“Upon further review” is a new recurring segment in which This Given Sunday analyzes quirks and fascinating tidbits from the NFL’s history books.
Because prospects can sign with teams as undrafted free agents the moment the NFL draft concludes, the final player selected each year is known as “Mr. Irrelevant.” On Saturday at Radio City Music Hall, this year’s Mr. Irrelevant will be chosen by the Houston Texans 256th overall.
But in 1976, the Pittsburgh Steelers made Dayton wide receiver Kelvin Kirk Mr. Irrelevant…with the 487th pick of the draft. That was the final selection in the longest draft, pick-wise, in NFL history. And since that 17-round marathon, the draft has actually become a significantly less lengthy affair.
See, while the spectacle of the draft has become much, much larger over the years, and while everything related to the NFL has seemingly expanded during the last 20 or 30 years, the draft itself has actually become much shorter.
The draft as we know it today has seven rounds with 32 picks in most rounds (one per team), along with some compensatory picks in the later rounds (usually 32 in total). But the draft used to be a lot more bloated.
That ’76 draft had 487 picks, and yet Vince Papale still made the Eagles as an undrafted free agent. Prior to 1963, the draft typically contained 30 rounds. At that point, the rounds started decreasing as the league added teams. By the time the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, they had it down to a much more “reasonable” 17 rounds and 442 picks.
For about a decade and a half — 1977 to 1992 — the draft ran 12 rounds. But ’92 was the last year over 300 players were selected. In ’93, the league pared down to eight rounds, and in ’94 they dropped Round 8. Ever since, we’ve had about 250 players chosen over seven rounds, which makes it hard to remember how different things used to be.
It’s no coincidence that the last large drop-off in rounds and picks corresponded with the birth of free agency.
By the way, the lowest-drafted players ever to make an impact in the NFL were both taken 441st overall. Running back Don Nottingham had 34 touchdowns in seven seasons after Baltimore took him in the 17th round in 1971, while quarterback Bob Lee won 19 games as a starter over a 12-year career with the Vikings (who drafted him), Falcons and Rams.