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Rule change proposal: abolish the draft

Posted by Doug on April 13, 2007

Why do we have a draft?

The nominal reason for the draft is to give the worst teams the first shot at the top talent, thereby helping achieve competitive balance in the league. But it obviously doesn't work that way.

If this were the old days, the Raiders could take Calvin Johnson or JaMarcus Russell and pay him nothing, while the Colts would take Ben Grubbs or Brian Leonard and pay him essentially the same nothing. That helps the Raiders.

But this isn't the old days. The Raiders will have to pay whoever they take much more than the Colts will have to pay their pick. Because of the salary cap, that means the Raiders will have less to spend on other players. The recent academic paper by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler (which I've written about here, here, and here) argues that the reality of the situation is that this setup actually hurts the Raiders. I don't think that's quite right, but I agree that it doesn't help the Raiders much if at all.

If the goal of the draft is to help even out the competitive landscape of the league, I don't think it's working. And as long as there is a salary cap, I don't think it's going to work.

That's the nominal reason for the draft. The real reason for the draft, as observed by Jim A in the comments to an old post, is to keep money out of the hands of the rookies and in the hands of the owners and the veterans.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I'm not convinced that's happening. Vince Young signed a deal last year that will be worth between 26 and 58 million dollars. Do you really think he would have gotten much more if he were on the open market? Before you answer yes and cite increased demand, remember that there would be increased supply too: the teams bidding for him would have had the option of bidding on Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler as well.

So the way I see it, the draft isn't doing what it says it's supposed to do. And it's also not doing what it's really supposed to do. It's not working for anyone.

So I say let's get rid of it. Rookies are free agents. They can negotiate with whatever teams they'd like and sign with the one that makes them the most attractive offer. Teams, likewise, can negotiate with and sign as many rookies as they can afford.

This seems like a radical idea, but I claim that the results won't look too much different than they do under the current system. Bad teams often have lots of cap room and would (and should) be willing to roll the dice on a young player or two with superstar potential. The good teams in general won't have as much money to burn and will likely settle for a less expensive rookies who plug specific holes. The teams that would lose out, compared to the draft system, are the ones that are bad but have no cap room. The winners are good teams with lots of cap space. That's OK with me. A bad team with no cap room is one that in my opinion doesn't deserve help.

If the results would be similar to what we see now, why do I favor a switch? Four reasons:

1. It's just a morally better system. This is cliche, but these 22-year-olds should be allowed to negotiate with several potential employers just as 22-year-olds in other careers get to. I don't mean to imply that rookies-to-be are being mistreated under the current system, but if it doesn't do any harm to anyone else (and it wouldn't), I do think it would be nice if they had the chance to explore various options like everyone else does.

2. It would end the ugly holdouts. Players wouldn't have a team to hold out from. No particular city would have a platoon of journalists riling up the fan base about how cheap management is. Players opting not to sign would be forgotten about pretty quickly.

3. It would create more diverse strategies with regard to acquiring young talent. Some teams would go for several big name players. Others would load up on guys that would formerly have been considered second or third round picks. More diverse strategies almost always make for a more interesting game.

4. It'd be fun. Even more fun than draft season already is.