It’s mind-boggling to contemplate but the NFL Draft now draws more TV viewers than the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals or some NBA playoff games. The 2018 Draft peaked at 11.2 million viewers for the first round and averaged 5.5 million. Considering there is no sporting action whatsoever, why are all these people watching?

The NFL Draft is frequently hailed as a landmark of fairness in a league that works hard to ensure competitive balance. Allowing the team with the worst record to get the first pick of the following year’s top college talents does seem like a good way to help the bad to get better.

However, that’s not the reason it exists. As John Eisenberg details in The League (2018), the point of the draft was to prevent college players holding out for the best deal. Before the draft, players could sign for whoever they wanted; usually one of the best teams or one of the richest. Drafting a player gave a team his exclusive rights, so he could either sign or not play in the NFL at all. It didn’t prevent hold-outs but it took away much of the players’ leverage and allowed teams to keep salaries down.

That’s why it works for teams. For player’s, the draft means the NFL determines their employer for the first four years of their career (up to five for a first rounder) and fixes the money they make during that time. The average length of an NFL career is less than four years, so a typical player never gets the freedom to determine where he works.

For some observers, that’s simply the price of an NFL career. For others, the draft is an unacceptable limit on the freedom of players to sell their talents to the highest bidder and should be abolished. See Robert Turner’s Not For Long (2018) for more.

Is it right to limit the rights of young players in the name of competitive balance? Perhaps, but the draft doesn’t do a very good job of ensuring balance, and this has been obvious for a long time. In The Hidden Game of Football (1988), Carroll, Palmer and Thorn analysed the draft, which was then a 12-round affair with 28 teams.

“Now, just for the sake of argument, let’s assign a point value to each player drafted, from 336 points for the first player down to one point for the last player. Remember, every team in this imaginary construct drafts perfectly, so the team with the first draft choice gets a ‘336 player’ for its first choice, a ‘308 player’ on the second round, a ‘280’ on the third, and so on. Add up all 12 rounds, and they receive 2,184 points ‘worth’ of players. The next-to-weakest team (with the second overall draft position) will total 2,172 – 12 points less. Meanwhile, last year’s Super Bowl winner, drafting 28th, can total only 1,860 – 324 points less.”

After some further explanation, the authors concluded: “In other words, if the same team keeps drafting perfectly and finishing last, they will improve to the level of champions after 10 years.”

In reality, teams don’t draft perfectly. Even if they did, then they would rise towards the middle of the pack, reducing their ability to improve through the draft. They would also have devoted more of their salary cap to rookies, having had higher picks, which affects their ability to sign other players and offsets the benefit of the higher picks.

Teams can increase their odds by stockpiling picks but that’s an option for good teams or bad, so it doesn’t address league parity.

Without the draft, the salary cap and free agency rules would still provide some balance. Good teams tend not to have much cap room and bad teams tend to have a lot. The best rookies would still be more likely to end up on the weakest teams.

Below are five reading recommendations for anyone who wants to understand the NFL Draft better: its origins, the most memorable moments and how the best teams play it to their advantage. Those books will also give you a sense of why fans tune in year after year. The NFL Draft keeps money in the owners’ pockets and gives rookies a worse deal than they would get in an open market but millions keep watching because it sells the thing that sports fans prize the most: hope.

1The Draft (2006) by Pete Williams

Covering the year before the 2005 NFL Draft, Williams follows more than 30 college players, including Ronnie Brown and Demarcus Ware, as they prepare for the biggest weekend of their lives. We get glimpses of the agents, specialist trainers and the consultants who help players to boost their chances of a high draft pick. Williams’ style is dry and the book can be repetitive but it’s a good deep dive into the pre-draft process.
Read: Full review
Buy the book: Amazon US, Amazon UK

2Sleepers, Busts and Franchise-Makers (1983) by Cliff Christl and Don Langenkamp

This was the premier draft book when it was written and it still stands up, 35 years later. It tells the story of the origins of the draft, the professionalisation of scouting and the talent war between the AFL and NFL in the 1960s. Christl and Langenkamp also profile a few “draftniks” – a group of obsessive draft buffs profiling players for magazines like Pro Football Weekly. Today, of course, that group has flourished into an infinite army of mock drafters.
Read: Full review
Out of print: hard to find

3On the Clock (2015) by Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport

Reading like a more lightweight update of Sleepers, Busts and Franchise-Makers, On The Clock centres on the 2014 NFL Draft before going back into the past to tell the story of how the draft evolved. It’s suited for reading in bite-sized chunks, with a chapter of lists (“The Five Best WR Picks” and “The Five Worst WR Picks”, for example) and short sections on the smartest coaches, the best-ever picks and so on.
Buy the book: Amazon US, Amazon UK

4War Room (2011) by Michael Holley

Holley’s book focuses on Bill Belichick’s team-building strategy and how that strategy spread to other teams through his former staffers, Scott Pioli, then GM of the Chiefs, and Thomas Dimitroff, GM of the Falcons. It’s fascinating to read about the manoeuvring that occurs on draft day and Holley’s story of how the Patriots drafted Devin McCourty is a prime example: Belichick wanted McCourty and had the 22nd pick in the first round. Instead of picking him there, he traded back twice and took McCourty at 27, collecting an extra third-round pick and a better fourth-rounder along the way.
Buy the book: Amazon US, Amazon UK

5Meat Market (2007) by Bruce Feldman

The draft process represents the end of college football for the draftees but it’s really just another venue for them to be probed, analysed and critiqued. For a lot of players that starts in high school as colleges fall over themselves to recruit the best prospects, while the players try to weigh up which college will give them the best shot at being drafted. This book shines a light on that ‘Meat Market’.
Buy the book: Amazon US, Amazon UK

Photo: SwimFinFan


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