I have been a football fan (and, of course, the Steelers fan) for 10 years now. In the time since seeing my first NFL game, I went from not knowing what "first and ten" meant to being pretty well versed in most aspects of the game (besides, perhaps, details of on-field strategy and play design), including the rules, the CBA and team management – all of that from the fan’s point of view.
I enjoy post-game analysis and discussion almost as much as I enjoy the Sundays from September through February, and I like reading football related legal and business news as much as I like going through team and individual stats.
However, the one thing that I never caught on in these ten years is draft fever. I just don’t get the fascination and the obsession with the draft that lasts for weeks and months. I don’t understand the point of gazillion of mock drafts. I do not see why anybody would pay to get into the Radio City Music Hall to watch the actual draft. I know I am going against mainstream here, but that just fails to get me excited.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully grasp the importance of the draft for the NFL teams. What team if not the Steelers places greater weigh on the draft as a means to replenish and improve the football team. I also understand the emotion and excitement for the players who are on the verge of fulfilling their dreams (even if in actuality that verge will really be in late August, at the time of the final roster cuts).
I honestly think that teams spend (or are allowed to spend) way too much time evaluating the prospects after the season. I am sure that team scouts watch the college players at least the entire season in games and view and review tape numerous times. I am sure the teams know fairly well what they are up to at that point. But there is still the NFL Olympics – the Combine, there are college pro days and team visits... Why would it be stretched from mid-February to early May is beyond me.
Of course, teams need time to gather information about off-the-field stuff – from personality and character to health and injuries. It is a major investment, of course, but it’s not a three-month job, is it? And with the new CBA, now that the first-rounders no longer get those twenty- to fifty-million-dollar contracts without playing a single down, teams do not need to do their due diligence as if they were buying a gold mine in a third world country.
Ultimately, the burden of the draft is on the rookies, as they have little time to prepare for the season with their team – compared with the time they had to prepare for the draft – working out to run faster, jump higher and bench-press better. And some of them – a sizeable part – will fail in achieving their goal of making the 53-man roster. Perhaps, had they a few weeks more with the playbooks and access to coaches, things would be working out better for them – increased conditioning, better technique, better grasp of the pro game and its intricacies would only be better for the game itself.
If anybody asked me to offer a plan for reform of the draft, I would suggest one thing.
Well, I would of course make the draft a one-day event. Well, maybe two-day. I get the fan frenzy and the money the NFL makes from selling TV rights to the draft and selling merchandise – so that’s not really an option.
Nevertheless, I would suggest swapping the NFL draft and the opening of the free agency window. Draft first, sign free agents later. Think about it.
One, drafting first will reinforce the draft as the primary way of development of the teams – which it really is, given how much attention is given to it by the teams and given the value of the picks in "veterans-for-picks" trades (another aspect that I fail to grasp – an accomplished veteran may be traded for a third round pick or so – with no guarantee that that pick will even make the team…?).
Two, this will give the rookies more time with their teams preparing for the season and life in pro football in general. Free agent pros need much less time to adjust to a new team.
Three, it will actually help the teams who, by the time free agency hits, will know much better which holes to plug via the market, which holes have been taken care of via the draft, and which in-house pending free agents must be extended or tagged.
So have the draft in mid-March, as the first meaningful event of the League Year, then have the Free Agency open in, say, late April, just before the first offseason workouts for vets.
Sure, teams may see this is as making draft more risky and unpredictable. This proposal could be then complemented by letting rookies have more access to coaches and team facilities for workouts and sessions in the first four to six weeks after the draft. Another interesting idea would be to introduce a rule whereby drafted rookies, who do not make the 53-man rosters but are signed to the teams’ practice squads, cannot be signed by other teams in their rookie years. All this will give the rookies a better chance to integrate into an NFL life, develop as football players and actually contribute to the teams that have drafted them. This, in turn, will increase the value of the draft for the teams, and retain the draft as a primary team-building avenue.
It can’t be too bad, can it?
The 2014 draft is now over, team workouts, OTAs and minicamps will be the main NFL theme leading up to the fun of the training camps – which means that the NFL is exciting again. Just a little bit to go before the 2014 NFL season.