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History of the NFL Draft

Event wasn’t always the affair it is today, in fact, it didn’t even exist

NFL: APR 27 2018 NFL Draft Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Each year when the four teams for the college football playoff are announced, every sports writer and blog site have their opinion on the matchups. One squad has a stout defense vs. the other team’s pro-style offensive attack. A lot of attention is dedicated to the amount of five-star recruits are on the various rosters whereas another team is ladled with mostly three-star athletes.

College football teams are built by a simple resolution: Coaching staffs make offers to a list of players they have earmarked as who they want on their football team. Those players then make the decision of which scholarship offer to accept. In the end, it is the athlete who makes the definitive decision.

Quite the opposite with professional football with the method in which every franchise’s roster is built. Some players are traded for draft picks, other players, cash or a combination thereof. Some sign as free agents while others are inked to a reserves/futures contract. But the majority of players are selected in the college football disbursement draft. This allows each NFL club to claim the “rights” to each drafted player; and then sign him to an exact amount of years and thus compete for a roster spot each season under that contract.

Each NFL team begins with seven draft choices every year. Compensatory picks are then added to various clubs depending on which players have left via free agency. In addition, franchises can add or delete draft picks involving trades with other teams.

All of these methods are the only way to build an NFL roster. But ultimately, each NFL club 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.


Originally, the league was fashioned in 1920 and called the American Professional Football Association (in 1922, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League).

For about 40 years before the formation of the NFL, most pro football teams were merely community teams. The APFA was formed for three distinct reasons: 1) to have a consistent scheduling system for member teams, 2) have rosters where players could not jump from team-to-team every week, and 3) rosters devoid of college players playing under assumed names for pro teams.

However, there was no system in place of how to craft rosters for its member clubs.

These community squads were mainly comprised of meat cutters, policemen, wrestlers, firemen, shop owners, coal miners, railroad workers, former college players and such. This meant a team formed in Duluth, Minn., was comprised of locals and another club in Muncie, Indiana were also locals. But when the APFA became an official organized 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.

New York Giants Football
L to R: Giants team captain Mel Hein, owner Tim Mara and head coach Steve Owen
Photo By: Seymour Wally/NY Daily News via Getty Images

And there were several clubs that went after the best college players. Curly Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers, the New York Football Giants’ Tim Mara, Potsy Clark of the Portsmouth Spartans, Chicago Bears’ George Halas 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 ultimately at the box office. In those days, ticket and program sales were the majority of each team’s revenue stream; and in fact, many 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 visitor’s gate.

The idea for a draft

Breaking even in the NFL sometimes was the goal each year. The Stapletons folded because of the Great Depression. After the Cincinnati Reds went 3-6-1 and 0-8-0 in consecutive seasons, they could not pay their league 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.

Steve Owen Congratulating Bert Bell
Giants head coach Steve Owen (left) with Eagles owner Bert Bell

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

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

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. In an unforeseen scenario, two men viewed as some of the NFL’s greatest influencers as owners, Halas and Mara, were for the idea right off. Their thinking was that folks came out to see a competition and should get what they pay for. Nobody enjoyed seeing weekly blowouts and hopefully parity would redeem itself as better attendance for the entire league.

The owners approved the proposal, which oddly the word “draft” was never mentioned in Bell’s tender. To be completely accurate, its official name is the “Player Selection Meeting.” Whatever you wish to call it, the first-ever event took place after the 1935 season.

Jay Berwanger and Others Playing Football
Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago leaps over a pile of defenders

After Philadelphia went 2-9-0, the very thing Bell had envisioned as a method to get teams on an even keel, earned his Eagles the right to make the very first selection. On February 8, 1936, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philly, 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:

  • Paul “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 future Hall of Famers would be selected in this maiden draft.

Future drafts

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 1966 season. Later, the rounds dropped again to 12, then eight and finally to the present system of seven rounds.

New Orleans Saints v New York Giants
Victor Cruz
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Several of today’s players are known as “eighth-round draft picks.” This was made famous by former Houston Texans Pro Bowl 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, K Justin Tucker and C Jeff Saturday (Ravens), WR Adam Thielen (Vikings), QB Kurt Warner (Packers), RB Phillip Lindsay (Broncos) and K Adam Vinatieri (Amsterdam Admirals).

Throughout the years the location of the draft, dates, and city would alter. Back in those early drafts, just as today’s draft process, each year the draft was held in a different city at some swanky downtown hotel. 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’ original nine draft picks signed with Philadelphia following that inaugural 1935 college football draft. Without any new blue-chip blood, Bell’s Eagles went 1-11-0 the following season.

The implementation of the NFL college draft was the first in professional sports. It would take years before the other professional sports followed suit, but each developed their own form of selection process eventually and is a standard today with any new startup league. The motive is simple: provide parity within the league. Without this one act, teams would become stacked and public interest would undoubtedly wane.

Non-draft leagues

Not having an amateur draft to distribute the talent evenly would destroy another pro football league in later years.

Browns head coach Paul Brown (center)
SetNumber: X2216

From 1946-1949, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) went head-to-head with the NFL via eight franchises as a rival league. However, the Cleveland Browns, led by legendary head coach Paul Brown, won the league every year. The AAFC did not have any organized method for teams to form rosters, so they signed players as they saw fit.

Brown gathered an All-Star team of talent and dominated all four years of the AAFC’s existence. At one point, the Browns had a 30-0-2-game win streak over three seasons. They went 14-0-0 in 1948. It got so bad, that in Cleveland’s fourth year their own fans quit coming to games because of the lopsidedness of the rosters and the enviable outcome.

There were five leagues named the American Football League. The final one, from 1960-1969, held a draft every year to which each club eventually was merged into the NFL.

None of the other AFL’s (1926, 1934, 1936, and 1940) held a college draft and just like the AAFC, every team formed their rosters in any manner they chose. Because of this, several clubs dominated the league whereas most of the fabric of the standings had some very bad teams. Because those teams were so bad, the league as a whole suffered as franchises could not pay their bills and folded. When suddenly an eight-team entity now has only four or five functioning teams, it is inevitable that the league would fail and simply blend into the history of professional football.

The net result was that for all the effort those good squads and management placed on their season and very existence to succeed, suddenly, there wasn’t a league to play in.

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.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association