Tyler’s Beginner’s Guide to: The NFL Draft

Hey guys, it’s Tyler here, and I’m back for the first time since my regular season content, and I couldn’t be more excited.

After the end of an exciting and hard-fought NFL season, there is a lull, as the league and its fans all take a breath and enter the offseason. However, for those who follow the sport closely, the seemingly quiet period between postseason and preseason is just as exciting. One major reason for that is the NFL Draft.

Every year, early in the offseason, all 32 NFL teams gather to draft the best players out of the college football system to create the next generation of the league. This is exciting for the obvious reasons – new stars entering – but there is also a fascinating strategic element, which more casual fans miss out on.

In this guide, my objective is to give a bit of an introduction for those who rarely follow the draft or are getting more into the NFL and want to make the jump from a casual fan to a more knowledgeable one.

Here is my comprehensive beginner’s guide to the NFL Draft.

Why is there a draft in US Sports?

With many of the most popular sports in the UK, we are used to player turnover being based on buying and selling players. In football in particular, the transfer fees of players are a huge talking point. A rich team can buy expensive players and often when a team who aren’t as financially supported develop a top-level talent, they will sell them to a bigger club to bolster their organisation’s funds.

In American sports, where there is just one single league with franchised teams, they don’t have to sell or buy players from around the world, everything is contained to the one US league. This means that the primary way to replace retiring players or those who aren’t performing at the highest level anymore, is to draft in college graduates (or in basketball and baseball, sometimes even high school graduates!).

Some rookies come into the league as instant superstars and are starting within the first month of the season at full speed, with recent examples including Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Saquon Barkley, and Kyler Murray. Others, particularly quarterbacks get ‘redshirted’ – which means sitting behind the starting QB until they are ready to step up and play at the highest level, with the most obvious example of this lately being Patrick Mahomes, who wasn’t the starter year one but won the MVP year two.

Every team has different needs, and naturally there are trades and free agency, but the draft is by far the biggest influx of players into each organisation on a yearly basis.

How does the NFL Draft Work?

Draft Picks

There are 32 picks in every round of the draft, and 7 rounds in total. There are also compensatory picks which are distributed between rounds 3 and 7 to each of the teams. The total number of selections is between 250 and 260 based on the number of comp picks.

The 32 regular picks in each round are distributed evenly with one for each team, however, these picks are tradeable, and are a hot commodity, especially higher up in the draft. So teams will often trade draft picks for already established veterans who could potentially make a bigger difference for a shorter period of time.

The power and value of a draft pick is somewhat ambiguous, but over time, there has been enough trading and drafting that teams now conduct trades that seem very complicated to make sure both sides are happy.

Draft Order

The NFL Draft is a non-snake draft, where the draft order is the inverse of the final standings of the previous NFL season. The team who wins the Super Bowl is given the 32nd pick and the one with the worst record in the league selects first (before trades are made, naturally). This is to try and encourage balance, by giving the weakest team the opportunity to theoretically get the best players. The draft order is the same in every round, so that the advantage of the worst team is continued throughout.

This works well because the best teams have the fewest required improvements and the worst teams need not only the most improvements but also need the improvements to be the most impactful.

In 2020, the Cincinnati Bengals had pick 1.01 in the NFL Draft after a depressing 2-14 season. They drafted LSU star QB Joe Burrow with the number one selection. He got injured in his rookie year and they had another tough year, in his absence, finishing 4-11-1. In 2021, they drafted his ex-teammate Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth-overall pick. These two LSU picks helped to turn around their franchise, alongside other acquisitions, naturally, allowing them to make it all the way to the Super Bowl in 2021. This is a rare and extreme example, but it demonstrates the goal of the inverse-standings draft order.

Giving the bad teams the best opportunity to improve means that, on paper, fans of every team constantly have something to believe in. They’re either on their journey to win or on their journey to rebuild and get new talent. Losing is fun for nobody, but having the first draft pick can be pretty exciting and gives enthusiasm to the followers of the team that things could turn around.

During the Draft: Selections and Timing

The NFL Draft takes place over three days, with the first round on its own on Thursday night, followed by rounds 2 and 3 on Friday evening, and then the final, long Saturday holds rounds 4 through 7.

During the first round, every selection has a timer allowing 10 minutes. In round two that shrinks to 7 minutes. Rounds 3 through 6 allow 5 minutes, and then the final round has just a 4-minute timer.

