The NFL Draft is a moral disaster that should not exist. After playing three or four years of college football for no money, players finally get to enter the professional ranks, and upon getting there, find that their team and salary are dictated by the cartel that is the National Football League.
Sure, there might be 32 teams, but if you want to play for one of them, the choice belongs to them — unless you’re not one of the top 200-plus players, in which case you can be an undrafted free agent, and find the best fit for you to try to make a team for the league minimum salary.
The draft ought to be abolished (don’t freak out yet!), and players should all be free agents, getting real market value for their services in a league where most players don’t make it past their rookie deals. For that matter, the salary cap artificially deflates players’ contract value, and should be scrapped, too, but that’s a conversation for another time. And it’s possible to reform the draft while working within the system, and not worrying about all the faulty arguments like “competitive balance” about why a salary cap “needs” to exist.
There’s a way to make entry to the league not only fairer to players than a draft, but to make it a better television event, as well. It’s a mix of the draft as we know it, college signing day, and television drama.
Here’s how it would work.
As is the case now, there would be a draft order, with each team allocated a pool of money for their new signings based on where their slots are. So, this year, the Jaguars would be first.
With the first slot in the 2021 NFL Signing Bonanza, the Jaguars could introduce anyone. Maybe they’d still go with Trevor Lawrence, but they might also strategize to go in a different direction. Because once a player is introduced instead of straight-up selected, everyone — not just the introducing team — goes on the clock.
For the next 10 minutes, teams put in their bids — and the offers can be seen publicly and talked about by the TV panel during the frenzy. Over the weeks and months leading up to the Bonanza, players and teams will have been talking to each other about how they might fit, what their plans are, and selling one another on each other. Now it’s time to put dollars to it.
There’s strategy in this, too, of course. Is a team so high on Lawrence that they’re willing to spend their entire Bonanza pool on him? If they do, how much does that hamstring them in building a winner around him, and is it worth it? How do they formulate offers to balance a best effort to get the player they want with the needs that they have as a team?
At the end of the 10 minutes — and who knows, maybe the Patriots have swooped in to offer their whole pool at the last second — the player gets five minutes to decide. Having already met with teams in advance of the Bonanza, it’s just down to a matter of figuring out where personal fit and top dollar combine to hit a sweet spot.
Finally, we get the dramatic reveal: the player chooses his new team’s cap, poses for photos, and we’re off and running.
Extra regulations could be put in place to cap spending on an individual pick at a dollar figure short of the total pool, ensuring that all the slots in the Bonanza remain viable, but that’s the basic format — not all that different from what we have now, except that it’s fairer to the players and creates a far more interesting television product than one where everyone knows months in advance that the four or five best players all will wind up with a certain group of teams.
There’s one other benefit to the Bonanza over the Draft, and it’s one that the NFL, as much as the league might prefer things the way they are, would have to agree on: the incentive to tank would be severely diminished, if not eliminated. Sure, the team with the worst record still would go first and have the most money to be able to use at the Bonanza, but without a guarantee of being gifted a player’s rights for the next half a decade, it’s more important to always be working toward having a team that can actually win, rather than tearing down to the bones to be able to get a top draft pick.
It’s a better system for players, a better product for television, and has benefits for the league. It’s time to abandon the Draft. After all, it’s the 21st century and the Jets need a new way to screw up every April.