History of the NFL Draft: How Has the Process Evolved over Time?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 24, 2012

Chuck Solomon/Getty Images
Chuck Solomon/Getty Images

Imagine this:

All of the NFL's movers and shakers have gathered in Philadelphia. Every NFL owner and executive has flown in from around the country. The swanky Ritz-Carlton is hosting the NFL Draft, and the place is buzzing with anticipation.

The Philadelphia Eagles hold the first pick, but haven't been able to come to contract terms with their selection before draft day. With their name on the clock, the Eagles swallow hard and select a Heisman Trophy-winning running back from the Big Ten. They hope they'll be able to get a deal done.

They aren't. The Eagles decide to trade their would-be halfback's negotiating rights to the Chicago Bears for a young starting tackle, and the Bears do their best to appease the star runner's massive contract demands.

After trading final offers, the Bears and their new rookie are still miles apart on total salary, so the rookie decides to hold out.


Nothing like that would ever happen? It already has.

The NFL's first No. 1 overall pick, Jay Berwanger, took a day job at a rubber factory. He never accepted George Halas's offer, and the Heisman winner never played a down of professional football.

Berwanger stayed close to the game by moonlighting as a position coach for his alma mater, the University of Chicago.

The NFL Draft has been part of the league since that first draft in 1936, not long after the league's inception (as the AFPA) in 1920.

The original owners couldn't possibly dream their closed-door meeting would eventually be held in the sparkling new Radio City Music Hall (only four years old at the time) for a live audience of thousands and a TV audience of millions.

Yet, for all of the glitz, glamour, pomp and circumstance, the mechanics of the draft remain essentially unchanged.

That first NFL Draft was held at the behest of Eagles owner Bert Bell, who was having difficulty signing players to his struggling team.

Players were choosing to play whichever team offered the most money, best chance to win, best place to live or some combination of the above. Low-budget (or poorly performing) teams couldn't attract top talent—or crowds.

Surprisingly, the economics of professional sports haven't changed much in 75 years.

To tilt the playing field in his direction, Bell proposed all rookies enter into a draft pool, and teams would select rookies from that pool in worst-to-first order, round after round.

Just as they do now, the selecting teams would receive exclusive negotiating rights to their draftee; he was forced to sign with that team or not at all until the next draft.

Bell's proposal passed unanimously.

Even at that first draft, there was a "big board." It was a chalkboard with 90 draft candidates on it; all the owners made their selections off that same board.

The names were submitted by reputation and recommendations from college coaches; each team suggested players to be put on the board for all to see.

Wellington Mara, who would eventually inherit the New York Giants from his father Tim, revolutionized the draft process.

According to his biographer, Carlo DeVito, Mara subscribed to out-of-town newspapers and drove all over the country looking for undiscovered talent. By 1939 Mara had what we now call "final say" authority over the Giants' draft process.

In 1946, Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves took it to the next level by hiring folks to do all the newspaper-reading and driving around for him: he hired a scout.

Reeves hired former Packers tailback Eddie Kotal to be the first full-time professional football scout. Kotal and Reeves put together a roster that made it to the NFL Championship game in 1945, 1949, 1950 and 1951, winning it all at the beginning and end of that stretch.

Just as now, different teams had wildly different levels of commitment to building through the draft. Just as now, the Washington Redskins did not cover themselves in glory when April rolled around.

In 1946, the same year the Rams hired the first full-time scout, the Redskins selected UCLA's Cal Rossi with the ninth overall pick. Rossi, though, was a junior—by the rules at the time, ineligible to be drafted. In 1947, the Redskins again selected Rossi—only to discover he had no interest in playing professional football.

The NFL draft changed again with the emergence of the AFL in 1960. The NFL was no longer a monopoly, and the AFL competed hard to sign NFL draft choices. The Houston Oilers signed Heisman-winning LSU quarterback Billy Cannon away from the Rams, and after a lengthy court battle, Cannon led the Oilers to the first three AFL Championship Games.

Signing players became a furtive battle. Both league's drafts were held in secret, on unannounced dates. Teams eventually started "kidnapping" players, Old School-style. Teams even sequestered some draftees in hotels to keep them away from the other league.

The madness stopped in 1967 when the NFL and AFL agreed to a common draft: the first step towards the 1970 merger.

During the early 60s, teams saw the value computer technology could have in amassing prospect data, but the cost of mainframes was so high no NFL team could afford one. Further, without any networking or mobile computing, the cost of amassing and transmitting the data was even more prohibitive.

In 1963, the Lions, Eagles, and Steelers formed LESTO (the Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization) to solve this problem.

The teams pooled scouting resources and information, and former Steelers defensive back Jack Butler compiled reports from dozens of scouts, assigned composite grades, and distributed BLESTO (as it was renamed when the Bears joined) grades to all the participating teams.

