How the NFL draft has evolved over decades through the eyes of former players

By Drew Davison - Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas (McClatchy) — The NFL draft has evolved over the years.

The first known draft took place in 1936 before franchises even had things such as a scouting department. It’s grown into a Super Bowl-esque event for the league, and it’s expected to be bigger than ever when it comes to AT&T Stadium this week.

Teams have scoured through scouting reports and film and background checks to ensure they’re getting a player who can help the organization succeed for years to come.

Players have spent thousands of dollars training for the NFL combine and pro days and are now ready to hear their names called for what will be a life-changing experience.

“It’s gone from a one-story motel in some small town in Montana to the Sears Tower,” longtime Cowboys executive Gil Brandt said. “What you see today is just unbelievable.”

Brandt is among the reasons why it’s become so big. He ranked as one the first scouts to conduct combine-type testing on college players in the 1970s.

Brandt recalled an Ohio State defensive back, Tim Anderson, who the school said ran a 4.42 40-yard dash. Brandt timed him at 4.78 and immediately had the Cowboys take him off the board going into the 1971 draft.

“The 49ers drafted him (23rd overall) and didn’t even sign him because he was a corner who ran 4.78,” Brandt said.

Brandt recalled a similar thing happening in 2008 at Oklahoma. Wide receiver Malcolm Kelly ran a 4.68 40-yard dash, which is slow for a receiver. But some thought he ran a 4.4, and the Washington Redskins drafted him in the second round.

“People said, ‘Oh, it’s a slow field.’ Well, it’s the same field that Adrian Peterson ran on, and he ran 4.4,” Brandt said. “So you can see why teams put so much into it.”

With that being said, the Star-Telegram talked with players drafted from the past six decades and how much it’s evolved over time.

The stories range from a player in 1958 feeling lucky to get a $500 signing bonus to a 1978 Hall of Famer who got his draft call and then headed to class to a perennial Pro Bowler who fell asleep during his draft day in 1998.


— 1958 NFL draft

— Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia

The Chicago Bears had been eyeing West Virginia’sChuck Howley and visited with him leading up to the draft. The Bears coach at the time, the legendary George Halas, informed Howley that the organization intended to take him with the seventh overall pick.

“I said, ‘OK. I’m game,’ ” Howley said.

Howley was on board, of course, and let the coach know about his upcoming wedding to his college sweetheart, Nancy.

“Coach (George) Halas said, ‘After you get married, call me and I’ll give you $500,’ ” Nancy recalled, smiling. “And his salary that year was $9,000. In Chicago, that was a lot of money.”

Howley gained instant celebrity status in Chicago by being the first-round pick. After all, this is a time when the draft had 30 rounds. Yes, 30.

“It was really fun back then, because he was like a king being the first draft choice,” Nancy said. “The A&P Company had us come to their house, and there was just a smorgasbord of food. They took us to different places; we went to see Nat King Cole. It was fun. We liked being there, and the coach was really good.”

Howley had made a name for himself during a standout college career. He was invited to the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. He also played in the College All-Star Game and helped that squad defeat the Detroit Lions, 35-19.

“When I got to my senior year in college, I knew I was going to do what I needed to do to play (professionally),” Howley said.

Howley spent two seasons with the Bears before he sustained what appeared to be a career-ending knee injury.

After a year away from football, Howley joined the Cowboys and played 13 more seasons. He was named MVP of Super Bowl V even though the Cowboys lost and then won a Super Bowl with them the following season.

Howley was named All-Pro five times and is in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. He’s part of a draft class that has some big-time names from it, such as the Packers’ hard-hitting linebacker Ray Nitschke and broadcaster John Madden.


— 1968 NFL draft

— Belmont Plaza Hotel, New York City

Dennis Homan thought he had robbed the Cowboys blind when he got a $10,000 signing bonus and yearly salaries of $18,000, $20,000 and $22,000.

The Alabama receiver was the 20th player taken in what was known as a “common draft” between the NFL and AFL. The 20th overall player in last year’s draft, Denver offensive lineman Garret Bolles, received a four-year, $11 million deal.

“Back in the ’60s, that was a lot of money I signed for,” Homan said. “But you compare it to what these guys are getting paid today before they ever put on a jock strap? Good grief. They wouldn’t even put on a jock strap for what I got paid, and I played in the days of the players who really built the game of football.

“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated playing back then. It was a big deal to go to the NFL. But when I compare that to what they’re getting paid today, it’s just totally out of sight. But I don’t blame the players. Heck, if I could get that kind of money, I would, too.”

Homan had a standout career at Alabama, which is what put him on the NFL’s radar. There were no workouts with teams or pro days. In fact, he didn’t know he’d been taken by the Cowboys until Tom Landry called him.

“It was just a dream come true,” Homan said. “I worked all my life to play pro football. I remember telling my dad that after I finished playing at Alabama, I was going to play pro ball. He said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ So it worked out.”

Homan lasted just three seasons with the Cowboys, although he was part of the Super Bowl V team in 1970, and then played for two years with the Kansas City Chiefs. He also had a stint in the short-lived World Football League before moving back to Alabama.

