How Does The NFL Draft Work: Look Through the Strategy

John Rizzo

The NFL Draft Work

The NFL Draft, an annual spectacle in American football, is more than just a selection process. It’s a pivotal moment in the league’s calendar, where the future of NFL franchises takes shape. 

But how does this intricate system actually work? In this blog post, we’ll delve into how does the NFL Draft work, demystifying its key components and shedding light on the strategies and rules that govern it.

From the determination of the draft order to the selection of college football’s brightest talents, every step is crucial and meticulously planned. 

The draft is a high-stakes chess match, where NFL teams jockey for position to secure the players they believe will elevate their rosters to greatness. 

Understanding this process provides a fascinating glimpse into the heart of professional football.

So, whether you’re a die-hard football fan or simply curious about the NFL’s behind-the-scenes operations, read on to uncover the inner workings of the NFL Draft. Stay focused. 

Foundation of the NFL Draft

The NFL Draft, short for the National Football League Draft, is an annual event that serves as the primary mechanism through which NFL teams select new talent to join their rosters. 

Established in 1936, it has evolved into a highly organized and televised affair. 

The draft typically consists of seven rounds, with each team having the opportunity to select eligible players in a predetermined order based on their previous season’s performance, with the worst-performing teams choosing first.

The NFL Draft plays a crucial role in maintaining parity within the league by giving weaker teams the chance to secure top talent early in the selection process. 

It’s a culmination of extensive scouting, player evaluations, and strategic decision-making by NFL teams. 

The event generates significant anticipation and excitement among football fans, as they eagerly await the unveiling of the next generation of NFL stars who will shape the future of the league.

Key Milestones in Draft History

Draft History

Key milestones in the history of the NFL Draft include:

1936 – The First NFL Draft

The inaugural NFL Draft was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jay Berwanger, a running back from the University of Chicago, was the first-ever player selected in the draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.

1950 – The Round System

The draft transitioned to a multi-round format, allowing teams to make multiple selections. This change contributed to the draft’s growth in significance.

1963 – The Common Draft

The NFL and AFL (American Football League) merged their drafts, creating a single common draft for professional football players. This paved the way for the eventual merger of the two leagues.

1970 – The AFL-NFL Merger

Following the merger of the NFL and AFL, the draft played a crucial role in integrating players from both leagues and creating a unified talent pool.

1983 – The Quarterback Class

The 1983 NFL Draft is often referred to as the “Quarterback Class” because it produced several future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, including John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino.

1995 – Underclassmen Eligibility

The NFL allowed underclassmen (players with college eligibility remaining) to enter the draft, expanding the pool of available talent and changing the landscape of player selection.

2007 – The Brady 199

Tom Brady, now considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, was selected in the sixth round as the 199th overall pick by the New England Patriots, a draft steal.

2010 – Prime-Time Draft

The NFL Draft transitioned to a prime-time, three-day format, making it a major television event with extensive coverage and fan engagement.

2012 – Collective Bargaining Agreement Changes

The NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which introduced a rookie wage scale, impacting the financial structure of rookie contracts.

2020 – Virtual Draft

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL Draft was held virtually for the first time, with teams making selections remotely. Despite the logistical challenges, it was considered a success and showcased the adaptability of the event.

These milestones highlight the NFL Draft’s evolution from a modest selection process to a high-profile, multi-day event that significantly shapes the league’s future by bringing in new talent in football history.

Strategy of the Process of NFL Draft

Strategy of the Process of NFL Draft

The process of the NFL Draft involves a complex blend of scouting, strategy, and decision-making for teams as they seek to build competitive rosters. Here are some key strategies involved in the NFL Draft:

Scouting and Evaluation

Teams invest heavily in scouting departments to identify and assess talent. Scouting involves evaluating college players’ skills, strengths, weaknesses, and potential fit within a team’s system.

Draft Position Strategy

Teams with high draft picks often target the most promising players, while teams with lower picks must carefully assess available talent. Trading up or down in the draft order is a common strategy to secure desired players.

Positional Needs

Teams assess their roster to identify positions that require improvement. They prioritize filling positions of need with draft picks to strengthen their team.

Value vs. Need

Teams must strike a balance between selecting the best available player (based on talent) and addressing positional needs. This decision can be influenced by the depth of talent in the draft class.

Trading Picks

Many teams trade draft picks with other teams to acquire additional selections or move up in the draft order. Trading picks strategically can be instrumental in building a strong roster.

Player Interviews and Workouts

Teams conduct interviews, workouts, and medical evaluations to gather additional information about draft prospects. This helps assess a player’s character, work ethic, and health.

Character Assessment

Teams consider a player’s off-field behavior and character when making selections to ensure they fit within the team’s culture and values.

Long-Term Planning

Successful teams often have a long-term strategy for drafting players who can contribute immediately and develop into franchise cornerstones over time.

