Long before the world came to know, mock and perhaps even secretly envy his hair, Mel Kiper, Jr. was routinely questioned for what was going on inside his head.
“Thirty-two years ago, people looked at me and said, ‘What? Are you nuts, writing about football players and projecting draft choices and whatever?’” says Kiper, who has been part of ESPN’s draft coverage team since 1984. “The interest is unbelievable right now. Prime time draft? If you would have said that 32 years ago …”
Thirty-two years ago, Kiper was at Essex Community College, working toward a degree in aeronautical engineering, and finding a way to work in a field he loved more. Football.
“I know what I heard 32 years ago,” Kiper says. “Back in the day, the NFL didn’t even want it televised.”
And now, in its 75th year, not only is the NFL draft televised, it is watched by nearly 40 million people. It is officially Must-See TV. Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
On the night that has long been reserved for the likes of Cosmo Kramer and Monica Geller, the NFL will give you … Ndamukong Suh and friends.
Not bad for a show about something that once seemed like nothing.
“We all thought, way back when, how can this become the most watched non-movement sporting event in professional sports?” former NFL executive Carl Peterson says. “That’s what it is. Nobody’s moving. We’re just drafting. Now it’s prime time. Thursday night? Jeez. For the league, it’s tremendous. They are accomplishing the goal, which is to make the NFL 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year.”
The draft will be conducted over a three-day period, though if the league could conduct it over 255 days — one for each pick — it probably would. Certainly, the television partners (ESPN and the in-house NFL Network) wouldn’t protest. It’s a surprise they haven’t petitioned the league to return to the format the NFL used during the 1970s, up to and including 1976: 17 rounds, and nearly 500 total selections.
“I think it’s an exciting format, and a pretty cool move for TV,” ESPN producer Jay Rothman says. “I think it’s going to have a huge impact on Thursday night. I think Friday night is going to be huge, and I think Saturday is going to be huge.”
At the very least, the new format will be “interesting,” as Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland characterizes it. It is decidedly different. Last April, the first round started at 4 p.m. ET Saturday, and the session ended when the second round did, at roughly 11 p.m. The third round began at 10 a.m. Sunday, and lasted until dusk, when the Kansas City Chiefs completed the proceedings with their choice of kicker Ryan Succop with the 47th selection of the seventh and final round.
This year, the first night (Thursday) will consist of only the first round. That should be completed in just over four hours, now that the time to pick has been shortened from 15 minutes to 10.
The draft won’t resume until 6 p.m. ET Friday, and that night’s action will include just the second and third rounds. Each team will get seven minutes to pick in the second round, and five in the third round.
Finally, starting Saturday morning, it will be time for the final four rounds, with each team getting five minutes for each pick.
So, during the time of year when teams are searching for linebackers who can rush the quarterback and quarterbacks who can complete passes, the NFL is in absolutely no rush to complete its signature event. Speed? Look for that in cornerbacks, receivers and returners, not in terms of getting to the end of something that has this sort of following.
“We look at it as a great opportunity,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says.
“We think it’s going to be great for everybody,” Goodell says.
Count former NFL executive Pat Kirwin among those in agreement.
“Don’t like it,” the Sirius NFL Radio host says. “I love it. I’m not talking from the media perspective. I’m talking from the personnel side, directing a draft, and understanding the breather I get after Thursday night, to regroup, redo my board, have enough time to make some calls to set up a trade, and based on what I took in the first round, being able to shop a player or two. And then being able to do it again on Friday night …”
This is hardly the first tweak the NFL has made in recent years.
In 2008, the league moved the start of the draft back from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, cutting it from three to two rounds, reducing the time limits for those first two rounds, and leaving only the final five rounds for Sunday. In 2009, the start of the draft moved back to 4 p.m., but the split (two rounds the first day, five rounds the second) stayed the same.
So what makes this change so much more significant?
The time between the first and second rounds. It’s more than 18 hours. And then, there will be another 10 hours between the third and fourth rounds.
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