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Alternate Reality: The NFL Without A Draft

If you are a Dallas Cowboys fans, free agency has been like watching your neighbor bring home a shiny new Ferrari while you are tinkering with your ten-year-old Chevy, trying to get another 10,000 miles out of it. So just for fun, try imagining what it would be like to not have a college draft in the NFL - but something very, very different to keep it "fair".


The annual NFL draft is the highlight of the offseason. We watch video, do mock drafts, analyze and argue leading up to it, then we analyze what the teams actually do, agonize over perceived mistakes or celebrate clever acquisitions. And this year, with the Dallas Cowboys sitting on the sidelines of free agency with no money to spend (at least not yet), we, as fans of the team, are even more focused on the upcoming show than normal.

But what if there were no draft?

It is not like it has to be done the way the NFL does it. The real purpose of the draft is to restrict freedom of movement and create parity, so a few rich franchise owners cannot corral talent, and the most inept organizations get the pick of the talent pool coming out college every year. It is a strange creature, in many ways.

If you did not have such a system, how would teams acquire talent coming out of college? You could always just make it a free for all, but that just seems full of problems. And being a sci fi and comic book fanboy from way back, I have always enjoyed the concept of parallel worlds where things work differently. So I got to thinking.

A long time ago, I saw a proposal to create a link between NFL teams and colleges. Instead of going though a draft where teams would select from the entire pool of available former college players, each NFL team would be linked to a handful of schools, and they would have exclusive rights to the players from those schools.

So let me propose an alternate NFL universe, where each team has three schools from which it will be able to bring in as many or as few players as it wants to.

Now, you cannot have a permanent assignment, or some NFL teams would clearly be stuck in long term obscurity. But to start, it would probably make sense to link the teams geographically as much as possible. And if you don't see that as making sense, then just consider it an arbitrary decision. Obviously, you can't just start drawing circles around NFL cities and come up with a distribution of schools that way. The NFL teams are concentrated somewhat to the Northeast part of the country, while the college talent is skewed more to the south and west.

So, after setting up one team that was close to the NFL clubs, there will have to be some geographical mismatches. I sat and came up with this distribution of the three college programs to associate with each NFL team. I did try to balance out the talent level a little, and imagined a little horsetrading that would have gone on in setting up an initial list. For instance, I figured the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans would have negotiated the Texas - Texas A&M division of spoils (possibly coming down to a coin toss, since each already had a "hometown" school in the fold, and maybe just a little interest in a recent Heisman Trophy winner). I also saw Roger Mara pitching an absolute fit unless he got some kind of power team, thus the oddity of Alabama being assigned to the New York Giants. This is hardly equitable, but it is meant to be a starting point. (The first school is always geographically close. After that, I tried to stay somewhat local, but obviously had to violate that as early as the second choice for some teams.)

Team 1st School 2nd School 3rd School
Arizona Arizona Utah Arizona State
Atlanta Georgia Georgia Tech Louisiana Tech
Baltimore Maryland Oklahoma Nevada
Buffalo Syracuse Auburn Buffalo
Carolina North Carolina Eastern Carolina Colorado State
Chicago Northwestern Iowa Illinois
Cincinnati Cincinnati West Virginia Wyoming
Cleveland Ohio State Southern Miss Memphis
Dallas SMU Texas A&M TCU
Denver Colorado Oklahoma State BYU
Detroit Michigan Kansas Michigan State
Green Bay Wisconsin NC State North Texas
Houston Houston Texas Baylor
Indianapolis Notre Dame Louisville Indiana
Jacksonville Florida UCF Wake Forest
Kansas City Kansas State Nebraska Oklahoma Sate
Miami Miami Clemson Akron
Minnesota Minnesota Boise State Iowa Sate
New England Boston College Texas Tech Connecticut
New Orleans LSU Mississippi Troy
NY Giants Temple Alabama Utah State
NY Jets Rutgers Mississippi State New Mexico
Oakland Stanford UCLA San Jose State
Philadelphia Penn State Purdue Duke
Pittsburgh Pitt South Carolina Louisville
San Diego San Diego State USC Hawaii
San Francisco Cal Fresno State Oregon State
Seattle Washington Oregon Washington State
St. Louis Missouri Iowa Arkansas
Tampa Bay Florida State South Carolina Vanderbilt
Tennessee Tennessee Kentucky Middle Tennessee
Washington Virginia Virginia Tech Toledo

