NFL draft comes to primetime
Splitting the draft over three days will surely result in higher ratings
One of the NFLN's selling points is its exclusive access into team's war rooms
ESPN has wisely cut down its talent roster from previous drafts
We've finally found the one group that uniformly agrees about Tim Tebow's prospects this month:
"I believe the intrigue of Tim Tebow will drive the ratings for both ESPN and the NFL Network," said Jay Rothman, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for its draft coverage. "I'd also include Colt McCoy to a lesser degree.
"Who is going to take Tim Tebow? There are a lot of great players in this draft but the intrigue of that question will drive interest even on the first night of the draft. And if he does not go in the first round, it will certainly drive the interest on Friday night. Who will step up and take him?"
That's a question both Rothman and his counterparts at the NFL Network hope remains unanswered for as long as possible. Attempting to capitalize on what has become its offseason Super Bowl, the NFL extended its draft format this year to three days, including primetime coverage from New York City's Radio City Music Hall on Thursday (Round 1) and Friday (Rounds 2 and 3). The final four rounds of the draft (4-7) will air on Saturday.
"To have a split between Rounds 1 and 2, and then to have that overnight and the whole next day for teams to maneuver will really be fascinating," said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger. "Not to mention having a couple of glamour kids from Texas, Florida and Notre Dame possibly hanging over to the second night. But it's not just Tim Tebow. There are unbelievable stories. What must the Vikings be going through not knowing whether Brett Favre will be back for sure. What's happening in Pittsburgh? Plus, Pete Carroll is back in the draft (with Seattle) and Mike Holmgren is drafting with a different team (Cleveland)."
Switching to a primetime draft clearly shows a disregard for those watching in the Pacific time zone. But with the popularity of the draft growing yearly and a number of high-profile players slotted for the second round and beyond, the NFL's new format will surely result in higher ratings. Last year a record 39 million viewers tuned into the coverage on ESPN and the NFL Network. Expect those numbers to increase. Officially, the Rams go on the clock at 7:32 p.m. ET Thursday, while Round 2 begins at 6 p.m. Friday. The Saturday portion starts at 10 a.m. ESPN Radio and Sirius XM Radio offer coverage for those commuters stuck on the road during the picks.
The NFL Network's coverage (all 38 hours of it) centers around analyst Mike Mayock, whose competence and depth of knowledge has long impressed critics and viewers. He'll be in New York along with Brian Billick, Charles Davis, host Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk, Michael Irvin, Jason La Canfora, Steve Mariucci and Deion Sanders. Texas coach Mack Brown will join NFLN as an analyst for its Saturday coverage. "I have mixed emotions about this three-day draft," Mayock said. "The historically good drafting teams don't like it because it gives the other teams time to go home and think about what happened the first day. It gives teams time to reset their boards and not be impulsive."
One of the NFLN's selling points is its exclusive access into team's war rooms -- network cameras will provide an inside look at Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle. Weinberger said another wrinkle will be the addition of selected NFL play-by-play announcers reporting from team sites. Given the preponderance of homerism among such gentleman, it could provide interesting theater.
ESPN has wisely cut down its talent roster from previous drafts, though many of its regulars remain. Chris Berman will host its Radio City set with Jon Gruden, Tom Jackson, Mel Kiper Jr. and Steve Young. Senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and NFL insider Adam Schefter will report from a stage set, and reporter Suzy Kolber will conduct interviews in the green room and after players are selected. ESPN Scouts Inc. director of college scouting Todd McShay -- whose analysis of Tebow has drawn plenty of attention -- will contribute from ESPN's Bristol, Conn., studios, as will Ron Jaworski. The network's Saturday crew features host Trey Wingo with Gruden, Jaworski and Kiper. Kolber will co-host Rounds 4-7 from Bristol with Tedy Bruschi, Trent Dilfer, Herm Edwards and McShay. Among the ESPN selling points: videoconferencing with NFL coaches and live reports from 26 NFL draft prospects. Both networks will have additional cameras at Radio City to give the program more of an event feel.
With Ben Roethlisberger's reported suspension and the recent trade of Santonio Holmes, the Steelers will be a major story at the draft. Both networks have wisely assigned reporters to Pittsburgh's team headquarters, putting Wendi Nix (ESPN) and Solomon Wilcots (NFL Network) under the spotlight.
There has long been a collegiality between ESPN and the NFL Network, but ultimately viewers must make a choice. We asked each lead producer why viewers should choose them over the competition:
"I feel very comfortable with who we will put on the air and what they are bringing to the table, and less concerned with what the other guys are doing," ESPN's Rothman said. "I believe at the end of the day it's kind of like chocolate or vanilla -- which flavor do you like better?
"Our production teams and talent have been preparing for this day since the Senior Bowl," NFL Network's Weinberger said. "Led by Mike Mayock's efforts, we are deeper and more informed about every player that is about to be drafted. Round 1 is important. Rounds 2 and 3 are important. But as the first 74 drafts have shown us, the later rounds make and break teams. We believe the layers of information and analysis we have on these players is second to none."