Draft Day Decisions

On draft day, teams make quick decisions, reacting to other teams’ picks and adjusting their strategies accordingly.

Undrafted Free Agents

After the draft concludes, teams often sign undrafted free agents who didn’t get selected but show potential. Some undrafted players become significant contributors in the NFL.

Rookie Contracts

Teams consider the financial implications of rookie contracts when making selections, as the NFL has a structured rookie wage scale.

Building for the Future

Some teams may prioritize drafting for the future, even if it doesn’t address immediate needs, by selecting players with high developmental potential.

Team Philosophy

Each team has its own drafting philosophy and style, influenced by the general manager, head coach, and ownership. This philosophy shapes draft decisions and roster building.

Purpose of the NFL Draft

Purpose of the NFL Draft

The NFL Draft serves several important purposes within the National Football League (NFL):

Talent Distribution

The primary purpose of the NFL Draft is to distribute young and talented football players fairly among all NFL teams. 

This helps maintain competitive balance within the league by allowing weaker teams to have early access to top talent, thereby giving them a better chance to improve and compete in the future.

Parity Promotion

The draft system is designed to promote parity in the league. 

By giving struggling teams the opportunity to select the best available talent early in the draft, the NFL aims to prevent a small number of dominant teams from consistently winning.

Roster Building

The draft is a critical part of roster building for NFL teams. It allows them to acquire players who can contribute immediately and develop into long-term assets. 

Teams can address positional needs and plan for the future by selecting players with specific skills and potential.

Cost Control

The NFL Draft includes a structured rookie wage scale that limits the financial impact of rookie contracts on teams. 

This cost-control measure prevents excessive spending on unproven players and ensures that teams can manage their salary caps effectively.

Fan Engagement

The NFL Draft has become a major offseason event, generating significant fan interest and engagement. 

It provides fans with an opportunity to follow the selection process, get to know new players, and anticipate how these additions will impact their favorite teams.

Player Development

For players, the draft is the gateway to a career in the NFL. It provides them with an opportunity to showcase their skills and secure a spot on an NFL roster. 

Drafted players receive the opportunity for professional coaching and development.

Franchise Building

Teams often use the draft to identify and secure franchise cornerstone players, such as quarterbacks or defensive stars, who can lead the team to success over an extended period. 

These players become the faces of their respective franchises.

Tradition and Excitement

The NFL Draft has a rich tradition and history, dating back to 1936. It has evolved into a highly anticipated event, creating excitement and drama for football fans. The unpredictability of draft day adds to the intrigue.

The NFL Draft serves as a mechanism for distributing talent, promoting competitiveness, and enhancing fan engagement while also helping teams build their rosters and manage costs.

Draft Eligibility and Declaration in NFL

Draft Eligibility and Declaration in NFL

NFL draft eligibility and declaration rules govern when college football players can enter the NFL Draft. 

These rules are designed to maintain a balance between college and professional football and ensure that players have the opportunity to develop their skills before turning professional. 

Here are the key aspects of NFL draft eligibility and declaration:

Three-Year Rule

To be eligible for the NFL Draft, a player must have been out of high school for at least three years. This means that most players must complete at least three seasons of college football before they can declare for the draft.

Redshirt Years

Redshirt seasons, during which a player does not participate in games but practices with the team, do not count towards the three-year rule. 

This allows players to recover from injuries or gain additional experience without impacting their draft eligibility.

Early Declaration

While most players declare for the draft after their junior season, exceptional talents may choose to enter the draft earlier. 

Players who meet the three-year rule and have petitioned for early entry can declare for the draft after their sophomore season.

Declaration Deadline

Players must declare their intention to enter the NFL Draft by a specified deadline, usually in January, which is well before the actual draft takes place. This declaration is made to the NFL’s Player Personnel department.

Ineligibility After Declaration

Once a player declares for the draft and hires an agent, they forfeit their remaining college eligibility. This means they cannot return to college football, even if they go undrafted or change their mind.

Combine and Pro Day Participation

Eligible draft prospects are invited to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine and their college’s Pro Day, where they can showcase their skills in front of NFL scouts and coaches.

Underclassmen Advisory Committee

To help underclassmen make informed decisions about declaring for the draft, the NFL provides an Underclassmen Advisory Committee. 

This committee evaluates a player’s potential draft position and provides feedback on whether it’s advisable to declare or continue playing college football.

Drafted and Undrafted Players

Players who are selected in the draft become NFL rookies, while undrafted players are free agents and can sign with any team. 

Undrafted players have the opportunity to try out for teams during rookie minicamps and training camps.

Special Circumstances

Some players may become draft-eligible without completing three years of college due to special circumstances, such as graduation or academic completion. The NFL reviews such cases individually.

NFL draft eligibility and declaration rules are in place to establish a fair and structured pathway for college football players to transition to the professional ranks while balancing their educational and career goals.

