How to Fix the NFL Draft

This article arose out of a Twitter discussion between myself and Anthony Bullard who contributed to this article.

The NFL draft is one of the popular events related to sports in the United States.  It’s difficult to call it a ‘sporting event’ because the most strenuous test of endurance is surviving all the blather from draft experts.  The draft, while being a magnet for viewers, is deeply flawed as a method of distributing talent.  Among its many flaws:

1.  It is inefficient.  It forces teams to chose between picking the best player (always the right move) or filling an obvious need.  Teams are forced to hope that the best player available happens to fit their needs or they are forced to make an inefficient choice.

2. It is punitive for bad teams.  Bad teams get to draft first, which sounds great, except that rookie contracts at the top of the draft have grown out of control, often saddling teams with busts for big money. In the current system, franchises get locked into the “Top-10 Pick Death Cycle”.  They are constantly in prime position to outlay tremendous sums of cash for possible game-changing players.  But due to deficiencies in the front office, these teams find themselves stuck there year after year with their cash pouring into the pockets of young players that never manage to contribute.   These rookies, many of whom turn into busts, are actively hurt by this process.

3. It is punitive for good teams. The best coached and best run franchises often get stuck with inferior players preventing fans from seeing players in optimal environments.

4.  It is punitive for the athletes.  In most industries, a highly talented student coming out of college can choose where he wants to live and work. Not so in the NFL.  The ‘best’ solution the NFL has come up with for control rookie salaries is a draconian cap that would prevent many players from ever making much money in the NFL.

5. It allows there to be ‘draft experts’.  That’s frankly just wrong.

While popular, the draft does not work well as a method of efficient talent distribution.  There is another way to distribute players among the teams that allows bad teams to improve while also creating a more efficient and more fair system for players.

 

 

The Rookie Free Agent Signing period

  1. After the end of the season, all players would have until one week after the Super Bowl to declare the intention to be eligible for the NFL and sign with an agent.
  2. From February 15 – March 31, all players that are eligible and accepted into the league will be able to interview, meet with, and work out for the individual teams as well as participate in the Combine and their college’s Pro-Day events.
  3. Starting April 7th until April 28th – teams are allowed to begin signing multi-year deals with rookies.  The amount of fanfare that goes with the signings will depend on the player signed and the team.
  4. Each team is given an amount of money that can be spent on ALL rookie acquisitions.  Imagine a system with these numbers (just examples), the Pathers would be given $50 million over four years to sign rookies. The Broncos $49.75, the Bills $49.5, ect.  Each team can sign any rookie they want, but the sum total for all rookie contracts signed cannot exceed the team’s rookie cap for the year.  Once a team used its entire cap (which has to cover what used to be UDFAs as well), they cannot sign any first year player again until after training camp is out. 
  5. The money can be allocated however teams see fit.  $50 million for four years to one player, or $1 million a year to 50 players.  Contracts cannot be more than four years in length, and all the money to paid to the player over the life of that contract counts against the cap.  This is to avoid the ‘creative accounting’ that teams currently use to circumvent the cap.
  6. All deals must fit within the confines of the overall salary cap.  A team couldn’t offer $50 million for one year if they didn’t have the cap space to do so.

The effect would be the following:

1.  Teams could target the specific players they wanted most.  They would have to choose whether to spend their entire pool on one player (say the next Manning or Elway), or allocate it among several players.  A team with a need at a specific position could over-pay to obtain a top player.  Good teams would be able to sign the one piece they need rather than rely on blind luck.  Bad teams would have more total money to invest in selecting young players, guaranteeing they could outbid better teams for an elite quarterback or once in a generation player.  Teams would have to balance the need to fill out their rosters against their need to add one special talent. 

2. Players would be able to chose their situation.  Players could balance the factors of money, coaching situation, likelihood of going to a winning team, playing close to or far from home.  The NFL could tighten down the rookie pool if they wanted too, and the elite, once in a generation player would still do well.

3.  This system rewards the franchises that are most stable, with the best management and coaching.  A team that has a bad season still gets an advantage, but ultimately the smartest teams will win out.  The level of strategy and planning would be astounding.   Over time, bad management will render talent useless anyway.  It does no good to keep tossing a Matt Mille-type top 10 draft picks.  All it does is serve to ruin players and anger the fans. 

The financial details and fine tuning can be ironed out, but as a concept, this method would vastly help the NFL. It’s better for players and will create a better match between need and talent for teams.

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