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The 5 O’Clock Club: Let’s eliminate the NFL draft!

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

NFL: APR 27 2023 Draft Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

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Dave Mangels of Bleeding Green Nation recently published an article in which he exhorted the NFL to “introduce a little anarchy” but introducing some huge changes to the way the league carries on its business. Honestly, I hated his first two suggestions. His third suggestion of a developmental league is one that I think most fans would agree with, but which has proven an elusive project for the NFL to date.

I perked up when I got to Mangel’s last idea, which is to do away with the annual Player Selection Meeting, more commonly known as the Draft.

I’ve been a proponent of this for many years, but I have never really spent the time to think through the implications very well. Mangels, on the other hand, laid out his reasoning pretty clearly and concisely.

[L]et’s assume for a moment the draft was eliminated for whatever reason. What would happen?

One benefit is that it could completely eliminate tanking. Tanking isn’t much of an issue in the NFL as it is in other sports, but it exists. But with no better draft picks to play for, there is no reason for a team to not try to compete. Which opens everything up for everyone.

Rather than reward bad teams with top prospects on “merit”, every team would have to earn the rookies they sign. But this wouldn’t cause the NFL to get top heavy with a handful of teams hoarding the best players like we are seeing with college football.

With no draft there would, or should, be no rookie wage pool, which would take us back to the pre-2011 CBA days of top rookies earning top dollar. During the 2011 lockout the first thing ownership and the NFLPA agreed on was to limit the amount of money rookies could earn. The owners, who love not spending money, didn’t want to pay unproven rookies drafted with top picks contracts in line with established starters, and the NFLPA wanted that money spread out to veterans.

Unfortunately it backfired on the NFLPA. Rookies are now more valuable than ever because they’re so cheap, which has squeezed out veterans from backup and role playing jobs. In 2010 34 WRs and TEs aged 31 or older caught a pass, in 2022 only 20 did. In 2010 114 defensive players aged 31 or older played in a game, in 2022 only 88 did. With veteran role players and rookies on a level playing field for contracts, veterans should benefit. Contending teams can fill the spots that late round draft picks occupy on their rosters for a similar price.

In effect, the argument is to rely on the salary cap to create the “level playing field” (parity) that the NFL craves. The NFL has the most restrictive cap of any of the major sports (which I see as a good thing). While many fans want to ‘fix’ the cap by creating loopholes or workarounds, the NFL has become the most successful professional sports league by embracing the hard salary cap concept that drives both parity and profitability while rejecting the softer salary cap loopholes and workarounds that the NBA and MLB have adopted.

What Mangels suggests here is to make one fundamental seismic change that strikes me as a great idea — turn the college draft into college free agency!

One argument against eliminating the draft is that it is a money-spinner for the NFL, but college free agency could be just as lucrative, with days or weeks of college free agency coverage replacing the draft coverage we see now.

But, how would teams trade for players?

One huge issue would be the loss of trade currency, which is one of the key roles that draft picks play in the NFL. Without draft picks, how can a team trade for players?

But that’s an easy fix. Instead of managing two kinds of currency — cap space and draft picks — as teams do now, the only currency that would matter would be cap space. Just make it tradable (which was included in an earlier part of Mangels’ article).

We’ve already seen trades in the NFL where teams eat dead money in exchange for draft picks, most famously the Browns giving up a fourth-round to the Texans for Brock Osweiler, a second, and a seventh. Osweiler never played a down for them, the Browns simply bought a second-round pick. More recently teams have restructured an outgoing player’s contract to take on a dead cap hit in order to get a good draft pick in return, such as the Bears trading Robert Quinn to the Eagles for a fourth rounder.

So let teams trade cap space for draft picks one for one.

Better marriages between players and teams

A significant benefit, in my opinion, to Mangels’ suggestion to dump the draft is that it creates better opportunities for college players and teams to enter long-term relationships on the basis of rational consideration instead of the ‘arranged marriages’ that the NFL has relied on since 1936.

Here’s Mangels’ reasoning:

Caleb Williams is not going to sign with the Chiefs or Bills, because he’s not going to get playing time there. But he might also not sign with, say, the Raiders or Texans because of the direction those franchises are going. Maybe instead he signs with the Lions, a good team in need of a long term solution at QB, or maybe he signs with his home town Commanders to kick off a rebuild under new ownership. Everyone would have a chance. That’s parity.

In this example, Williams gets a say in where he commits to starting his professional life, and NFL franchises are further incentivized to be well-run since they will have to individually be appealing to players coming out of college.

Doesn’t it make more sense for young men graduating from college to have some hand in choosing the team, the city, and the culture that they want to join, and for teams to be able to rely on something less arbitrary than the order of last season’s finish to determine which players they can realistically target?

As long as the salary cap is in place in its current form, but tradable, then the NFL will have the parity it craves; the draft is a 20th century anachronism of the days before unrestricted free agency and the salary cap. I agree with Dave Mangels that it’s time to take the next step in evolving the NFL by doing away with the draft, which has been outdated and redundant for the past thirty years.


Do you agree that (tradable) salary cap is enough, by itself, to maintain the current level of parity in the NFL without needing to rely on the college draft?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Yes, I agree with that
    (130 votes)
  • 55%
    No, the draft is an essential part of maintaining NFL parity
    (274 votes)
  • 6%
    Parity should not be a goal of the NFL
    (31 votes)
  • 11%
    I have a different, more nuanced point of view
    (58 votes)
493 votes total Vote Now