By Dan Wiederer
Do you remember exactly where you were the night of May 1 when the Washington Redskins selected Mississippi State defensive end Preston Smith with the 38th overall pick of the NFL draft? Or what you were doing when the Detroit Lions took a swing at Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah 16 picks later?
Of course not. That’s not how the draft extravaganza truly works. So unless you were Smith’s agent or chilling at Abdullah’s get-together on the second night of this year’s event, those picks and a couple hundred others the rest of that weekend likely flew right on past without much meaning.
And yet the spectacle of the NFL draft continues to grow year after year. It’s a testament to the league’s unstoppable marketing machine, an operation that has convinced the public to dive headfirst into months and months of pre-draft hype and hyperventilation despite a draft weekend payoff that rarely matches the time and energy investment that comes before it.
It’s truly a fascinating phenomenon – the massive build-up and the endless fan and media anticipation for a grandiose professional sports event that typically loses significant fizzle six or seven picks into the second round.
Still, the draft is only showing signs of expansion. The affair went from a two-day weekend format to a three-day affair with prime-time billing starting in 2010. And this year, for the first time in more than 50 years, the event left New York City and swept through Chicago, carrying with it a powerful appeal that turned the week in the Windy City into an all-out festival.
The first two nights of picks may have been announced inside Auditorium Theatre in downtown Chicago, but there was plenty of made-for-TV analysis being packaged out in Grant Park in a place called Selection Square and plenty of made-for-fan-enthusiasm activity taking place in a pop-up village called Draft Town. The widespread enthusiasm surrounding the draft was obvious even if the event itself – the actual picks being made – became, as usual, a bit of a tedious affair.
The draft festivities were such a hit in Chicago that there is now growing buzz that the league may soon begin moving the event around – a tour of sorts, taking bids from various cities and aiming to create a weeklong explosion of excitement similar to what takes place annually at the Super Bowl.
From a media standpoint, the draft’s move from to Chicago didn’t alter much. A wide majority of NFL reporters still spend their time covering the draft from respective team headquarters, where the decision-makers are holed up and available to discuss and explain all their picks. The event’s presence at Auditorium Theatre in Chicago was also handled well enough logistically that reporters on site were able to navigate their coverage with few unexpected difficulties and easy access to the players on hand.
Furthermore, as the event grows – more than two dozen draft prospects attended the event in Chicago – the media access to those top players becomes greater the week of the draft with many of them available for interviews at NFL-sanctioned events or clinics and sponsored marketing functions. The added exposure continues giving fans an all-you-can-digest buffet of coverage, feeding a demand and hunger that seems to be insatiable.
For more insider insight on draft coverage and the pre-draft lead-up, we asked seven NFL reporters to share their approaches and philosophies. Here are a few highlights of what they had to say:
1. What are your biggest goals during the pre-draft process in terms of reporting and storytelling?
Jeff Zrebiec, Ravens beat writer for the Baltimore Sun: “We try to mix it up. In the weeks leading up to the draft, we usually do a couple of profiles on the players that are seemingly good fits for the Ravens. We also mix in some stories on the local prospects who will likely get drafted. We do stories on the strength of certain position groups where the Ravens have a need. We also do stories that are more Ravens-focused, looking at past draft trends, some of their drafting philosophies, etc. And then we try and do a couple of league-wide trend stories. For example, I wrote something looking at how draft trades go down and how you determine the compensation to move up a certain number of spots. I think the build-up to the draft has become so great that you really try to mix it up and cover a bunch of angles.
Joe Person, Panthers beat writer for the Charlotte Observer: The storytelling piece is my top priority in the weeks leading up to the draft. I try to find a couple of prospects with compelling stories that are connected to the Carolinas and dive in deep. I did that this year with Harvard defensive Zack Hodges, who had endured tragedy and bouts of homelessness as a teenager in Charlotte. Several national outlets did pieces on Hodges after our story was published. That’s cool. In the last week to 10 days before the draft, I really try to dig in on what the Panthers are going to do. You can do that before then, but before boards are set that’s more of a guessing game. It’s always fun trying to pry information out of the various teams and scouts during a time when many NFL facilities go on lock-down.
