With all the recent rookie holdouts in the past few seasons, many within the NFL community are calling for a slotted system for rookie salaries. Similar to that in the NBA. I will agree in principle that it would probably be a better system then the one we're currently under, but I feel I have a better solution. Why not just get rid of the draft entirely? It amazes me that no media personality has even proposed doing this. What's more is that I couldn't even find one article online that proposed this. So why am I saying we need to get rid of the NFL draft? We'll first we need to look at the entire idea behind the draft in the first place.
The idea of the NFL Draft was first coined in 1935, by then commissioner Bert Bell. The idea of the draft then is virtually the same as it is today. Give the worst teams in the league the best young players in order for them to be more competitive. It was also a way to ensure that player salaries were kept down, since any player drafted would only have the rights to negotiate with that team. The NFL was probably looking at the New York Yankees when they were coming up with this plan. Major League Baseball had no draft, and wouldn't have one until 1965. What that meant was teams were free to sign whoever they wanted to for however much they pleased. The Yankees had a tremendous financial advantage over everyone even then. This allowed them to get the best young players in the game to replace their aging veterans. It's often said you could build a big league roster just out of the minor league players then Yankees had from the 1930's until the draft came into place.
The NFL thought parity was the way to go for their new league, and in principle the draft did just this. Countless teams at the bottom of the standings we're able to build dynasties through the draft. The Bills, Steelers, Cowboys, and Patriots all relied heavily on the draft for building the foundation of their dynasties. There's countless others teams as well, who have forever had their fortunes changed by how well they did in the draft.
So what's changed since 1935 to make it so that maybe doing away with the draft system would be best for everyone?
Well the first is free agency. Free agency first came into existence in 1976, after it was rule that baseball's reserve clause violated anti-trust laws. For those who don't know Major League Baseball has an anti-trust exemption, but upon after two appeals, both courts rule in favor of the players, and free agency was born. Free agency didn't come into the NFL until the early 90's.
What it mean to teams was that now instead of having to relay solely on the draft and trades to build up their teams, they now had options. Select an unproven guy in the draft, or go out and get a more expensive proven player for that position.
The second major aspect of the NFL that has changed since 1935, is the advent of the salary cap. Again like free agency, the salary cap came into existence during the early 90's. The idea was once again to increase parity. It set limits on how much teams could spend on players, with the goal being to avoid having teams like the Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers win the Super Bowl virtually every year.
How effective it's actually been at this is actually vague. It has reduced the correlation between salaries and winning to almost zero, but we still have teams like the Colts, and Patriots who have been at the top of the standings virtually every year. Still in principle most people are in favor of the salary cap, believing it to give small market teams a chance to win the Super Bowl. Never was that more apparent then this past year, when the Pittsburgh Steelers (a mid size team value wise) meet the Arizona Cardinals (one of the NFL's poorest team's value wise) in the Super Bowl.
So what does this all have to do with the draft?
Well let's go back to the beginning. The idea of the draft was to avoid having big market teams stock pile young players. But there was no salary cap in 1935 when the draft was first thought up. Now the it's impossible for the New York Giants to spend any more money on players then the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Free agency also didn't exist in 1935. There was much more emphasis on drafting for need, then simply taking the best player available prior to the advent of free agency. If didn't feel your needs through the draft, it was going to be very difficult for you to win games.
Now teams simply take the best player available, especially in the first round, even if it's not what they need. The idea being that somebody lower then you will probably need that player, and you will be able to trade down in order to get what you really need for less money, and perhaps even more.
This type of behavior did happen prior to free agency, but it was usually rare. Now teams constantly swap picks.
So what is my plan?
Well very simply get rid of the NFL draft, and have every rookie who declares themselves eligible for the NFL come in as a regular free agent.
So what does this do?
Well simply put, it makes everything simpler, and better for everyone.
First off is rookie salaries. When you negotiate a contract with a player, what your really doing often times is negotiating the value of the pick, not the value of the player. Sometimes you'll get players like Crabtree hold out, when they feel they should be getting more then their draft value entails, but often times once a mid first round pick signs, it sets the value of that pick, and it gives teams, and agents alike a sense of what the value of a certain pick really is. This creates a domino effect. Once that player signs, typically everyone else well be signed within a week.
