The draft is a process that the NFL uses to bring new, young players into the league each year in a fair manner. The draft gives each team a chance to improve their roster for future seasons and usually takes place at the end of April.
The players who are available to be picked are from the many colleges around the USA. In order to be eligible for the draft, a player must have been out of high school for at least three years and have attended college up to and including their senior year. Some players like to become eligible for the draft process before they have attended college for a senior year and in this situation, they need to gain approval from the league.
The reason the NFL draft is a fair way for teams to improve their rosters is because of the way the picking order is determined. It is very simple but very clever at the same time.
Basically, the team that finished the recently finished season with the worst won-lost regular-season record (the 16 games played to determine who makes it to the playoffs) is regarded as the worst team in the league and, therefore, the team needing the most help to improve. To help them achieve this, they get to pick first which gives them the best chance of picking the best player in the draft or the best player that solves their biggest problem area.
The team that picks last is the one that just won the Super Bowl. Winning the Super Bowl is the ultimate prize in the NFL and to do so means that team is considered to be the best at that time and as such in the least need of help via the draft process.
All teams that failed to make it into the playoffs are put in order from 1-20 with the ones who have the worst regular-season records picking ahead of the teams who managed to achieve better regular-season records.
The teams that did make it to the playoffs have their selection position determined by which round they get eliminated from those playoffs. The playoff rounds are:
Round 1: Wildcard
Round 2: Divisional
Round 3: Conference
Round 4: Super Bowl
If your team is one of the four that are eliminated in the Wildcard round, it will pick somewhere between 21-24 depending on its regular-season record compared to the other three teams eliminated at this same stage. Same process as before where the better records mean you pick after the teams with the not as good records.
If your team is one of the four knocked out of the competition at the Divisional round then it will pick in the following NFL Draft somewhere between picks 25-28. This, just like the Wildcard round, is determined by each team’s regular-season records compared to the other teams’ regular-season records knocked out at this stage.
Only two teams are knocked out at the Conference round stage and the team who had the better regular-season record out of the two picks after the other. These are picks 29-30.
There are 32 teams in the NFL and so we only have picks 31 and 32 left by this stage. The team who loses in the Super Bowl picks at #31 and the Super Bowl champions pick at #32.
If two or more teams end the regular-season with the same won-lost records their draft selection positions are determined by something called the Strength of Schedule process. This is a process that looks at the final records of the teams involved opponents. Let’s say that the Jaguars and Panthers both achieved a 5-11 record in the season just finished, they are both going to be picking at the same spot in the draft. This is impossible so we now have to look at the regular-season records of the teams that both the Jaguars and Panthers played. If it is determined that the Panthers’ opponents ended up with more wins than the Jaguars’ opponents then the Panthers will be put one place behind the Jaguars and so pick after them. The theory (as I see it) is that the Panthers played better teams than the Jaguars did and so must be a better team to achieve that 5-11 regular-season record than the Jaguars are.
Each of the league’s 32 teams gets to pick once in each of the 7 rounds of the draft. This number can be changed in a few different ways:
Trades: Teams can use current and/or future draft picks in trades they do with other teams. These trades can be done during the previous season(s) or on the day of the draft itself. Players and picks can be traded in any combination, just so long as both teams involved are satisfied with what they are getting.
Compensatory Picks: These are draft picks awarded to teams as a means of compensation for losing players to other teams in free agency. They are meant to be used as a way of filling the holes left in the roster created by the free agent(s) moving on.
In past years, teams weren’t allowed to use these picks in trades but as of 2017, this is allowed. This type of pick is never higher than a 3rd-rounder but can be as low as a 7th-rounder. The quality of a compensatory pick is determined by a formula developed by the NFL Management Council.
The league allows itself to hand out up to 32 of these picks each season with no team allowed to be awarded more than four in a season.
Supplemental Draft: The regular draft takes place at the end of April and is how the vast majority of young players enter the league. Sometimes, however, a player may not be eligible for the regular draft but may find his eligibility status changes soon after. If this is the case, he will be allowed to enter the league via the Supplemental Draft process.
This takes place in July, a few months after the regular draft. The Supplemental Draft works slightly differently to the regular draft and usually only has a very small number of players involved if any at all.
Teams will have assessed the player they are interested in and will have decided what draft round they think he would have been picked in. They then tell the league, in private, what pick they are willing to give for the player, as do all other teams who are interested in him. The team who bids the highest pick gets the player and loses that pick in the following years regular draft.
Each team now has a large number of scouts who spend their time going to high school and college games, watching game film, talking to players and coaches and generally accessing as much about the young athletes who one day could become eligible for the NFL draft. Each of these scouts will be assigned a certain area of the country or a school or college and/or a playing position to scout. This is a continuous process and when added to the data collected via the NFL Combine, teams can, hopefully, pick the right players to enable them to slowly but surely improve.
This is one of the most important processes within the NFL as it can make or break a franchise for years depending on the choices that are made during each draft. NFL teams also pay their players millions of dollars in the hope that they will help them reach that all important Super Bowl, so if the whole scouting and selection process isn’t successful they could just be throwing money away.
There are hundreds of eligible players each and every year wanting to enter the league and realise their dream. Unfortunately, not all will get drafted during the 7 round process as there simply aren’t enough picks available to the teams. If a player doesn’t get picked, he becomes what is known as an Undrafted Free Agent and can be signed by any team that is interested in giving him a trial.
Some of these undrafted free agents can become absolute steals for a team willing to give them a chance. A perfect example of this is quarterback Kurt Warner who went undrafted and then became a Super Bowl winner and Hall of Famer.