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What's the NFL draft all about?

NFL Draft - Matthew Stafford

Stars to look out for in the NFL Draft

By Tim Love
BBC Sport in New York City

Every year, the 32 teams of America's National Football League meet to share out newly available players via the draft.

The majority of these players come from the college game and the teams take it in turns to select the men they want.

Interest in the draft is incredibly high. In 1960 the draft took place in a one-storey motel with only a handful of journalists present, but it begins on Saturday at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and is televised live across the world.

How does the draft work?

Each of the 32 NFL teams gets one selection per round (there are seven rounds) to select a player.

The teams are placed in order of worst regular-season record last year to best with the worst team selecting first. The team that won last year's Super Bowl selects last in each round.

This year, the top pick goes to the Detroit Lions, who failed to win a single game last season, while Super Bowl champions the Pittsburgh Steelers pick last.

Draft choices may be exchanged for current players or for other draft picks, so the order often changes.

How does trading work?

Unlike the European soccer leagues, where players are quite frequently transferred simply for money, NFL teams almost always trade for draft picks, players, or a combination of the two.

Last year, Jake Long was drafted by the Miami Dolphins with the first pick of the draft and signed a deal worth £39.4m

For example, this year the Chicago Bears traded their 2009 first and third round selections, their 2010 first round selection and a player to the Denver Broncos in order to ensure quarterback Jay Cutler joined them.

In the build-up to the draft, many NFL commentators and pundits attempt to guess which players will go to which teams, but it is very difficult to do due to the complex trading going on behind the scenes.

Andy Ross, agent for linebacker Aaron Curry - a top prospect this year - says that the teams become "a league of Pinocchios" as they attempt to wheel and deal their way to the player or trade they want.

Who are the big stars this year and which teams might they join?

Matthew Stafford, quarterback - Many experts believe that the Detroit Lions will select Stafford with the first overall pick as they attempt to rebuild.

Jason Smith, offensive tackle - Weighing in at a massive 140kg, Smith is widely expected to be taken as the second overall pick by the St Louis Rams, to protect their quarterback.

Aaron Curry, linebacker - The pundits see Curry as the best defender in the draft, who should have an immediate impact. The Cleveland Browns are said to be very interested.

How much can a new player expect to earn?

It depends upon how high up in the draft the player is chosen, but those that are drafted with one of the first 10 picks can expect an enormous payout.

Last year, Jake Long was drafted by the Miami Dolphins with the first pick of the draft. He signed a deal worth $57.5m (£39.4m) over five years.

But being drafted towards the end of the first round does not guarantee anywhere near that kind of money, but it's still pretty good!

Kenny Phillips, who was picked by the New York Giants 31st last year, earned a contract worth a maximum of $11.5m (£7.9m) over five years.

Is a player obliged to join the team that picks him?

Essentially yes. However, players often do not sign contracts until months after the draft and will refuse to play for a team before securing the deal they want.


Gil Brandt, former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, says, "Holdouts are almost always a case of money. The player wants to get as much as he can, and the franchise wants to pay what's fair."

Occasionally a player will be drafted by a team he does not want to play for which can cause big problems.

In 2004, quarterback Eli Manning did not want to play for the San Diego Chargers, who had the first overall pick of the draft and did indeed select him, despite being fully aware of the situation.

After some very awkward moments and a lot of behind-the-scenes talks, Manning was traded to the Giants in return for several top draft picks and fellow quarterback Phillip Rivers.

If matters get really desperate, a player can refuse to sign for a year and enter the draft again the following year, but this very rarely happens.

How long do players have to stick with the team that drafted them?

An NFL rookie must sign a contract of a minimum of four years when signing for a franchise.

If he gets to the end of his contract without extending it or being traded, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and is free to sign for whoever wants him.

What if no one wants to sign a player?

Kurt Warner
Warner has played in three Super Bowls despite not having been drafted

Undrafted free agents can still end up on an NFL team's roster if they impress during a tryout or do well on a franchise's practice squad, and are free to sign for whoever they like.

Kurt Warner, who led the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl this year, played for several years in the now defunct NFL Europe before signing for the St Louis Rams, who he led to Super Bowl glory.

Other very successful undrafted free agents include wide receiver Wes Welker of the New England Patriots and linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What else should I look out for?

The player drafted with the very last pick has gained cult status as he is awarded the Lowsman Trophy (an irreverent dig at the Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to the top college player).

The recipient of the trophy is feted during 'Irrelevant Week', a week-long celebration held each year in California.

Winners rarely make it onto the field of play, but last year's beneficiary, outside linebacker David Vobara, actually started a game in 2008 for the St. Louis Rams.

Why can't the NFL do the same as other sports, signing youngsters and bringing them through youth teams?

College football was strong before the formation of the NFL in the 1920s, so the system by which young players developed was already in place.

As well as this, the competitive balance of the NFL would be compromised if the bigger teams were able to poach young talent with more frequency than the less successful sides.

Could a draft system work like this in British football?

It would be difficult but not impossible. The NFL draft relies entirely upon the college programme in the United States and without a similar setup in Britain it would be tough to replicate.

However, in the US, baseball and ice hockey teams are able to draft from minor league semi-professional teams, which could feasibly happen in the UK.

see also
Detroit make Stafford top draft
25 Apr 09 |  American Football
Steelers clinch sixth Super Bowl
02 Feb 09 |  American Football
Dolphins draft Long as first pick
26 Apr 08 |  American Football
Manning gets Giants move
24 Apr 04 |  US Sport
NFL fixtures
05 Jan 08 |  American Football
NFL results
26 Oct 07 |  American Football
NFL standings
26 Oct 07 |  American Football
NFL in a nutshell
19 Oct 05 |  American Football
American Football on the BBC
05 Feb 08 |  American Football

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