Are you sitting down? Good. Are you more than 50 feet away from the nearest pitchfork and/or torch? Even better. I have an idea. A proposal, really. A plan to make sports better. It's a simple plan, but also heretical, so much so that I probably should divide it into 95 parts and nail it to your computer screen. Consider yourself warned. Still with me? Here goes.
It's time to abolish the National Football League draft.
I know what you're thinking: This way lies madness. And also: Cool story, bro, but I'd rather be reading Mock Draft Version 7.91. Fine. I understand. The NFL draft has much to offer. It's a multi-day professional football marketing bonanza. A supposed guarantor of competitive parity. An opportunity for New York Jets fans to vocalize their displeasure -- well, make that another opportunity -- and for Buffalo Bills supporters to experience a faint, flickering moment of inner warmth, an emotional state that the rest of us recognize as hope.
Far removed from its humble beginnings, the draft is a human auction with slickly-produced highlight reels; the engine of a cottage industry that has grown to corporate campus proportions; a prime-time stage for the most delightfully awkward exchanges of male affection this side of a Tiger Woods high-five. The draft gave us Roger Goodell getting booed, Eli Manning holding a San Diego Chargers jersey as if it were a soiled diaper and the Minnesota Vikings forgetting how to use both a stopwatch and a telephone. It is, without question, supremely good TV.
It's also an exercise that we'd be better off without.
Way back in 2011 -- you know, when Apple stock was something people wanted to buy -- sports agent Brian Ayrault floated a series of increasingly crazy notions on Twitter. Why should there even be a draft? Players should be able to choose who they work for and where they live. No draft would also help prospects choose the best roster situations. Market should determine the value of all contracts. Competitive balance is a fallacy. The success of teams is determined by good ownership and scouting. Period. Mike Florio of NBC's Pro Football Talk collected Ayrault's sentiments and respectfully pummeled them, citing draft-produced parity as a key factor in the NFL's booming popularity. In the comments section below Florio's article, his readers were far less diplomatic:
Who is this idiot? If they cancel the draft, they can cancel my NFL Sunday Ticket subscription as well …
The fact of the matter is that fans love the draft, because the draft gives everybody hope …
No draft = maybe 3-4 teams who will always win the Super Bowl …
Happy Easter! This agent just left an egg-shaped turd on our collective floor …
Putting aside metaphoric chocolate eggs, Ayrault was right. In fact, his only real mistake was failing to fully develop his argument. Like the portable MP3 player, the draft is an invention that largely has outlived its usefulness. Scrapping it would be better for players and teams alike. Fans, too. Even the ones who adore it, happy supplicants at the holy altar of Cardinal Gruden and Pope McShay.
I'm serious about this. Swear to Kiper.
Start with competitive balance. The draft levels the NFL's playing field, helps narrow the talent gap between haves and have-nots. Crummy teams get first dibs on the collegiate pick of the litter. The worst shall be first, and they shall select
Tim Couch Andrew Luck. Dump the draft, the thinking goes, and big-market, bigger-money clubs like the Dallas Cowboys will corner the incoming player market, winning every bidding war for the likes of Luck and turning pro football into top-heavy European soccer, terminal-stage capitalism masquerading as professional sports, where if you're not ubermensch Manchester United or Real Madrid, you're basically playing for second place.
The NFL has a salary cap. Revenue sharing. Franchise tags. Restricted free agency. A limited number of roster spots per team. It has a whole host of socialist mechanisms geared to limit talent stockpiling -- mechanisms that mostly don't exist in international soccer -- and all of them (especially the salary cap) are arguably more important than the draft. Indeed, I'm not convinced that the current college player selection system does anything to help poorly-managed teams avoid or erase bad personnel decisions, let alone ensure semi-parity.
The Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals routinely draft relatively high and it doesn't seem to help. The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots usually pick relatively low and have little trouble finding productive players. In 1958, the then-Chicago Cardinals had the top two picks in the NFL draft. They selected King Hill and John David Crow. Decades later, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington happened. What did Ayrault write? The success of teams is determined by good ownership and scouting. Period. Good teams hire good general mangers and scouts who acquire good coaches and players, sometimes nabbing the latter through the draft. Also -- and there's really no way to understate this -- they get lucky. Bad teams don't. The rest is mostly kabuki. As Grantland's Bill Barnwell puts it in a piece discussing how NFL teams selected Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien ahead of Dan Marino, "There's plenty of evidence telling us -- at least on an anecdotal level and on some quantitative levels -- that teams routinely do a subpar job of judging college talent as it enters the league."