This window of time is concrete, and all decision-making, negotiation, trading and selecting has to be done within that time, or the pick will be lost and the next team’s timer will begin. This means a lot of drama and excitement can be packed into the draft, with teams trading, selecting and announcing their picks in rapid-fire fashion.

First-round calibre players and trades of the picks to acquire them are incredibly high-value, and so for teams to make moves within just 10 minutes puts a lot of pressure on the General Managers and the teams around them to do lots of preparation and legwork before they pick up the phone.

During the Draft: Trading Up and Down

As I mentioned earlier, despite the fact every round has one pick for each team, not every pick remains in the possession of its original owner. Picks can be traded up to two years out, but – most excitingly – they can also be traded in real time, mid-draft. This is sometimes the cause for the biggest moments in the entire weekend. A team can trade picks to the team who are currently on the clock to move up and make a pick they desperately want to.

The earlier in the draft, the more expensive these trades will be, naturally.

But, for every team that trades up, there must be a team that trades down, of course. This team will usually get more of theoretical value (based on one of the various draft pick value metrics) but the picks they will be making have less of a success rate. One team may prefer to use their draft capital in a more top-heavy way, while the other wants to secure their future drafts and build with more depth.

NFL Draft Strategy

Face of the Franchise or strength in depth?

With the concept we just spoke about, trading up and trading down, there will almost always be the opportunity for the latter. Not every team will want to give up their spot when the next star of their organisation could be within reach, however, if you do want to move down, there will almost always be a suitor. The decision that has to be made is whether you would rather add a better player in that moment or give yourself the chance to get better value when all the picks have been made.

An example of this would be trading a first-round pick for two second-round picks. If you draft a player in the first 32 picks, you would have a higher chance of hitting with a successful selection, however, you only get to make one – and if you miss, you miss. With two second-round picks of approximately the same value, you now get two players, who are both less sought after on paper, but could outperform their expectations and, naturally, you have two chances at seeing if they do so.

This is the constant struggle of a general manager, do you want to take one shot at the big star who will carry your franchise, or two, three, or four shots at finding that star and a couple of other role players at the same time.

It should be noted, that sometimes you have to wait years to properly debate on who won a trade, due to all the moving parts involved, based on how all of the players perform after all of the picks on both sides have been made. Even then, it can be unclear who got the most out of a deal.

Positional Value

If you’re taking the time to read this article you probably don’t need me to tell you that quarterbacks are an important asset to have in your team- well, good QB’s anyway. But there’s one thing just as sought after as a good QB… A college QB who people expect to become a good QB.

After the biggest team need of quarterback is solved, the next tier of positional value is dictated by those who most notably impact the quarterback. The offensive line who protect the QB, the defensive line who have to pressure and sack him and finally, the wide receivers who will elevate him.

In recent years it is becoming a big topic of discussion that running backs have notably less value than you might assume, due to the ability for you to replace one and still have a competent offense. Linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks and Tight Ends are valued on much more of a case-by-case basis, where some players will be right up at the top of the draft board, but by default, they won’t be as expensive as some of the premium positions.

An elite linebacker prospect will still be drafted before a mediocre quarterback prospect but this is a basic weighting of the positional value if the players are all good at their respective position.

Team Needs

The positional values are all relative, though – yes a good quarterback is worth more than a good wide receiver in principle, but when you already have a good quarterback and your receivers aren’t as strong, that isn’t the case for your roster. That is where trades can be extremely beneficial. Trading down from the top section of the draft, or being able to take a superstar prospect at a less sought after position can often be a defining moment for a franchise.

Or sometimes teams take a huge gamble, the most risky choice of all, drafting a superstar at a less important position even though you still need to replace your quarterback. This is what the Giants did when they took Saquon Barkley in 2018 with the second overall pick, while the likes of Josh Allen were on the board.

This type of decision will have an impact on an organisation for years, and that is why watching the draft, especially the first few rounds, is so entertaining – or frustrating, if your team seemingly gets it wrong.

And there you have it.

That is my comprehensive beginner’s guide for the NFL Draft. This was intended to be a generic, open article for fans of any knowledge level, so that we could all get up to speed, ready to watch the draft at the end of April.

Keep your eyes on our website and TeamUKFL socials for more NFL Draft content coming soon.