Homan doesn’t watch much pro football anymore these days, opting for the college game instead. But he has fond memories of his playing days and has endless stories of playing for legendary coaches such as Landry with the Cowboys and Bear Bryant at Alabama.

“They had a lot of similarities. Number one, they were great leaders and you wanted to listen to them, you wanted to please them and you wanted to do everything they told you to do just to hear them say, ‘Good job,’ ” Homan said. “Coach Bryant was very demanding. And coach Landry probably knew more football than anybody I’ve ever been around in my entire life.”

For Homan, does it feel like it’s been 50 years since he got that phone call?

“Sometimes it feels like another lifetime,” Homan said. “Other times, I can’t believe it’s been that long ago. Time goes pretty quick, especially the older you get.”


— 1978 NFL draft

— Roosevelt Hotel, New York City

Back in the day, the NFL draft wasn’t a prime-time event. Just ask Hall of Famer James Lofton, who was drafted 40 years ago.

The Green Bay Packers used the sixth overall pick to take the Stanford receiver.

“There were no cellphones. There was no cable television. There was no internet to follow it on,” said Lofton, who is now an analyst on CBS Sports and Sirius XM.

“That morning, I’m not sure if the draft started around 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. on the East Coast, but I was on the West Coast and got a call from the Los Angeles Rams. They were just calling to see if I was available for a phone call.

“Then probably at half past the hour (at 7:30 a.m.), I got a call from the Green Bay Packers. It was Carol Edwin, and she asked if I could hold for coach Bart Starr. I did, and he congratulated me on being drafted and how exciting it was and how excited they were and then we hung up the phone.

“I ate breakfast and then went to my 8 a.m. class. Later that afternoon, I went to track practice. There was a local TV person from Green Bay who came out and did a short five-minute interview with me, and that was the extent of my draft day.”

Lofton didn’t really celebrate the occasion, although he was proud to enter the NFL with a few of his college teammates. Offensive tackle Gordon King was drafted 10th overall by the New York Giants, quarterback Guy Benjamin was taken in the second round by the Miami Dolphins, and wide receiver Bill Kellar was taken in the seventh round by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Lofton also doesn’t remember doing many workouts leading into the draft. He played in the Senior Bowl, being named the MVP, and participated in something called the “Challenge Bowl,” featuring the best Pac-8 and Big Ten players, at the old Kingdome in Seattle.

But it isn’t quite what it is today.

“It’s become an entire season to itself,” Lofton said. “I understand the money is a lot bigger and there’s a big difference between being a first-round pick and a fourth-round pick and having to try and make that money up.”

For Lofton, the money he got was pretty good at the time. He signed a six-year, $800,000 deal as a rookie.

“When I signed the contract, I thought I was set for life,” Lofton said, chuckling. “The money is obviously dwarfed now, even dwarfed in comparison if you factored in inflation. The money is just going to continue to go up.”


— 1988 NFL draft

— Marriott Marquis, New York City

This draft produced five Hall of Famers, none more prominent than Cowboys great Michael Irvin, affectionately known as “The Playmaker.”

The Cowboys used the 11th overall pick on Irvin, the Miami standout who would become a member of the famed “Triplets” that won three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

Irvin can’t believe it’s been 30 years since he heard his name called.

“The body feels the time, but the time has flown by,” said Irvin, now an analyst on the NFL Network. “It really has. It blows your mind how fast time has flown by and where we are now. I can’t believe it’s been … 30 years? Thirty years? That’s a lifetime for people. It’s just mind-blowing, 30 years since being drafted? It’s amazing. It absolutely doesn’t feel like 30 years.”

Irvin left school early to enter the draft, following the path of his college quarterback Bernie Kosar. Back then, only seniors and graduates could enter the draft, and Irvin was a junior graduate.

Irvin felt he had control over his draft, too, because he had the option to return to school and enter the supplemental draft. Therefore, teams would hesitate to burn a draft pick on a player who might or might not sign with them.

“I had every team understanding that you had to get an OK before you drafted me,” Irvin said. “Dallas and us already had an understanding, and they knew there would be no games because I wanted to be in Dallas. It was my dad’s favorite team; he wore a little fedora when we watched the Cowboys game. It was incredible.”

Still, being an early entrant meant Irvin didn’t receive an invite to the Combine or the draft itself. But Irvin had a feeling he’d be taken in the first round and had a family gathering at his home.

“This is funny. You’ve been waiting on this moment all of your life and, God bless him, Mr. Rozelle (NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle) goes up and he announces the Cowboys draft Marshall Irvin,” Irvin said. “Marshall Irvin? We look around like … Marshall Irvin? Then he says from the University of Miami, and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ And we just went crazy.”

Irvin is excited about the draft coming to town, considering he’ll be covering it for the NFL Network. However, he isn’t a fan of how much the process has changed leading into it.

He ripped how much money and attention is being put on prospects training for their pro days and combine.

“I see a lot of people doing a lot of things that I don’t know if it’s making them better at football, or is this just some kind of stuff we’re going to put on social media to help your trainer get a better job or get more clients,” Irvin said. “I worked out with (Robert Griffin III) after his rookie year. I was blown away; his quarterback coach, he’s chasing him with a broom. RGIII is dropping back, jumping over garbage cans and then throwing it to the receivers who are standing still. I’m like, ‘What is this?’

