The Rise of the NFL Draft

From the humble beginnings to the wild show known today

       In 1936, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel hosted the first NFL draft in Philadelphia. The draft was suggested to the league by Bert Bell, the co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who wanted every team to have a fair chance at getting top tier players. 


       For a while there was no film watching or scouting. Teams would have to pick players from news clippings and word of mouth. The 90 most famous college players would be put in the draft and selected.


       In 1936 the first pick of the draft was a Heisman Trophy winner named Jay Berwanger. Instead of playing for the NFL, Berwanger chose to be a foam rubber salesman instead. It’s wild to believe that the first pick in the history of the NFL Draft turned down the offer.  This was not uncommon as many players in the early days of the NFL chose to not play and pursue other jobs which would pay more. Football players made around $100 per game at that time. 


       In 1946 ,the draft saw improvement as the Los Angeles Rams hired Eddie Kotal, the NFLś first full-time scout. The Rams became one of the toughest teams in the 1950’s after that. The rival league, called the All American Football Conference (AAFC), competed with the NFL as players were stolen from the NFL due to bigger contracts and better deals at the AAFC. 


       During the 1960s, the NFL saw more competition with a new rival called the American Football League (AFL) which had a budget matching the NFL due to bigger tv deals. This created a bidding war for top college players which would hit the draft even harder. 


       While both leagues fought for players, the Dallas Cowboys became the first team to introduce computerized scouting. With the help of the new scouting software, the Cowboys drafted six future Hall of Fame players in the 1960s. 


       The war between the AFL and NFL took a turn when the Rams decided to have team officials make relationships with talented college players before they could be drafted. These officials were called “babysitters” and would take away college talents from their schools and make them unreachable during the AFL draft. 


       The two leagues finally merged and there was a 17 round draft with a time limit on each pick. Due to World War 2, teams were unsure if players would sign due to their military duties. The amount of rounds would differ as the draft evolved, beginning with 20 rounds in 1939 that settled to 7 rounds in 1994. 


       In 1980, a network called ESPN launched and asked NFL Commissioner, Pete Rozelle, about televising the draft, to which Pete Rozelle said, “who would watch the draft?” The draft was televised by ESPN on Tuesday at 8 am and covered the drama of the draft while draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. criticized every pick to entertain viewers. 


       Televising the draft became an instant hit and was helped by the 1983 draft where seven future Hall of Famers were selected in the first round.  The Broncos are one of four teams who have never drafted a number 1 overall pick. Denver traded for John Elway in 1983 after Elway threatened to play Major League Baseball over signing with the Colts, who picked him in the first round of the draft. 


       In 2002, The Minnesota Vikings failed to make a 1st-round selection in the 15 minute limit and were unable to get their pick in until 2 more rounds later. When a team’s time limit runs out, they can still make a selection unless the next team on the clock makes a pick first. 


       6 years ago, in 2015, the draft moved to another town for the first time in 50 years. The draft was held in Chicago instead of LA, which would  host it again in 2016. Chicago has been home to the draft 9 times, but the draft has also been held in New York City 57 times and Philadelphia 15 times. In 2019, 600,000 fans showed up to watch the draft in downtown Nashville.  


       In 2020, the draft was moved to Las Vegas in a virtual environment due to Covid-19. History will always remember when the draft picks were announced in the NFL commissioner’s basement during the first ever virtual draft. The 2020 draft became the most watched draft in history racking up 55 million viewers in the 5 days it was shown. 


       In 85 years of NFL Draft history there were lots of changes which forced the draft to adapt, including rival leagues, bidding for players, and round changes. The draft has had some memorable moments but there will most likely be many more to come.