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History of the NFL Draft

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Event wasn’t always the affair it is today, in fact, it didn’t even exist

NFL: Super Bowl LIII Exprience Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Each year when the four teams for the college football playoff are announced, every sports writer and blog site have their opinion on the match-ups. One squad has a stout defense vs. the other team’s pro-style offensive attack. A lot of attention is dedicated to the amount of five-star recruits are on the various rosters whereas another team is ladled with mostly three-star athletes.

College football teams are built by a simple resolution: Coaching staffs make offers to a list of players they have earmarked as who they want on their football team. Those players then make the decision of which scholarship offer to accept. In the end, it is the athlete who makes the definitive decision.

Browns TE David Njoku of Cedar Grove High School signs with the University of Miami on National Signing Day

Quite the opposite with professional football with the method in which every franchise’s roster is built. Some players are traded for draft picks, other players, cash or a combination thereof. Some sign as free agents while others are inked to a reserves/futures contract. But the majority of players are selected in the college football disbursement draft. This allows each NFL club to claim the “rights” to each drafted player; and then sign him to an exact amount of years and thus compete for a roster spot each season under that contract.

Each NFL team begins with seven draft choices every year. Compensatory picks are then added to various clubs depending on which players have left via free agency. In addition, franchises can add or delete draft picks involving trades with other teams.

All of these methods are the only way to build an NFL roster. But ultimately, each NFL club decides who plays for them -- not the other way around. Of course, every general manager and head coach wish it was a recruitment type of system similar to the college game.

At one time -- it was.

Beginnings

Originally, the league was fashioned in 1920 and called the American Professional Football Association (in 1922, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League).

For about 40 years before the formation of the NFL, most pro football teams were merely community teams. The APFA was formed for three distinct reasons: 1) to have a consistent scheduling system for member teams, 2) have rosters where players could not jump from team-to-team every week, and 3) rosters devoid of college players playing under assumed names for pro teams.

However, there was no system in place of how to craft rosters for its member clubs.

These community squads were mainly comprised of meat cutters, policemen, wrestlers, firemen, shop owners, coal miners, railroad workers, former college players and such. This meant a team formed in Duluth, Minn., was comprised of locals and another club in Muncie, Indiana were also locals. But when the APFA became an official organized league with standings and a consistent schedule, more and more college players found that they could make better money upon graduation playing pro ball than entering the workforce.

And there were several teams that went after the best college players. Curly Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants’ Tim Mara, Potsy Clark of the Portsmouth Spartans, George Halas of the Chicago Bears and to some degree the Boston Redskins’ George Preston Marshall all had big stadiums to fill and needed big college names to bring in the crowds.

Throughout the late 1920s and into the 1930s, those teams were consistently in the hunt for the NFL title each and every season. And because of the on-field success, these clubs were also some of the few clubs that made a profit - which meant larger player salaries for the new crop of college stars.

Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Eagles, Brooklyn Dodgers, Staten Island Stapletons, Cleveland Rams and Chicago Cardinals would take a backseat to those other clubs on the field and ultimately at the box office. In those days, ticket and program sales were the majority of each team’s revenue stream; and in fact, many of these clubs would only play road games with the franchises who were drawing huge crowds in order to get a percentage of a higher visitor’s gate.

The Idea for a Draft

Breaking even in the NFL sometimes was the goal each year. The Stapletons folded because of the Great Depression. After the Cincinnati Reds went 3-6-1 and 0-8-0 in consecutive seasons, they could not pay their league team dues and simply folded. The Eagles lost $80,000 during one season and went bankrupt, then was sold for $4,500 to Bert Bell.

After a few seasons as an NFL owner, Bell became frustrated that all the great college players would only sign with a handful of teams whereas squads like his own could only hire the marginal athletes or the leftovers. Another issue was that teams would get into bidding wars with each other for the same player. And of course, franchises like Bell’s Eagles were perennial bottom-dwellers and were almost always outbid.

Every year the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Bell felt that the current system was broken.

Bert Bell

At the owner’s meeting in 1935, Bell decided to make a suggestion to change how teams accumulated their rosters. His idea was that at the end of each season, a list would be compiled of all eligible college seniors and that a selection process would take place in reverse order of the previous year’s standings.

In Bell’s biography, “On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell,” he writes that he informed the other owners:

”I’ve always had a theory that pro football is like a chain. The league is no stronger than its weakest link and I’ve been a weak link for so long that I should know,” as his book states. “Few teams control the championships. Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players in the open market, which makes them more successful.”

Of course, the prosperous franchises had the most to lose if such an arrangement would be instigated and take place every year. In an unforeseen scenario, two owners viewed as some of the NFL’s greatest influencers, Halas and Mara, were for the idea right off. Their thinking was that folks came out to see a competition and should get what they pay for. Nobody enjoyed seeing weekly blowouts.

The owners approved the proposal, which oddly the word “draft” was never mentioned in Bell’s tender. The first-ever NFL draft would take place after the 1935 season.

After Philadelphia went 2-9-0, the very thing Bell had envisioned as a method to get teams on an even keel, earned his Eagles the right to make the very first selection. On February 8, 1936, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philly, Bell selected halfback Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago. Berwanger was the first Heisman Trophy winner (then called the “Downtown Athletic Club Trophy”) and was known as “the one man football team.” He was a very gifted and versatile athlete.

That first draft lasted nine rounds with 81 players selected. Some interesting notes:

  • Paul “Bear” Bryant was selected in the fourth-round (31st overall) by the Dodgers
  • The Giants took future Hall of Fame fullback Tuffy Leemans in the second-round
  • Four future Hall of Famers would be selected in this maiden draft.

