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Block: Recapping the NFL’s stay-at-home draft

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Barring a massive technical issue, there was little chance of the 2020 NFL Draft being a disappointment. After six sports-deprived weeks, any discussion of professional sports (no matter how far away the season may be) was a welcome event. 

However, the excitement surrounding the buildup to this year’s event was accompanied by some concerns. With the draft growing excessively location-dependent over the past few years, there was no guarantee that the makeshift virtual format would be successful. Part of what the NFL has banked on for the past decade has been flash and fanfare. Converting cities like Nashville into massive fan festivals was good financially — for the cities and for the TV ratings.

This year, with everyone isolated in their homes, would the draft still have the same appeal? Without the bear hugs and chest bumps, fitted hats and green rooms, bright lights and booing fans, many believed the experience might be distilled to nothingness.

For me, the concern was less about whether the virtual draft would succeed, but rather if the draft, virtual or in-person, was ever enjoyable. As a lifelong NFL fan, I had become a bit of a draft skeptic. To me, the draft had begun to feel like a mash-up of the most exhausting parts of being an active ESPN-watcher. Constant talking heads, opinions, digital graphics, an overload of announcer jargon. In small doses, it was enjoyable, but over the course of three days of broadcasting, it was tiresome. In years past I had begun to tune out the draft in its entirety, instead opting to check out live updates or read post-draft analysis.

And yet, I sit here after watching 255 selections, countless shots of Mel Kiper’s home office and Roger Goodell moving from his feet into an armchair, and feel pleasantly surprised. There was something weirdly special about this year’s event, filling the NCAA-tournament-sized hole in our sports-fan hearts with something equal parts entertaining and heartwarming. 

For three days, this year’s draft took us into the homes (and in one case, yacht) of players, coaches and executives. Thanks to a variety of webcam setups, we had a window into the living rooms of hundreds of NFL draft prospects and their families. Some were picked right away and celebrated accordingly, while others endured round after round of waiting, with their parents and siblings patiently at their sides. We were also able to see into the home offices of every coach and executive, sitting behind computers and binders full of highlighted pages, making decisions that would likely define their tenures. And, we were introduced to the families of these executives, standing proudly by as picks were made and franchises were built. 

There were a number of endearing moments from this weekend of makeshift sports magic. Seeing children run into the room as their team’s pick was announced, high-fiving their GM dads. Watching the family reactions as players were selected, the FaceTime calls with parents and siblings. The family hugs and cheers are always a small piece of the draft spectacle, but this year, without any flashy alternatives, it all felt a little more authentic. Even Bill Belichick’s dog, Nike, became a star over the weekend (when else would we have had the opportunity to see underneath the cutoff hoodie into the home life of Belichick?). 

In general, this year’s draft felt more wholesome and human. Stripped down to just the people and the picks, and of course Mel Kiper, we were able to get a glance into the day-to-day lives of people we typically only see pacing the sidelines. Stuck at home without anything but classic games and sports movies to fill the sports void, it was a welcome release. And many Americans agreed — 55 million people tuned in for the three-day affair this past weekend, well more than any draft in NFL history. 

I don’t mean to get too spiritual about all this. This was, after all, still a televised draft for a professional sports league that could very possibly not have a season this fall. Next year, the draft will likely be back in a big city with fan festivals and Roger Goodell chest bumps and millions of dollars of planning and infrastructure. Many will be happy to see it that way. But for others, this year’s home version might have just been better. 

And finally, what would a draft recap be without a list of the winners and losers of this year’s event. There were some teams that may have improved their outlooks for next season, and others who left us wondering.

Winners:

Baltimore Ravens:

As a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, it hurts to write this, but the Ravens had a phenomenal weekend. Each year, they seem to find high-value picks that fit well into their system. This year was no different. Their selection of LSU linebacker Patrick Queen with the 28th pick was a solid start to their weekend, but getting Ohio State’s JK Dobbins and Texas’ Devin Duvernay on Day 2 was what put this year’s haul over the top. Both players add a new layer of speed and toughness to a record-breaking offense. Unfortunately, it’ll be hard for anybody to slow Baltimore down next year. 

San Francisco 49ers: 

The rich just got richer this April. John Lynch and Co. found a way to replace key offseason departures DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders. First-round pick Javon Kinlaw will be an immediate difference maker on the defensive line, and while trading up to draft WR Brandon Aiyuk may not have been necessary, there’s no denying his playmaking potential in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Tackle Colton McVitz was also a nice value pick in Round 5. 

New York Giants: 

Everyone has praised the NFC East rival Cowboys for snagging CeeDee Lamb in the middle of Round 1, but the Giants had a quietly successful weekend. While selecting tackle Andrew Thomas in the top five surprised many, it’s hard to argue against selecting a pure left tackle who can plug into the line right away. First-year head coach Joe Judge also added a few other offensive linemen to help protect the new franchise quarterback Daniel Jones and All-Pro running back Saquon Barkley. Then, in the second round, the Giants grabbed Alabama safety Xavier McKinney, a clear first-round talent who dropped into the second round after the mad rush on wide receivers. All in all, a solid weekend for New York. 

Losers:

Green Bay Packers:

I hate to jump on the what-were-you-thinking bandwagon because it’s getting crowded, but it’s hard not to be confused by Green Bay’s decisions. Taking Utah State QB Jordan Love in the first round was the most shocking move of Day 1 and probably the whole weekend. Considering the reported tensions between Aaron Rodgers and Packers management, and the embarrassment of riches that was this year’s wide receiver class, it’s hard not to feel for Rodgers. GM Brian Gutekunst had a ton of playmakers to pick from to support his star QB, and instead he opted for a raw Mountain West quarterback prospect who won’t touch the field for at least a few years. Of course, if Jordan Love becomes to Aaron Rodgers what Aaron Rodgers was to Brett Favre, we’ll all look silly, but for now it’s hard not to scratch your head at this, especially considering the Packers were a win away from the Super Bowl last year. 

Los Angeles Chargers: 

While picking new franchise QB Justin Herbert in the top 10 made sense, and could end up to be the only thing that really matters from the Chargers’ class this year, it feels like the Chargers are losers merely because of the strong draft classes from their AFC West competition. The Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos all added big-time playmakers who will make an immediate impact on the division this season. Meanwhile, the Chargers made a couple of safe and reasonable picks, but nothing that helped them keep pace with an already high-flying division. 

New England Patriots: 

How fun is it to put the Patriots on this part of the list? Even though it’s possible that Bill Belichik had another secretly smart draft, this one feels a little weaker than usual, at least on paper. Defensive back Kyle Dugger and pass-rusher Josh Uche are high-upside picks who may turn out to be solid players in the Patriots system, but they weren’t the best players available on the board. They also both play on the wrong side of the ball, at least in terms of what the Patriots needed. This Patriots offense is barren without Tom Brady, and they didn’t do much to address some glaring holes. For the first time in a long time, Belichick and Co. may have missed the mark. 

Contact Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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