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NFL Draft wasn't always the spectacle that it is today

In fact, it didn't exist when the league began.

The NFL draft hasn't always been what it is today
The NFL draft hasn't always been what it is today
Elsa/Getty Images

When the four teams for the 2015 college football playoff were announced, every sports writer and blog site had their opinion on the matchups. With the Clemson Tigers-Oklahoma Sooners game, print was declared for Clemson's stout defense vs. Oklahoma's pro-style offensive attack. For the Alabama Crimson Tide-Michigan State Spartans contest, the content of coverage was somewhat altered. A lot of attention was dedicated to the amount of Five Star recruits the Crimson Tide had on its roster whereas Michigan State was ladled with mostly Three Star athletes.

Much talk circled around the blue collar, lunch pail attitude of Sparty as opposed to how elite the Alabama squad was. Of course, after Bama won the contest 38-0 everyone realized that a full house always beats a straight.

College football teams are built by a simple resolution: if a blue-chip high school athlete decides to attend a particular school, then he accepts their scholarship offer and becomes enrolled and then starts playing football. Each university makes a decision on which athletes they wish to pursue, but in the end, it is the athlete who makes the definitive decision.

Quite the opposite with professional football. Some players are traded, some sign as free agents while others sign to a futures contract. But the majority of players are drafted, then signed for an exact amount of years and thus compete for a roster spot each and every season.

Each NFL team decides who plays for them -- not the other way around. Of course, every general manager (GM) and head coach wish it was a recruitment type of system similar to the college game.

At one time -- it was.

The NFL was formed in 1920 for three reasons: 1) to have a consistent scheduling system, 2) to have rosters where players could not jump from team-to-team every week, and 3) rosters devoid of college players playing under assumed names. However, there was no system in place of how to craft rosters for its teams.

For about 40 years before the formation of the NFL, most pro football teams were merely community squads of meat cutters, policemen, wrestlers, firemen and such. This meant a team formed in Duluth, Minn., was comprised of locals. But when the NFL became an official league with standings and a consistent schedule, more and more college players found that they could make better money upon graduation playing pro ball than entering the workforce.

And there were several teams that went after the best players. Curly Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants' Tim Mara, Potsy Clark of the Portsmouth Spartans, George Halas of the Chicago Bears and to some degree the Boston Redskins' George Preston Marshall all had big stadiums to fill and needed big college names to bring in the crowds. Throughout the late 1920s and into the 1930s, those teams were consistently in the hunt for the NFL title each and every season. And because of the on-field success, these clubs were also some of the few clubs that made a profit - which meant larger player salaries for the new crop of college stars.

Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Eagles, Brooklyn Dodgers, Staten Island Stapletons, Cleveland Rams and Chicago Cardinals would take a backseat to those other clubs on the field and at the box office. In those days, ticket and program sales were the majority of each team's revenue stream; and in fact, most of these clubs would only play road games with the franchises who were drawing huge crowds in order to get a percentage of a higher gate.

Breaking even in the NFL sometimes was the goal each year. After the Cincinnati Reds went 3-6-1 and 0-8-0 in consecutive seasons, they could not pay their team dues and simply folded. The Eagles lost $80,000 during one season and went bankrupt, then was sold for $4,500 to Bert Bell.

After a few seasons, Bell became frustrated that all the great college players would only sign with a handful of teams and squads like his own could only hire the marginal athletes. Another issue was that teams would get into bidding wars with each other for the same player. And of course, franchises like his were bottom-dwellers each year and were almost always outbid.

Every year the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Bell felt that the current system was broken.

Not having an amateur draft to distribute the talent evenly would destroy another pro football league in later years. From 1946-1949, the All-America Football Conference went head-to-head with the NFL via eight franchises. However, the Cleveland Browns led by the legendary Paul Brown gathered an All-Star team of talent and won the league every year. It got so bad, that in the Browns' fourth season their own fans quit coming to games because of the lopsidedness of the rosters.

At the owner's meeting in 1935, Bell decided to make a suggestion to change how teams accumulated their rosters. His idea was that at the end of each season, a list would be compiled of all eligible college seniors and that a selection process would take place in reverse order of the previous year's standings.

In Bell's biography, "On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell," he writes that he informed the other owners, "I've always had a theory that pro football is like a chain. The league is no stronger than its weakest link and I've been a weak link for so long that I should know," as his book states. "Few teams control the championships. Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players in the open market, which makes them more successful."

Of course, the prosperous franchises had the most to lose if such an arrangement would be instigated and take place every year. But both Halas and Mara were for the idea right off with the thinking that folks came out to see a competition and should get what they pay for.

