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Today, the NFL draft is a huge entertainment production as multiple networks provide live days-long coverage with experts like Todd McShay and Mel Kiper offering insight and analysis on each player and all the NFL teams. It’s a dramatic difference from the original concept conceived in 1935. Here’s a look back at who came up with the idea, why they did it, and how it’s transformed in the last 85 years.

The idea of an NFL draft is born

Before the first-ever NFL draft in 1936, players could sign with any club. Similar to today’s college football game, this meant the top players often signed with the top teams. As a result, it created a huge disparity problem for the league.

Enter Bert Bell, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. In the Eagles first two years of existence, the team finished well below .500. That poor record affected two things that were intertwined with one another—ticket sales and players. 

No player wanted to play for a losing team like the Eagles. And no football fan wanted to show up and support a loser. After seeing his team struggle those first two years, Bell, who would later become NFL commissioner, came up with a proposal and made his case to the other team owners as described in his biography, “On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell.”

“Gentlemen, I’ve always had the theory that pro football is like a chain. The league is no stronger than its weakest link, and I’ve been a weak link for so long that I should know. Every year the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Four teams control the championships, the Giants and Redskins in the East, and the Bears and Packers in the West. Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players in the open market—which makes them successful.”

The first NFL draft held in 1936

In Bell’s plan, the teams would select players in inverse order from the way they finished the previous season. Essentially, the process implemented in today’s NFL draft. In May 1935, the owners agreed to the proposal.

On February 8, 1936, the inaugural NFL draft took place at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. It consisted of nine rounds. The first team to make a selection was Bell’s Philadelphia Eagles, which had finished with a 2-9 record the previous season.

With the first pick of the draft, the Eagles selected the first-ever Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger, a running back out of Chicago. Ironically, because the Eagles believed they would be unable to pay Berwanger’s reported demand of $1,000 per game, Philly made a trade with the Chicago Bears and received tackle Art Buss in return.

Bears owner George Halas and Berwanger were never able to agree on terms and the star college running back never played a single snap in the NFL. The first player to play in the NFL after being drafted was second pick Riley Smith, a quarterback out of Alabama, who played for the Boston Redskins.

The draft’s transformation through the years

After the 1936 draft, the NFL increased the number of rounds to 10 in 1937 and then to 20 in 1939. The league added an intriguing change during the 1938 and 1939 drafts that allowed only the five lowest teams during the previous season to make selections in the second and fourth rounds.

Despite all the changes designed to improve league parity, those first ten seasons after the draft started saw the NFL champion come out of New York, Washington, Chicago, and Green Bay.

Those results and parity changed over time as did the draft when the NFL faced competition from the newly formed All-America Football Conference, and later from the AFL.

Some of the more notable changes that have happened since those early days include: 

  • 1970s – after the NFL and AFL merged, the draft was reduced to 12 rounds. It’s now down to seven.
  • 1980 – a fledgling broadcast sports network called ESPN carried the first NFL draft live on television.
  • 2006 – NFL Network joins in on draft day coverage.
  • 2010 – draft is extended to three days with the first day only featuring the first round. 

Interestingly, the 2020 draft might have a little nostalgic element to it as coaches, management teams, and players will not be gathering for all the glitz and glamour that has become a part of the draft in recent years. Instead, they will participate from their homes, complying with social distancing guidelines. And in this first-ever digital draft, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will be announcing the first-round selections from his basement.

Somewhere Bert Bell is smiling.