Rookie Mini-Camps and Training in the NFL Draft

Rookie Mini-Camps and Training

Rookie mini-camps and training in the NFL are crucial components of the transition for newly drafted players and undrafted free agents into the professional football environment. 

These events are designed to help rookies acclimate to the NFL, develop their skills, and compete for roster spots. Here’s an overview of rookie mini-camps and training in the NFL Draft process:

Rookie Mini-Camps

  • Purpose: Rookie mini-camps typically occur shortly after the NFL Draft, providing an opportunity for drafted rookies and undrafted free agents (UDFAs) to participate in on-field drills and meetings with coaching staff. These camps help players get acquainted with the team’s playbook and coaching style.
  • Duration: Rookie mini-camps usually last for a few days, often over a weekend. They serve as an introduction to the team’s facilities, staff, and systems.
  • Participants; In addition to drafted rookies, UDFAs, and tryout players, teams may also invite select second-year players who did not see much playing time as rookies the previous year.
  • Activities: Rookie mini-camps include individual and group drills, classroom sessions, and workouts. Players are evaluated on their physical abilities, football IQ, and adaptability to the team’s schemes.
  • Objective: The main goal of rookie mini-camps is to assess the abilities and potential of rookies and UDFAs and determine which players should receive further opportunities in training camps.

Training Camp

  • Purpose: NFL training camps are intensive preseason periods during which teams prepare for the upcoming season. For rookies, this is a critical phase to compete for roster spots and make a positive impression on coaches.
  • Duration: Training camp typically lasts several weeks, beginning in late July and running through late August. It includes a series of practices, preseason games, and team-building activities.
  • Participants: The training camp includes the entire roster of the team, including veterans, draft picks, UDFAs, and invited tryout players. The total number of players may exceed the regular-season roster limit, and cuts are made gradually as the preseason progresses.
  • Activities: Training camp features daily practices, film study, strength and conditioning work, and preseason games. The intense schedule tests players physically and mentally.
  • Evaluation: Coaches and team management closely evaluate player performance during training camp to determine the final roster. Rookies must demonstrate their ability to contribute to the team’s success and adapt to the demands of the NFL.

Preseason Games

  • Purpose: Preseason games provide rookies with game experience and allow teams to assess how well they perform in a competitive setting. These games are essential for evaluating roster decisions.
  • Number of Games: NFL teams typically play four preseason games, providing rookies with a chance to showcase their skills and learn from their performances.
  • Roster Cuts: After each preseason game, teams make roster cuts to meet the regular-season roster limit. Rookies who make it through this process secure a spot on the team’s 53-man roster.
    Rookie mini-camps, training camps, and preseason games collectively serve as a rigorous evaluation process for newly drafted players and UDFAs.


How is the NFL Draft order determined?

The NFL Draft order is determined primarily by teams’ regular-season records. The team with the worst record selects first, while the Super Bowl champion picks last. Trades can also affect draft order.

Can college players choose when to enter the NFL Draft?

Yes, college players can declare for the NFL Draft. To be eligible, they typically must have been out of high school for at least three years or meet certain criteria, like early entry petitions.

How many rounds are there in the NFL Draft?

The NFL Draft consists of seven rounds. Each of the 32 teams has the opportunity to make one selection in each round, allowing them to choose a total of seven players.

What is the purpose of the NFL Scouting Combine?

The NFL Scouting Combine is an event where invited draft prospects showcase their physical and mental abilities to NFL teams. It includes drills, interviews, and medical evaluations, helping teams assess players’ suitability for the league.

Do drafted players have to join the team that selects them?

Yes, when a player is drafted, they become the property of the team that selected them. 

However, players who refuse to sign with the team can re-enter the draft the following year. This situation is rare due to the NFL’s structured rookie contract system.

Wrapping Up

The NFL Draft is the NFL’s lifeblood, a mechanism that ensures competitiveness and excitement in professional football. 

From the earliest days of scouting and evaluation to the exhilarating moment when a player’s name is called, the draft embodies the league’s constant pursuit of excellence.

As we’ve explored in this blog post, it’s not just about choosing players; it’s a strategic dance that shapes the destiny of teams and players alike. 

The NFL Draft is a testament to the sport’s enduring popularity and the collective effort of teams, scouts, and athletes. It’s a celebration of talent, hope, and the promise of a brighter future for football fans.

So, when the next NFL Draft arrives, remember the meticulous planning and strategy that underpin this captivating event, and enjoy the unveiling of the next generation of NFL stars. Best wishes. 

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John Rizzo

I am a professional rugby player in the Washington DC-Baltimore area. I have been playing rugby for over 10 years and have had the opportunity to play in many different countries. I am also a coach for both youth and adult rugby teams. I graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in Sports Management and Marketing. I am currently working on my MPA from American University and plan to pursue this career path after graduating next year. LinkedIn