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The New Rules of the NFL Draft

Schematic shifts at the college level, a new rookie salary scale, and the rising importance of the quarterback have altered football’s talent-assessment landscape. Here are the five guiding principles teams need to know in order to compete.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

No event in football has changed in recent years as much as the NFL draft, with widespread schematic shifts at the college level, a cap on rookie salaries, and an increasingly quarterback-centric mentality altering how teams assess talent. Now, nearly every facet of the draft is dictated by a set of new rules. These five will have the biggest impact on how teams approach the 2017 draft.

1. Overdrafting a Quarterback Is Encouraged

It’s not news that NFL teams can get desperate for quarterbacks — EJ Manuel and Blaine Gabbert were once drafted in the first round, after all. But that desperation is consistently manifesting earlier now. For more than two decades, drafting a quarterback in rounds 2 through 4 was rare and often fruitless (unless that QB was Drew Brees, technically a second-round pick as the 32nd selection in the final NFL draft featuring just 31 teams). In the past five drafts, teams have selected 23 quarterbacks between the start of the second round and the end of the fourth round, the most in a five-year span at any point in the past 25 years. In 2000, zero quarterbacks were taken in the second or fourth rounds, and just two were taken in the third; meanwhile, Tom Brady was one of five quarterbacks selected in the sixth round that year, with three more passers going in the seventh round. Quarterbacks don’t last that long anymore.

For much of the 21st century, mid-round quarterbacks were a disaster zone, with notable second-round picks including Kellen Clemens, Jimmy Clausen, Chad Henne, and Pat White (!). It was more than a decade before the second round produced a decent starter. In 2012, RotoWorld’s Evan Silva wrote about the phenomenon of the awful second-rounder, and since then, the yield for players picked in rounds 2–4 has improved considerably: Third-rounder Russell Wilson, fourth-rounder Kirk Cousins, and second-rounder Andy Dalton have developed into quality quarterbacks. Mike Glennon, a third-round pick, somehow wound up being the best passer in the 2013 draft. Derek Carr went from second-round pick to MVP candidate. Jimmy Garoppolo, also a second-round pick, is so highly regarded that on a near-daily basis the media has to report that the Patriots aren’t trading him. And of course Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick, played like an MVP candidate last season.

NFL teams have noticed that uptick in mid-round value, and last year, six quarterbacks were drafted from the start of the second round until the end of the fourth, tied for the most in 15 years.

Davis Webb (Getty Images)
Davis Webb (Getty Images)

There are a few forces at work here. The first is that the quarterback is more important than ever, with passing yardage up 18 percent league-wide in 2016 compared to a decade earlier. And as salaries for quarterbacks skyrocket — 12 of the top 15 cap hits in the league in 2017 will be for quarterbacks — the idea of landing a cheap QB who can contribute is so enticing that teams are taking their chances earlier and earlier. "Developmental" quarterbacks have always been desirable targets, but now they’re going sooner, which is a smart hedge for teams: These mid-round passers go high enough to ensure that teams get their man, but low enough to protect the GM from getting fired if the player busts.

The second is that today’s mid-round quarterbacks are plain better than their predecessors. Quarterbacks are throwing more than ever at the college, high school, and youth levels due to the prevalence of the spread offense, increasing their meaningful throwing experience.

Even with more throws on tape, teams still struggle with their evaluation, because these days, almost every draft-eligible quarterback comes from a system featuring at least some spread principles. NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said last week in a conference call with reporters that all spread quarterbacks, like Prescott, get knocked and lumped into one group by teams as passers who’ve oftentimes never taken a snap from under center; don’t have to set the offensive line protection; and throw to receivers running simpler routes than those featured in previous college offenses. Because some spread quarterbacks at the college level have no responsibility for or control of the offense before the snap, Mayock thinks that finding players who did, in fact, have the ability to command an offense is "the most important scouting point right now." Until teams refine the evaluation process, though, the ones that don’t want to risk a first-round pick on these boom-or-bust spread quarterbacks are instead selecting them in the later rounds, where the stakes are lower. In many cases, those players are booming.