“First of all, these defensive linemen are going to come at you much harder and faster than this damn broom this dude is holding. And these garbage cans, they don’t have a hand to reach up when you jump up. If you’re doing all this, you’re dead. We need to be dropping back three steps, five steps, seven steps, and have receivers running full speed and working the timing of the route.

“I think we lose the good old drills of we’re going to run routes until we can’t run routes any more. That’s what we used to do. Now everybody is so specific in what they have to do, so what suffers is the basics of the route running. Those are the things that you see suffer from what I call scatter workouts.”


— 1998 NFL draft

— The Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York City

Cowboys fans hoped the organization would use the eighth overall pick on Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss. But character concerns surrounding Moss paved the way for the Cowboys to go with North Carolina defensive end Greg Ellis.

Ellis received a six-year, $11.5 million contract, including a $5.4 million signing bonus.

“That’s the most money I’ve ever given to a rookie,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said at the time.

Ellis had a solid, 12-year career in which he made one Pro Bowl. But the steal of the draft for the Cowboys might’ve been their second-round pick, Michigan State’sFlozell Adams, who developed into a Pro Bowl left tackle.

Adams remembered his draft experience as being just another day at his childhood home in Chicago.

“I have a very nontraditional family, so we didn’t have any sort of draft party,” Adams said. “My dad was on the other side of town that day, and it was just a regular day. I stopped by my aunt’s house before the draft started and she asked about it, and I said, ‘Of course I’m excited.’ I went home and started watching the draft, like the first 15 picks. And this might sound crazy, but I actually fell asleep and then the phone rang. I was all groggy-eyed and I thought it was my dad calling and said, ‘Who’s this?’ He said, ‘Excuse me. This is Jerry Jones.’

“I was like, ‘Get out of here? Is someone playing a joke?’ He then says, ‘I wanted to know if you wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy before we draft you.’ I was like, ‘Hell, yeah.’ “

So does it feel like it’s been 20 years?

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long,” Adams said. “I remember it quite vividly, but it was quite long ago. It was one of the best moments of my life. I didn’t start playing football until my junior year in high school. It was definitely an accomplishment.”

Adams is now living a “quiet life” in the DFW area. So quiet, in fact, that he didn’t know the NFL draft was coming to town until informed by the Star-Telegram for this story.

But Adams has fond memories of his day and his playing career with the Cowboys.

“When I got here, I was coming to work,” Adams said. “If somebody was going to lose their job, that’s unfortunate. That’s the nature of the game. I was going in there and doing what I had to do no matter what obstacle was in the way. I was going to be the best I can, because that’s how I was raised.

“I’m a different type of guy. Period.”


— 2008 NFL draft

— Radio City Music Hall, New York City

Arkansas running back Darren McFadden had a feeling he’d be a top-five selection and jumped at the opportunity to attend the draft in person, along with fellow classmates such as Jake Long, Chris Long, Matt Ryan and Glenn Dorsey.

When the Oakland Raiders used the fourth overall pick on McFadden, he couldn’t help but smile.

“It was a great experience. We were sitting at that table when I got that phone call from Oakland and I was just ecstatic,” McFadden said. “It was a dream come true for me. As a little kid, you’re always running around and playing football saying you want to go to the NFL, so to get that phone call is just amazing.”

As far as attending the draft in person, McFadden said: “I got to bring several family members, and we all got to experience that together. That’s something we all really enjoyed, because it’s a lifelong memory for us.”

Then McFadden saw his Razorback backfield mate, Felix Jones, go in the first round as well. The Cowboys used the 22nd overall pick on Jones, who lasted five years with the team.

“We came in together as freshmen and went through the whole college journey together and became leaders and then going on to fulfill our lifelong dreams together,” McFadden said. “It was great. It was some memories we’ll never forget.”

McFadden got a life-changing amount of money, too, signing a six-year, $60 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. Jones, taken 18 picks later, got a fraction of that. He signed a $10.53 million deal with $7.67 million guaranteed.

McFadden actually got more than some of today’s first-round draft picks because there wasn’t a rookie salary system in place.

The free-spending days ended after the 2010 NFL draft. That year, top pick Sam Bradford signed a six-year, $78 million deal with $50 million guaranteed from the then-St. Louis Rams.

For McFadden, though, the draft served as a starting point of a professional career that would last a decade in the NFL. He spent seven seasons with the Raiders and three seasons with the Cowboys, topping the 1,000-yard mark twice in his career.

Does it feel like it’s been 10 years?

“Man, it’s funny. In some ways, it feels like it’s been 10 years,” McFadden said. “Then it also feels like, dang, man, 10 years? I feel like I was just a rookie a few days ago. But time has flown by. They say time moves at its own pace, but it does seem like it’s flown by.”

However, don’t expect McFadden to return to his playing career. Retirement is not overrated.

“Oh, not at all. Not at all,” McFadden said, laughing. “I’m enjoying it.”


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By Drew Davison

Fort Worth Star-Telegram