I haven’t been bashful about one of my strongest criticisms of the draft, in Playmakers and in this space. It keeps young men from choosing their professional destinies, from being where they want to be, working where they choose to work, residing where they choose to reside, living how they choose to live.
When I say the draft is un-American, that’s the reason. And for that reason, it definitely is. It’s hard to pursue happiness when artificial limits are placed on that pursuit.
But this process for divvying up talent in an industry made up of 32 independent businesses makes it even more memorable when players get drafted by the teams they would have chosen to play for. It happened at least three times in round one this year, with the Lions landing Michigan native Aidan Hutchinson, the Panthers picking Charlotte native Ikem Ekwonu, and the Steelers selecting not a Pittsburgh native but a guy who spent five years showing up in the same building where the Steelers practice and play.
Former Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett told Peter King for his Football Morning in America column that the former Panther routinely contemplated entering not through the college door at the UPMC Sports Complex but through the other one, literally 12 feet away.
“Every time I’d walk into the Pitt side, I’d always glance over at the left and kind of envision one day walking over to my left, through the other door,” Pickett told King. “Now that that’s happening, it’s pretty awesome.”
It’s awesome for the Steelers, too. In 1983, they notoriously passed on former Pitt quarterback Dan Marino because they had Terry Bradshaw. The original TB12, who had gotten elbow surgery that offseason under the pseudonym “Thomas Brady,” played in only one more game before his career was over.
They got Pickett without trading up, a calculated risk that paid off. It paid off for both sides because, if there wasn’t a draft, the Steelers would have offered Pickett a job — and he would have accepted it.
“As the year went on, my family and my coaches talked about how awesome it was if I could just walk next door for my pro career,” Pickett told King. “It’s funny. I’m basically doing job interviews and putting my game out there for all 32 teams but some places are more intriguing, more attractive, than others. The Steelers were definitely at the top of my list. The culture they’ve built, playing with an edge. That’s how I play. That’s why I think this will be a good fit for me.”
Pickett’s words are about the closest any incoming player will come to saying the quiet part out loud, that they think they should be allowed to pick their pro teams the same way they picked their colleges. They don’t say it because they’re programmed to accept the reality of the draft, without criticizing it or even questioning it openly.
As recently explained, that’ll never happen. The NFL draft is too big to die, even if it should. But that makes it even more memorable when the dominoes fall in a way that they would have fallen if the NFL didn’t allocate new workers via an inherently socialist system of spreading the manpower among all teams.