Close the Window, There’s a Draft

One of the big things coming up pretty frequently as a result of the NFL’s labor strife is the very real possibility of a future without the annual college draft.  Players — or maybe more accurately their agents and lawyers — have argued that college players should be able to choose where they play and live, rather than be divvied up via some arbitrary selection process.  And with Judge Nelson’s ruling in favor of the players yesterday, there are some who think a draft-less NFL is now much closer to reality.

On the one hand, I think it’s a terrible idea.  It would basically be setting up the NFL to turn into Major League Baseball, where the wealthiest teams gobble up all the top talent and the bottom feeders are left with nothing but trying to sell their fans on hope every year.  We’d see Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder literally buying championships, while small market bastions like Green Bay and Pittsburgh would face the very real threat of being out-spent into oblivion.  And you’d also very likely see a handful of superstar players commanding gigantic salaries, while pay for less glamorous but still important positions would slide.  It’d be a huge win for players like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but a huge loss for the back-up centers and long-snappers of the league.

Still, if the draft truly does go away, I think there are two ways to replace it that might draw just as much interest:

1.  Apply the fantasy football concept of the auction draft to the NFL.  Teams would have a set amount of money to spend on rookies (they’d still be free to spend as much as they want on free agents and their own players).  Get all the teams together, and then run an auction.  For instance, Carolina could say, “We bid $3 million for Cam Newton.”  Any team that wanted to go higher could, up to the rookie spending limit.  If a team wanted to blow their whole wad on one guy, they’re perfectly able to do so, and then sit back and watch everybody else for the rest of the evening.  Having participated in a few auction drafts, I can tell it sure would be entertaining, as some teams would be certain to drive up the bid on some players in order to make rivals spend more money.  And it would in effect create a rookie salary cap, since teams would be limited in what they could spend.  Admittedly, this is mostly a pipe dream, but it would definitely be fun to watch.

2.  A more realistic solution would be to turn it into the NFL’s version of college signing day.  You’d see teams spend months recruiting college players, wooing them with possible contracts and playing situations, trying to win them over.  And then there’d be a deadline date — make it a Saturday, so fans can spend the day glue to their sets — where the players would have to decide where they’re going.  ESPN could go live for 24 hours covering who goes where (they practically already do so for the college version).  It may not have the same thrill as watching names go off the board one by one, but it would be whole new kind of feeding frenzy.

In the end though, I can’t see the draft going away.  The league makes too much money off of it.  They’d fight tooth and nail to keep it.  And besides, the threat of killing it seems more like a leverage ploy from the players than an actual threat.  If anything, we’ll see the amount of time before a player becomes a free agent reduced rather than abolishing the draft altogether.  There’s too much to gain all around to risk killing the golden goose.

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