What it means: We won’t have to wait long for the second batch of quarterbacks to go this year. Maybe a decade ago, lesser QB prospects like Pitt’s Nathan Peterman, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, and Cal’s Davis Webb would have had to wait until perhaps the fifth round to hear their names called. Webb, ranked by CBS as the fifth-best quarterback in the draft, is considered the 78th-best overall prospect in the class. Kaaya is 120th on that list. Both quarterbacks will move up two or three rounds compared to where they would have gone a decade ago because of this effect. Here’s guessing Webb is a second-round pick, with Kaaya potentially sneaking in there as well — this is a league where Christian Hackenberg went in the second round last season. Peterman will likely go around the third. Hell, even Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, viewed by CBS as the 195th-ranked prospect and a fifth- or sixth-rounder, will likely go two rounds earlier than he would have in the prior draft era. For many teams, a promising, cheap quarterback is too good to pass up.

2. There Are No Secrets

Last training camp, I asked Eagles executive vice president Howie Roseman what the biggest change in drafting a player was compared to, say, a decade ago. He said that the internet has altered everything: social media’s ability to spread scouting notes on any player at any level and game film’s availability on YouTube has made it nearly impossible for good players to remain under the radar. Roseman mentioned that in the fall of 2015, the Eagles found a guy that they thought they might be able to snag as a hidden gem. That player was Carson Wentz, and after the Wentz Wagon pulled out of the station in the winter of 2016 amid growing online and draftnik hype, Philly was forced to trade up and take him second overall.

In theory, all teams should have vastly different draft boards, since there are more than 6,000 draft-eligible players. Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said at his team’s predraft press conference that 60,000 hours go into his team’s draft, a mark that’s probably pretty typical around the league. And yet, despite all of those scouting hours and team-specific evaluations, draft boards now … all sort of look the same, according to those in the game. Baltimore Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said at his team’s predraft press conference this month that the "volatility" of the draft has gone away and that other teams have a "very similar list of players."

He continued: "It used to be that you might have your Top 100 and there would still be players [on that list] available at the end of the draft maybe. Now, it seems like those players … We get wiped clean," DeCosta said. "Everybody is sort of drafting from the same players. There are not a lot of surprise players. They seem to be coming off in the same general area. I think that has a lot to do with the internet, and all the mock drafts, and so much is being written about these players, and so much information is there, that I think it has created more maybe parity or sort of the same thing. It never used to be like that." DeCosta also said that he’s "amazed" that all of the players the Ravens ranked as draftable get drafted now. "It used to be different — quite a bit different."

What it means: Fans who’ve studied enough mock drafts and read enough reports probably already have a good sense of how the draft will unfold. For teams, the information age has created a tougher reality: That small-school gem ranked 100th isn’t going to somehow become an undrafted free agent; he’s going to be picked 100th by another team that was also wise to his ability. Look at Ashland’s Adam Shaheen, a 6-foot-6 tight end and a former basketball player who rewrote Division II record books for receptions by a tight end in 2015, with 70. The hype around Shaheen is such that he’s on pretty much every team’s board now even though he’s from a school few have even heard of, and he could be picked as high as the second round. Ian Rapoport named Shaheen as a player who will go higher than most people think. He’s not a secret, because no one is anymore.

3. Athletes Don’t Drop

NFL teams will rip off any idea that wins another team a single game, so when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in the 2013 season by focusing on ultra-athletic players who could jump high and explode off the line, opponents began ripping off the approach in record time. Since then, teams like the Cowboys, Chiefs, Steelers, and Packers have put a priority on combine testing. It seems unlikely that a player like Bobby Wagner, now one of the NFL’s best linebackers, would drop to the 47th pick in 2017 after testing like an elite athlete at his pro day. Today, a high jumper or a guy who runs a great short shuttle is not just a trivia answer, but someone with a golden ticket to getting drafted much higher.

Byron Jones experienced this in 2015, when, despite minimal hype coming into the combine, he broke the long-jump record at 12 feet, 3 inches and, in doing so, jumped his way into the first round. Just two years earlier, before teams put much emphasis on such things, Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins jumped 11 feet, 7 inches, a record at the time, but still dropped to the 52nd pick. Collins has developed into one of the best and most versatile linebackers in football, and he’d never fall that far today.

What it means: It cannot be overstated, then, what Obi Melifonwu’s measurables will do to his draft stock. The UConn safety wasn’t considered a top prospect entering the combine, but he broad jumped 11 feet, 9 inches, better than any player ever except Jones. NFL.com notes that Melifonwu "lacks desired instincts and will play with slow eyes at times. Has to see ball in the air before charging over to help on deep throws." I don’t know what that means, but I know the dude can jump! He’ll get drafted higher than his game tape dictates he should.

