What if the NFL draft didn't exist? Rookie contracts that Trevor Lawrence, 2021 picks could land on open free-agent market

Just about everyone loves the NFL draft. Teams love adding new players to their rosters. Television networks love the spectacle. The media gets something to talk about for six weeks after free agency. Fans love speculating about who they'll end up with or the dramatic moves their team might make on draft day. In a league built around the idea of parity, the draft gives hope to previously hopeless organizations.

There's one important group of people who might not love the draft as much as they should: the players. On one hand, they are happy to enter the NFL. More than 250 prospects had their childhood dreams come true in the 2021 class, and that has to be a great feeling. That's always going to be a special moment.

In terms of agency, though, players entering the NFL join the league at a major disadvantage. The draft doesn't allow them to choose where they're selected, which can drastically impact their future careers. Quarterback Josh Rosen comes to mind as the most extreme example of what can go wrong if a prospect lands in the worst possible spot for his career, but they have to make smaller sacrifices.

Guys who have spent their whole life in warm weather might suddenly end up being forced to play in frigid conditions. Those who excelled in one scheme in college might have to play in a totally different scheme at the professional level which doesn't use their strengths. Maybe a prospect gets drafted behind Aaron Donald or Russell Wilson and doesn't end up getting the reps he needs over his first few seasons. Some guys are good enough to succeed regardless of where they end up, but they're the exceptions, not the rules.

More recently, players entering the league have had to deal with another hindrance: they're making a fraction of their actual value on the open market. After players at the top of the draft began to enter the league as some of the league's highest-paid players at their positions, the NFL course-corrected by agreeing a rookie scale with the NFLPA as part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The scale predetermines how much players will be paid in each draft slot. While it has eliminated rookie holdouts, some of the country's most promising prospects end up making a fraction of their true value.

Take quarterbacks at the top of the class. In 2009, No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford signed a six-year, $72 million deal with the Lions, which guaranteed the Georgia star $41.7 million at signing. If you adjust that deal for inflation in terms of the 2020 cap, his deal would look like a six-year, $111.5 million deal with $64.5 million guaranteed at signing.

Contrast that to the top of the actual 2020 draft. Joe Burrow signed a four-year, $36.1 million deal with the Bengals, all of which was fully guaranteed, plus a fifth-year option. Everyone naturally hopes Burrow will recover in full from his serious knee injury and make significant money for years to come, but if he's not the same quarterback that we saw at LSU, the difference in what Burrow would have made under the old CBA and the current CBA is drastic.