An easy alternative to the draft is available, but it will never happen

NFL: APR 26 2018 NFL Draft
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The draft has become the crown jewel of the NFL’s offseason experience. It’s an event crafted out of thin air. It’s the ultimate reality show’s ultimate reality show.

It’s a TV event that has been carefully cultivated over the course of decades. It’s now a traveling circus over which cities compete almost as zealously as they pursue Super Bowls for hosting. Hundreds of thousands will show up to witness a show about nothing.

Obviously, it’s not about nothing. But it’s not a real sporting event. It’s a series of official announcements made from a podium, the sanctity of which the NFL tries to protect every year by squeezing its broadcast partners to instruct their reporters to not report on the identity of the picks before the Commissioner communicates them to the world. (Every year, I consider rebelling against this edict; I go along with it only because the audience truly doesn’t want the drama of each first-round selection to be spoiled by Twitter.)

As explained in Playmakers and elsewhere, a draft is un-American. But for the presence of a multi-employer bargaining unit, the draft would be a blatant antitrust violation. No matter how loudly the many social-media Matlocks out there would argue otherwise, the NFL’s 32 teams constitute independent businesses for antitrust purposes. Without an exemption from the antitrust requirements, collective business decisions and rules violate the law.

The draft allows 32 distinct companies to dictate terms of employment to incoming players. The player doesn’t pick his team; the team picks him. Even with the many examples of a player’s career being derailed if not destroyed by landing in a pit of dysfunction to start his career, fans and media rally around the league’s time-honored approach to figuring out who plays where.

The incoming players go along with it, because what other option do they have? Not nearly enough have taken a stand (that’s also addressed in Playmakers), and most have been brainwashed to accept the uncertainty as to their destination as part of the broader “honor and privilege” of being drafted.

Few want to even entertain the argument, because they don’t want the draft to go away. A a result, plenty of straw men get tossed around in order to protect the three-day sorting-hat extravaganza.

The biggest flawed argument is that the absence of a draft would create a baseball-type environment, with a handful of high-end contenders and everyone else. That ignores the presence of a salary cap. Yes, it can be manipulated, but it can’t be ignored. It has helped the league ensure parity unlike anything else in recent years.

Think back to the days before free movement of veteran players. There was little or no parity, but yet there still was a draft. So how much, then, does a draft contribute to actual NFL parity? While getting high picks can help completely turn a team around (like Joe Burrow in Cincinnati), that’s not parity. It’s a bad team making the most of the ability to snag the best player; the bad teams screw up those high picks as often as they don’t.

The next argument is that teams like the Cowboys would pounce on all the best new players. Beyond the broader salary cap, the league could address that dynamic by creating a finite spending allocation for incoming players based on where teams finished in the prior year. (There already is one, tied to total draft picks and the slots in which they were selected.) With only so many dollars available — and with the best teams having fewer of them to spend on rookies — the bad teams would have an advantage when it comes to recruiting incoming players.

Besides, which players are going to willfully sign with a team that would put them on the bench for multiple years? (Jordan Love, for example, would have told the Packers to get lost.) Football players want to play football. The best young quarterbacks won’t sign with a team that has a franchise quarterback in his prime.

There’s also a chance that teams, if left to their own scouting devices, will pursue the wrong players. In 2016, the Cowboys wanted Paxton Lynch, not Dak Prescott. The draft saved them from what would have been a gigantic blunder.

So, please, spare me the “having no draft would ruin the league” nonsense. Veteran free agency didn’t ruin the league. Rookie free agency wouldn’t ruin the league, either.

It could actually help the league. Instead of rewarding dysfunction by giving out dibs on the best players, bad teams would be compelled to get better. They’d need to sell themselves to rookies the same way they sell themselves to veterans.

There also would be no talk of tanking, and none of the tentacles that topic has created — such as the lingering scandal in Miami regarding claims that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered former Dolphins coach Brian Flores $100,000 for each game lost in 2019, in the hopes of drafting higher in 2020.

The biggest difference to a no-draft approach would be that the NFL’s primary offseason tentpole would disappear. In its place would be a series of press conferences where the best players would announce their intentions to sign with given teams. It wouldn’t be anything close to what the NFL now does.

Put simply, the draft itself is too big to die. Even if it would be more fair to the players and even if the incoming prospects could be distributed in a fair and equitable way, the NFL will never give up the annual event during which everyone finds out at the same time which teams have picked which players. In an age where few things can attract and hold a large TV audience, two things do it very well — NFL games and the NFL draft.

18 responses to “An easy alternative to the draft is available, but it will never happen

  1. I get the arguments of why it was wrong of if this was for police, lawyers or janitors you might have a point but you have to think league wide which is why the NFL was so successful. If the league loses its parity and viewers the players won’t make their big salaries. Small scarafice to have what they have built. Don’t compare veteran free agency to the draft. The difference makers come in the draft more often and a players best years are usually in the first 5 years. NFL careers are short and paying a veteran past his prime can prove to be foolish more times than not (Belichick figured this out long time ago).

