This week I watched the NFL draft for the first time, and despite being slightly wary of whether it would be an entertaining and enjoyable experience, I absolutely loved it. The question in mind throughout was “could this be introduced in to English football to make it more open and competitive?”
For those people not familiar with the NFL Draft, in a nutshell, the team which finished with the worst record the previous season gets the first NFL Draft pick, working down to the team who won the Superbowl picking last. There are 7 rounds to the draft, each following the same order, resulting in 253 players being ‘drafted’. The players available for the draft are those eligible from college football – that meaning: those who have been out of High School for 3 years or more; those who submit as an underclassman whom the NFL then grade, giving the players the chance to go in to the draft or continue at school; those who have graduated from College within 1 year; if you didn’t go to college you can apply once four seasons have passed since you or classmates graduated High School. The usual route in to the draft is to be play College Football, be scouted, and attend the NFL Combine and school Pro-Days. All seems pretty straight forward – the worst team from the previous season gets to pick the best player out of the system to give them the chance to improve, and ultimately to keep the NFL competitive; that is where the phrase “Any Given Sunday” comes from; in the NFL, any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday. It is rare that the worse team one season, is the worse team the following season. Similarly, the Superbowl is not often won by the same team in consecutive years.
Straightforward, right? Wrong. To improve their prospects, NFL teams will trade for better picks. For instance, if you like the look of a player in the draft and your team has a need for that position, but their pick is further down the list, they can trade with a team higher up the list to get a better chance of acquiring that player – but this usually costs them; not in financial terms but in terms of additional picks. In this way, a team may trade their first pick for multiple picks in later rounds or even the following years draft. For example, the LA Rams traded their first round pick in the 2017 draft in addition to other picks, for the Tennessee Titans overall first pick in the draft in 2016 to enable them to sign Jared Goff (a strange decision given that Goff hardly featured in a poor first season for the Rams in their maiden year in LA). In this years draft, the Chicago Bears who were due to pick third overall, traded up one place with the San Francisco 49ers and took Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, costing them their 3rd, 67th and 111th pick in this years draft, and a 3rd round pick in next years draft. A lot to give up to pick one slot earlier, for a quarterback who isn’t highly rated by everybody and who the San Francisco 49ers probably wouldn’t have picked. So why do it? The risk in the draft is that if you don’t pick up the phone and make the deal with the 49ers, someone else might, and they might take that pick that you wanted.
The actual NFL Draft programme itself may seem boring on paper: you watch 32 teams each make the equivalent of 7 picks over 3 nights. In round 1 once the draft starts, each team has 10 minutes to make their pick and notify the NFL; once they have submitted their pick, the next team is on the clock. As the draft goes in to the later rounds, the amount of time teams have to make their pick reduces (7 minutes for round 2 and so on). The Cleveland Browns who had the overall first pick, you would think, wouldn’t need all 10 minutes to make their pick as they have had months to review the options and make their decisions, but they hang on in case the phone rings and there is a trade on offer too good to turn down. As was the case this year, they took Myles Garrett as predicted, with all the action happening for the 2nd pick. From an entertainment perspective, the time actually flew in the open rounds as you get ‘experts’ take on who each team will pick, and then who has been picked, with trades happening all the time. In the later rounds, for myself, I wasn’t too familiar with the players on offer so the excitement waned a little.
From a football perspective, the whole Draft event is very much like Transfer Deadline Day on speed. Jim White would no doubt lap up the job of NFL Commissioner presenting each pick to the fans.
On a serious note though, is there scope for something like the draft in English football? Every year we are told that it is harder and harder to break in to the top 6 of the Premier League, and that the gap between the divisions is getting greater and greater, but nothing is being done to stop this and make the divisions more competitive. Whilst at the same time, every club bemoans the way the transfer windows work which result in the over inflation of prices and teams paying over the odds for players on the last day – think Moussa Sissokho. So could a Draft-like system help?
The first stumbling block is the nature of the Draft in that it is College footballers who are drafted. In England we don’t follow a system whereby the best young players are picked from schools or university’s as part of an open forum; we operate by club scouts scouring schools and amateur leagues to find the best young prospects and offering them contracts. For the most part, these players are then not seen again for a number of years until they surface in the Youth Development Squads and then the first team (or if you are at Chelsea, you’ll be loaned out for multiple seasons and then sold in to obscurity for the most part). The Chelsea reference is intended as a joke, but there is a serious side: a lot of young talented footballers are snapped up en mass by the bigger clubs and then continuously being loaned out without ever being given a fair crack at the first team. I know why teams do it, bulk buy and hope you find the next star, whilst also preventing your rivals acquiring the same potential star. But for the individuals involved it doesn’t necessarily work, and surely these players would be better suited joining a team lower down the leagues and actually playing; which ultimately would create more of a level playing field, as young talent can help improve those teams. An additional benefit would also be more home grown players getting game time.
So perhaps the Draft in its purest duplication in football in England would not work, but there is the potential for a sort of draft to be implemented once youngsters reach the Youth Development Squads at their clubs, or even a draft-like system for loan signings. So my two proposals for implementing a draft like system to improve competitiveness down the leagues, increase the number of home-grown players getting game time, and ultimately getting players game time are as follows:
- Youth Development Draft – each team has a certain number of players who they can choose to retain from the Youth Development Squad, which excludes them from the Draft. The remainder of players who are due to “graduate” from the Youth Development Squad are entered in to a Draft. The sequence of Draft picks are determined by where a team finished that season – 24th in League Two would pick first, with the Premier League Winners picking last. The Draft would continue until all eligible players that season had been taken.
- Loan Draft – before a player in the Youth Development Squad reaches “graduation age” (say 21 for example) they can be made available for loan, similar to the current system, where again, a draft approach would be adopted for all these players, with the order of picks following the above. The traditional system for loaning ‘above-age’ players would still be followed; with the additional caveat that if a player is listed for loan and not loaned out before the draft, they can also be included as part of the draft.
This would allow the big clubs to spend millions on superstars to keep their clubs progressing, but it would get more youngsters playing week in and week out, improving competitiveness throughout the leagues and increasing the number of home-grown players getting game time which can only be good for the Home Nations national sides. It would also stop so many promising young players dropping out of the game for good. Its just an idea, but with so many clubs struggling to compete financially, surely this is a sensible way for them to improve their playing squads and outlooks.