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Bo Jackson

What happens if an NFL Draft pick refuses to sign?

One of the best things about the NFL (and American sports in general) is the draft system, which ensures the worst teams of the previous season get to pick the premier young talent. Thus, keeping the league competitive and ensuring no one particular franchise gains an unfair economic advantage.

However, things don't always go according to plan. There have been several examples of young players who, for one reason or another, simply refuse to sign with the team that calls their name in the draft.


With the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday, 29 April, approaching quickly, and with the biggest names in college football about to link up with the likes of the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, let's take a look at what happens when an NFL draft pick quite simply refuses to sign on the dotted line.

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What happens if an NFL Draft pick refuses to sign?

Rookie contract negotiations are fairly textbook due to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that the NFL has in place. Young stars aren't technically given any maneuverability and should abide by the confines of their draft slot. Collective Bargaining Agreements ensure that holdouts and deal delays rarely happen.


That being said, it's not as if there is an actual law in place that mandates a player has to sign on -- it's a free country after all! Draft picks are not required by law to sign on with their respective clubs, and, if they choose to do so -- even though it seldom happens -- the drafted player is allowed to hold out for as long as he chooses and reenter the draft the following year.

Holding out is not exactly an advisable way to do things since the player risks putting off bigger suitors who may develop reservations about his attitude and, if the player really is all-that, he can expect to be a top draft pick again the following year anyway, meaning he would be signed up by a weak franchise (back to square one). Plus, doing this costs you a year of invaluable experience in the NFL; not to mention a year's salary.

So, generally speaking, NFL draft picks are expected to sign on with the franchise that selects them in the draft. However -- in extreme cases -- they do have some leverage, and it's not as if we've never seen a draft pick hold out on a team. True, it hasn't happened for 35 years, but two of the biggest names in the history of American sport have held out on teams in the NFL Draft in the past.


NFL Draft: John Elway refused to play for the Baltimore Colts

Super Bowl XXI

In 1983, John Elway was selected first overall by the Baltimore Colts but outright refused to play for them. Elway held firm and even threatened to jack football altogether and switch to the MLB if he was forced to join the Colts.


The Colts did everything they could to convince him to stay but eventually gave in to his wishes. Elway went on to join the Denver Broncos, where he became one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, winning two Super Bowls along the way.

NFL Draft: Bo Jackson flat out denied the Buccaneers in 1986

Kansas City Chiefs vs Los Angeles Raiders

The Buccaneers drafted Bo Jackson with the number 1 pick in the 1986 NFL Draft. However, Jackson refused to join the team, instead opting to spend the year playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals.


The Bucs had no choice but to renounce their rights just in time for the 1987 draft; much to the delight of the Los Angeles Raiders, who snapped Jackson up with one of the greatest seventh-round picks of all time.

Bo Jackson switched between baseball and football for several seasons before injury cut short his NFL career. Despite often being referred to as a part-timer, Jackson is remembered as one of the best RBs the game has ever seen. During his best year in Los Angeles, the RB averaged 6.8-yards per carry!

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To summarize, Jaguars and Jets fans need not worry too much: QBs Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are highly unlikely to hold out in the manner of John Elway and Bo Jackson.

... but there is always a chance.

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