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XFL draft requires strategy on multiple levels

By Trevor Sikkema
The Draft Network

No matter what anyone says, there’s no such thing as too much football. And with that in mind, the XFL is planning to give football fans their fix in a way they have never seen before -- not just this February when the league kicks off its inaugural season, but also this week with a new, innovative draft structure.

Excitement is the name of the game with this second go-around for the XFL. You’re going to watch some of the best athletes in the world live out their dreams while playing the game they love. There will be some familiar faces and there will be others you’ll meet for the first time. There’s also a level of anticipation in both.

More than just the players and coaches who will be making the league come to life, the XFL has flexed its creative juices before there’s even a single player rostered to a team. As is the case with any league, there has to be an initial draft or way to get all these players on rosters in a fair but still highly competitive way. How do you build a league from the ground up without tipping the scales of competitive balance? What the XFL has planned is something that’s never been done before.

The draft will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday. Each player selection will be announced on the XFL's website, as well as on the league’s Twitter and Instagram pages. Over those two days, each of the eight teams will fill its roster to 71 players.

That’s all pretty standard. Here’s where the fun begins.

Instead of just having a regular open draft that goes from 1-8, and then repeats for 71 rounds, what the XFL is doing is dividing the draft up into five separate phases that categorize the players into position pools. This essentially gives us five mini-drafts to watch play out instead of one big one.

Here’s what the five phases look like: 

  • Skill Players (QB, RB, WR, TE)
  • Offensive Line (OT, OG, OC)
  • Defensive Front Seven (DL, LB)
  • Defensive Backfield (CB, NB, SS, FS)
  • Open Draft (all remaining players)

Why was this implemented? To keep the competitive balance of the rosters. With the league holding a snake format, whichever team held the first pick of an open draft was going to have to wait 15 picks before coming back onto the clock for its second selection. What if a position run takes place? The league intends for its talent to be evenly spread across all eight teams -- or at least they're giving the teams the opportunity to ensure that is the case.  

On top of that, the draft order will change for each phase. The draft order was determined by a lottery system (think of numbers being pulled out of a hat) held for each of the position phases of the XFL’s five-phase draft. If your team name is picked first, you don’t get the first overall pick. Instead, you get the first choice of where you want to draft in that phase.

Each of the eight XFL staffs received a “Draft Matrix” that included eight draft options for each of the four positional group drafts. Each team was able to review the matrix and determine which of the eight position options they’d prefer. For example, if a team wanted to draft the best offensive lineman, it would value position H. If it wanted to draft the best defensive back, it would value position E.

Each team was then subject to a draft lottery. In this lottery, commissioner Oliver Luck randomly selected teams to determine the order in which teams would choose their preferred draft position. The Los Angeles Wildcats won the draft lottery and chose position H as their draft slot, giving them the 8th pick in the Skill Position phase, the 1st pick in the Offensive Line phase, the 5th pick in the Defensive Front Seven phase and the 4th pick in the Defensive Back phase.

Pick Order

Skill Phase

OL Phase

D7 Phase

DB Phase

Open Phase

1

DC

LA

TB

DAL

STL

2

HOU

SEA

STL

NY

NY

3

NY

STL

SEA

HOU

SEA

4

DAL

TB

LA

DC

LA

5

TB

DAL

DC

LA

TB

6

STL

NYC

HOU

SEA

HOU

7

SEA

HOU

NY

STL

DC

8

LA

DC

DAL

TB

DAL

This isn't as simple as lining up a board and picking players -- there are a lot of layers to building a team through this format and that's not something we've ever seen come to life before -- which is what makes this structure and approach by the league such a cool way to do a draft. 

It allows each individual coaching staff to employ its own unique strategy for how it acquires its initial players, not just what to do after it acquires them. For example, let’s say there is a team whose head coach runs a pass-friendly offense. If it gets the first pick in the skill-player lottery, it might want to select right in the middle of the skill-player phase to ensure it can select a good player in each round, as opposed to picking first and then waiting a long time before its next selection.

This draft is like a combination of Madden’s fantasy draft meeting a fantasy football draft meeting real life. The levels of strategy for drafting teams from scratch is enough to make your head spin and more than compelling for any football fan interested in the art of team-building to pay close attention throughout the two-day event.