The NFL’s first “virtual” draft was a virtual success, but it was no substitute for the real thing.
Well, let’s walk that back just a bit. Technically, it was a necessary substitute for the glitzy, any-excuse-for-a-party NFL offseason extravaganza that annually proves the league could televise an owners meeting and get ratings. It struck an appropriately respectful tone for the first major sports-related event during the tragic cornavirus pandemic, but the whole point of this exercise during the made-for-TV era has been to make something seem really fun that really isn’t.
Despite a herculean technical effort that required weeks of work and personal sacrifice by the people behind the scenes, the draft simulcast by ESPN and the NFL Network — particularly Thursday night’s first round — felt predictably balky and awkward. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort or good intention.
There were 100 or so stationary television cameras arrayed in living rooms around the country and most of them showed the same thing — the draft prospect sitting uncomfortably with a handful of loved ones and staring down at his smart phone.
It was pretty clear that the potential draftees were under strict instructions not to have anything resembling a party and, apparently, not to look like they were having much fun. They were all texting so much that I was just grateful they weren’t driving.
Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the first-round and second-round picks from his basement and did what he could to jazz up each one by playing to the interactive array of fan-cam feeds on a large screen behind him, but cheerleading is just not his thing.
This is the era of the stiff, lawyerly pro sports commissioner and Goodell fits that description perfectly even though he’s not a lawyer. In the normal arena setting, his no-frills, walk-to-the-podium announcements work just fine in the midst of all the craziness around him, but he clearly wanted to add more to the socially distant broadcast and it didn’t work.
The draft itself produced no great surprises or drama, but it served its purpose and did provide a weekend of intrigue for sports-hungry fans who have spent the past couple of months watching classic sports replays and wondering if all of Major League Baseball is going to move to Arizona.
The Ravens got their man, drafting highly regarded LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen with their first pick, and they didn’t have to trade away any draft capital to move up and get him.
Of course, we’d probably be saying that regardless of whom they chose because the first round played out in such a way that there were a number of relevant and well-regarded prospects remaining on their board when they finally got to use the 28th pick. But Queen was projected to become a Raven in a number of mock drafts and is already being compared to a young Ray Lewis.
General manager Eric DeCosta saved his big surprise for Friday night, choosing running back J.K. Dobbins out of Ohio State with the Ravens’ next pick. The general consensus was that in the wake of last year’s record-breaking rushing attack, there were plenty of other needs to fill with a second-round pick, but DeCosta unapologetically took the best player available and strengthened a strength rather than addressing a weakness.
The Ravens went on to fill an array of needs with their later selections, and seemed particularly pleased with themselves after they stole Texas wide receiver Devin Duvernay with the 92nd overall pick. He somehow got lost in a big class of receivers after ranking third in the FBS last year with 106 catches and fifth with 1,386 receiving yards.
They also added to the defensive line, taking Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, and deepened their secondary with another inside linebacker, choosing Ohio State’s Malik Harrison in the third round.
Sure, it would have been great if the whole thing could have lived up to the usual hype, but that couldn’t be helped. This year’s “virtual” draft did deliver some poignant moments, raised money for victims of the pandemic and left the fans of each team with something to dream about while they wait to see if there’s going to be a 2020 season.
Guess we should be thankful for all that, because it’s going to have to last us awhile.