The NFL Draft will head into uncharted territory on Thursday, with lockdown restrictions put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic forcing teams to take part in an unprecedented “virtual draft”.
The annual three-day marketplace to choose the cream of collegiate talent was initially due to have been held on the Las Vegas strip, with a special stage constructed amid the famous fountains of the Bellagio hotel.
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But with Sin City’s neon lights dimmed and casinos shuttered due to COVID-19, the gaudy backdrop envisioned by the NFL for one of its biggest events of the year has long since fallen by the wayside.
Instead, the NFL’s 30 teams will choose the 255 draft selections from remote locations scattered across the United States.
With different states having different lockdown regulations, the NFL has ruled that all league and team employees participating in the draft must do so from offices set up at home using an encrypted draft channel designed by Microsoft.
Teams of NFL technical support staff have spent weeks ensuring each participant has reliable internet connections at home while each team will have an IT specialist on standby at the home of its key decision maker.
Fifty-eight of the top draft prospects meanwhile will have in-home cameras as they wait to watch NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announce the coveted first round picks from the basement of his home in New York.
– ‘Exciting, nerve-wracking’ –
“It’s really the ultimate work from home experience on a really large scale where everyone’s watching,” Michelle McKenna, the NFL’s chief information officer, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s exciting and very nerve-wracking as well.”
A trial run of the system on Monday was not without its glitches.
According to ESPN, the Cincinnati Bengals — who are expected to take highly rated quarterback Joe Burrow at the top of the draft — encountered a technical problem as they attempted to use their first pick. It caused a delay of several minutes.
Other ESPN journalists reported negative feedback from team personnel.
“Everybody is saying the same thing which is bandwidth is a problem. There are many communication issues,” ESPN’s Dianna Russini tweeted.
Other NFL team executives however said the test run had passed largely trouble-free after the early hiccup.
“The draft went smooth,” said Denver Broncos chief John Elway. “It got off to a little bit of a hiccup when we first started, but other than that it went really smooth.
“There were really no problems with it, so we got more comfortable with it. It should be fine to go on without a glitch. I’m sure there will be a couple of glitches here and there, but actually for the first time I thought it went pretty well.”
– Losing ‘personal’ touch –
The biggest impact of COVID-19 on the draft may turn out to be the restrictions that have limited opportunities for face-to-face meetings between players and team officials.
Normally prospective draft picks are flown to team facilities for interviews and private workouts conducted in front of team personnel.
Often those meetings are vital in shaping a team’s view of a prospect, providing clues to intangible, unknown aspects of a player’s personality and a clearer idea of how they may fit into a particular locker room culture.
Instead, teams have been conducting interviews and meetings with prospects via video call platforms such as Facetime and Zoom.
“It’s not great, it’s not perfect, it’s okay,” said New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.
“By not having pro days, you miss that personal contact. Watching guys among their peers and how they operate, how they’re received. That tells a lot when you just watch a kid in those circumstances.
“We’re losing the personal touchpoints. We have the visual touchpoint, but we’re really missing out on the personal touchpoint, when you can smell or feel a guy.”