Although the NFL is celebrating its 100th year in 2019, one of the most anticipated events of American football was not fully conceived until 17 years after the NFL was established. On Feb. 8, 1936, the first NFL Draft took place.
The 1936 NFL Draft was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the first selection was Jay Berwanger, a halfback, who was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Berwanger had made a name for himself in football, playing for the University of Chicago during his college years. He was valued for his versatility and ability to call plays, run and pass, block and tackle, and play both offensive and defensive positions effectively. He was also the first recipient of the “Downtown Athletic Club Trophy,” which was later dubbed the Heisman Memorial Trophy.
The NFL draft was created to help organize players, and to prevent the chaos associated with free-agent players. Prior to the draft process, players were free to sign with any club. This often led to power-house teams that only got stronger, while weaker teams had a hard time recruiting strong players.
The plan for the NFL Draft was proposed by Bert Bell, who at the time owned the Philadelphia Eagles and would later go on to be commissioner of the NFL. His plan proposed that the teams would select players in the reverse order that they had finished the previous season, which was adopted and is still the framework for the modern NFL draft.
The first draft in 1936 had nine rounds, which would change over time. In 1937, the draft was allowed ten rounds, and by 1939 it had 20 rounds. The ability to have first pick overall was added in 1947 but was abandoned after the 1958 draft.
In the 1960s, the draft served as a battlefield between the American Football League and the National Football League, when they held separate drafts in 1966, the first year of the Super Bowl. The AFL and NFL did merge their drafts from 1967 through 1969. However, the leagues did not officially merge their draft into the NFL draft until the 1970 season. After the leagues merged and the NFL now functioned to serve teams previously in the AFL as well as its own teams, the number of draft rounds was reduced to 12.
During the 1990s, the power of the draft shone through as elite teams rose to stardom. Through multiple draft picks, the Dallas Cowboys went from finishing the 1989 season 1-15 to winning three Super Bowls during the 1990s. The number of draft rounds was reduced again during the 1990s as well, when the draft dropped from 12 rounds to seven in 1994. This allowed more freedom for players, as teams were getting too large to fully engage with or benefit from the draft.
Although it has changed drastically over the years, the draft is still a largely anticipated event during the football off-season. The NFL draft for 2019 will start on April 25 and end on April 27, in Nashville, Tennessee.