The owners approved the proposal, which oddly the word "draft" was never mentioned in Bell's proposal. The first-ever NFL draft would take place after the 1935 season.

After the Eagles went 2-9-0, the very thing Bell had envisioned enabled himself to make the very first selection. On February 8, 1936, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, Bell selected halfback Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago. Berwanger was the first Heisman Trophy winner (then called the "Downtown Athletic Club Trophy") and was known as "the one man football team." He was a very gifted and versatile athlete.

That first draft lasted nine rounds with 81 players selected. Some interesting notes:

  • Bear Bryant was selected in the fourth round (31st overall) by the Dodgers
  • The Giants took future Hall of Fame fullback Tuffy Leemans in the second round
  • Four Hall of Famers would be selected in this maiden draft.

The draft jumped to 12 rounds in 1937 then to 22 rounds the following year. From 1943 to 1948 a whopping 32 rounds transpired each season. Every year in the 1950s the draft settled on 30 rounds. From 1960-1966, it dropped again to 20 rounds. When the NFL and the American Football League agreed to a merger, they embarked on a 17-round common draft beginning after the conclusion of the 1967 season. Later, the rounds dropped again to 12, then eight and to the present system of seven rounds.

Several of today's players are known as "eighth-round draft picks." This was made famous by Houston Texans' RB Arian Foster after he went undrafted and ultimately became one of the league's premier running backs. Other well-known eighth rounders include QB Tony Romo (Cowboys), WR Victor Cruz (Giants), LB James Harrison (Steelers), TE Antonio Gates and WR Wes Welker (Chargers), LB Bart Scott and C Jeff Saturday (Ravens), QB Kurt Warner (Packers) and K Adam Vinatieri (Colts).

Throughout the years the location, dates, and city would alter. Back in Bell's day, the NFL offices were located in Philadelphia and accommodated many a draft day. When the NFL moved their offices to New York City, the draft settled into that city and has hosted the most amateur drafts.

And Berwanger? He never played a down in the NFL. In fact, none of the Eagles' nine draft picks signed with the team following that inaugural 1935 college football draft. Without any new blood, Philadelphia went 1-11-0 the following season.

The establishment of the NFL draft was the first in professional sports as all other pro leagues would develop their own form of selection process. The motive was simple: to provide parity within the league. Without this one act, teams would become stacked and public interest would certainly wane.

The ability for any team to improve year-after-year is critical to the league's very survival. And the catalyst has been the NFL college draft.

Notable Late-Round Draft Picks

Year Round Player Position Team Hall of Fame?
1936 9 Dan Fortmann OG Bears Yes
1941 9 Tony Canadeo RB Packers Yes
1945 11 Tom Fears WR Ram Yes
-- 17 Arnie Weinmeister DT Brooklyn Tigers Yes
1947 12 Dante Lavelli WR Rams Yes
-- 20 Tom Landry DB Giants Yes
-- 22 Art Donovan OT/DT Giants Yes
1948 26 Lou Creekmur OT Eagles Yes
1949 12 George Blanda QB Bears Yes
1951 19 Andy Robustelli DE Rams Yes
1953 11 Alex Webster RB Redskins Yes
-- 20 Chuck Noll LB Browns Yes
-- 23 Rosey Brown DT/OT Giants Yes
1954 20 Raymond Berry WR Colts Yes
1955 9 Johnny Unitas QB Steelers Yes
1956 15 Willie Davis DE Browns Yes
-- 17 Bart Starr QB Packers Yes
1957 9 Don Maynard WR Giants Yes
1958 21 John Madden OT Eagles Yes
1959 18 Joe Kapp QB Redskins No
1960 10 Mel Branch WR 49ers No
-- 17 Goose Gonsoulin DB 49ers No
1961 10 Roger Staubach QB Cowboys Yes
1965 7 Marty Schottenheimer LB Bills No
-- 13 Spider Lockhart DB Giants No
-- 18 Chris Hanburger LB Redskins Yes
1967 9 Ken Houston DB Oilers Yes
1969 10 L.C. Greenwood DE Steelers No
1974 15 Billy "Whiteshoes" Johnson WR Oilers No
1979 10 Dwight Clark TE 49ers No
1983 13 Karl Mecklenburg LB Broncos No
1986 9 Clyde Simmons DE Eagles No
1994 7 Tom Nalen C Broncos No
1995 6 Terrell Davis RB Broncos No
2000 6 Tom Brady QB Patriots Still active
2001 7 T. J. Houshmanzadeh WR Bengals Still active
2010 6 Antonio Brown WR Steelers Still active