How the NFL Draft Works

By: Kevin Bonsor
Matt Ryan was selected third overall by the Atlanta Falcons during the 2008 NFL Draft. Jim McIsaac/ Getty Images
Matt Ryan was selected third overall by the Atlanta Falcons during the 2008 NFL Draft. See more football pictures.

Each spring brings hope for National Football League (NFL) teams, especially for those that had poor win-loss records in the previous season. The NFL draft is held in April and is the opportunity for teams to improve their roster by adding those college players considered to be the most talented in the world.

NFL teams develop their player rosters through three methods: free-agent signings, trading their players for players from other teams, and drafting college players who have decl­ar­ed themselves eligible for the NFL draft. The NFL draft is a two-day event in which all 32 teams take their turns selecting these players.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at the event that determines the future success of NFL teams by explaining the ground rules of the event, the selection process, and who is eligible to be drafted.


Setting the Ground Rules

Fans at the Draft

While millions of fans are only able to watch the draft on television, there are a few who attend the event. These fans cheer and jeer just as they would if they were sitting in the stands on game day.

Tickets are available to fans on a first-come, first-serve basis about a week prior to the draft, and are distributed on the morning of the draft's first day. Each fan is given just one ticket, which can be used for admission for both days of the draft.

The NFL Draft is always held over a weekend in April, which happens to be halfway between the date of the Super Bowl and the beginning of training camp in July. The exact date for the draft varies from year to year.

The draft consists of seven rounds, with rounds one through three held on Saturday, and rounds four through seven on Sunday. The average round consists of 32 picks, which allows each team approximately one pick per round. Some teams have more than one pick in a round, and some teams may not have any picks in a round. Picks per team vary because draft picks can be traded to other teams, and the NFL can award additional picks to a team if the team loses players designated as restricted free agents.

A free agent is a player whose contract has expired and is eligible to sign with another team. A restricted free agent is a player for whom another team can make an offer, but his current team is allowed to match that offer. If the current team chooses not to match the offer, it may receive compensation in the form of a draft choice. The NFL awards compensatory picks based on the net loss of restricted free agents. The limit for compensatory picks is four per team.

Due to compensatory picks and the addition of expansion teams, the total number of picks has varied since the draft was reduced to seven rounds in 1994. There were 262 players selected in the 2003 NFL Draft, which was the most since 1994. Between 1977 and 1993, the draft consisted of 12 rounds, and from 1967 to 1976 there were 17 rounds per draft.

Within each round, each team takes its turn in selecting a player. In the next section, we will take a closer look at how the selection process works.


On the Clock

As soon as the game clock at the Super Bowl expires, a new clock starts ticking. That's the clock that ticks down to the first player selected in the NFL draft in April. When a team is on the clock, it means that it has the next selection in the draft and has a set amount of time to make a selection.

While the team with the first selection is on the clock from the end of January, which is when the Super Bowl is played, the clock begins for real on draft day. On the first day of the draft, the NFL commissioner steps to the podium on the stage at The Theater at Madison Square Garden and announces that the first team in the draft order is on the clock.

During the draft, one team is always on the clock. In round one, teams have 15 minutes to make their choice. The decision time drops to 10 minutes in the second round and to five minutes in rounds three through seven. If a team doesn't make a decision in their given time, the next team can pick before them, and the team that missed its turn can submit its selection at any time after their time is up.

A team's draft position is in reverse correlation with the success it achieved on the field during the previous year, which is why the team with the worst record has the first pick of each round, and the Super Bowl champion has the last pick. This is the default draft position for these teams unless they choose to trade their picks. The other 30 teams fall somewhere in between based on the following factors:

  • Nonplayoff teams get to draft before the teams that made the playoffs of the previous season.
  • Playoff teams pick in reverse order of their success.

If teams share the same record, here are the criteria for breaking ties:

  1. Strength of schedule - refers to the combined win-loss record of the teams they played the previous season
  2. Divisional and conference records
  3. Coin toss

In the next section, we will go inside a team's draft day war room and see how selections are made.


The War Room

NFL Draft Table

Teams begin assessing the abilities of college players months if not years prior to the NFL draft. Scouts, coaches, general managers, and sometimes even team owners compile statistics and notes in their evaluation of hundreds of college football's best players before they make their selection.

The NFL Scouting Combine in February is another chance for teams to get familiar with the players. The combine is an annual event where more than 300 of the top draft-eligible players are invited to showcase their abilities. The combine is also when the media and fans begin focusing their attention on draft day.

