NFL Network not holding back in coverage plan for 2011 NFL Draft
Forty staffers are assigned for the event, including draft star Mike Mayock
College coaches Nick Saban and Brian Kelly will provide analysis on Day 3
With two QBs expected to go early, NFL Network expects high ratings
For those fans who enjoy having more analysts than first-round picks, the NFL Network's draft coverage is for you. The network has assigned 40 staffers for the event, an armada of neatly groomed people who will report from Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the NFL Network/NFL.com studios in Los Angeles and team headquarters around the country.
The network's main set in New York for opening night features a cast of familiar figures: host Rich Eisen and analysts Marshall Faulk, Mike Mayock, Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin. Eisen, Mayock, Charles Davis and Brian Billick share the set on Friday. College coaches Bret Bielema (Wisconsin), Butch Davis (North Carolina), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and Nick Saban (Alabama) join Eisen, Mayock and Davis for Rounds 4 through 7. The opening round of the draft airs Thursday at 8 p.m. ET and Rounds 2 and 3 will be broadcast the following day, beginning at 6 p.m. The three-day event concludes with Rounds 4-7 on Saturday, starting at noon.
The incomparable Mayock, long praised in this column, has separated himself as the most authoritative draft analyst on television thanks to his attention to detail, grinder's mentality and concise explanations. The analyst lost his voice during the final day of the draft last year and opted to cut down on media interviews in the final weeks this year to save his lungs.
"Mike is a game-changer during this event," said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger, whose fondness for Mayock is rivaled only by ESPN draft producer Jay Rothman's veneration of Jon Gruden. "He will be rested and hydrated. He will be there for three days."
Asked if he thinks Mayock has lifted himself above all the other television draft analysts, Weinberger said, "I think he has. We think the world of Mel [Kiper], and he does an unbelievable job, but Mike's analysis and with the amount of travel he does, he knows these kids on paper and on the field like nobody else."
Faulk, Davis and Billick are also well-liked in this space, as each provides thoughtful and well-researched opinions. That group, along with Eisen, helps dull the pain of listening to Irvin and Sanders wax on and off, often about themselves. Irvin, in particular, is the David Blaine of NFL analysts, performing magic on network executives to inexplicably bring him back year after year.
"We have three Hall of Famers [Faulk, Irvin and Sanders] that will be an integral part of the festivities and they happen to be part of our staff," Weinberger said. "They have perspective like no one else and when you combine that with the coaches we have and then Charles Davis and Mike Mayock, the depth and range we can have with all those voices definitely enhances the viewers' experience."
NFL Network executives believe one of the advantages of its coverage is draft room access, and to that end the network will be inside the draft rooms of three of the first five selections and six of the top 10 picks. Those include the Carolina Panthers (who hold the No. 1 overall pick), Denver (No. 2), Buffalo (3), Arizona (5), San Francisco (7), Dallas (9), Seattle (25), Atlanta (27), New York Jets (30) and defending champion Green Bay (32).
NFLN also has reporters at 10 team facilities across the country and plans an extensive look at Broncos vice president John Elway's first draft as an executive. (The NFL Network will have a live interview with Elway at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday.)
"We have always asked our production teams to have points of differentiation," Weinberger said. "The one area where we can differentiate ourselves from a look, feel and content is actually seeing the men and women in these rooms making the decisions."
Where ESPN is highlighting all things Gruden for its lead-up to the draft, the NFL Network will air a 30-minute special, Mike Mayock's 2011 Mock Draft, the night before the draft at 8 p.m. That night, Mayock will reveal his opening round. (It will reair at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday.) The NFL Network will also have a presence at whatever event the NFLPA holds, most likely reporter Jason La Canfora.
We asked Weinberger to answer some of the questions we posed to ESPN's Jay Rothman, the network's executive in charge of producing the draft.
SI.com: How will the NFL Network's draft coverage address the labor situation?
Weinberger: If there is news, we will address it no differently than we have been since this started, which is fair and balanced. Nothing but the facts. Get it right. We will try to educate the viewer where we can how this is a different draft with labor hanging over its head. What does it mean for players, trades and signings? Will there be free agents? We will have to address that. Will we dwell on it? We won't dwell on it unless news dictates we have to.
SI.com: This could be the last football-centric event for some time. What kind of audience do you predict the draft will get?
Weinberger: I think having two quarterbacks in an unknown position -- Blaine Gabbert and, specifically, Cam Newton -- having them out there right now and not knowing where they are going is special for television and for the viewer. It is rare that happens and it takes you back to the Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith  draft. We think the numbers will be great, especially with all the content we have.
SI.com: Why does the viewer, in your opinion, enjoy the analysis of Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin?
Weinberger: This business can be subjective but we believe in their talents and analysis, especially what they do for us on Sundays. We can also only go by the fact that since we have been doing the draft, numbers go up for both networks, so there is something the viewer is hanging onto. We have to go by the show we like and the personalities we like and we think the two of the them add excitement and energy. The viewer has an opinion of them, which is important.
SI.com: Where ESPN scaled down its coverage this year, you bulked up, including adding a number of high-profile college coaches. Why?
Weinberger: Butch Davis did a draft for us in the old days and with Butch and Nick Saban, here were two guys who have been in the NFL and college football. They really understand the league and they will really help us on Day 3 when we're really trying to put this draft in perspective. We are going to cover every pick, but Day 3 will be more of a broader look at who succeeded and failed. Brian Kelly, just being at Notre Dame, sees so many different players and plays against so many big-time schools.. What Bret Bielema has built at Wisconsin is impressive, especially with the first- and second-rounders he will have. They are there to give perspective on how there kids will make the leap. We love getting more and more football people involved on the third day.