Sam Farmer, NFL writer for the Los Angeles Times: First, if there are local players who need to be profiled – namely those from USC and UCLA – I turn my attention to those. Then I’m looking for a new way to skin the cat: stories on unique prospects, trends, changes in the way teams evaluate players, and of course news. Then, there are the mock drafts. With those, I just try not to embarrass myself.
2. In a pre-draft process that now lasts from early-January through late-April, how do you aim to pace yourself and your coverage? What and/or who do you personally prefer to zero in on and why?
Ben Goessling, Vikings reporter for ESPN’s NFL Nation: It’s tough not to overdo it, and this year I probably devoted less coverage to the minutiae of the draft process (how Player X looked at his pro day, who was visiting whom, etc.) than I did last year. Not having to cover a quarterback hunt certainly helped – as did having another major story to track with Adrian Peterson’s ongoing saga (and rift with the Vikings). When I can, I prefer to talk with scouts or some of the analysts we have at ESPN about a player’s attributes, and also look at his tape to see how he might fit in.
Mike Jones, Redskins reporter for the Washington Post: At the Senior Bowl (in January), I aim to get a few early glimpses of players while also catching up with coaches, scouts, our GM and trying to report on what the Redskins’ top needs consist of. I scale back on draft coverage until the combine, and then scale back again during free agency. Once free agency ends, I turn full attention to the draft, doing a daily positional background that includes analysis on what the team could/should do at that position. I am also checking in to see what visits the team is lining up.
Dave Birkett, Lions reporter for the Detroit Free Press: I don’t focus much on draft-related content early in the offseason. Even though I go to the Senior Bowl every year and write on players there, my focus there is mostly Lions-related. When the combine comes, I write about the draft prospects again, but most of my focus is on free agency. After free agency is usually when I turn my attention more to the draft.
Kent Somers, Cardinals beat writer for the Arizona Republic: In general, it’s about giving fans an overview of the team’s needs and its philosophy while finding any information that might hint at what the team has planned in the draft. We also endeavor to give fans information about local players who might be drafted, including those who play in-state and out of state.
We don’t do much, if any, draft coverage until the combine in late February. That helps.
Farmer: Back to the mock drafts … I don’t want to do too many of those, so I might do three and space them out over the span of those months. Obviously, there’s a flurry of activity around the combine and in the week leading up to the draft. But the fact that I don’t have a specific team to focus on allows me to go dark – or at least hit the dimmer switch – for much of that time and focus on other league news.
3. In all draft coverage, how do you attempt to separate the hype from the substance in the stories you pursue and tell?
Somers: It’s often hard to know the difference between the two. I try to talk to scouts around the league on background to get a sense of what’s truth and what’s fiction.
Person: It’s tough. You just lean on the sources you trust, but even then you’ve got to be careful. It’s like any other story really: You have to ask yourself, “What does this person have to gain by telling me this?” Then you ask around and try to determine if that person’s information is in line with what you’re hearing from other trusted sources.
Zrebiec: I just don’t buy into many of the outside reports. Covering the Ravens, they take the draft more seriously than anything else that they do. It’s the lifeblood of their organization. They guard their draft plans and keep secrets under lock and key. So whenever I read stories before the draft about how the Ravens love Player A and won’t let this guy get past them or they are contemplating trading up for this guy, I sort of chuckle. Is it possible somebody has a great source and accurate information? Sure. But more times than not, most of the stuff that is out there doesn’t pan out. Teams and agents obviously want to push their agenda and that leads to some misinformation. So I just try and get an understanding of a handful of players that the Ravens would consider drafting. I try to provide more analysis on who will be available and how they’d fit in with the team, rather than making definitive statements about who they love, how they rate one player compared to another, what players they’d consider trading up for. Frankly, most reporters don’t truly know those answers all the time and I try not to pretend that I do.
