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There’s no reason the NFL draft shouldn’t be today

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The NFL Draft process is good. Here’s how it can become great.

NEW ORLEANS, LA:  An early-morning view of the exterior of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before the visiting New York Giants take on the hosting New Orleans Saints.
NEW ORLEANS, LA: An early-morning view of the exterior of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before the visiting New York Giants take on the hosting New Orleans Saints.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL Draft is, like many previous drafts, an exercise in patience. We have to wait for months and months to find out which college players will join the New Orleans Saints and 31 lesser teams, and it takes three days to sort through that process. So I’ve come up with three humble suggestions on how to improve the draft and turn in a more-watchable, more-engaging product.

Start It Sooner

There’s no reason the draft shouldn’t be starting today. Teams begin evaluating prospects in the summer before the last season - so 2018 NFL Draft hopefuls will have been going under the microscope since May 2017. College game tape has been edited and reviewed hundreds of times since then.

The NFL Scouting Combine, considered the biggest nexus of draft activity before the event itself, wrapped up 45 days ago. Considering the dozens of personnel involved in evaluating players, that’s more than enough time to reach a decision. Nothing revealed in the last month has dramatically altered perceptions of players.

I’m tired of listening to petulant rants comparing Josh Allen to good players like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Brett Favre, and Donovan McNabb. I’m tired of blocking racists on Twitter everyday for slandering Lamar Jackson as a “low-IQ quarterback” in my mentions. If Bill Polian phones in another Sirius XM interview - yesterday he cited Marcus Davenport as a longer-armed Ezekiel Ansah, despite Ansah’s arms being two inches longer than Davenport’s - I will die.

I get that the NFL offseason is a drag, stretching from February’s Super Bowl to July’s training camp practices, but the draft doesn’t need this long of a wait to build up hype. It’s a fun event on its own and already a great product. I don’t need to see respectable analysts like Daniel Jeremiah reduced to spitballing three-team trades at 7 PM on NFL Network.

Teams admittedly need time to schedule private visits and workouts between school pro days and the draft, and that’s fine. But they finished those meetings yesterday, and we’re still a week out from picks being made. So move the draft up a week or two. Why do teams need a full week between final visits and the Cleveland Browns botching the first overall pick again?

CHICAGO, IL - NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that  the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose Jameis Winston of the Florida State  Seminoles #1 overall during the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Roosevelt University Auditorium Theatre.
CHICAGO, IL - NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose Jameis Winston of the Florida State Seminoles #1 overall during the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Roosevelt University Auditorium Theatre.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Make Fewer Picks

We’re all exhausted by the NFL Draft’s third day. Four rounds of picks featuring many players who don’t have highlight reels to show on the TV broadcasts, combined with the chaos of undrafted free agency (more on that in a moment), is just too much. The on-air analysts and talking heads, who possess encyclopedic knowledge of the draft’s prospects, don’t always have something to say about them.

So here’s my modest proposal: an NFL Draft of three rounds, where all 32 teams get one selection per round and the top four in overall order get an additional pick at the end. That gives us an even 100 selections:

  • Round One: 32 picks
  • Round Two: 32 picks
  • Round Three: 36 picks

This sounds radical but I promise it’s not. Right now the NFL Draft is meaningful for the first four rounds at best. Justis Mosqueda of Setting the Edge recently completed a study into functional guaranteed money - the percent of contracts where players cost more to roster than to release. Filtering down to the highest-paid 32 NFL players by functional guarantees and then organizing them by which rounds they were drafted, he found the following:

  • Round One: 37.5-percent
  • Rounds Two and Three: 20-percent
  • Rounds Four and Five: 5.6-percent
  • Rounds Six and Seven: 0.0-percent

This clearly demonstrates that the NFL values the status of being an early-round pick. Even if they don’t pan out with one team, a player drafted in the first three rounds is almost a lock to get a shot somewhere else based purely off that reputation. Despite more picks being spent on the final four rounds than the previous three, less than six-percent of NFL veterans drafted there made up the league’s highest-paid players.

From another angle, Pro Football Focus awarded 42 “elite” grades of 90-or-greater last season. Of that number, 35 players were picked in the draft’s top three rounds. That’s a significant talent drop-off that just makes it even more clear that late-round selections are effectively filler.

Celebrate Undrafted Free Agency

Sure, there’s final-day gems like Zach Strief and Marques Colston - or Tom Brady. But there literally hundreds of other players who have been selected at the same spots as those guys who entered and left the NFL without fanfare.

So paring-down the draft to 100 selections eliminates much of that inefficiency. Teams won’t have the luxury of falling back onto handfuls of late-round picks that are really just trade fodder to maneuver the early-round selections. Each team starts with three swings at-bat, except for the worst four squads, which get an extra chance out of pity.

Additionally, by limiting selections to just three rounds, we’d get a more watchable product. With just 100 slots to work with, studios can put more into the broadcast and offer more in-depth analysis, stronger highlight cut-ups, and so on. But the real fun comes into play with the hundreds of players who go from being fourth- , fifth- , sixth- , and seventh-round picks to undrafted free agents.

Undrafted free agency is already a chaotic affair. All 32 teams are calling their prioritized free agents, people they’ve already invested months of contact with and even flown into town on recruiting trips. It’s a madhouse as teams try to outbid each other with greater guarantees and local beat writers around the country work overtime to relay signing rumors.

Let’s take that and double the volume of players involved. Now we’re cooking with gas. Push the envelope even further and turn it into a college football National Signing Day-style festival, where prospects announce their signings on-air. That festivity has an awesome, unique energy and the NFL could stand to pick up some of it.

Imagine the Saints and Atlanta Falcons offering competing bids for an undrafted rookie. He’s seated in his living room, surrounded by friends and family, with each team’s hat on the coffee table. The camera rests on him as he leaps up, grabbing the Saints hat and knocking the Falcons visor (of course it’s a visor) off the table, shouting “who dat” over and over again into his cousin’s cameraphone, replayed onto ESPN and NFL Network. How amazing would that be?

Sure, that’s probably a ridiculous fantasy. This entire exercise is. But it’s fun to think about.