The NFL has used a draft to filter rookies into the league since 1936. What if it didn’t?
What would the NFL look like without a draft?
The long answer: I dunno. The short answer: a little more like college football.
A system where every team has the freedom to sign any first-year player at its leisure is why Alabama is Alabama and other schools go decades without sniffing so much as a conference championship. The draft ensures equal-ish access to talent, because bad teams pick sooner and get to restock. Losing the draft would trim whatever parity the NFL has.
Just as college teams are limited to a max of 85 scholarship slots, let’s assume a draft-less NFL still forces teams to stay within the usual salary cap and 53-man roster limit. And let’s imagine that this would be a new thing, instituted for the 2019 season.
We’d be able to break down the league’s 32 teams into categories as recruiters.
These lists are mostly independent of current coaches, owners, and front offices, but let’s make two exceptions: one for a coach who used to recruit a bunch of five-stars to his Pac-10 powerhouse, and one for Washington owner Dan Snyder, who is Dan Snyder.
This group of teams would vie for the best available talent, usually:
Remember where the good football players come from: mostly California, Texas, and the South. Did I mention that Texas has no state income tax? Pretty good. Plus, players would probably like big markets, as we see often in the NBA. So, that gives us …
The Rams, the more desirable of the two LA teams
The Chargers, the NFL’s equivalent to UCLA
The 49ers, who are also in a top-three talent state and share a home region with the Warriors, who seem to be recruiting just fine
The Patriots, even though all their good QB recruits would try to leave
The Steelers, because they have rings and Penn State has made it clear you can recruit elite talent to otherwise unsexy Pennsylvania towns
The Eagles, because they’re good at football and do the kind of outstanding work in the community that recruits’ parents love
The Cowboys, because years of mediocrity haven’t stopped the Longhorns from signing good classes
The Texans, because an absurd amount of talent hails from around Houston
The Jaguars, Bucs, and Dolphins, because of recruiting geography
The Saints, because New Orleans and also recruiting geography
The Seahawks, because they and their city are cool, and Pete Carroll already engages in college-style recruiting to land UDFAs. Plus, there are no NCAA violations in the NFL.
The Falcons are in a talent-rich state and have a cool stadium
The Giants and Jets, because New York City
The Raiders, after they move to Vegas
This group of teams would fall in the middle of the recruiting pack:
Some have lots of history. Some don’t. Some are in cold-weather cities:
The Packers and Bears, because someone’s always down to play for a team with some history and a ravenous fan base even if it’s super cold outside
The Titans, because Nashville’s pretty trendy nowadays for young people
The Ravens are kind of fun, and Baltimore is kind of nice
The Broncos play in a cool city, though the Nuggets don’t pile up superstar signees
The Chiefs, right? They at least have a really loud stadium. Great for hosting official visits.
The Raiders while they’re still in the Oakland Coliseum
The Panthers, who could be the NC State of the NFL
The Cardinals, because the desert isn’t for everyone
The Bengals, who get an “Ohio has lots of talent born there” bump
In general, these teams might be at a recruiting disadvantage:
Bad weather! General lack of sexiness!
The Browns, though maybe a bunch of good Ohio State players would want to play for them, because home truly is where the heart is
The Vikings, though they could still woo big fish with — to come up with one random example — tons of money, an opening at QB, and Stefon Diggs. A few of these teams play indoors, but they aren’t located in generally comfortable climates.
Washington, because Snyder
There’d still be some upward mobility for lesser teams.
In college, just 10 or so teams out of 130 are in the top tier of the recruiting world each year. The NFL wouldn’t be quite like that without a draft. I just figured that 17 of 32 teams would be in more or less the same position to convince the best of the best to play for them.
The ability to pay players would play a big role, as would the salary cap, depth charts, and relationships with coaches and GMs who change over time, just like college (except for the salary cap, usually).
Those teams in warm cities and with a lot of history would have an advantage, but it wouldn’t be the same as college. In college, a five-star DE isn’t going to Utah State. In the NFL, he might choose the Bills. They might offer more money or have a spot for him that the Patriots don’t. Bad teams tend to have more cap space than good teams.
The best rookies couldn’t all sign with one team, realistically. Few teams have the cap space to sign four of the top 10 prospects to market-rate deals. All of this would contribute to the NFL continuing to have a more level playing field than college.
But some team in the right circumstance could use the lack of a draft to build a dynasty, if the chips fell right.
Meet the 1946-49 Browns, who won four consecutive championships in the All-American Football Conference, briefly a peer of the old NFL’s. The AAFC didn’t have a draft, and the Browns went ahead and signed up four future Pro Football Hall of Famers in 1946:
C Frank Gatski
T/K Lou Groza
FB Marion Motley
DT Bill Willis
Those are four of the greatest undrafted free agents ever.
The Browns won every title the AAFC ever had because they recruited well. The draft has taken that opportunity away from them, but at least they get to pick first every year. This situation would be tough for them, because they’d suddenly be the third best recruiter in their own state behind the Bengals and Buckeyes.