Future Drafts

The draft jumped to 12 rounds in 1937 then to 22 rounds the following year. From 1943 to 1948 a whopping 32 rounds transpired each season. Every year in the 1950s the draft settled on 30 rounds. From 1960-1966, it dropped again to 20 rounds. When the NFL and the American Football League agreed to a merger, they embarked on a 17-round common draft beginning after the conclusion of the 1967 season. Later, the rounds dropped again to 12, then eight and finally to the present system of seven-rounds.

Several of today’s players are known as “eighth-round draft picks.” This was made famous by former Houston TexansPro Bowl RB Arian Foster after he went undrafted and ultimately became one of the league’s premier running backs. Other well-known eighth-rounder’s include QB Tony Romo (Cowboys), WR Victor Cruz (Giants), LB James Harrison (Steelers), TE Antonio Gates and WR Wes Welker (Chargers), LB Bart Scott, K Justin Tucker and C Jeff Saturday (Ravens), WR Adam Thielen (Vikings), QB Kurt Warner (Packers), RB Phillip Lindsay (Broncos) and K Adam Vinatieri (Colts).

Throughout the years the location of the draft, dates, and city would alter. Back in those early drafts, just as today’s draft process, each year the draft was held in a different city usually at some swanky downtown hotel. When the NFL moved their offices to New York City, the draft settled into that city and has hosted the most amateur drafts.

And Berwanger? He never played a down in the NFL. In fact, none of the Eagles’ original nine draft picks signed with Philadelphia following that inaugural 1935 college football draft. Without any new blue-chip blood, Bell’s Eagles went 1-11-0 the following season.

The establishment of the NFL draft was the first in professional sports as all other pro leagues would develop their own form of selection process eventually. The motive was simple: to provide parity within the league. Without this one act, teams would become stacked and public interest would certainly wane.

Non-draft Leagues

Not having an amateur draft to distribute the talent evenly would destroy another pro football league in later years.

From 1946-1949, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) went head-to-head with the NFL via eight franchises as a rival league. However, the Cleveland Browns, led by legendary head coach Paul Brown, won the league every year. The AAFC did not have any organized method for teams to form rosters, so they signed players as they saw fit.

Cleveland head coach Paul Brown (center with hat) with franchise owner Mickey McBride after another Browns AAFC Championship victory

Brown gathered an All-Star team of talent and dominated all four years of the AAFC’s existence. At one point, the Browns had a 30-0-2-game win streak over three seasons. They went 14-0-0 in 1948. It got so bad, that in Cleveland’s fourth year their own fans quit coming to games because of the lopsidedness of the rosters and the enviable outcome.

There were five leagues named the American Football League. The final one, from 1960-1969, held a draft every year to which each club eventually was merged into the NFL.

None of the other AFL’s (1926, 1934, 1936, and 1940) held a college draft and just like the AAFC, every team formed their rosters in any manner they chose. Because of this, several clubs dominated the league whereas most of the fabric of the standings had some very bad teams. Because those teams were so bad, the league as a whole suffered as franchises could not pay their bills and folded. When suddenly an eight-team entity now has only four or five functioning teams, it is inevitable that the league would fail and simply blend into the history of professional football.

The net result was that for all the effort those good squads and management placed on their season and very existence to succeed, suddenly, there wasn’t a league to play in.

The ability for any team to improve year-after-year is critical to the league’s very survival. And the catalyst has been the NFL college draft.

Notable Late-Round Draft Picks

Year Round Player Position Team Drafted Hall of Fame?
Year Round Player Position Team Drafted Hall of Fame?
1936 9 Dan Fortmann OG Bears Yes
1941 9 Tony Canadeo RB Packers Yes
1945 11 Tom Fears WR Cleveland Rams Yes
-- 17 Arnie Weinmeister DT Brooklyn Tigers Yes
1947 12 Dante Lavelli WR Rams Yes
-- 20 Tom Landry DB Giants Yes
-- 22 Art Donovan OT/DT Giants Yes
1948 26 Lou Creekmur OT Eagles Yes
1949 12 George Blanda QB Bears Yes
1951 19 Andy Robustelli DE Rams Yes
1953 11 Alex Webster RB Redskins Yes
-- 20 Chuck Noll LB Browns Yes
-- 23 Rosey Brown DT/OT Giants Yes
1954 20 Raymond Berry WR Colts Yes
1955 9 Johnny Unitas QB Steelers Yes
1956 15 Willie Davis DE Browns Yes
-- 17 Bart Starr QB Packers Yes
1957 9 Don Maynard WR Giants Yes
1958 21 John Madden OT Eagles Yes
1959 18 Joe Kapp QB Redskins No
1960 10 Mel Branch WR 49ers No
-- 17 Goose Gonsoulin DB 49ers No
1961 10 Roger Staubach QB Cowboys Yes
1965 7 Marty Schottenheimer LB Bills No
-- 13 Spider Lockhart DB Giants No
-- 18 Chris Hanburger LB Redskins Yes
1967 9 Ken Houston DB Oilers Yes
1969 10 L.C. Greenwood DE Steelers No
1974 15 Billy "Whiteshoes" Johnson WR Oilers No
1979 10 Dwight Clark TE 49ers No
1983 13 Karl Mecklenburg LB Broncos No
1986 9 Clyde Simmons DE Eagles No
1994 7 Tom Nalen C Broncos No
1995 6 Terrell Davis RB Broncos Yes
2000 6 Tom Brady QB Patriots Still active
2001 7 T. J. Houshmanzadeh WR Bengals No
2010 6 Antonio Brown WR Steelers Still active
2011 5 Richard Sherman CB Seahawks Still active
2014 5 Telvin Smith LB Jaguars Still active
2015 5 Jordan Howard RB Bears Still active
-- 5 Tyreek Hill WR Chiefs Still active
2016 5 George Kittle TE 49ers Still active