Fun Facts & Implications You Should Know for the 2018 NFL Draft
This weekend is the 83rd Annual National Football League Player Selection Meeting, a.k.a. the 2018 NFL Draft! If a team has a successful draft, Lord knows that its trajectory can change dramatically. Because of these stakes, the league has formalized the process over the years to (try to) become more equitable to every team. As you can imagine, player selection means contracts on contracts on contracts, rules and regulation enforcement, a shift from amateur to professional status, and OH so much more law-related fun. Here are a few fun bits of knowledge y'all should store in your brains.
1. Why we have this draft format
Back in the earliest stages of professional football, franchise owners and executive officials would go to university campuses and negotiate directly with the players to sign player contracts. It was an entirely different world without a formal competitive model. In other words, this was a free market system.
Those practices started to change, though, in 1933 when then-Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell, a name that may be familiar to you as the NFL commissioner in the late 1940s/early 1950s or as part of the retired players' disability plan, pitched the draft idea at the League Meeting. The first draft actually did not take place until 1936 after there was a huge bidding war for University of Minnesota running back Stan Kostka. Kostka held out as long as possible for the highest bidding team, which was really smart of him because he could actually see how much he was worth, so that he became the highest paid player to date on August 25, 1935 and signed a $5,000 contract.
The idea was to have some sort of system that gave each team some kind of more level playing field as oppposed to having four incredibly dominant teams win game after game, season after season. Y'all may have heard me and other sports attorneys preach about an antitrust concept called "competitive balance," where no market actor is really too big or strong to where it has an unfair advantage over the other actors. Different methods, opinions, and perspectives exist to determine how to measure competitive balance, especially in sports (e.g., by trying to evenly distribute talent across teams like through the draft, by scheduling similar ratios for teams of nearby opponents to long-distance opponents, by measuring the uncertainty of who wins game by game vs. in the regular season vs. including post-season play in the mix vs. the fair chance that any team can win the Super Bowl). Given the economics and humanistic sides at hand, competitive balance is precisely what the draft style selection is intended to accomplish - or, rather, accomplish as close as humanly possible or contribute to, at a minimum - because it gives every team the chance to acquire new talent for their rosters. Some people disagree with that rationale and perspective, but that conversation is for another day.
[Note: For example, can you imagine officials from the 30 NFL teams flocking to Knoxville to convince Peyton Manning to sign with them and him having to negotiate terms by himself as if it was the 1930s? There was no collective bargaining agreement. There was no players' association. There was neither a salary cap nor a salary floor. There was no concrete structure to promote fairness among the teams and no way to protect the long term competitiveness of the League. On one hand, this could be manageable (and perhaps even preferable) in today's world where the people involved are more educated in sports law matters like these, and the free market could do its thing and work efficiently. On the other hand, not everyone is a firm believer in the economic viability a free market system could potentailly provide. Either way, for more than 80 years, that setup has not been utilized.]
2. What actually happens during Draft Day(s)
A ceremony takes place, red carpet style, with all the grandeur you can imagine the NFL would invest into it. There is (a) a crazy communication setup within a team to discuss remaining players and make a decision; (b) a representative who takes the card having the selected player's name, position, and school to a League representative called the "runner;" and (c) a reset of the clock because once the runner gets the card, the draft pick is made official. Oh, and all this madness for each pick needs to take place in under 10 minutes.
Generally speaking, unless prior or contemporaneous agreements or trades are made between teams, each of the 32 teams has the opportunity to select one draft-eligible player for the draft in each round in reverse finish order. For the first round, they do so in inverse order of finish in the prior regular season. So, teams that did not qualify for the playoffs are assigned a spot in slots 1 through 20, where the team with the worst record selects first. That leaves slots 21 through 32 for the playoff teams based on how far along they progressed through the postseason and also their regular season record (e.g., the teams elimitated from the wildcard round are assigned slots 21-24 in reverse order of their regular season records). The most desired players are selected first. Sometimes it corresponds with what analysts view as the "most talented" players, but a well-operated franchise takes that into consideration in tandem with what it needs to strengthen its team in the long run.
Teams can use any "compensatory free agent picks" that the NFL may have assigned in rounds 3 through 7 to try to fill gaps left in their roster or overall team strength that free agency created. Alternatively, teams can trade these picks.
The number of draft rounds has changed overtime, too. The draft started with nine rounds in 1936, increased to 20 rounds in 1939, increased even more to 30 rounds in 1950, dropped down to 20 rounds in 1960 and again to 12 rounds in 1977, decresed to 8 rounds in 1993, and then downsized a bit more to 7 rounds the following year, which is where it currently stands.
What does not happen? The newly drafted players do not sign their contracts on Draft Day.
3. When the rookies actually sign their player contracts with the franchise
Once drafted, players probably have to attend a series of programs and minicamps that either the team itself, the League, or the NFLPA organizes. This year, that includes the NFL Rookie Development (Transition) Programs, the NFLPA Rookie Premiere on May 17-20 if permitted by the team, and a three-day post-Draft rookie minicamp on either May 4-7 or May 11-14 if the team elects to hold one. After those, teams are allowed to start rookie preseason training in mid-July seven days prior to the team's earliest permissible mandatory reporting date for the team's Veteran players.
Even with all the above going on, rookies and the clubs that drafted them negotiate terms during the summertime off-season until an agreement is reached and, ultimately, signed. This year, an arguably mutually beneficial goal is to have a rookie contract signed by August 7 because if a newly drafted rookie has not signed a player contract by this date, not only can he not be traded to another club in 2018 but he is only capable of signing a contract with the club that drafted him until the first day of the 2019 season draft.
4. How many draft picks actually get signed
Many of them do eventually enter into player contracts for one team or another, when all is said and done, but it is certainly not guaranteed. For example, the very first NFL Draft in 1936, 81 players were selected, but 24 of them never played an NFL game. One of those 24 players took a different route with respect to his career in football after the Brooklyn Dodgers took him in the fourth round and never put him on the field. That player was Bear Bryant.
5. How a rookie's contract structure differs based on the round selected
The basic idea: The earlier a player is drafted, the better his four-year contract. [see below]
6. When a franchise has to have its 53 man roster
All teams must have their 2018 rosters reduced to a maximum 53 names on the Active/Inactive list by 4:00pm Eastern on Saturday, September 1. Additionally, the clubs are permitted to establish a 10 man practice squad upon receipt of personal notice at 1:00pm Eastern on Sunday, September 2 where the parties can then enter into practice player contracts.