BLESTO, along with similar services Quadra and The National, began organizing scouting combines in 1977. In 1982, BLESTO and The National merged their combines into a single event, saving the extremely high costs of multiple medical evaluations.

In 1987, the NFL Scouting Combine moved to Indianapolis, where it is held to this day. The directors of BLESTO and The National still run the NFL Scouting Combine, assemble the list of Combine invitees, and serve on the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which helps underclassmen decide if their draft stock will be high enough to justify foregoing their senior eligibility.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Tight end Jimmy Graham of Miami performs the vertical leap during the NFL Scouting Combine presented by Under Armour at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
Scott Boehm/Getty Images

The pooling of scouts, coaches, front office staff and media in one location turned the behind-the-scenes business of scouting into an anticipated event. The soaring popularity of the NFL meant there was huge pent-up demand for offseason football news. ESPN sensed an opportunity.

In 1980, ESPN President Chet Simmons approached the NFL and asked if they could televise the draft. The NFL was flummoxed by the request; the Annual Player Selection Meeting was just as it had been in 1936: a bunch of old guys in a hotel ballroom.

Though the draft didn't initially make for riveting television, the league allowed ESPN to bring in their cameras . . . and the phenomenon took off.

NEW YORK - APRIL 28:  Mel Kiper, Chris Mortensen and Keyshawn Johnson broadcast for ESPN during the 2007 NFL Draft on April 28, 2007 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, New York. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

ESPN hired independent scout Mel Kiper Jr. to provide draft analysis in 1984. Suddenly, the football-hungry public had a smorgasbord of information about their favorite team's incoming rookies. What had been a dry, opaque event became the opiate of the football-watching masses.

Seemingly every year since, the cottage industry of media scouting, mock drafts, and Big Boards has gotten bigger. Teams began realizing the later-round prospects would be better served coming into the league as free agents; the league repeated shaved off rounds, and the length of time allotted to make picks, all to improve the TV product.

In 1989, Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson revolutionized the NFL Draft in two ways. First, he engineered the greatest trade of all time: The Great Train Robbery. Johnson sent Herschel Walker and a handful of mid-round picks to the Minnesota Vikings for five veterans, three first-round picks, three second-round picks, a third-round pick and a sixth-round pick.

1990:  Head coach Jimmy Johnson (left) and owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys stand together prior to the start of a Cowboys game at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas.  Mandatory Credit: Allen Dean Steele/Allsport
Allen Steele/Getty Images

Though Walker was an established superstar, the incredible bounty of talent Dallas reaped with those selections laid the foundation for a decade of Cowboys glory. Teams realized a large influx of young talent meant more to the bottom line than a single superstar.

Johnson also created the trade value chart. Though trading draft picks (and drafted players) had been around since that very first draft in 1936, there had never been an objective way of quantifying what each of those picks were worth.

Though Johnson's original chart is no longer state-of-the-art, all teams use a "TVC" to make sure they're getting fair value when swapping picks.

Today, the NFL Draft is a monster event. The Internet has allowed oceans of scouting information to wash over even the most casual fan. Even the NFL Scouting Combine, whose primary purpose is standardized medical evaluations, is broadcast (and analyzed) live on the NFL Network. The NFLN joins ESPN in broadcasting the event.

NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  NFL Commissioner Roer Goodell speaks at the podium during the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 22, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

In 2010, the NFL Draft came to prime-time TV. Broadcasting the first round by itself on Thursday night, the next two rounds on Friday night, and the remainder of the draft on Saturday drew in an incredible 7.3 million viewers, an all-time record.

Yet, despite the phalanx of cameras, the slick, stat-smothered production, the army of analysts, millions of viewers and the fates of 32 billion-dollar franchises hanging in the balance, the spirit of the NFL Draft hasn't changed: it's still about a league of teams trying to ensure their collective future, and it's still the best test of which teams "get it" and which don't.

Back in 2004, the San Diego Chargers coveted Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning, but Manning flatly told the Chargers he did not want to play for them. Just as the Eagles drafted, then flipped Berwanger, the Chargers drafted Manning.

NEW YORK - APRIL 24:  Eli Manning (2nd-L) with his parents receives a San Diego Chargers jersey from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue during the 2004 NFL Draft on April 24, 2004 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Manning was selected first pick ove
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Manning took heavy boos from the Radio City audience as he posed with a Chargers jersey, but it was all a sham. Three picks later, the Giants selected N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers, and the two teams swapped prospects.

Unlike George Halas and the Bears, Giants GM Ernie Accorsi had no problem recruiting Manning to New York; Manning has since led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories.

According to DeVito, Accorsi made the shrewd move with the "input and blessing" of Wellington Mara himself. The Giants impresario had outdrafted the rest of the NFL one more time, 65 years after taking over.