Birkett: You can’t just rely on agents because obviously they have an agenda with their players, though I have found there are some really trustworthy guys out there who will tell you what your team thinks of their guy (even if it’s negative). I always run guys I’m going to write about by a few scouts I trust to see how they stack up in the draft process.
4. What stands out to you most about the explosion of draft popularity and draft coverage over the past 10 years?
Jones: It’s insane how excited people get about players that they really don’t know all that much about. It’s also startling that they don’t care where their information comes from. Stories can come from a person or outlet with little to no proven track record or actual analysis and still fans eat it up.
Person: It’s becoming something of a spectacle. There’s almost too much coverage – more than I can absorb, and I’m in the business. I’ll say this: I really enjoy watching the NFL Network series that follows a handful of prospects during the lead-up to the draft. Very cool, behind-the-scenes footage that captures the tensions, emotions and even some of the monotony of the process as players prepare for one of the biggest days of their lives.
Birkett: Covering the Lions, the draft has always been like the Super Bowl. They were so rarely in the playoffs when I first started covering the team, and usually had a top-10 pick. So we would start running draft-related content (countdown to No. 1, or three college players to watch) during the season. We haven’t done that recently, but the draft gives fans the ultimate hope. I think now it’s just a matter of more people covering it than ever.
Goessling: It’s astounding to me how many resources there are to break down players – and how many people now have opinions on exactly what a player can be. It almost becomes as though these players are expected to be finished products at age 21 or 22, simply because it fits someone’s take to put them in a certain box. When I picked Trae Waynes to go to the Vikings in a mock draft, I had Twitter followers howling at me about how that was way too high for Waynes to be drafted, how his lack of lateral quickness would make him a bust, etc. That might be possible, but let’s at least see him on the field in the NFL. The number of self-appointed NFL scouts on Twitter is certainly fascinating.
5. What would you like to see more of/less of?
Zrebiec: I’m a sucker for human interest stories. I always enjoy reading those about some of the top prospects before the draft. I love seeing stories that chronicle the path to the draft for certain players. I always enjoy the local angles. As far as what I’d like to see less of, I find most of the reports about who is visiting here or there and who is meeting with whom at the combine to be completely pointless. One, when it’s all said and done, teams probably see and talk to over a 100 prospects either at the combine, the various all-star games, pro days, in-house visits, etc. These meetings just don’t mean a whole lot. Some teams even bring guys in as a smokescreen, even if they have no intention of drafting that player. I know news is news, and if you hear that a player is in for a visit, it’s harmless to report it. But there probably should be some perspective and context added, too.
Somers: I’d probably like to see more analysis of past drafts. How have the “experts” done over the years? How have teams done over the past five years or so? There is too much immediate analysis on this year’s draft picks. Then again, people can’t get enough of it and those stories tend to generate thousands of page views.
Goessling: I’d probably like to see the pro days covered in a little more subdued fashion; especially for quarterbacks, they’ve become such a production that it’s hard to separate on-field results from hype. The Vikings’ distaste for pro days probably helped with (drafting) Teddy Bridgewater last year; they didn’t base a big part of their evaluation on the pro day, because of how leery they are of them. I think the media could probably move in the same direction.
Birkett: I’d like to see fewer mock drafts. They draw plenty of clicks online, but no one knows anything about the 2016 draft in May of 2015. Or January of 2016. No one needs to do eight versions of a mock draft.
Zrebiec: I do think – and pardon me for getting on my soapbox – that something needs to be done about the TV broadcasts being five picks behind Twitter. It makes it very hard to follow and unenjoyable to be honest. And not just for me, I know a bunch of fans who love the draft and were saying that they don’t even bother watching it anymore cause of the Twitter effect. But I can’t say I have a solution here. The broadcast has to talk about these players some, do some interviews, speculate on picks, pay the bills with commercials, etc. And of course, people are always going to leak stuff so there’s no way you can control those picks getting out. It’s just painful. For example, the Ravens picked 26th this year. I think by pick No. 23, their selection of Breshad Perriman had already been leaked and the kid himself had put on Twitter that he was a Raven. That shouldn’t happen.
