The 2021 NFL Draft will see the NFL host its 86th annual selection meeting. Let’s take a look back at the history of the NFL Draft and how it has changed over the years.
When was the first NFL Draft?
The first NFL Draft was held in 1936. Then Philadelphia Eagles co-owner and head coach Bert Bell proposed the idea. Before 1936, players were free to sign with whichever team they chose to. This left teams like the Eagles, who had fewer resources available, unable to attract the best players.
Therefore, at the 1935 league meeting, Bell proposed that they hold an annual player draft with the order reversed from the previous year’s standings. This would give the teams with fewer resources the chance to add the best players and allow all teams to remain financially viable. His proposal was agreed unanimously, setting up the inaugural NFL Draft in 1936.
What happened in that first draft?
The first NFL Draft in history was somewhat underwhelming. Hosted on February 8, 1936, in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, teams had just a pool of 90 players with which to select from. The draft lasted nine rounds, was not covered by the media, and the eligible players were written out on a blackboard.
Bell’s Eagles had the first selection, and they made Jay Berwanger the first-ever player selected in an NFL Draft. Prior to the draft, however, Bell had failed to negotiate a contract with the player who won the first-ever Heisman Trophy.
Therefore, the Eagles traded the pick to George Halas’ Chicago Bears. When the Bears were also unable to agree on a deal with Berwanger, he opted for a career as a foam rubber salesman. Of the 81 players selected in the first NFL Draft in history, just 24 players signed a contract.
History of the NFL Draft
The NFL Draft has changed significantly over the course of the past 86 years. Advanced technology has led to more and more in-depth scouting of the players available. Additionally, media coverage has evolved drastically, especially in the past 20 years.
Additionally, the NFL Draft itself has changed considerably throughout the history of the event. In fact, the number of rounds has been the most notable change over the years. The inaugural draft had nine rounds, increasing to 10, 12, and 22 in subsequent years. The draft remained at 22 rounds for four years before expanding again to 32 rounds.
In 1949, that dropped to 25 rounds before jumping back to 30 in 1950. The 30 rounds remained throughout the decade before the draft was reduced to 20 rounds in 1960 and then 17 rounds in 1967. The next change saw the league drop to 12 rounds in 1977, then eight in 1993, before settling on the seven-round format we have today.
Which NFL Draft in history has produced the most Hall of Fame players?
Despite only 24 players signing contracts in 1936, the inaugural draft produced four Hall of Famers. The 1964 NFL Draft, which saw 280 players selected over 20 rounds, is the most “successful” draft having produced 11 Hall of Fame players. As of the beginning of the 2021 NFL Draft, no other single draft has produced 10 or more Hall of Fame players.
Working backward from the 2001 NFL Draft, only four draft classes have yielded zero Hall of Fame players — 1943, 1984, 1992, and 1999. A total of 15 drafts have yielded just one Hall of Fame player each.
The rookie wage scale
Prior to 2011, teams and players could negotiate contracts with limited parameters following the draft. The team with the first overall selection could even agree to terms with the player of their choice ahead of the draft.
In 2011, however, the NFL introduced the rookie wage scale. Since then, the compensation and duration of the rookie contracts are predetermined ahead of the draft. Players and teams can still negotiate on the structure of how bonuses and salary are paid within those parameters.
The rookie wage scale has significantly altered the costs associated with the draft for teams. For example, in 2010, Sam Bradford signed a six-year contract worth $78 million. The following season, Cam Newton signed a four-year contract worth $22 million. Despite being drafted one year apart, Bradford’s deal had an average annual value of $7.5 million higher than Newton’s.
How NFL Draft locations have changed
Since that first draft in Philadelphia, a total of 10 cities (including Cleveland in 2021) have hosted the NFL Draft at one time or another. Philadelphia itself has hosted 15, including 12 straight between 1949 and 1961. New York City has hosted the most with 57, including hosting every draft between 1965 and 2014. Across those 57 drafts, 19 different locations were used, with the most recent being Radio City Music Hall in 2014.
For the first 30 years, the draft was held in various Northeastern, Midwestern, Mid-Atlantic, and Western cities. At that point, it was held in New York for 50 years. From 2015 onward, the NFL has opened the hosting up to a bidding system.
Chicago won the right to host in 2015 and 2016. Hosting duties then passed to Philadelphia (2017), Dallas (2018), and Nashville (2019). Las Vegas was due to host the 2020 NFL Draft before the decision was made to hold it virtually. 2021 will see the draft take place in Cleveland with future locations continuing to be bid on by cities.
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