Few would argue against calling the National Football League (NFL) Draft the most popular sporting event that doesn’t actually contain any live sports. From television and media coverage, to the NFL Combine, to the fans in attendance and the millions watching from home – the NFL Draft matters. In fact, an average of over 10 million Americans tuned in to watch the first-round of the 2022 NFL Draft. In comparison, the 2022 FA Cup final drew an average of 6 million viewers. Yes, the populations of the United States and the United Kingdom are very different, but these figures are not to be disregarded.
Looking further than the ESPN coverage of the NFL Draft itself, the popularity of draft analysis prior to the big day is perplexing and, at times, baffling. Whilst sports media has grown in popularity as a whole over the past few decades due to the rise of social media, the internet and 24/7 news, the coverage during the pre-draft process has become nigh on ridiculous. That said, when you analyse the purpose of the draft, it is anything but ridiculous; the NFL Draft is all about hope. Can you scorn people for being excited and enthralled by hope?
An Undying Hope
Many readers will be painfully aware of the agony that comes from supporting a sports team or franchise. The highs are high, the lows are miserable. Yet, following a team offers a sense of belonging and community, a sense of attachment and identity, and the ultimate distraction from the perils of day-to-day reality. So, when the NFL Draft comes around every year, fans understand that their team’s fortunes could be about to change. And if a team’s fortunes change, so do their fans’. The NFL Draft is a representation of the undying hope of a sports fan. Future sporting stars become icons, heroes, and villains. Collegiate football players become symbols of hope.
Ultimately, this is what the NFL Draft boils down to – hope. The hype, the frenzy, the analysis, the coverage, and the pomp are all components that drive that hope. The individual that a team selects can be seen as the ‘future of a franchise’, but the hope runs deeper than that. Many fans have read and heard about that one player for months, watched hours of their college game film, and become invested in that young man. The old adage says that “hope springs eternal”, and this hope is at the forefront of the NFL Draft every spring.
But this begs the question: is this hope warranted or misplaced?
The Draft Day Superstar
The first-round is the most popular aspect of the NFL Draft. A veritable smorgasbord of football talent and potential, the very best that the college game has to offer. You must look no further than the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft to understand how vital the first-round can be. The ongoing discussion and debate about quarterbacks Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Will Levis and Anthony Richardson has somewhat cast a shadow over everything else the NFL has to offer. The hype – and hope – surrounding these four young men is about to reach a fever pitch.
This furore surrounding the first draft pick of each NFL team is nothing new. A rewind over the past few years only serves to amplify how important it can be. Patrick Mahomes, Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt in 2017, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson in 2018, Nick Bosa in 2019, Joe Burrow and Justin Jefferson in 2020, Ja’Marr Chase and Micah Parsons in 2021, and Ahmad’ Sauce’ Gardner in 2022 – get a first-round draft pick correct and you can change the trajectory of a franchise. But what if I was to say that this is not the most important part of the NFL Draft? What if I was to say that the importance of a first-round pick is greatly exaggerated and overstated? Many would disagree.
Those who disagree with that notion will likely argue that the best players are available in the first-round; teams want the best players. This is correct. However outside of the headline-grabbing marquee players, the draft has historically shown that talent can be found throughout the process. This depth to the talent pool is why the NFL Draft is so important. And this depth is important for one reason – money.
Playing with Money
NFL teams all have to adhere to a salary cap. Whilst players are compensated ludicrously well for their time in the league, the salary cap keeps this spending somewhat in check. Essentially, the salary cap limits how much a team can spend on player salaries for a season. This restriction is integral to the NFL Draft; the salary cap is why the NFL Draft truly matters.
Despite the salary cap, the stars of the National Football League still sign incredibly lucrative contracts. Mid-tier players can also be compensated well, making a team’s salary space increasingly depleted. However, whilst seasoned NFL players can debate and argue the details of their contracts, the drafted rookies are not so fortunate. The rookie wage scale is effectively its own salary cap that sits into the broader salary cap. CBS Sports writer, Joel Corry, explains this clearly:
“There’s a league-wide limit on the total amount of compensation for rookies with specific salary parameters for each draft slot. Teams have maximum and minimum amounts that can be spent on their picks based on draft position.
“All contracts for draft choices are four years. Each pick in the draft has a salary floor and ceiling in the first year and over the four years of the contract. There are very few negotiable items with rookie contracts anymore.”
These rookie salary limitations play an integral part in a successful NFL season; the draft matters because rookies are cheap.
Why the NFL Draft Matters
We will start by discussing the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. Yes, the rookie salary scale is also why a successful first-round quarterback pick can be the nucleus of a championship-winning side. In a league where mid-tier quarterbacks are now making $40 million a year, the Pittsburgh Steelers are set to pay their 2022 first-round pick, quarterback Kenny Pickett, $14,067,905 in total for his four-year contract. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted their franchise quarterback with the number one overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Joe Burrow, with his four-year contract totalling $36,190,137. Burrow will make more than that each season when he signs his second contract with the team, but he has already helped his team to the Super Bowl in the 2021 season – where the Bengals lost to the LA Rams (remember the Rams for later, they are our case study). In fact, since the 2011-2012 season, only one Super Bowl has not featured a quarterback on a rookie contract – the 2017 Super Bowl contested by Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and Matt Ryan’s Atlanta Falcons. Evidently, there is a distinct advantage to having a quarterback on a rookie contract.
