07.06.2021 • Authors: Julien Then and Maximilian Wensch
Some may have already noticed. A little more than 4 weeks ago, the NFL Draft for the upcoming American football season was broadcast on television. In Germany, with just over 100,000 TV viewers as many as never before followed the draft in the night to April 30 this year.
For all those who now only understand station: Don’t worry, in this article we have summarized everything you need to know about the draft system in the USA and this year’s draft of the American National Football League (NFL).
In the world of soccer, there was recently a lot of turbulence surrounding the announced Super League, the concept of which was then rather quickly discarded after massive protest. The principle of a closed league without promotion and relegation is not completely new in the world of sports. In the USA, the concept of closed leagues is widespread. A prime example is the highest division in American football: the National Football League, or NFL for short.
The National Football League consists of 32 teams with fixed spots in the league. The same 32 teams play each season for a place in the playoffs and with it the chance to secure the championship.
There are no amateur leagues or youth teams. Instead of playing in smaller clubs or youth performance centers, as is common in Europe, young people in the USA play for their schools. From high school to college, the young athletes play on the school or university team. This is where the NFL Draft comes into play. Through the annual drafts, NFL teams have the opportunity to sign young players.
Players can be drafted from the country’s colleges who have played at least 3 years of college football and have registered for the NFL Draft.
But how exactly does the NFL Draft work?
The draft takes place once a year in the offseason. In a pre-determined order, teams take turns selecting players who have registered for the draft over 7 draft rounds. The right to draft at a certain position is called a “pick”. So the team with the first pick gets to select a player from the player pool first and foremost. The picks are therefore one of the most important resources of the teams.
The team with the worst win-loss record in the preseason gets the first pick in the draft. The better the preseason result, the worse the team’s position in the draft. So the winner of the Super Bowl has the last pick in the first round of the draft. However, the order often changes because teams can trade picks among themselves.
Unlike in European football, no transfer fees are paid for player transfers. Teams have the option to offer their picks for future drafts as an indirect transfer fee. Teams that, for example, have traded players to other clubs in exchange for picks or have traded their low draft pick for several higher picks can therefore sign many young talents from college at the draft. Incidentally, the record for most picks in a draft is held by the Minnesota Vikings, who had 15 picks available in last year’s draft.
There are, of course, many things that make the draft so fascinating. Among other things, draft days shine with unpredictability and oddity. Let’s take a look at three stories from past years that are almost impossible to top in terms of bizarreness.
This anecdote is about one of the most notable and successful families in NFL history, the Mannings. Already father Archie Manning was a successful quarterback for many years. He was drafted second overall by the New Orleans Saints in 1971 and also played for the Minnesota Vikings and Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans). After his oldest son Cooper was kept away from a football career due to a serious injury, his brother Payton, 2 years younger, made it to the NFL as the first pick in 1998 to the Indianapolis Colts. He had such an impressive career there that he will even be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.
But the youngest of the siblings, Eli, also faced a successful career in the NFL , even though his entry into the NFL was both curious and exciting. It was the 2004 draft, and the San Diego Chargers held the first pick based on preseason performance. Eli Manning was one of the favorites to be drafted first and was considered one of the greatest talents of the year. However, the fact that he didn’t want to go first to the Chargers was leaked to the public even before the draft began. His agent threatened that Eli would sit out the season and try his luck again a year later. Usually players are always happy to end up in the NFL and which franchise selects a player usually plays a minor role.
On draft day, however, the Chargers obviously weren’t impressed by the rumors and threats, and so they selected Eli Manning with the first pick. The inevitable happened: Eli refused to accept the pick and once again stated emphatically that he would definitely not play in San Diego. With this pressure behind them, the Chargers had to come up with something, because if Eli Manning decided not to sign his contract after the draft and wait another year, the most valuable pick of the draft would simply be lost.
But then came one of the most spectacular draft day trades of all time. The New York Giants, who selected quarterback Philip Rivers with pick 4, agreed to simply trade the player rights of the two quarterbacks. Such a thing had never happened again, both before and since.
With a few years of hindsight, it’s safe to say that the trade probably paid off for both of them. Eli won the Super Bowl twice with the Giants and Rivers made history with the Chargers as the quarterback with the most passes and yards.
This story also shows what can go wrong on draft day despite meticulous preparation.
It’s the 2003 draft, and the bylaws at the time describe the rule for who has how much time in this draft as giving everyone 15 minutes in Round 1 to either use their pick or trade it to another team. The Minnesota Vikings are “On the Clock,” meaning it’s their turn to trade their pick. They were negotiating with the Baltimore Ravens, who wanted to slide up three spots to grab quarterback Byron Leftwich before the Jacksonville Jaguars. Time was running out until with 30 seconds left, the Vikings submitted the trade with Baltimore to the NFL. To seal the trade, all the Ravens had to do was confirm the trade, giving them the right to choose.
