With another player draft now in the books, I think it is time for the powers-to-be within the NFL to bring the college football draft — the most popular sports-related, non-sporting event of all times — into the twenty-first century. Let's see first hand which team's scouting department, and more importantly, which General Managers possess the football savvy and know-how to make decisions that will have a direct bearing on the success of their franchise for years to come.
As we all know, the current draft system in football — and for that matter, all of the other major sports leagues — reward failure both on and off the field. When a club does not perform on the field, they are rewarded by giving them a better draft position. So if your GM or scouting department makes a critical draft mistake, don't worry gang, we'll just give you another early pick next year. Unable to re-sign a veteran player? How about some compensatory picks for all of your troubles?
I don't know about you, but I have never been a big proponent for the views espoused by the late Commissioner Pete Rozelle, calling for a league with parity in the area of personnel. Throughout my early years of viewing professional athletics and in later years as a professional scout, I have both studied and admired the structure of many of the great organizations in all sports (L.A. Dodgers, N.Y. Yankees, Montreal Canadians, Boston Celtics, and Dallas Cowboys) and found that aside from the many great players, all were light years ahead of the competition in terms of organization. Both players and coaches came and went, but these proud clubs never appeared to lose their focus.
The "New Draft System" which I propose today would not only have all of the excitement and intrigue of the current system, but would also add a dimension that has not existed since the early to mid 60s when the NFL and rival AFL competed openly for talent.
In February of 1936, the NFL conducted its first ever player draft. Up until that time, college players had been free to sign professional contracts with any of the nine member teams, but in order to insure competitive balance, the fledgling league unanimously adopted a plan devised by Eagles owner and future league Commissioner Bert Bell that called for a nine-round draft, which today is the basis of the current draft system.
Bert Bell, whose son Upton, a former GM with the Patriots, and the person most responsible for transforming the franchise from a rag-tag penny pinching outfit into a major-league organization, was himself a true visionary, and in the mind of many football historians, the league's greatest commissioner.
In its first year alone, the system he single-handedly developed produced four players who would one day be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In round number four, the Brooklyn Dodgers selected a two-way end from the University of Alabama named Paul Bryant, who would later become possibly the greatest coach in college football history.
The 1936 draft also proved that the draft system is far from an exact science. Its first selection, and the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy, Jay Berwanger, elected to enter private business in lieu of a career in professional football.
Seventy-two years later, with minor modifications, the draft system is not only the principle mechanism for player development within the league, but it has strangely become an event unto itself.
My new proposed system doesn't diminish in any way the importance of the draft, but rather enhances it while bringing to bear the importance of having quality football people, and not bean-counters, making critical football decisions.
The proposed changes are as follows:
1) Move the NFL Scouting Combine from its current home in Indianapolis to Atlanta. Let me first say, I absolutely love the city of Indianapolis, but quite frankly Atlanta has far better medical facilities, more than triple the number the daily flights in and out of the city, far more available hotel rooms to support the growing number of participants, club personnel, agents, vendors, media and the fans. The NFL has been extremely lucky over the past two decades not to have had a major snow or ice storm disrupt the proceedings. Due to its location, Atlanta is far less likely to potentially experience these types of severe weather patterns.
2) Move the draft from the last weekend in April to the second weekend in March. True football scouts are more than capable of making informed decisions based on a regular season, all-star games and an expanded combine. As you will soon realize, those six additional weeks will prove to be critical in terms of team development.
3) Expand the Combine invitees list to four hundred while setting up a limited, secondary combine for 320 additional players (ten players per team) to be held in Houston or Dallas commencing on the Wednesday following the Super Bowl. All invited participants will be required to provide a complete copy of their collegiate medical records. The secondary combine workout will essentially eliminate the need for Pro Day workouts and will allow for more uniform testing of these secondary-level playing prospects.
4) The first two rounds of the player draft will be conducted on Friday evening of draft week with ten-minute intervals for first-round selections and five-minute intervals for all second-round picks.
5) The remaining five rounds, plus compensatory picks, will be replaced in the new format by an additional 28-round open draft in which an individual player can be drafted a maximum of three times.
6) Any player drafted in consecutive rounds by the same club, and not drafted by another club before their next selection, will be removed from the eligible draft list and rewarded to the drafting club. Players in this category can only be drafted on actual picks, not selected in mid-round on an acquired selection. For example, "Club A" can not select a player with their own selection in round three and draft him with an acquired pick from another club prior to their next consecutive selection.
7) Clubs losing players via free agency (UFAs) will no longer be awarded compensatory picks by the league. Again, why is the league rewarding clubs with additional selections for not re-signing their own veteran players?
8) Trading second- to third-day draft selections in exchange for active players will no longer be considered prudent since a club potentially now has only a one in three chance of signing a particular draft pick. This particular detail should give rise to clubs trading players for players. Again, let's see which pro departments have the ability to make sound and consistent personnel decisions.
9) Having quality area scouts would become a top priority for every club in the league in this "New Draft System". Aside from his role as a talent evaluator, scouts would, in effect, become recruiters, and in many cases would play a role in the negotiating and signing of the players.
10) At the conclusion of the thirty-round draft, "The New Draft" would allow for all member clubs to participate in a two-round future draft, where returning fifth-year senior players would be drafted. At the conclusion of the following season, the drafting club would have thirty days to negotiate and sign the two individual players. Players not signed by the individual clubs would then be added to the player pool for the upcoming draft, where he would become draft eligible to all member clubs, with the exception of the club that failed to sign him as a future selection. Again, an individual scout's eye for talent, instincts, and ability to relate to the specific player, becomes an essential quality.
Over the years, U.S. District Court Judge David Doty (Minnesota), a longtime thorn in the NFL's side, has consistently sought to limit the scope of the NFL draft through his rulings (from seventeen to twelve, to eight, and finally seven rounds), claiming that it is restrictive by nature. In layman's terms, the judge's position has always been that a typical college student upon graduation has multiple professional options, but a college athlete drafted by an NFL club has no other options other than to sign with the team that selected him.
Unlike all other professional drafts, the "New Draft" system allows an individual player an opportunity to establish his own market. For example, a player drafted twice in the third and again in the fifth has, in effect, put himself into a proprietary position. Meanwhile, a player drafted singularly in rounds twenty-seven to thirty has a very limited market and or playing potential.
Since no club would have the cap space in any given year to sign much more then a third of the players selected, and since unsigned multiple-drafted players would not be allowed to attend teams' minicamps, making the right decisions and using the newly created six-week window to sign them becomes critical.
Although the current player draft system is quite serviceable, it does have some flaws, often giving lesser clubs and scouting staffs a distinct competitive advantage. Sometime in the future, the draft could come under further scrutiny and become subject to the whims of an overzealous federal judge.
One final thought on the matter; teams found to be cheating or tampering under the current system are subject to forfeiting one of their selections in the top two rounds. In the "New Draft System", the whistle-blower would be granted the draft selection. I never understood why the Jets, victims in the 2007 Spygate incident, were not awarded the Patriots' subsequently forfeited first-round selection.
Adopting "The New Draft System" would not only satisfy even the most far-reaching or radical court in the land, but with each announced signing would peak fan interest, and most importantly, would provide good organizations with a well-developed plan of attack, and a much-deserved edge over the competition.