A quick note: You may notice that the pickings get pretty slim by the time you try to designate a third college for each NFL franchise. I tried my best to give each team some quality to work with, but obviously everything is not equal here. Also, if some school wanted to change out one of the teams, for an FBS school that was not assigned by the league or for a really good lower division school, they would be allowed to do so. And I am certain a case can be made for some schools to replace some of the names here. I based this off a list I used in a previous post about how many players were on NFL teams from what schools, and hope I didn't leave any of the more significant programs off. And if you see any errors, please let me know. I tried to proofread this, but that's a lot of schools to keep track of.

So, if this was the list for this year, each team would bring as many players from the three schools listed in for evaluation as they want. They could also bring in any player from a school not on the above list as well, as the equivalent of a UDFA. There would be a rookie pay scale, with each team having to designate a first, second and third round equivalent player who would get higher pay and would be signed to four year rookie deals, while all other players signed would get the rookie minimum and three year deals, possibly with the last year of each deal as an option. All signing bonuses for rookie contracts would be part of the first year's cap cost, and there would be a common limit of how much bonus money each team could spend each year.

Each player would be able to come in for three one week periods for testing, interviews, and evaluation (these could be done individually or in groups, depending on the schedule of the players who still had school to attend). Then there would be a three week rookies camp in June. All the rookies who were involved in these activities would be paid at a common rate, say $2,500.00 per week. At the end of that camp, the team would declare which rookies would be signed to the 90 man roster for training camp, and any rookies not signed to that roster would then become free agents and available for any other team to sign. There would be a period between the rookie signing day and the start of training camp when teams could sign these free agents, but they would have to release players off the 90 man roster to do so, the same way they do to bring players in after the start of training camp now.

That would be the first year's line up. The second year would see a selection process like this:

All playoff teams would be allowed to protect one school on their list, if they choose.

All nonplayoff teams would be allowed to protect one or two schools, if they choose. Any team can also choose to not protect any school if they want to start over.

Once all protected schools have been determined, there would be a round to select new schools, using the same order as the current draft, from among all non-protected schools. Obviously, once a team had three schools selected, it would sit out the rest of the process. Teams would be allowed to trade schools if they wished, and could also trade their position in the re-selection round for cash, other players or whatever the team might want to work out. However, this will mean the team acquiring an earlier shot at picking automatically loses out on a later pick. There still would be a chance for a team to get two "first round" picks, so to speak, and a team that traded away a pick just gets one at the end of the line, in an extra "supplemental" round after the first three "rounds". The re-selection would be a two day affair, with thirty-two picks on day one, and then running through the teams still needing to pick on day two until all teams had their three colleges designated. This may not be the riveting TV the draft currently is - or maybe it could be fun. Hard to say.

There are many other ramifications. For instance, NFL teams would now be focused on their schools instead of trying to scout the world. It may lead to some long term relationships between the NFL and the top NCAA teams. Maybe it might even be the start of ending the myth of the amateur athlete in top flight college programs, where the schools rake in millions on TV contracts and other revenues, and the players are still told that a free education is worth it all. I don't know how exactly that would tie together, but it's my made up world.

Obviously, if Dallas wound up with the schools I have, there would be many happy people out there. This was just an intellectual exercise, and I played with other combinations (like the Cowboys having Texas or Oklahoma as their best school; I also looked at putting North Texas in instead of TCU, which would be a pretty major drop in talent).

But it's all just idle fantasy. Something to while away the time while free agency plods on in Dallas.