So, too, will UCLA corner Fabian Moreau (a top performer in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, and 60-yard shuttle), Washington corner Kevin King (a vertical-jump star who also excelled at the three-cone drill and both the short and long shuttles), and Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt (who was great at everything at the combine).

4. There’s a Lot More Projecting

The most interesting comments of the predraft process so far have come from Andrew Berry, vice president of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns, who responded to draftniks’ critique of presumptive no. 1 pick Myles Garrett’s work ethic by saying: "I think that sometimes those concerns are a little bit overstated. The reality is in college football the number of snaps that these defensive linemen have to play on a down-in, down-out basis is usually greater than when they are going to have to play at the professional level."

Berry’s right: College defenses have to face more hurry-up offenses and thus more plays than pro defenses, so Garrett will likely never have to play as many snaps per game in the NFL as he did at Texas A&M. But Berry’s defense of Garrett suggests the continuation of a trend in which the college game is so different from the pro game that previously unforgivable sins — lack of effort, for instance — are being explained away.

Cam Robinson (Getty Images)
Cam Robinson (Getty Images)

It also happens with the offensive line, where many players never get into the three-point stances in college that they’ll be required to get into in the pros. More than ever it’s a projection game. Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters last week that offensive line is "probably the most neglected position" as far as coaching in the college and pro ranks. "You’re not born that way in a weird stance. You need hours to progress at that position," he said. "You need hours in the National Football League to progress at that position. I don’t think colleges or the NFL give that position enough time."

That sentiment is being echoed throughout the league:

What it means: Draft expert Gil Brandt called this perhaps the worst crop of offensive linemen he’s ever seen. We’ve already seen massive free-agent deals handed out to players who’ve proved that they can play the line at the NFL level, and that will continue as more question marks develop around the college players. It’s likely teams are going to devote more money to finding proven linemen and put less emphasis on drafting them.

5. Trades Are Getting More Creative

Trade value for picks in the modern NFL should have changed drastically following the introduction of the rookie wage scale in 2011, which has altered the way teams look at players. Now that they are all on bargain contracts, having as many early-round players on a team as possible is a good way to win. Before the rookie cap, first-round picks were expensive and sometimes the highest-paid player on the team. No longer. But pick-for-pick trades have not reflected that new reality. The Jimmy Johnson "trade value chart" used as a general guideline for more than two decades is still in use, according to both evidence and comments (as recently as 2014, a GM said that everyone used it). Yet despite a shift in how picks are received, there’s been no innovation in what teams demand in exchange for those picks. The smartest teams, however, have identified value in another form of draft trade: swapping picks for really good veterans.

Bill Belichick, as usual, has been an early adopter: He traded a first-round pick to the Saints and swapped a third-round pick for a fourth-round pick for stud wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Then the Pats acquired Panthers pass rusher Kony Ealy in exchange for swapping picks with Carolina, moving eight picks down in the process. This is extending a trend of the past few offseasons. Last year, the Miami Dolphins acquired Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell for a first-round pick swap. "We moved back five spots and got three starters," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said at the time.

These trades are the wave of the future, especially as "pick hoarding" becomes passe with every team trying to adopt the strategy once perfected by Belichick. In 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013, the Patriots had the most or tied for the most second-round picks. In the one year they didn’t in that span, they had two first-round picks. This year, Cleveland has five picks in the top 65 in the draft. The Ravens last year had seven picks in the top four rounds. The Titans had three second-round picks last year. Belichick’s Patriots were long able to hoard picks because they were alone in attempting to do so. That’s no longer the case. Sacrificing draft position for young, good veterans is increasingly the strategy.

When they do occur, pick-for-pick trades will get a new wrinkle this year, as for the first time compensatory picks, awarded when a team loses a contributor via free agency, can be traded. The Dolphins, for instance, have picks 97, 178, and 184 due to this system. They could now package those and move up or, in keeping with the tradition of the times, send those picks to a team in exchange for a proven commodity.

What it means: With big-name veterans whose availability is at least in play (Richard Sherman, Kirk Cousins, Malcolm Butler) floating around, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a team swing a creative pick-for-player trade during this draft. These stars would command a pick, not a pick swap, but it seems reasonable to think that we’ll see one major draft trade this week. Miami, Seattle (three third-round picks), and Cleveland (one third, two fourths) all have comp picks and could package them for help. Maybe Miami needs to move up to get a talented pass rusher?

This draft will be the first time teams attempt to package these comp picks to move up, and as with most things in the modern NFL draft, we’ll quickly learn which teams are smart and which teams have failed to learn how to live by the new rules.