The NFL is rightly criticized for lacking imagination. The owners are content not to break the wheel and coaches largely keep everything annoyingly close to the vest. Once in a while though, creativity breaks through. During the annual league meetings, Ravens coach John Harbaugh raised a point that is both simple yet revelatory.
“I think the draft should be earlier, sooner. We don’t need to be so involved where we need three months to watch the players ourselves”. Harbaugh is absolutely right.
The draft taking place in April is another anachronism that the NFL continues to do because that’s largely what they’ve always done. In fact, Roger Goodell made the draft take place in May one year and that was even more ridiculous. Moving the draft would be beneficial for the entire league both on the field and off.The reason why the draft takes place around the end of April is that in the old day’s players would be finishing their last semester in school. That’s not exactly how things go in 2019. Most players are done with their college seasons by late December early January. After that, the vast majority leave school to prep for the draft. They’re locked in gyms and working with gurus so they can ace the combine and or their pro days.
By moving the draft up the players can just be on teams sooner and that would allow them to acclimate to the league quicker. This has been an issue since the 2011 CBA cut down on practice time in order to avoid injuries and to reduce wear and tear on vets. The downside is the rookies suffer, especially the offensive linemen and defensive backs, as they take the longest to transition from college. In a perfect world, the league would still have their winter meetings at the end of February, the combine would be in early March and then draft at the end of March. They can even move free agency to April if they wanted (more on this later).
Harbaugh made this point as well stating “And let’s be honest, they’re all coming. Nobody’s taking their last semester of school. You want to get in the real world here? Let’s understand that that’s how it works. Because they end up graduating a high percentage of the time we get them, anyway, because we make sure they do. Let’s help them, but let’s not have them worried about running 40 times. Let’s get them working on football so they can contribute their first couple of years.”
Allowing the rookies to come in earlier would make the game so much better. The first month of the season always feels sloppy especially with teams playing a lot of rookies. The vets can still come into mini-camps in May while the rookies start work in early April. This also allows draft picks to be more valuable and would even benefit free agency. The NBA has their draft less than two weeks after the finals and the WNBA has their’s less than a week after the College Title game so it’s not like all that extra time is something football players absolutely need.
The draft process would improve as well. With less time to nitpick players, teams can make better decisions. Teams can talk themselves out of a player for idiotic reasons such as height, the way their hip flexors move on their body (that’s real), or any other weird things scouts say when they’ve been locked in a film room for months at a time. Picks also become more valuable because now a mid-round pick isn’t as abstract when it needs to be used a lot sooner than in late April.
Also, it would save teams from themselves. By actually drafting their team and building properly teams don’t need to spend money like drunken sailors because they need to make a splash and or because they fear they won’t get more value at a position of need. Contracts like ones given to say Trumaine Johnson won’t happen as often because the Jets can just focus on building their secondary through the draft and allocate resources elsewhere. Sure there will still be teams like Washington that squander this opportunity but the smart teams won’t.
Free agency would also benefit. By getting through all the draft media coverage in March where its mainly up against the doldrums of the NBA/NHL seasons and can bypass opening day baseball, free agency can steal headlines. The NFL draft takes up some headlines for one weekend but by then the NFL news cycle recedes until training camp. This way the league can take headlines away in April because of all the various waves of free agency plus the unveiling of the schedule.
The talking head industrial complex would be better served as well. Currently, the draft chatter runs in circles especially in a year like this where there is a clear number one with little drama elsewhere and let’s face it not a lot of stars (at the moment) coming in. This is the time of year where nonsense notions such as the Cards trading the number one pick even though everyone and their mother knows that they’re taking Kyler Murray. Poor Mel Kiper Jr and Todd McShay have to keep coming on to speculate and recycle their talking points so much that they’ve biodegraded by the time the actual draft hits. By condensing everything the interest level can only go up.
Instead of trying to generate topics the media can shift from the draft to free agency much like the NBA. The rookies can get signed and head to camp quicker and that also allows front offices to get the full picture of their cap availability since they don’t have to worry about what picks they sign or not AFTER they’ve thrown money around like Mr. Burns in a money fight.
The league is unlikely to adopt this change until Goodell steps down because the NFL doesn’t like change. Still, they should consider Harbaugh’s because it’d only make the league stronger and a stronger league is a more profitable league, surely the owners can understand THAT.