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How Does the NFL Draft Work? A Guide to How the NFL Picks Its Next Generation of Stars

The NFL Draft is where the league's future stars make their entrance. So how does it work?

By Matthew Jackson

The 2023-2024 NFL Season may be over, but that doesn't mean there's much time for the league's 32 teams to rest. In April, every team will once again come together for an annual event that helps determine everyone's future, and introduces the world to a series of future NFL stars: The NFL Draft.

RELATED: How Many NFL Teams Have Won Back-to-Back Super Bowls?

Yes, on the last weekend in April, teams will gather in Detroit, Michigan to select new players to join the league, setting the stage for another NFL season in which incoming rookies could make a very big impact. We all know that being a number one draft pick is a big deal, and we also know the thrill of watching a player who seems to come from nowhere emerge late in the draft and become a superstar. But how does the Draft work? How do teams get picks? How does the league determine the order? Let's take a closer look at one of the year's biggest non-athletic sports events.

Before the Draft

As of this writing, it's NFL Combine week, which this year is being held until March 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Held every year after the Super Bowl, the Combine is a chance for more than 300 athletes to show scouts and coaches from throughout the NFL their talents, through interviews, drills, and tests like the 40-yard dash. In many cases, the NFL teams know these players already because of their college football reputation, and some of them may already be discussing their future with prospective teams, but the Combine is one last opportunity to really let the league know what they can do. 

Once the Combine is over, it's up to the staff of each of the NFL's 32 teams to start lining up their picks, and their backup picks, and any potential trades they might want to make in the lead-up to the Draft. What's all that mean? Let's find out.

The NFL Draft Theater during the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft

When is the 2024 NFL Draft?

This year's NFL Draft Begins April 25, 2024.

How Draft Picks and Drafting Order is Decided

Though the NFL Draft has evolved over the years, at present the event consists of seven rounds of picks, with each round containing 32 picks. Each one of those 32 picks goes to a single NFL team, so everyone gets a chance to pick in every round.

The order of those picks is where things start to get interesting. In an effort to keep the league competitive and infuse teams that really need it with fresh talent, the NFL assigns the highest draft picks to the teams with the worst records, which means the silver lining of being the worst team in a given season is that you get the Number One Overall Draft Pick the following year. However, if you won the Super Bowl, you have to go to the back of the line at the draft, and get the 32nd pick in each round. All of the other teams fill in the middle based on their records, how they did in the playoffs (if they went to the playoffs), and so on. The idea is simple: The worst teams get the most pick advantages, so they can pick top talent and, theoretically, get better to keep the league competitive. 

But here's the really interesting part: The picks aren't set in stone. Teams can trade their picks in exchange for other picks, players, or a combination thereof. The combinations can get kind of crazy, but luckily a prime example of how this works is sitting right at the top of the 2024 draft. Last year, the Chicago Bears held the Number One Overall pick in the 2023 Draft, but traded it to the Carolina Panthers ahead of the Draft in exchange for wide receiver DJ Moore and four Draft picks spread out across three different Drafts. One of those picks was whatever first round selection Carolina might land in 2024. Since Carolina finished with the league's worst record in the 2023-24 season, that means the Bears, not the Panthers, get the Number One Overall Pick in this year's draft. Trading future picks is always a gamble, and this time it paid off big time for the Bears, who now get first choice after handing that honor over to the Panthers (who drafted quarterback Bryce Young) last season. 

Trading draft picks means that some teams might get multiple picks in a single round, while others will only get one, or even none if they've traded picks away for another team. It also means that some teams are giving away advantage in one draft year in exchange for advantage in another, that they're searching for bargains in later rounds, and so on. It's a complex process, but if you work it well, it can pay off big. 

C.j. Stroud and Commissioner Roger Goodell during the 2023 nfl draft

Who Has the First Pick in the 2024 NFL Draft?

The Chicago Bears currently hold the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, though the team could always trade the pick to another team for players and/or additional picks.

How Players are Picked in the NFL Draft

Draft picks can be traded right up to the start of the Draft, and sometimes even during the Draft with the approval of league officials. Once they're set, though, teams are officially on the clock. In the first round, each team has 10 minutes to make their selection (time goes down in subsequent rounds) and communicate their pick to the league. Once a pick is made, a league official -- in the early rounds it's usually Commissioner Roger Goodell -- will approach the microphone, read the pick, then welcome the player onstage for a brief celebration. In the modern league, early round picks are often arranged in advance, with players already waiting in the wings for their moment, but that doesn't mean there are no surprises. 

So, what about the players? Do they have any say in who drafts them? Unofficially, of course they do. Particularly in the top rounds of the Draft, many players have already had conversations with respective teams well in advance, and informal agreements have already been reached. Teams don't want to draft a player who won't be happy to play for them, and players don't want to go to a team where they won't feel comfortable, so very often those preferences are known beforehand and bad picks are avoided. That said, some players have famously had very public tension with teams that wanted to draft them against their wishes, most famously NFL stars like John Elway and Bo Jackson. In the rare event that a player is drafted by an NFL team and doesn't want to play there, they can request a trade once they've signed on, or just refuse to sign the contract in the first place. If they don't sign, they can re-enter the Draft next season, and if they still don't sign with the team that picks them, they can enter free agency and potentially land a contract elsewhere. It's rare, but it does happen. 

Who Are Expected to be the Top Players in the 2024 NFL Draft?

The draft selections often vary depending on which team is drafting where, potential trades, and which teams need players at certain positions, but NFL experts have a pretty good feel for who will likely be going high in the first round of this year's draft based on talent and skill level. NBC Sports projects some of the first players who will be drafted include Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Penn State OT Olu Fashanu, USC QB Caleb Williams, LSU WR Malik Nabers, North Carolina QB Drake Maye, Notre Dame OT Joe Alt, Georgia TE Brock Bowers, UCLA Edge Laiatu Latu, Illinois DL Jer'Zhan Newton, Florida State Edge Jared Verse, Alabama Edge Dallas Turner, Clemson CB Nate Wiggins, Iowa CB Coope DeJean, Oregon State OT Tallies Fuaga, and Washington WR Rome Odunze.

What Happens to Players Who Aren't Drafted?

So, what happens if you enter the Draft and no one drafts you? In that case, you become an undrafted free agent, which means you retain eligibility to enter the NFL and can therefore theoretically sign a contract with any team. The contracts are usually less lucrative than those of stars who get drafted, but you still have a shot to play in the league even if your named isn't called on the Draft stage.

Catch all of the NFL's Next Breakout Players on Sunday Night Football 2024

When the NFL Season kicks off this fall, Sunday Night Football is available to watch live on NBC, either through your cable or satellite provider or with an over-the-air antenna. The biggest game of the week will also stream live on Peacock for subscribers from anywhere. The pregame show for each game will begin at 7 p.m. ET, followed by kickoff at 8:20 p.m. ET. So get your snacks ready, make sure the couch is comfy, and mark your calendars for Sunday Night Football

The NFL Draft begins April 25, 2024. For more NFL news, check out NBC Sports

Originally published Feb 26, 2024.

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