fact, the NFL Draft is so popular that it brings in more viewers than some of MLB’s playoff games.  The NFL has crafted what started off as a hotel lobby exercise in fairly dividing incoming players into the game while maintaining a competitive balance into a juggernaut that now is teetering on being a historical afterthought as the labor strife continues.

Today, we look at the game from the prospective of the draft.

In the early 1930’s the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles came up with an idea of “drafting” college athletes into the NFL.  Until that time, all players were free to sign with whomever they wanted or whoever paid the highest deal.  The wealthier teams got better and the others simply existed.  In 1936 in a hotel in Philly, Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago was the first player ever selected in the NFL draft.  He decided he didn’t want to play in the NFL.

There was no television coverage and media coverage was relegated to a local reporter who covered the meeting of owners.  The draft was 9 rounds and by the end of the 30’s had been increased to 10.  In 1939 the draft expanded to 20 rounds.

As the draft began to grow for the NFL, the 1940’s brought about change.  A growing league, the “All American Football League” began conducting drafts in the mid-40’s.  The NFL began to use secrecy to keep the other league from knowing what players they were targeting and it became a “first to get their players signed” type of draft.  Throughout the 40’s the league experimented with different styles to the draft.

Continuing a format from 1939 only the worst five teams were allowed to draft in round 2 and 4 while the best 5 teams were allowed to be the sole draftees for the last few rounds.  At one point in the 40’s the league adopted a lottery similar to the NBA’s now.  Each team was given one chance to win the overall top pick and the winning team would not be eligible for the lottery again until all teams had “won” it.

At this time, only Senior college players were eligible for the NFL Draft and the NFL increased from 20 rounds to 30.

As the 50’s rolled in the NFL found themselves competing for players with the CFL who was trying to gain recognition.  The NFL began splitting their drafts to combat the poaching from the north.  They would hold the first 4 rounds in November or December and then the remaining 26 rounds in February or March.  From 1956 – 1959 the NFL continued to conduct business in this manner.

The 1960’s brought about the most change in the way the drafts were conducted.  To start the decade, the NFL was competing with the AFL for college players. The NFL held their draft in secret so that they could sign players from college before the AFL could hold a draft.  By the end of the 60’s the NFL and the AFL merged to form one league.  The NFL increased from a 12 teams league to a 26 team league in the span of that ten years.  The NFL Draft was destined towards becoming one of the most popular entities in all of sports.

In the 1960’s more college players made professional rosters than any other decade as three separate drafts occurred.  The NFL, AFL, and CFL filled rosters from drafts.

The 1970’s saw little changes to the draft process.  The NFL reduced the number of rounds in the 70’s from 30 to 17 and by the end of the decade they reduced that number again from 17 to 12.  The league started with 26 teams but increased that number to 28 by decades end when they added the Seattle Seahawks to the AFC and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC.  The Buc’s would get the first overall pick in their first draft over the Seahawks in a random drawing conducted prior to a playoff game.

The 70’s style of drafting would set up the draft as we know it today.  In 1977 the NFL implemented the “supplemental draft” for players who were deemed eligible to play after the draft had concluded.  This was another effort to keep a balance within the league for competitive reasons.

The 80’s brought the NFL Draft into the home of the American fan.  ESPN was the first to televise the NFL draft live and with it everything that the NFL had been until that point was about to change.

College players were popular to those who followed those teams and or the sport in general.  To the average fan, most college athletes were simply names.  ESPN changed that by taking those names and making them prominent fixtures on their telecast.  The annual event took the draft out of the hotel room and into the mainstream media where fans could suddenly take part.  The live telecast would bring fans to the party both at home and to the event.  Making it the most successful non-action sporting event in the history of television.

The NFL draft faced competition and questions throughout the decade.  With competition growing from the upstart USFL, the NFL was faced with drafting players who would not play immediately for the teams that drafted them.  As was the case with the Buffalo Bills who drafted QB Jim Kelly in the 1983 draft.  Kelly would sign a deal with Houston Gamblers and play 2 seasons in the USFL before the league folded.  He was the “property” of the Bills and joined them in 1986.  One year before the 1987 labor strike.

The NFL also found the need for new league rules regarding the supplemental draft.  The draft was intended for players who did not file for eligibility in time for the April draft, and for players who were no longer eligible for various reasons to continue playing in college.  University of Miami QB Bernie Kosar wanted to play for the Cleveland Browns so he started negotiating with them.   The Browns told him not to declare for the draft in April.  He instead waited until after the draft and applied for the Supplemental draft.  During the 80’s the supplemental draft order was randomly determined ahead of time.  The Browns traded for the number 1 spot in the supplemental draft and took Bernie Kosar number one overall, angering many of the other NFL teams who saw this as shady.

The NFL changed the rules of the supplemental draft to make the order more randomized and limiting how players could be added into the supplemental mix.  Brian Bosworth also used the supplemental draft to avoid being drafted by the top few teams in his year of eligibility.

In the 1990’s the draft finally seemed to become more of what is relevant today.  The supplemental draft would undergo a couple of more changes over the next two decades and Jimmy Johnson would introduce the “Value Chart” into the art of trading.  The coverage of the draft itself was no longer a 1 day event but spread out over two days.  In 1993 the NFL reduced the draft to 8 rounds and in ’94 it reduced the draft to the current 7.

Today the NFL draft as stated many times, is as popular as the NFL regular season games and is actually as watched.  It has become one of the most anticipated events in the history of sports both for fans, players, teams, and owners.  The network coverage has gone from ESPN to ESPN and NFL Network.  It has gone from a noon start on a Saturday to the institution of round one in primetime on a Thursday with the second round on a Friday.

Today, the NFL draft as we know may change once again.  With the NFL labor dispute ongoing, it’s possible that because of U.S. anti-trust laws that the NFL draft may not exist past the 2011 draft next month.  In fact, barring a CBA that allows for the NFL draft to continue, teams may find themselves simply in a bidding war with 31 other franchises for the rights to college’s best products.  A reversion to the early 1930’s.