There are certain seasons in the sports world: Football Season, Basketball Season and Baseball Season as examples, although with the specialization that younger athletes now undertake earlier in life their respective sports seasons never really stop.
This week begins “Draft Season”. Between this weekend and the end of June, all 4 major sports football, baseball, basketball and hockey will hold their respective drafts. The NFL goes first this weekend holding it’s annual “selection meeting” in Chicago for the second straight year. It’s arguably the most important among the four major sports. NFL teams are largely built through the draft and a significant amount of the players drafted this weekend will not only make teams, but contribute this season. The reason is simple: They’ve had 3 years of free training in college and come to the NFL with more skills. The best NBA players have only been in college for a year or two at the most and baseball players are looking at several years riding the bus in the minor leagues before getting a sniff at the Major Leagues, and the reality is that most will never make it.
The first NFL draft was held on February 8, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia with 90 names written on a chalk board from which teams could select players. The first player ever selected in an NFL Draft was Jay Berwanger, who also has the distinction of being the first-ever Heisman Trophy winner. In 1942, “Bullet Bill” Dudley from Graham High School in Bluefield, Virginia and the University of Virginia was the first overall pick and eventually became the first player selected number one overall to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In those days, players usually received a letter from the team telling them that the team had drafted them and making them an offer to play. A lot of players passed since they could make more money doing something other than playing football if you can imagine that.
The NFL Draft went largely unnoticed however until a upstart cable network in the Connecticut woods named ESPN needed live programming, and approached NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle with the idea of televising the draft. Rozelle inquired of then ESPN President Chet Simmons why the hell anyone would watch the damn thing to which Simmons told him to let him worry about it. The NFL allowed the telecast on April 29, 1980, and an entire industry of “draft experts” was born. The Draft at that time was a middle of the week one-day event. It eventually moved to a one-day event on a Sunday and in 1998 moved from one-day to two-days on Saturday and Sunday. Now, the NFL – seizing on its popularity and the opportunity to stay in the forefront of the news cycle year round – has turned it into a three-day event. The first round is in prime time on Thursday night. Rounds two and three are in prime time on Friday night and rounds 4 – 7 are Saturday afternoon. The draft used to be 12 rounds, but it was eventually dropped to the current 7 rounds. Frankly, if you are a player being selected in lower than round 5 you are better off being a free agent and finding a team that it is the right fit for you rather than a team selecting you as a glorified camp practice player with a long shot to make the team.
It’s made for some wild television moments believe it or not. There’s the famous on-air altercation between ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr. and Indianapolis Colts General Manager Bill Tobin in 1994. Kiper – as is his job – criticized the Colts for passing on Quarterback Trent Dilfer to select Defensive player Trev Alberts from Nebraska. Tobin responded to the criticism by asking on ESPN’s air “Who the Hell is Mel Kiper?” Well, Kiper has turned his love of the NFL Draft into a career. Tobin is no where to be found although he did draft two future Hall of Famers in Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis. As for that pick, remarkably Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. Alberts was a bust in the NFL and then screwed up a promising broadcast career with ESPN by demanding the staring role on College Gameday over Kirk Herbstreit and when he didn’t get it, leaving the company in a huff. How’d that work out? I honestly don’t know where he is now. In 2003, there was the famous podium storming when the Minnesota Vikings failed to make their first round selection within the required 15 minutes. Jacksonville stormed the podium to immediately draft Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich, and the Carolina Panthers quickly followed by picking offensive tackle Jordan Gross before Minnesota finally made its selection.
The NFL added a second broadcast outlet for the draft in 2006 when the league owned NFL Network started broadcasting the event. ESPN’s long-time host is Chris Berman who has small market talent on a national network, but equally nauseating is NFL Network Draft Analyst Mike Mayock. This guy clearly knows the players, but gives us entirely too much that this player is an “A-Gap guy” or a “3-Technique” and he has a tendency to like every player selected. The NFL Network however does use Stanford Head Coach David Shaw who is outstanding in his analysis and brings a coaches’ perspective. NFL Network regular Charles Davis is also worth a watch. The draft on ESPN annually draws about 10 million viewers for an event that is frankly not television friendly. It’s rise as a television property has spawned year round draft analysis from “draft-nicks” like Kiper and about every sports related web site has a “mock draft.” It’s also spawned the annual NFL Combine, which is a waste of television time and major colleges across the country host their own “pro days” to show off their players to NFL scouts.
As for the actual draft, the newly minted Los Angeles Rams have the top pick and are eying a quarterback in either Cal’s Jared Goff or North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. The Philadelphia Eagles pick second and will likely take the quarterback not selected by the Rams. Both teams made trades to get into the top 2 and you don’t do that unless you need a quarterback. The most important positions in football are Quarterback, Left Tackle, Wide Receiver, Defensive End and Cornerback. With the way football is played now and with the amount of body blows running backs come to the NFL having already taken, it’s my opinion that you are wasting your time taking a running back in the first round, but then again I don’t run the draft for an NFL player. Obviously, though, I couldn’t do any worse than the Cleveland Browns who are certain to “screw the pooch” again in this draft. Since the Browns returned to the NFL they’ve drafted a quarterback 4 times in the First Round. Tim Couch in 1999, Brady Quinn in 2007, Brandon Weeden in 2012 and Johnny Manziel in 2014. None of those players have amounted to much of anything. Is it any wonder the Browns suck? Part of the reason they suck is that their incompetence comes from the top. Owner Jimmy Haslam is nothing more than a overpaid gas pumper who hasn’t done much of anything with his life but ride on his father’s coattails. His Father Jim built Pilot Gas into a multi-million dollar Travel and Convenience Store Empire by starting with one gas station on a corner in Gate City, Virginia. Jimmy – as the CEO at Pilot – has done nothing but get the company sued and saw several of his top executives get indicted in a “fuel-rebate scam”. As the Browns’ owner, he’s a disaster. Among his decisions was drafting Johnny “Mr. Vegas” Manziel with the top pick in 2014. The Cleveland Fan Base deserves better than Jimmy Haslam and a 3-13 team every year.
If this NFL draft follows the pattern of others, there will be can’t miss players who turn in Hall of Fame Careers like Peyton Manning the first pick in 1998 and busts like Ryan Leaf (selected second behind Manning in 1998 and eventually would up in jail), Tony Mandarich (the #2 overall pick in 1989), and Heath Shuler who signed the richest contract in NFL History in 1994 and couldn’t learn the Redskins play book. There will also non-drafted players that go from undrafted to the Hall of Fame like John Randle did for the Minnesota Vikings. The draft is like a lot of things in life, an inexact science, but thanks to television it’s become one of the must see events for sports fans each year.