How Does the NFL Draft Work?
What is the NFL Draft?
To break it down, the NFL Draft is an annual process where any prospective NFL player must enter the draft lottery for a chance to play in the league. Franchises, aka NFL teams, are then allowed to use a certain number of “picks” to choose these players across 7 rounds.
But why does the NFL Draft exist like this? There are two key reasons why the system is set up like so:
1. Stops a Sign-Up Free-for-All by Teams
The Draft stops teams signing up college graduates just as soon as they step off the grounds. It gives lower-performing teams in the previous season and teams with a lower salary budget a chance to snatch up a rising star and improve their record. If the Draft didn’t exist, the top teams and those with huge salary budgets would sign all the best new players, making the NFL a very one-sided game.
2. Athletes Still Get an Education
While many prospective players enter college purely to go pro, it’s not guaranteed they are going to get picked. The Draft ensures that players still get an education in college by not allowing them to enter the draft until three years after they have finished high school and are no longer eligible to play in college football. This way, if their NFL career doesn’t pan out, they still have a college education to fall back on.
How the NFL Draft Works
How is the draft pick order selected?
The whole idea of the draft is to help teams who have struggled in previous seasons by giving them priority access to new rising stars. Whichever team performed the worst, coming in at the bottom of the ladder, gets first pick in the draft. On the other end, whoever wins the Superbowl will be the last team to use their draft pick in a round. There are some more specific rules around teams that did and didn’t make the playoffs, but the process of the worst picking first and the best picking last, typically stays the same.
For example, in 2021, the Jacksonville Jaguars will have access to the first draft pick in each round after finishing last, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have the final pick in each round after winning the Superbowl. If two teams are tied for draft position, their spots on the order are chosen based on:
- Strength of schedule (opponent’s win percentage)
- Best win-loss stat in common games played (min. four games)
- Strength of victory in all games
- Highest combined total of all points scored, and all points allowed
- Most net points
- Highest net touchdowns
- Coin toss (if they are still equal)
That being said, teams can trade draft picks for players and other round draft picks, so it might not always be in an exact order of last to first.
What Are NFL Draft Rounds?
Currently, in the NFL Draft, there are 7 rounds of draft picks, alongside another 32 “compensatory picks”, which is given based on the losses or gains from last year’s free-agency trades. For example, if a particular team lost multiple high-paid free agents, they might be awarded extra draft picks.
In each round, as they go down the list of teams, each franchise is allowed to select one player as their draft pick for that round. Once each team from the round has chosen a player, it moves onto the next one. This carries on until all seven rounds are complete.
So, since there are seven rounds, each team will get to pick seven new players, alongside any extra picks they may be awarded. While this sounds straightforward, this process has to be done for all 32 teams. This means that 224 draft picks will be chosen over the Draft, alongside those extra 32 picks awarded to teams, for a total of 256 picks.
Initially, that sounds like a huge number. However, between 3,000 and 4,000 prospective players declare for the Draft each year, so in actual fact, a small percentage will get in and make their dreams come true.
How Do Round Timings & Trades Work?
If the NFL gave teams as much time as they needed to select a trade, the Draft would take weeks. To make the process streamlined, the NFL has put time limit restrictions on each round of the Draft to make sure everything keeps moving. As it becomes a team’s turn to pick, they go “on the clock”. The time allocated for each team to choose their draft gets shorter and shorter as the Draft progresses:
- Round 1 = 10 minutes
- Round 2 = 7 minutes
- Rounds 3 to 6 = 5 minutes
- Round 7 = 4 minutes
If a team doesn’t make their selection in their time period, the following team is allowed to begin their selection process. This key risk with letting the timer run out is losing the opportunity at a particular player the next team has their eye on.
While “on the clock”, teams can also make trades, thereby allowing them to gain access to a currently drafted player or priority draft pick in a different round by giving away their draft pick. Many of the higher-performing teams that are towards the bottom of the round list will try and trade their way to a higher position for players and future draft picks.
When & Where is the Draft Held?
Between 1965 and 2014, the NFL Draft was always held in New York City. Various convention centres, hotels, music halls, theatres have played host to the Draft. However, from 2015 onwards, the Draft went on the road and now cities can ‘bid’ to host the event. Chicago hosted the Draft in 2015 and 2016, Philadelphia in 2017, Dallas in 2018, and Nashville in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Draft to be held virtually, while the original host city Las Vegas will now be presenting the event in 2022 instead. In 2021, the NFL Draft will be held in Cleveland, while in 2023, it will be located in Kansas City.
How Does a Team Submit Their Picks?
The NFL Draft follows a simple but hands-on procedure when submitting their draft picks:
- Each team has a table at the draft venue.
- A representative for each team or franchise is seated at their table. That person is the main point of contact for the team’s executives, who are based at their headquarters.
- When a team has decided on their draft pick, the representative writes their name, position and college on a piece of paper.
- This document is given to a “runner”, an NFL staff member who then gives the information to NFL officials and the other teams.
- The draft pick is then broadcasted to fans at home once the pick is confirmed. First round draft picks are often given a team jersey or a cap to signify joining the club.
While the NFL Draft can be an intimidating process for players, the dramatic spectacle of teams strategically planning their squads, coaches choosing their new rising stars and the celebrations of prospective players getting chosen makes it all worthwhile.
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