Happy NFL Draft Week! We've arrived at one of the High Holy Days of the sports calendar. How will you be celebrating? Me, I'll be doing my annual Tribute To Aaron Rodgers: sitting alone in a green room and plotting revenge on all my enemies.
Here’s what we’re in for this weekend: a reborn draft extravaganza, a three-day Cleveland fiesta of flash, sparkle, and talk — so, so much talk. Analysis, breakdowns, tape-eating … call it whatever you want, these 255 picks are going to be dissected in real time like states on election night.
It’s a paradox of the draft that on one of the NFL’s biggest nights, there’s no actual live football. The closest we'll get to anything resembling on-field action is when some monstrous midwestern linebacker decides to wrap up Roger Goodell (but not, presumably, drive him into the stage). Other than that, this weekend has a lot more in common with Fashion Week than Sunday Night Football.
Even so, the NFL draft expands every year — well, except last year, but that was fun in its own weird way — and there seems to be no end to the demand for draft content. The draft began in a Philadelphia hotel ballroom with 90 names written on a blackboard and zero media coverage; this year, 50,000 fans a night will post up outside Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Around the country, NFL fans descend on any and all draft content like it’s ribs at a picnic. Last year, a total of 55 million people watched at least part of the draft, and 8.3 million watched all three days. Here at Yahoo, mock drafts draw the kind of mammoth readership numbers normally reserved for stories with headlines like "Watch: Gronk hits president in cojones with football during White House visit." (Honestly, we want to read that story too, though.)
But why? Why does a televised job fair draw better ratings than most sports' championship games? Why does everyone love the draft so dang much?
One four-letter word: hope.
(The Jets have a different four-letter word, but we can't share it here.)
The draft is built on hope
Like rebellions and first dates, the NFL draft is built on hope. Right now, your team is tied for first place in the league. Not only that, you're adding players! At this exact moment, there's literally no downside for your team. Everything is possible, everything is imaginable.
“All teams at this moment have hope,” says Matt Shapiro, the NFL’s VP of Event Strategy. “No matter how last season went, everyone is making a fresh start. And every team makes picks that the fanbase can get excited about.”
“I think the event has become so popular because everyone can rally behind the idea of new players being the difference in getting them to a Super Bowl,” says CBS draft expert Josh Edwards. “The Chiefs' fortunes changed the day they took Patrick Mahomes and every fan base hopes to mirror that success. It is the one time of year that every team believes they have a realistic shot to compete.”
The Chiefs transformed the entire trajectory of their franchise with that one draft. The Browns — the Browns! — have drafted their way to respectability. And right this very moment, we may be on the cusp of a Jaguar ... well, you can't really call it a "renaissance," since there was never a naissance to begin with, but with Lawrence and Urban Meyer, Jacksonville is about to become one of the NFL's most interesting teams.
"Free agency is done. Football is still three months away. It will be a long, cold summer without football's warm, familiar embrace," says Eric Edholm, our draft expert, whom you really should follow closely.
Investing in players and teams
Plus, you’re not just invested in the picks of your pro team; one way or another, you’re probably also invested in at least some of the players who are on the big boards of war rooms across the league. The 2020 NFL draft alone saw players from 234 different high schools across 38 states make the leap from college to the pros. There’s a pretty good chance that someone from your college, your state, maybe even your high school will end up drafted over the next few days.
“You watch a player in a game the fall, see him do something wild on the field and think, 'I am going to keep an eye on that kid,'” Edholm says. “Before you know it, it's draft time and he's your guy. We adopt prospects, I believe. Even analysts do it. One, because we like being right. And two, we like being right early on. No one respects the bandwagoners in the end.”
“Fans are so connected to the draft based on the teams, and the people covering the teams,” says Courtney Cronin, who covers the Vikings and the draft for ESPN. “My DMs are filled with people asking me what grade I’d give their mock draft … It’s a niche audience, but there’s a group of fans who are locked in 12 months a year and cannot get enough of the draft.”
The draft also serves to affirm what we all believe to be true: that thanks to the vast array of scouting data now available on literally every prospect, we’re all so much smarter than the know-it-alls in the NFL. We watched these guys play at Alabama and Ohio State and Clemson, we know exactly how they ought to fit into a pro offense. So when the Bears or the Broncos don’t listen to us, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.
“The draft is, like fantasy football, a chance to put yourself in the captain's chair, pick players and hold out hope that you can better the league's GMs,” Edholm says. “All it takes is one right pick — an 'I knew it!' pick — to get hooked for life.”
And hey, if you can’t join the ranks of an NFL front office, you can always make a name for yourself in the media, too. “A fan can have very little knowledge of prospects, yet they can have the same reaction to a pick as a draft expert who has spent hundreds of hours analyzing film,” says the last-name-withheld Denny, who runs NFL Mock Draft Database, a mock draft aggregator. “The ups, the downs and all the drama in between — we're all in this together."
“I didn't have cable in college for a few years and I ‘rented’ my neighbor's house — cost: one six-pack — to watch the 1998 draft,” Edholm says. “I had Charles Woodson correctly going at 4, and I was over the moon. That's why I am here today.” Clearly, the NFL draft doesn’t just kick off players’ careers, it creates media ones, too.
What's next for the draft?
Down the line, expect the draft to grow even larger. It’s already played out beneath the Rocky statue in Philadelphia, on Lower Broadway in Nashville and in Grant Park in Chicago. As for the future? Put it this way: the NFL doesn’t throttle back on hype.
“We’ve got a great slate of cities ahead of us,” Shapiro says. “Next year we’ve got Vegas, and we’re excited to do that one right [after last year’s cancellation]. Then we have Kansas City in 2023. One of the special things about the draft is the amount of interest from all the clubs. Twenty-plus cities want to host this.”
“The NFL calendar is a year-round sport without being a year-round season,” Cronin says. “On Sunday I’ll start getting mock drafts for 2022. I always laugh, but it happens every year, the mock drafts for the next year arrive before we’ve even met this year’s picks. The ink isn’t even dry.”
So here we stand, just hours before 32 franchises undergo transformations ranging from minor to radical. Maybe your team drafts a generational quarterback this weekend. Maybe your team picks an unheralded offensive lineman who'll key a Super Bowl victory five years from now. Maybe your team withers in the spotlight and overvalues a dud or passes on a franchise-altering trade.
It's all on the table right this moment, and that's what makes the NFL draft so fascinating. Right now, you can talk yourself into anything.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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