However, Baltimore’s manager at the time Ozzie Newsome stated that no agreement was reached. Thus, the Vikings’ time ran out and it was the Jaguars’ turn.
What many spectators wondered at the time was what would happen in such a case, because a team forgetting to pick doesn’t happen every day. The rule was that Minnesota could submit a pick at any time, but it had no priority over the other team that had just taken its turn. So for the teams after that, they had to hurry if they wanted to pick a player before Minnesota did. The Jaguars did just that, submitting their pick after just 30 seconds, quarterback Byron Leftwich. The Carolina Panthers followed suit and also selected their player in a hurry. After that, Minnesota finally got their turn and selected a player.
As a funny side note, we now know that the player the Ravens selected after the Vikings, Terell Suggs, became one of the best pass rushers of all time, while Byron Leftwich never really got a foothold in the NFL as a player.
One of the things that makes the draft so exciting is that it has a lot more to do with luck than NFL teams would like. Just because a player is picked early doesn’t mean that his style of play will carry over from college to the NFL and that he will have a good NFL career. And it’s the same the other way around, as the example of the most successful NFL player of all time shows.
It’s the 6th round of the 2000 NFL Draft, and most franchises are still looking for players to fill out the roster and accompany reserve roles on the team, at most. So did the New England Patriots, who selected with pick 199 a quarterback who would be the backup behind regular Drew McQueen Bledsoe, a certain Tom Brady. At the time, he was a player who didn’t stand out for his impressive college play, nor was he particularly athletic.
In the first season after he was selected, he also sat almost exclusively on the bench. However, this was to change quite suddenly in his second season. In the second game of the season, regular quarterback Bledsoe was injured so badly that he couldn’t play any longer. The backup came in and led New England to victory.
Bledsoe’s injury was so bad, however, that Brady was used in subsequent games as well. This, it turned out, was no problem at all, however, as Tom Brady led New England to an impressive record of 11 wins and 5 losses that season. But that was not all: New England crowned itself that year, winning the Super Bowl for the first time in the history of this franchise. The beginning of a new era.
In the following years, Tom Brady was then the regular and today, with seven Super Bowl titles, he is more successful than any single team in the NFL.
Today, when someone drafts a player in a later round, that example always resonates and gives all fans hope for a repeat of such a fairy tale.
In this year’s draft, too, there were one or two stories that symbolize the special features of the draft and underpin the fascination of the draft.
Anyone who is a little familiar with the sport of American football knows how important and elementary the position of the quarterback is. He is the linchpin of every NFL game and arguably has the best opportunity to influence the outcome of a game.
The 2021 draft showed just how important this position is to the franchises.
The first three picks this year were all quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance). While it’s normal for at least one quarterback to be drafted in the first picks most of the time, three out of three is out of the ordinary. This is further underscored when you look at everything the San Francisco 49ers traded to be able to select a quarterback in the first place at pick three. They gave up three picks in round 1, and one pick in round 3. And they did all that just to be allowed to draft at the 3rd spot in this year’s draft. There they selected Trey Lance, an athletic and promising young quarterback.
But the 49ers aren’t the only team that gave up a lot of picks to get to pick earlier and select a quarterback. The Chicago Bears also used two picks in the first round and a pick in Round 5 to jump from pick 20 to pick 11. There, the Bears then selected former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. In all, as many as 5 quarterbacks were selected in the first round, showing how important the position is to NFL teams.
Finally, let’s look at the other side of the draft, not the NFL teams looking for players, but the colleges that train them.
It’s logical that colleges that have had a very successful season also give up a lot of players in the draft. However, this year it was very impressive what happened with players from the Alabama Crimson Tides.
Alabama went undefeated last year, winning the college championship and ranking number one in all relevant college rankings. That was probably the reason why ten players from this team were selected in the NFL in this draft. While this alone is very good, it is still not very outstanding. What is much more impressive is that of those ten, eight were picked in the first two rounds. In fact, almost every 5th player in the first round was an Alabama player.
How successful these players will ultimately be in the NFL is still up in the air, but it says a lot about the impressive work of Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
The record for players selected by a college in a draft year is shared by the 2020 Louisiana State University Tigers and the 2004 Oklahoma State Cowboys, each with 14 players selected.
Once again, this year’s draft held many surprises. Which teams have best strengthened themselves with this year’s draft will only be revealed in the course of the coming seasons. We are excited when the new NFL season starts again on 09.09.2021.
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