MHR Primer: How the NFL Draft Came to Be

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at the podium on stage during the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 22, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

In the movie "Paint Your Wagon" there is a song called "Gold Fever," that speaks to the obsession a group of ordinary men get when they come across a chance to gather gold dust in a small mining town.

This is the time in the life of the NFL fan that could be called "Draft Fever." It seems to me that you cannot go to any NFL blog site nor any mass media site without running into multiple people's predictions of what teams will do in the upcoming NFL draft. Mock drafts abound -- I believe I've seen a dozen or so in the last couple of weeks on MHR alone. There are long discussions about which player would be the best pick at a given draft position -- will the Colts really take Andrew Luck at #1, or might they surprise everyone by taking someone else? Each time a team has a prospect come to visit or goes to a college Pro Day or a player holds a private workout, hundreds of lines are written about what this might mean for the draft.

I thought it might be fun, and serve as a momentary diversion if we took a look at how the NFL Draft came to be. It has not always been quite what we have come to expect each April.

Take a jump back in time with me.

It's helpful to remember that the NFL came to be in 1920. It was originally called the American Professional Football Association and was comprised of sixteen teams. The Cardinals and the Bears were charter members. Membership was unstable during the first several years. The APFA was renamed the National Football League in 1922. Other current teams include (though their names & original cities may have changed): the Packers (1921), the Giants (1925), and the Lions (1930). In 1933, the Steelers and the Eagles joined the league. During these early years, teams simply attempted to attract talent -- both college and from other teams -- by offering the pay the players more than rival teams.

The concept of a college draft arose because of a sequence of events and circumstances in 1934. Prior to 1933, the league's champion was decided by the best win/loss record among the competing teams. As the league developed and stabilized, it divided it's team into two divisions -- Eastern and Western. In 1933, the NFL decided to have a single post season game between the two teams with the best record in each division. This was called the NFL Championship Game. In 1934, Art Rooney's Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Pittsburgh Steelers) had been eliminated from contention for the championship game.

Art Rooney's Pittsburgh Pirates (now Pittsburgh Steelers) gave two players to the NY Giants to use in the playoffs after Pittsburgh was eliminated from playoff contention. Rooney gave two players from his team to the division-leading New York Giants (who, incidentally, went on to win the NFL Championship game). George Marshall, owner of the Boston Redskins (now the Washington Redskins) objected to this move. The league considered the matter and created a rule which would disallow such transactions in the future.

During this same period, the Philadelphia Eagles began to make it known that they believed their lack of on-field competitiveness made it nearly impossible for them to sign quality prospects in order to improve their team. They felt like other teams who were perennial doormats (Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds) were in the same situation. In essence, this allowed the Bears, Packers, Giants and Redskins to dominate the league.

The protest was heard and taken seriously which led to a 1935 proposal to create a draft. The proposal included the following provisions:

1)The names of eligible players would be placed in a common pool.
2)Teams would draft in an order that was the inverse of their final regular season record.
3)The picking team would have exclusive rights to the player.
4)The picking team could negotiate a contract with the player, and failing that, choose to trade the player.
5)If a team was unable to negotiate a contract or enact a trade, the league would arbitrate between the team and the player.
6)If the arbitration was unsuccessful, the player would be placed on a "reserve list" for the franchise and be ineligible to play in the NFL that season.


This proposal was unanimously accepted by the teams. The first draft was then held in 1936.

The 1936 draft differed from our modern conceptions of the draft. At that time, the teams did not employ scouts to assess college talent. Teams would propose names to go into the pool based upon: (a)Write-ups in the newspapers and magazines, (b)Visits to the college by team executives, or (c)Recommendations which had been submitted to team executives. Team executives gathered in a room where ninety names had been posted. The executives made their choices from those ninety names. The draft lasted for nine rounds. This was done without fanfare and without members of the media being present. The draft followed this basic pattern from 1936 to 1946.

There was an interesting side story that arose during the 1938 draft: according to reports, Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney offered a prospective player a guaranteed contract that was double what any player in the NFL had made prior to that date. He was accused of skewing the salary expectations of the college draftees (sound like anything we've experienced in recent years?).

In 1946, teams began developing scouting departments to assess college talent for the upcoming draft. From 1946 to 1959, the NFL continued the pattern laid down in previous years with the slight difference of names being drawn from the scouting reports. Beginning in 1960, the NFL found itself in competition with the newly formed American Football League for college talent. The AFL struggled in the years 1960-66 as they attempted to attract top-tier college talent to their teams. Many college players chose to sign with the more established and recognized NFL teams rather than taking a chance on a fledgling league. The Denver Broncos felt the sting of that competition having drafted four players who chose NFL franchises and then went on to Hall of Fame careers:

1962 DT Merlin Olsen signed with the LA Rams
1964 DB Paul Krause - Was
1964 WR Bob Hayes - Dal
1965 LB Dick Butkus - Chi

In 1966, a "bidding war" broke out between the NFL and the AFL, not only for college talent, but also for players under contract with teams in the rival league. This led to a series of talks which resulted in a merger agreement. As part of that agreement, the two leagues agreed to hold a common draft beginning in 1967.

Over the years, some of the specifics of the draft process has been changed and new concepts added (i.e. 1976 - the nickname "Mr. Irrelevant" began to be applied to the last player chosen in the draft; 1980 - ESPN gave the first broadcast of an NFL draft). However, the basic principles have remained relatively unchanged:

Eligibility - players must have been out of high school for at least three years. While college attendance was not required, virtually all players chosen had attended and played football at the collegiate level.

Draft Order - teams would draft in an order that was the inverse of their win/loss records from the previous season. Teams with the same record would be placed according to a series of tiebreakers (strength of schedule, divisional tiebreakers, conference tiebreakers, and if needed, a coin flip). In general, the order followed the pattern below:

Previous Season Finish Draft Pick
Non-playoff teams #1-20
Eliminated in Wild Card Round #21-24
Eliminated in Divisional Round #25-28
Eliminated in Conference Championship #29-30
Super Bowl Loser #31
Super Bowl Winner #32


Picks - each team was automatically given one pick per draft round. Once free agency became a part of the NFL, the league added compensatory picks. Compensatory picks were awarded to teams who had lost more qualifying free agents than they gained in return during the previous year. Currently, the league limits the number of compensatory pick to thirty-two. These picks are added at the end of Rounds 3-7.

Trades - teams are allowed to trade picks both before, and during the draft. In theory, a team could end up with multiple picks in every round, but to the best of my knowledge, this situation has never arisen.

Rounds - the draft currently consists of seven rounds. This has not always been the case. The number of rounds has varied widely over the years:

Year # of Rounds
1936 9
1937 10
1938 12
1939-42 22
1943-48 32
1949 25
1950-59 30
1960-66 20
1967-76 17
1977-92 12
1993 8
1994-Present 7



So as we live out our fascination with trying to predict what will happen in just a couple of weeks, let's also sit back, take a breath, and enjoy the rich history behind this massive media event and fan obsession.

Go Broncos

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