Under a free agency system however, your negotiating the value of a player directly. It's hard to compare players, because each one is unique in his own right. Player A may bring more to the table on team X, then player B would, even though more people would consider player B a better player overall.
Your value as a free agent is typically the most amount of money one of the 32 teams is willing to pay you. I believe the Giants have just made Eli Manning the highest paid QB in the NFL. That may set a precedent for how much money a better player such as Peyton Manning will earn in the future, but all that does is set a minimum. He can and will probably be paid more money then Eli when he becomes a free agent. How much is up to whoever gives him the highest bid, each team may place their own individual value on how much Peyton Manning is worth.
Making every rookie a free agent will in my opinion let's the free market take hold as to how much these players are really worth. Michael Crabtree is holding out because he feels he's worth more then the value attached to the number ten overall pick. We really don't know how much Crabtree is actually worth, because it's only the 49ers who can negotiate with him. If Crabtree were a free agent, we would be able to actually see the true value of Michael Crabtree.
The number one complaint I've heard about this is that it may cause rookie salaries to rise even more then they currently are. This may be true, but if a team wants to pay a player a tremendous amount of money because they think they are a good player, I say let them. Also they can't rise too much because of the salary cap. But I don't think they will rise because now instead of valuing yourself against your fellow draft class, your value is now being compared against every other NFL free agent that's out there.
The other aspect is from the player's perspective. When the Saints drafted Reggie Bush, they did so because they felt he was the best player in the draft. But did they really need a running back? They already had Deuce McAllister who was himself a pro-bowl caliber back. They probably would have been better off drafting a defensive player. Yet nobody questioned the move, because even if they had drafted that defensive player, they probably would have had to pay him just as much because he was the number two overall pick. Not because of his talent. The Saints figured Bush gave them the highest return on the dollar for that pick, and because of it, very few criticized them for it. If I remember correctly the Houston Texans got destroyed in the media for taking Mario Williams over Bush, because most didn't think Williams was better then Bush, even though the Texans felt like they needed a defensive end more then they needed a running back.
If Reggie Bush was a free agent the teams negotiating with him would probably all be teams that needed a running back. In fact only in the draft do you get this type of behavior.
Imagine if the Patriots had signed Drew Brees when he became a free agent, simply because he was the best player available, under the rationale that if he didn't work out they could always trade him. Most people would think that to be crazy. You already have Tom Brady. Why do you need to give so much money to Drew Brees? And if you need help at another position why not just take the money you would have spent on Brees, and use it to sign those players instead. Well that does make more sense, and it's precisely what happens, yet it's that type of crazy rationale that is considered normal in the NFL draft.
Players would now not only be able to go where they are valued the most financially, but also where they are the most needed. This generally does happen in the draft, but not always.
Also it would let teams be far more creative with how they spend money in the market. I'm sure the Detroit Lions would have much rather have three top 20 rookies, then simply have Matt Stafford. Very hard to get those types of players in the NFL draft, but under if they were all free agents, it would be much easier for them to accomplish this goal.
On a lesser note, it would also save many long sleepless nights for NFL general managers. Instead of spending long nights trying to convert the value of a pick to a free agent, and vice versa, now everyone would simply be under one system. They would be free to sign whoever they wanted to, without having to go through all that headache.
Again I would be in favor of a slotted system as opposed to the current system, but the problem with a slotted system is that it assumes every draft to be equally as talented. We all know this is not true, even on draft day.
On a lesser note, I really don't think this happens, but it would also give no reason to why a team would need to sandbag late in the year.
I really don't know why nobody has proposed this. In sports though, typically outside the box thinking isn't encouraged. If anything it's discouraged. People have been used to the draft for so long now, they really don't know what another system would be like, and are afraid to find out.
But in order for progress to occur, you need change. I think it's obvious that the draft system is currently broken, but I think people should be spending more time examining the value of a draft itself, and if there's actually a better method out there, rather then just simply assuming that it's the best system available, and it just needs to be tweaked.