Stick to the Board - The coronavirus defined NFL Draft is here
When my wife and I were going long distance from Dublin to San Francisco, occasionally one of us would say ‘stick to the board’ to pep the other up. We wrote a one page plan to live in the same city, get married and start a family. What we reflected on when we said ‘stick to the board’ was the value of patience. The wait would be worth it. ‘Stick to the board’ was a phrase I borrowed from longstanding general manager of the Baltimore Ravens and Hall of Fame player Ozzie Newsome. Known as a titan among general managers, Newsome came into his own at this time of year during the draft. There were times when he did trade up on the draft board to get the best player available - Lamar Jackson being a case in point - but for the most part he encouraged the Ravens to stick to the players they knew and had done their homework on. Trust the process, don’t deviate. As the upcoming 2020 NFL draft has pivoted from a glitzy affair in Las Vegas to virtual, Newsome’s mantra is ringing in my ears.
Stay at home, work the phones For those unfamiliar with it, the draft is about NFL teams acquiring the best young players out of college to bolster their rosters and ensure they hit on at least one star player for a rainy day. Young players have their coming out parade in the national spotlight as they enter the pros. Television, agents and a big payday with the team that drafts them, potentially awaits. It’s a very American exercise.
Logistically, there is a lot to cover over the three days of the draft. 255 players will be allocated to 32 teams over seven rounds.
The NFL decided to go ahead with the draft at the scheduled time as there was no obvious end to coronavirus distancing guidelines or guarantee that a modicum of normality would return this summer. It fulfills the NFL need to tap into everyone’s desire for the return of sport. By next weekend, they’ll be able to say - here are the stars of the game when football returns, whenever that is. Going ahead with the draft makes sense.
In the interest of competitive balance, the NFL decided that all league employees must work at their own homes regardless of local guidelines. All 32 teams held a mock draft call with the NFL a week in advance. This means owners, general managers, head coaches and their front offices will be separated from each other. Trades have always worked over the phone so there will be familiarity with that approach. The virtual basement draft
Logistically, the draft has to comply with distancing guidelines. Team facilities are closed. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be working from his basement and introducing the picks, as is customary. It conjures up thoughts of Goodell handing out virtual bro hugs, while the players strut in like actors in front of a home made camera kit. Not gratifying, but trending with the times.
Recently, I heard a moving interview with the agent who looks after a number of top 50 players, including Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma’s quarterback. On the Football Girl Podcast, agent Nicole Lynn told host Melissa Jacobs, in a refreshing and poignant exchange, that she was struggling in isolation and in dire need of the embrace of draft week. It is a story echoed across America and beyond about how this bizarre situation is impacting everyone. Lynn is grounded, working from home and alone. And dealing with it the best she can, much like the rest of us. The level of preparedness that normally goes into draft day will certainly help teams as they venture into uncharted waters. Ultimately, it boils down to teams making the pick and calling it in. As we said before, stick to the board. Dropping in the draft
The teams drafting in the top ten generally had awful seasons in 2019, while the teams in the high twenties had successful seasons and are generally the more dominant franchises. The Cincinnati Bengals, considered the worst team in football, have the No. 1 pick. It is expected they will draft Ohio native Joe Burrow, quarterback from L.S.U. At no.2 the Washington Redskins will take Chase Young edge rusher out of Ohio State, viewed as the best football player in the draft. Then it gets interesting. The Dolphins and Chargers are on the board at 5 and 6 respectively. Both are in dire need of a quarterback. The player linked with both teams is Tua Tagovailoa, whose story is the one most affected by coronavirus and the inability of teams to be able to perform a medical on him. He is falling down NFL teams draft boards due to concerns from scouts and executives about his ability to stay healthy after a litany of injuries in college. The upside is he’s the most naturally gifted quarterback in the draft. Lookout for the Packers and Saints to target the same player as they have been heavily linked with quarterback Jordan Love out of Utah State. On paper, the Saints appear to be in a better position to trade up the board for Love, which would leave head coach Sean Payton with a lethal weapon to design his offenses around, once Drew Brees retires. As I outlined at the start of this post, it is perfectly reasonable to have studied your prospect and then move up the board from your original draft position to take the best player available, or see him fall into your lap. Just ask Ozzie Newsome. Two years ago, the quarterback that fell most in the first round was Lamar Jackson. Last season Jackson was the league MVP, and his style of play and the scheme built around him has revolutionized the league. When the Ravens traded back into the first round to get their generational player in 2018, Newsome’s sober face broke into a warm smile. He knew. A successfully run draft is no indication that we’ll see any football this season, but with all the fresh faces it is an undeniable nod to how football will look in the short to medium term future. Something we can all drink to.