Having a notably cheaper option at the most significant position in football allows teams to spend the salary cap on elite players in other positions, and this is the reason that rookie contracts at other positions are also essential; pick up valuable, competent players in the draft and a team is well-set to make a run at the title. In a sport where a gameday squad consists of 53 players – more over a season due to frequent injuries – an accumulation of draft picks can be just as crucial to NFL success as a first-round quarterback. So, how – and when – can teams determine whether a draft was successful?
Former NFL general manager Mike Tannenbaum said. “If you can get three or four meaningful players from each year’s draft, that’s a really good draft.
“It’s very subjective. But to me it’s — three years later, has that player meaningfully contributed to a good team?”
Fellow former NFL GM Randy Mueller said, “If you have a normal amount of picks, you should get on average two and a half, maybe even three starters out of a draft.
“That’s kind of your measuring stick. Even more so than that, you should get four core players if you’re doing a good job. If you’re looking for an objective way, that’s the way to do it.”
Plainly, a successful NFL draft requires numerous draft picks to be contributing players on a team’s roster; successful teams place a concerted emphasis on the NFL Draft. “But what about the LA Rams” I hear you say… Well, they value the draft too, just in a different way than the traditional convention.
The Los Angeles Rams Draft Success
The 2022 Super Bowl was won by the Matt Stafford-led LA Rams. The Rams traded away two first-round picks to acquire Stafford from the Detroit Lions. In fact, the Rams have not had a first round pick since 2016 but reached the Super Bowl twice in that time – a sign that the Rams devalue the draft, right? Wrong.
Pickswise analysed the Super Bowl-winning squads from 2012-2022 to determine how much of their rosters were made from their previous draft picks. The ‘draft hating’ Rams’ championship roster was 45% made up of players acquired through the draft. The team that is constantly referred to as devaluing the NFL Draft won the Super Bowl directly because of the draft and the rookie contracts their players were on. In fact, in their Super Bowl-winning season, the Rams ranked 6th in homegrown players. Thus, the Rams did not devalue the draft but valued different draft prospects. Rather than chasing “elite” collegiate prospects, LA diligently searched for supposedly “less upside” players whose strengths complemented the likes of Donald, Stafford and Kupp.
In their championship-winning squad, two offensive line starters, as was their primary swing tackle, were on rookie contracts. Brian Allen, David Edwards and Joseph Noteboom all played vital roles. Additionally, running-back Cam Akers and wide-receiver Van Jefferson were on rookie contracts.
This draft success continues when you look at the defence. Defensive tackle Greg Gaines was a fourth-round pick on a rookie contract, whilst Troy Reeder and Ernest Jones were the starting linebackers – both on rookie contracts. Further back in the defence, the Rams safeties were on rookie contracts – Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott and Jordan Fuller.
Analysing this financially, the Rams had seven players that made more than $15 million in their championship season – more than any other playoff team that year. Contrastingly, Sean McVay’s men had only eight players making between $2-15 million. According to ESPN, the average for playoff teams in 2021 was 17 players in this salary range. Additionally, the Rams had the most ‘dead cap’ money for Super Bowl teams between 2015 and 2021 – $43,933,885, equalling 24% of their salary cap. Finally, Matthew Stafford’s contract alone represented 11% of the Rams’ salary cap. Here is where the rookie contracts were critical.
According to Spotrac, Brian Allen accounted for 0.58% of the salary cap, David Edwards accounted for 0.49%, and Joseph Noteboom accounted for 0.60%. Cam Akers and Van Jefferson accounted for 0.75% and 0.68% respectively, whilst Greg Gaines accounted for 0.54%. Linebackers Troy Reeder and Ernest Jones accounted for 0.46% and 0.47%, with Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott and Jordan Fuller averaging 0.53% between them. Additional squad players included draftees from the 2020 NFL Draft, such as Terrell Lewis, Brycen Hopkins, Terrell Burgess, Tremayne Anchrum Jr. and Jake Funk, who averaged 0.46% of the salary cap.
Evidently, despite the media, fan and team emphasis being placed on day one of the NFL Draft, success should be determined by the number of contributing players who are on rookie contracts. The contribution and performance of these players are worth more than they are being paid – this is draft success. The Rams’ model’ is unlikely to pay the same dividends it did in 2021, but Los Angeles proved that there are many ways to tackle the feeding frenzy of the NFL Draft.
Being Cheap Matters
The importance of the NFL Draft cannot be downplayed. Each year, collegiate athletes enter the NFL and change the league’s landscape. But, those that become mere ‘cogs’ in the league are arguably more important – Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow aside.
In a sport and league that is controlled by money, the teams with the cheap contracts are the teams that are ‘playing the game’. So, when you tune into the 2023 NFL Draft and read through the abundance of pre-draft material, try not to become too overawed by the likes of Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, Will Anderson, Jalen Carter, Bijan Robinson and Nolan Smith. Instead, pay attention to your favourite team’s pick-ups throughout the whole draft because those players could be the reason you are Super Bowl bound in the future.