IT’S that time of year again for American football enthusiasts. With the Super Bowl only a week away and marking the end of the season, the next big event on the calender is the much-hyped NFL Draft, taking place in Chicago from April 30 to May 2.
But what is it? Why is it so hyped? How do newcomers to the sport wrap their head around it?
The Draft is an annual event where all 32 NFL teams have a chance to pick their choice of the players that are coming out of college/university (‘college football’ is the term used despite the majority of institutions players come from actually being universities – not colleges).
The majority of the players that come out are seniors who have completed their degree and/or have played four seasons of college football.
Some of these players come out of college early if they have a particularly good year and are known as ‘underclassmen’. (There are many terms people in the UK will be unfamiliar with when it comes to the Draft and at the bottom of this page I will have a ‘Draftspeak’ glossary for all you rookies out there.)
The teams pick in order of worst-best in terms of win/loss records from the previous season. This year, the 2-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers hold the first pick. Each team only has a certain amount of time to pick but usually the decision has been made well in advance and the time is used to finalise the deal. There are seven ’rounds’ during the Draft so in theory each team has seven picks – one for each round.
It doesn’t quite work out like that however.
The Draft order juggles due to trades. Certain teams can ‘trade down’ from their picking slot if they don’t think any of the players available provide good value. Conversely, certain teams will ‘trade up’ if they want a quality player at a certain position but are afraid that one of the teams ahead will pick him first. In trades, draft picks in future years or in later rounds can be offered in return, as well as current professional players on the team’s roster. In 2014, the Buffalo Bills traded up to fourth to take wide receiver Sammy Watkins ahead of the Cleveland Browns. The Bills offered their own first round pick from that year (the ninth pick) as well as their first round and fourth round picks for 2015. Knowing when and how to trade is an important part in building a team’s roster.
Naturally, the best players are picked in the early rounds. A premium is placed on positions like quarterback and wide receiver on offense and linebacker and cornerback on defense. There are usually always two or three offensive tackles picked in the first couple of rounds every year due to the importance of protecting a quarterback. Defensive linemen can also be drafted high as teams seek to pressure opposing quarterbacks (anyone who knows anything about the NFL will know that just about everything revolves around quarterbacks and the Draft is no different).
Scouts grade college players throughout their student careers and every year will publish their ‘big board’ and/or a ‘mock draft’ (see Glossary). Many factors go into the grading (or ranking) of a player: his physical tools (speed, strength, height); how ‘raw’ or ‘NFL-ready’ he is; his potential and his ceiling; his character; the prestige of the school he played for and the competitiveness of the division his institution is in. So for example, being a 6’4 wide receiver with great speed is one thing but if you have bad character and played in a weak division in college, you will not receive as high a grade as a 6’2 wide receiver with great speed who played for an esteemed college and displayed good character. Positions also play a part in determining a player’s ranking – an excellent safety would most likely not rank as high as a very good quarterback. Kickers and punters tend to languish in the bottom rounds (or don’t get drafted at all). How well certain players perform at the annual NFL Combine or the Senior Bowl will affect their grade too.
Typically, many of the scouts have differing opinions and some will excuse character flaws if the player has a very high potential. NFL teams have their own scouts in addition to the scouts who are prolific in the media and each team will rank players differently: the New England Patriots will look for players who can fit into the ‘Patriot Way’ while the Cleveland Browns for example have no such screening process.
Each NFL team will also have different needs to address. This year, the New York Giants will have to fix their appalling defense, particularly the linebacker spots and the defensive line. Meanwhile their NFC East rivals the Dallas Cowboys will need to grab a cornerback.
Some of a team’s needs can be addressed in free agency (about the closest thing the NFL has to a transfer window). Each year there are a number of players whose contracts are not renewed and they are free to move. Teams can also offer draft picks or players in exchange for other players – unlike the transfer window there is no outright fee, everything revolves around the contract.
It is important to draft well is because it is the cheapest and most efficient way to build successful rosters. The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers are good examples. Free agents can be expensive and often only act as stop-gaps for a season or two. Draft picks can be on your team for a decade and the initial contract will not cost as much. Draft ‘busts’ however can be very costly and set a team back a number of years: Google ‘Ryan Leaf’.
Best player available: When a team ignores a position of need to take the best player available on their big board
Big board: An overall table ranking the college players who have declared for the Draft. Each scout and each team will have their own and each will be different
Bust: A player for whom a team traded for or picked early in a draft that turned ended backfiring, due to poor play or other problems and thus did not reach his potential
Ceiling: The potential of a player (high or low)
Draft stock: Another term used for grade or rank when referring to a player
Freshman: A first-year college player (these players cannot declare but their freshman year is an important part of their career)
Heisman Trophy: The award given to the best player in college football during the year
Junior: A three-year college player
Mock draft: A hypothetical draft based on team needs and player rankings, written by a journalist or scout who is prevalent in the media
NFL Combine: Annual event that college players are invited to where they can show off their physical skills in a variety of drills (speed, jumping, strength)
NFL-ready: A player who is ready to start in the NFL
On the clock: The term used when describing a team being in due to pick. For example: ‘The Washington Redskins are now on the clock’
Position of need: A position on the field that a team needs to address, due to poor play, a lack of quality or star players leaving
Pro-style offense: If a player played in a ‘Pro-style’ offense in college, his team used a system similar to NFL teams (as opposed to a ‘spread’ offense). Players who play in this style of offense are generally more likely to be ‘NFL-ready
Raw: A player who looks ready for the NFL physically but his technique or understanding of the game is poor or low
Reach: When a player is considered poor value for the spot a team is picking at. It often relates to a team’s needs. For example: ‘Offensive tackle John Smith would be a reach at number 12 despite the fact the Seattle Seahawks need a better offensive tackle.’
Redshirt: The term used to describe a player who spent a year off the field and developing his skills instead of playing. This year does not count towards their four-year limit and thus adds an extra year of eligibility. For example, a redshirt freshman has been at college for two years but played only for one
Senior: A four-year college player
Senior Bowl: An ‘all-star’ game for the top senior players coming out of college
Sophomore: A two-year college player
Spread offense: A type of offense that is not used widely in the NFL but used widely in college. Players who played in spread offenses often have trouble transitioning to the NFL
Trade down: When a team will look to give up their current spot in return for extra picks, or players
Trade up: When a team looks to move up from their current spot to pick a player who might not be available when they are ‘on the clock’
Underclassmen: Players who leave college before their senior year (sophomores or juniors)