Maybe you're unconvinced. Maybe you're a Jacksonville fan. You want the draft, because you want your team to have a chance. Go back to Luck. Imagine a draft-free world, with NFL teams free to bid for his services. Would the Cowboys have been able to sign him? Maybe. But they would have had to clear a lot of cap room to do so, cutting proven players. Would they end up as better team? It's hard to say. And what about the Indianapolis Colts? Would they be, well, screwed? Not necessarily. They could have bid for Robert Griffin III. Or for Russell Wilson. They could have picked up some of those Cowboys cut in free agency -- including, mostly likely, Tony Romo, because it's doubtful that the cap-constrained Cowboys could have afforded two in-demand quarterbacks.
Speaking of which: Getting rid of the draft would actually make it harder for teams to hoard great players who play the same position. A few years ago, the Green Bay Packers selected Aaron Rodgers when they already had Brett Favre. Think Rodgers was happy about that? Think quarterback-starved teams that would have liked to outbid the Packers for Rodgers were happy about that?
Put yourself in Rodgers' shoes. You're coming out of college. There is no draft. You can sign with anyone. Is Green Bay your first choice? New England? The Peyton Manning-era Colts? Do you aspire to hold a clipboard? Is that even what fans around the country want to watch? Players want money, for sure. They want to play in particular cities for a variety of reasons (weather, nightlife, team tradition, proximity to family). But mostly, they want a chance to play -- and crummy teams can almost always offer that.
Fact: The draft was not primarily created to help the league's dregs. It was created to prevent costly bidding wars over incoming college talent. In 1934, the Philadelphia Eagles and Brookyln Dodgers competed to sign college All-America Stan Kosta, driving his salary up to an eye-popping $5,000 -- as high as that of Bronko Nagurski, then the NFL's best player. At a subsequent league meeting, Eagles owner Bert Bell proposed a incoming player rights draft, with a worst-chooses-first order that -- totally coincidentally -- would benefit his last-place team. Wary of another Kosta, cost-conscious clubs adopted the system, which has been robbing leverage-lacking rookies of market value ever since.
Over at footballperspective.com, writer Chase Stuart calculates that NFL players in the first three years of their contracts produce between 30 and 38 percent of the total value on any given team's roster, but only receive 16 to 20 percent of team spending under the salary cap. In other words, they're getting the short end, particularly when the average league career only lasts about three years. Moreover, the players' union is happy to sign off on preserving the draft during collective bargaining negotiations, because less money for future rookies means more money for current veteran free agents enjoying an actual competitive market for their services. (In the 1970s, Washington Redskins draft pick Yazoo Smith lost a lawsuit against the team asserting that the draft constituted illegal restraint of trade. Ryan Rodenberg, a Florida State University sports management professor who specializes in sports law, says that the outcome of the Smith case suggests that "the next high school or college athlete looking to play a professional sport but has no interest in submitting to the draft should look to sue the respective union, not the league.")
"Andrew Luck probably would have been given a $100 million contract if he was on the free market last year," Stuart says. "That's not an exaggeration. If he was a [free agent] tomorrow, he'd easily sign for something in excess of $20 million a year due to his age and skill level."
Instead, Luck's current salary is reportedly around $21.3 million over four years, artificially constrained by: (a) the draft nixing competition among potential employers; (b) a new, collectively-bargained NFL rookie wage scale that drives down salaries even further. While this might be legal, it's hardly fair. It might even qualify as un-American. Like amateurism, it's only something we accept in sports because we've been conditioned not to think about it, and instead train our collective focus on 40-yard dash times.
Unconvinced? Try the following thought experiment. You're a soon-to-graduate computer science student. Not just any student. A really sharp student. Top of your class at one of the country's best schools. A budding video game design genius. Which means you're in demand. Microsoft wants you to work on the next "Halo." Activision is dangling "Call of Duty 6: All of the Guns." Sony is letting you mess around with an actual PS4 devkit. Nintendo keeps calling. As such, you have some pretty big decisions to make: Do you want to live near Seattle? Move to Tokyo? Work with the people who created Mario? Ask for more money? Negotiate for stock options?