6. As far as draft weekend itself, where did you cover this year’s draft from? What are you biggest goals priorities in covering the event itself?
Birkett: I was in Chicago for the first round, then the Lions’ practice facility for Days 2-3. On Day 1, my hope is to get some one-on-one time with the player the Lions drafted. I don’t deal much with the national perspective on the entirety of Round 1.
Goessling: I stayed in Minnesota this year, where the Vikings’ decision-makers were. My main priority is to provide timely analysis of the players the Vikings pick. I’m not in the business of trying to break every pick as much as I’m trying to give my readers insight and analysis on how a certain player might fit.
Zrebiec: I spent all three days at the Ravens’ facility. They make it pretty easy on the reporters. They make the GM, assistant GM, director of college scouting and head coach available at the conclusion of each day. They get the player they just picked on a conference call rather quickly. They pass out bio sheets for each player they draft. It really wouldn’t make much sense for us to cover the draft in person when can get way more stuff accomplished at the team facility. It sounds stupid, but my biggest goal is to make deadline. The Ravens traditionally pick pretty late in rounds and that makes it extremely difficult on Day 1 and Day 2 to hit deadline and write even a respectable story about the guy they drafted. Beyond that, I’ll be honest, I don’t spend a ton of time texting team officials during the draft and trying to get them to tip picks when they are just going to be announced in a matter of seconds anyway. If I can get it, great. But I do try and be ahead of whom they might be looking at, what positions they are trying to fill, how does what another team does affect their draft plans.
Jones: I covered the draft from team headquarters. My biggest goal is to provide in-depth analysis on why the team made that selection and how this player will fit into the puzzle.
Somers: I covered it from the team’s headquarters in Tempe. The biggest goals in covering the event are to tell readers about the players taken and how they are expected to fit on the team.
Person: I covered it from the Panthers’ facility. Mostly I focus on the ‘why’ — why the team drafted Player X instead of Player Y? Why they took him in the first round at a position where they’re already deep? I figure there is enough time to get into the ‘who’ during rookie minicamps and in the weeks immediately following the draft, when I try to come back with several in-depth takeouts on drafted – and undrafted – players.
Farmer: I cover the draft from the draft venue, and have since 2004. On Day 1, I post live comments on every pick as well as writing the overall “game” story of the draft. That’s just about keeping pace with the rapid flow of the event. Days 2-3 are about finding a theme or thread that runs through the rest of the draft, and finding unusual stories.
7. If you were in Chicago for the draft, what stood out to you about the event from a media logistics standpoint?
Birkett: The interview room was a long walk from press row, a not-as-media-friendly setup as at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was difficult to find the interview room at first, too, because of a lack of signage, though that changed and they eventually put tape down to show the way.
Farmer: I don’t mind being up in the rafters to cover the draft as long as it means I have more room to work. I do not place a premium on being closer to the stage. It’s all about do I have knee and elbow room and does the Internet work.
Somers: It seemed everyone was excited about it. On television, it looked more like an awards show (Oscars, Emmys) than ever before. Maybe that’s because there was a red carpet and the players and their mothers/significant others were dressed to the nines. I glanced at the TV once and two women in short, black dresses were commenting about something. It was hard to believe it was the draft broadcast.
8. What stood out to you about the draft in Chicago regarding the magnitude of the event in the city?
Farmer: Weather was beautiful. The city is terrific. The turnout in Grant Park was amazing. But I was really surprised that the theater was so empty for most of Day 2. People stuck around for the second round, then made for the exits. The energy inside the theater just wasn’t there.
Somers: It seemed like a huge deal to the city, which was interesting since it’s accustomed to big events. To me, it seemed like a huge hit and I can see more cities vying to attract the event.
Person: Watching from afar, it seemed like Chicago had everything well planned-out. I really like the fact that the NFL moved it out of New York and gave another great American city a chance to host. I think the league should rotate the draft site every year like the Super Bowl. Can an L.A. draft be far off?