After assessing the players, teams will make their wish lists for the players they want to draft. Then they determine their alternative selections, because if a team doesn't have the top two or three picks in the draft, drafting any particular player is not guaranteed.

Mr. Irrelevant

Just as someone has to be the first pick in the draft, someone has to be last. This player is given the dubious moniker of Mr. Irrelevant. Although it sounds insulting, there are hundreds of players who wish they were in this player's shoes.

Mr. Irrelevant is actually the most celebrated player outside of the first round. In fact, he is the only player in the draft to have a formal celebration thrown in his honor. Since 1976, Paul Salata, of Newport Beach, CA, has arranged an annual event to celebrate the last player selected in each draft. Salata had a brief career in the 1950s as a receiver for the Baltimore Colts.

After being flown to California, Mr. Irrelevant is paraded through Newport Beach. He'll then spend the next week going to Disneyland and participating in a golf tournament, among other activities. Each Mr. Irrelevant also receives the Lowsman Trophy, a small bronze statue of a player fumbling a ball. The Lowsman is the antithesis of the Heisman Trophy (pronounced Highsman), which is annually given to the best player in college football.

Learn more about Mr. Irrelevant and the Irrelevant Week festivities.

On draft day, the team's key personnel huddles together in a room, known as the War Room. It's in this room that the decision is made about whom to draft. The selection is then relayed to a team representative at Madison Square Garden, who submits the selection to an NFL official such as the commissioner, who then announces the selection.

Some teams, especially those with a high draft selection, may determine their first-round selection far in advance of the draft and may even have settled on contract terms with the player. In this case, the draft is just a formality, and the player need only sign the contract to make it official.

Once the draft begins, teams pay close attention to the selections made by the teams ahead of them in the draft order. Sometimes, a team that has already determined its selection may have to scramble to pick someone else because the player it wanted was unexpectedly drafted by another team.

In the next section, we'll outline who is eligible to be drafted, and we'll take a look at the draft experience from a player's perspective.


The Draft Pool

A Long Shot

Almost every athlete that plays high school football dreams of one day playing in the NFL, but for most players that dream is never realized. The hard truth is that the NFL has a finite number of jobs, and only the most talented are selected to fill those positions.

One million high school students participate in football annually, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Very few of those players, only one in 17, will even play college football.

It's an even longer shot that a high school player will eventually play for an NFL team. Only one in 50 college football seniors are drafted by an NFL team, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). That means that just nine in 10,000, or .09 percent, of high school senior football players are eventually drafted by an NFL team.

Teams can draft almost anyone they want. In fact, the Dallas Cowboys have drafted two players with no football experience -- Olympic gold-medallists Carl Lewis in 1984 (12th round) and Bob Hayes in 1964 (7th round). Hayes took the ball and ran with it, while Lewis turned down the Cowboys for more Olympic gold.

While athletes from other sports sometimes are drafted, the majority of the players drafted are those who played college football. One of the few draft rules is that underclass players are prohibited from entering the draft until three college football seasons have passed since their high school graduation. This means that almost all freshmen and some sophomores cannot be drafted.

The deadline for underclassmen, sophomores and juniors, to declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft is in January. Once a player declares for the draft, they forego their remaining eligibility to play college football, which means that once they declare for the draft they cannot return to play in college.

On draft day, hundreds of players are at Madison Square Garden or in their living rooms waiting for their names to be announced. Some of the players who are likely to be drafted in the first round are invited to attend the draft. These are the players who you see going up on stage when their names are called, putting on the team hat, and having their picture taken holding a team jersey.

These first-round players wait backstage in the green room with their family and friends, along with their agents. Some won't be called until the second round, and with less fanfare. Draft position is important to players and their agents because the higher selections get paid more than players chosen later in the draft.

When quarterback David Carr was drafted by the Houston Texans in the 2002 NFL Draft, he received a $10,920,000 signing bonus and a six-year contract for $47,250,000. The second player taken, defensive end Julius Peppers, received a $9,100,00 signing bonus and a seven-year, $20,985,300 contract. Compare that with the contract given to defensive tackle Ahmad Miller, who was the last player taken in the 2002 draft. He received a $21,000 signing bonus and a three-year, $926,000 contract.

Miller resides on the playing end of the spectrum of athletes who may or may not get drafted. There are lots of players whose phone doesn't ring on draft day. For these players, it is an uphill battle to play in the NFL, but not an impossible task. There's always next year. That's what the draft is all about -- hope.