    If you allow players leaving college in the prime of their football careers just go anywhere you will have the results you have in college football. They don’t have a draft either and you only see a handful of programs out of 100 compete. Big markets can legally circumvent the cap with jus the market they provide players. Places like Buffalo, Green Bay and Seattle will always be getting the scraps of the larger more desirable markets. They will have to survive with castoffs and veterans which would never work in football. What you are calling for is what we have in the NCAA football and I can’t think of any league that has more parity issues that NCAA football.

  2. This is why I love this guy and have been reading this site going on 20 years. Perfect analysis that isn’t outrageous but gives a reason why the past shouldn’t be the future. Like Florio is saying, you think the draft is big, think about pro recruiting. Go look at those nuts who follow college recruiting, and these aren’t high school kids. It would be insane and much, much bigger than the draft ever could be. Think of how big FA season is for a lot of time players who are past their prime. Most people here wouldn’t like it though because they will hide behind it’s always been that way.

  3. you said it yourself; it would become baseball. why do you think baseball is struggling fan wise? because half of the teams have absolutely no chance. if you want to see crowds of 5000 at an nfl game, remove the draft system.
    its wild how so many people grew up with and love the sport, but just want constant change to everything about it.

  4. Then there’s the fact that football is supposed to be a game. That’s why people love it. Within the context of a game, the draft makes perfect sense. The problem is the game was grown too big and is now a big business for everyone, including the players. But the more you treat it like a business and less like a game, the less people care for it. But to keep it treating it like a game you need to violate labor principles -among other things. Hence the dilemma.

  5. Who wants any change to the NFL draft? It is the best draft in all of sports by a mile. There is nothing that needs to change. The NFL draft is awesome and I get super jacked about draft week as a NFL fan.

  6. If enough teams get caught tanking, perhaps the Union would have enough ammo to axe the selection meeting.

    And what if these entitled transfer portal college kids attack it? They might have the scratch to do it, with their NIL $$

    I think we’re already at the point where the salary cap is meaningless. And we’ve seen with the Yankees/Dodgers/baseball, (significantly) outspending your competitors doesn’t guarantee Titles.

  7. Places like Buffalo, Green Bay and Seattle will always be getting the scraps of the larger more desirable markets.

    Amazon.. Microsoft… Seattle isn’t taking a backseat to anyone.

    And the Seahawks are owned by one of the wealthiest families in the history of the world, let alone the U.S.

  8. There has to be an attempt at parity even if it is far from perfect. The NFL seems to have the best system so far because it allows teams to rebound quickly with high picks, good management and some luck. MLB is a mess with team budgets all over the place and mostly big spenders hovering around the top of the league. I am curious to see where the Salary Cap goes down the road with teams creating all sorts of ways to somewhat circumvent it.

  9. The draft absolutely helps parity. Imagine how bad a team like the jets would be without top 10 picks every year. You say that bad teams mess up the high picks so it doesn’t help parity, but how would it help parity for the Jets or Lions to have to sell themselves to new players? The draft money amounts are pretty minimal between each slot. Would a top QB go “do I go to the jets where QBs go to die or do I go to the Steelers?” Not to mention teams could make wink/nod agreements to give more money on their second contract to cheat the system.

  10. A nice intellectual enterprise that has no chance of happening. You’d have 7th-grade kids signing futures contracts and a whole host of other nonsense. It would kill the league.

  11. Players of sufficient perceived value can just Eli Manning their way into the team of their choosing, or Peyton Manning themselves into another year in school to avoid the Jets. I mean I’d love the antitrust exemption to go away just because I want Goodell to get fired, but players have been gaming this system as much as anybody.

  12. The draft absolutely helps parity. Imagine how bad a team like the jets would be without top 10 picks every year.

    Teams like the Jags and Jets DO pick in the top 10 every year…

  13. Teams have to be able to ruin themselves – no matter who is in charge, the factory of sadness has been mostly succeeding in doing that for almost 3 decades

  14. The people talking about baseball’s haves and have nots ignore the big difference. The NFL revenue shares like the other leagues don’t. It would be the best thing that would ever happen to the sport and would stop teams from tanking. Like I said, bunch of grumpy fools talking about this is how it’s always been when it’s never been great. I stopped watching the draft years ago when I realized that it rarely is the foundation to changing a team’s fortunes like it’s portrayed.

  15. I love the draft… but this makes a lot of sense. All of the draft eligible players could sign as free agents to where they want to be, and the most dysfunctional teams would have to pay a premium or not get the best players if they cannot solve their dysfunction. I could even see the worst owners be financially forced to sell their teams if young talent is not forced to play there and this could create actual parity.

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