The NFL Draft for Dummies / Europeans
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 45 seconds
Welcome to an experimental post! This article is going to be very different from what you usually get to see on this blog. It is about one of my more secret passions – American Football. I remember just having arrived in the USA for my exchange year in September 2009. It was high school football season, and football games were THE thing to do on a Friday night. I watched the first one and thought: “This is stupid. Huge people running into each other with lots of breaks and no visible rules”. 6 and a half years later, I am convinced that American Football is one of the most interesting sports out there. During every play, an incredible amount of things happens simultaneously. The strategy behind plays is often baffling. The more you watch it, the more you see the underlying thoughts – it is basically chess with figures that defy the laws of physics. Also, the whole structure built around the game is very different from what we are used to – the biggest part being the draft. This is an introduction for people who are just getting into football.
It is a shame that American Football is only played from August to February. The rest of the year, I have to entertain myself differently on Sunday nights. However, there is one thing to fill the void – the preparation for the NFL draft.
The day of the days is here: it is Draft Day, the most important day of the year for all NFL teams (aside of maybe the Super Bowl). Draft Day has an impact that often lasts decades. Today, you will learn why this day is so meaningful and why the NFL is such a balanced league.
WHAT IS THE DRAFT?
In most major non-american sports, young athletes aspiring to become professionals usually get recruited at a fairly young age. Then they are groomed, switch teams and work their way up until they finally land a contract at a big club. Not in the NFL. As a young football player, becoming a professional means that you do not have a choice who you’re playing for. You don’t select your team – the team selects you. This could mean that having gone to college in Florida, you might have to move up to cold and snowy Minnesota, whether you like it or not. This is what happens in the draft.
All players who elect to declare themselves for the draft (usually juniors or seniors in college, with a few exceptions) are available for the taking. The teams then select a player in a given order based upon their performance in the previous season. The team with the worst record gets to pick first, then the second-to-last team picks second and so on. The draft has 7 rounds, with roughly 32 players (one for each team) taken in each round.
So far, so good. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? Well, on draft day, things become a lot more spicy.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
It rarely is the case that teams pick in the exact order as originally determined. The reason for this are trades. You can switch spots with other teams by trading “up” or “down”. For instance, if you are picking at No. 8 but desperately need a quarterback who you can plug and play, you have to move up in the draft – just like the Philadelphia Eagles did this year (link). The Cleveland Browns gave up their No. 2 selection, but received the No. 8 selection as well as more picks in this and next year’s draft. Trading down and acquiring more picks can be an option for you if you do not have a desperate need at a certain position – or if your roster has so many holes to fill that one special player just won’t cut it (which is the case for the Browns).
Draft picks are the most valuable currency in the NFL, as they give you the flexibility to select the players that you need right now – and who might possibly the next [reigning MVP] Cam Newton. You can trade draft picks for other picks this and/or next year or players. There is no such thing as transfer fees like in soccer, the only way to acquire a player from another team is by offering them draft picks (I believe there is even the possibility of trading picks for coaches, but I don’t think this has ever happened).
Trades can happen anytime before and during the draft. The board changes constantly, so trades can suddenly make sense at any point. Nobody knows who the other teams will pick – you can make assumptions, but you only know it for sure once the card with the player’s name is handed to the commissioner. That means that sometimes, players who are highly rated drop lower than they were expected to, giving teams a chance to trade up for them. Moving from No. 15 to No. 1 is expensive (as proven by the Los Angeles Rams this year), but moving to No. 10 is fairly doable. You still get the player that you would have targeted with the No. 1 selection.
In addition to ordinary draft picks, there are compensatory selections. Those selections differ from the normal ones as they cannot be traded. They are awarded if you lose many players in free agency (players whose contracts expire) and can be as high as the end of the third round. They soften the blow of losing players that teams cannot afford to keep, as rookie contracts are a lot cheaper.
Undrafted Free Agents
Not everybody gets drafted. Many college athletes wait all day to hear their name called, just to be disappointed in the end. Do not worry though, many teams need more than just 7 new players – and after the draft, every team can sign anybody they want to. This is usually a good time to fill up a roster and pick up talents that may have been overlooked somewhere else.
Mr. Irrevelant is the draft’s last pick. He receives an award and is highly celebrated for the fact that he probably will never play anywhere. It is a very questionable honor, but I do enjoy the irony in it.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?
Teams are built through the draft as it is the only opportunity to select players that will eventually become the face of your franchise. Teams will most likely not let go of their most important players, unless they have off-field or character issues (like Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers (link)). Therefore, the draft has to be right. There are even teams like the Green Bay Packers who (until very recently) only consisted of players that they drafted or picked up after the draft – not a single player on the roster who previously played for another team (the only exception being Julius Peppers for the nerds among us). On top of that, drafted players are fairly “cheap”. There are fixed salaries connected to the time at which you are picked, and those are a lot less than salaries on the open market.
What I most appreciate about the phenomenon of the draft: it makes the NFL unbelievably fair. I enjoy watching American Football a lot more than soccer because every team has a chance to go to the Super Bowl every year. In soccer, there are a few big teams who reign due to their financial situation – they just throw lots of money all the good young players. Through the restriction of the draft, it is assured that the best available player goes to the worst team from last season, thus giving them somebody to rebuild their team around. Super Bowls are won on the field, but the way there is paved by smart General Managers who make great roster decisions. The reason why the Carolina Panthers went to the Super Bowl last year after selecting first in 2011 are back-to-back successful drafts. All playmakers have been drafted at some point in the past 4 years.
BONUS: THE SALARY CAP
There is one more reason why the NFL is so fair: the salary cap. Every team can only spend a certain amount of money on their players’ salaries. This makes it impossible for the wealthiest team to “buy” all good players, because the amount of money they can spend is limited. This makes the league very fair and often urges successful players to play for not-so-successful teams because they can make a lot more money there (Malik Jackson going from Super Bowl winning Broncos to the low-performing Jaguars is a good example for that). In soccer, no player would go from Bayern Munich to Freiburg simply because they pay better.
I hope that all this talk about the NFL and what will be happening during the next three days are a little bit clearer for you, dear reader. Please let me know if you enjoyed this piece or have any questions. Feedback is always appreciated!
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