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To draft or not to draft, that is the question
Since 1936 the NFL has determined which team each rookie will play for in the upcoming season using a draft. While the specifics of the draft have varied over time, the general gist is that the draft has consisted of a predetermined order wherein each team selects one player for each pick.
Given that the draft has always remained in place, the notion of it not being in place has rarely been discussed. However, should something stay in place just because it remains in place? Within this article, I will argue points both in favor and in opposition to the existence of the NFL draft. Hat tip to Arif Hasan of Pro Football Network for the inspiration for this piece via a Twitter debate on this topic.
The argument for the draft
The primary argument for the draft is that it is supposed to promote parity. In theory, the worse teams pick before the better teams, allowing them an opportunity to acquire premier players. In example of a success of such a system, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in 2021 and seem to be on the upswing in large part due to his presence. Beyond that, the NFL likely appreciates the draft because it allows for cost controlled rookie contracts which would be significantly cheaper than an open bidding process (although rules could be added to temper that in theory). Lastly, the draft creates draft picks, which have value and can be used to facilitate trades, creating additional storylines for the league.
The argument against the draft (and for free agency)
While not a football argument, detractors of the draft typically mention that it flies in the face of the free market. Indeed, while the Jaguars benefited from being the sole bidder for Trevor Lawrence’s service, we have no way to know where Trevor Lawrence would have liked to play. An ethical argument could be made that players should be able to choose the employer that they view as best for them and that a player should be paid what the market will allow. Importantly, the theoretical replacement for this is typically framed as rookies being included in the larger free agency pool (or in a rookie free agency pool), which would allow these players to select their team and contract details.
Beyond that philosophical argument, I actually think a strong competitive balance argument could be made in favor of a free agency system. Specifically, rebuilds in the NFL often take a few years because teams are unable to influx enough talent to make it happen in short order. While free agents are available, these players are typically second or third tier players (at best) whose teams have deemed them expendable and are rarely the type of franchise changing talents that spur a turnaround. By comparison, if the NFL were to include rookies in a free agency system then teams could opt to go on a more aggressive “youth” movement that prioritizes younger, higher upside players in lieu of aging veterans that could allow for faster rebuild times.
Additionally, from a parity standpoint, we see free agents who spurn more competitive teams every year in lieu of higher paychecks (see basically every signing the New York Jets made between 2013 and 2021 for evidence), which may be especially appealing to players who have yet to experience an NFL payday. On the other side, we also see free agents who reject larger contracts so they can play for a more competitive team, which would encourage teams to build a competitive roster to appeal to potential players rather than engaging in “tanking” to ensure a high draft pick.
Lastly, no argument about the NFL draft’s merits would be complete without discussing the NFL’s news cycle and how the NFL draft has turned into a major live event that creates content, draws viewers, brings in advertising dollars, and keeps people talking about the NFL even after the Super Bowl has concluded. Moving to a free agency cycle would remove this, but could potentially be replaced with something akin to the NCAA that may be able to achieve the same level of intrigue.
I don’t know that there is a right or a wrong answer here. Also, in reality, the NFL has no plan or desire to change it so this is all just a thought exercise. However, I think it’s a potentially fun talking point during a rather slow period of the NFL news cycle. With that in mind, I ask you, what do you think?
Originally posted on Gang Green Nation – All Posts