Actually, scratch all of that that. You have no decisions to make. Turns out there's an annual software developer draft, and you're the No. 1 pick. Which means that in the alleged interest of competitive parity, you'll be working for EA Sports … on the next edition of the troubled "NBA Live" franchise. Assuming one ever comes out.
Oh, and you don't even like sports games.
Economic fairness aside, wouldn't it be better if an incoming NFL player who wanted to, say, stay close to his family had some say over where he lives and works, just like the rest of us? Wouldn't it be better if players could shop themselves to teams whose coaches and systems provided the best possible fit for their individual skills? Heck, wouldn't a draft-free league be better for those teams, too?
For general managers, the draft provides a degree of certainty -- you know the rules and order of selection, even if you don't know exactly which players will be available when you pick -- but limits flexibility and creativity. It can be a straitjacket, too, with clubs artificially compelled to place draft value above roster needs (see best available player) or vice versa (see reaching with a pick). As Stuart notes: Kansas City has the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. Philadelphia picks at No. 4. Neither team needs a left tackle as much as San Diego (No. 11) and Miami (No. 12). Nevertheless, most draftniks project the Chiefs and Eagles to select some combination of tackles Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson -- all three prospects grade highly -- while the Dolphins and Chargers select from the best available players at other positions.
Does that sound efficient to you?
An industry-wide system that prevents potential employers and employees from freely selecting each other. That keeps companies from building product teams and pursuing staffing goals the best way they see fit. That arguably punishes struggling firms by forcing them to make risky, double-down, blow-up-in-your-face hires -- what economists call "The Loser's Curse," and what the rest of us call "the Detroit Lions under Matt Millen." If the human resources department of your company came up with the idea of a draft, they'd be fired on the spot. (If Dave Chappelle came up with the idea of a racial draft, it would be one of the funniest television comedy skits of the last decade. But I digress.)
Thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. Ditch the draft, and pro football will start to look like the real world. And also college football. That would be a good thing. Teams and players would get to know each other. They would build relationships. They would have more time to figure out if they belong together. They would get a chance to shop around. The NFL draft is a series of arranged marriages before
an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas Goodell at Radio City Music Hall; college football is dating before heading to the altar. Granted, both can end badly. But given a choice, which one would you prefer?
If nothing else, an NFL without drafts -- but with college-style recruiting -- would be wildly entertaining. Everything we love about the current system would be preserved: list making, prospect ranking, film breakdown, scout jargon, Kiper's coif, the Bod Pod, bench-pressing with John Lott. Everything else would be enhanced. College football recruiting message boards would be joined by pro football recruiting message boards, which is kind of like adding Studio 54 to the Mos Eisley Cantina. Hilariously overwrought NFL coach and general manager recruiting letters would become a thing. The league would inevitably become even more of a year-round national obsession: in college, Cam Newton's dad shopping him among SEC schools was a scandal; in the pros, Newton's dad shopping him between the New York Jets and Giants would be an NFL Network reality show. Best of all, my colleague Tommy Tomlinson's visionary dream of a National Pro Football Signing Day would become reality. I'll let him explain:
… the drama would be ridiculous. The draft is a classic inverted-pyramid news story -- all the interesting stuff happens at the beginning. NFL Signing Day could delay the gratification like a Hitchcock thriller. Imagine if Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III had waited all day to announce where they're playing. And imagine if every team had a shot to sign them. They'd have to crank up the Red Zone Channel just to cover all the announcements … which team hat will Jarvis Jones pull out of the bag? Will Star Lotulelei pull up his shirt to reveal a giant Cowboys tattoo? Will there be awkward look-ins to the [Manti] Te'o house while they wait for the phone to ring? Would you not watch this for hours?
I know I would. Especially if Goodell remained on hand to congratulate the top players in person. And understand: This is coming from someone who has sworn off watching football for enjoyment. So I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be the only person tuning in.
Heresy? Only until it isn't. Fairer for players. Freer for teams. More enjoyable for fans. The time has come. Lose the draft. Keep the bro-hugs. You're welcome, America.