Reviewing ESPN and NFL Network's coverage of the NFL draft
NFL Draft Media Review (cont.)
When ESPN executives review their 2013 NFL draft coverage, they should immediately fast forward to the first selection of the fourth round. It's an 11-minute sequence from stem to stern and it shows ESPN at its absolute best and nimblest. It also reinforces what I believe is the majority opinion outside the network's Bristol campus: ESPN's best draft day crew comes on Day 2 and 3.
With Jacksonville holding the 98th overall pick, host Trey Wingo immediately tossed to reporter Adam Schefter, who informed viewers that the Jaguars were fielding calls about the slot. One of Wingo's strengths as a draft host is to synthesize things quickly, offer a cogent road map, and then get the hell out of the way. He summarized Jacksonville's draft up until that point and gave way to analyst Todd McShay, who began to offer some suggestions should the Jaguars keep the pick. But Wingo interrupted almost immediately with breaking news. "Sorry, Todd, there will be a trade here," Wingo said. "It is now Philadelphia."
The set perked up but Wingo steadied the crew. He turned to analyst Trent Dilfer and set him up perfectly. Said Wingo: "This is interesting, Trent, because you have one guy who you have had your eye on for the quarterback spot for the last couple of days."
Dilfer then did something people on sports television rarely do (see, Smith, Stephen A. and Bayless, Skip). He admitted he didn't have any inside information but wanted to suggest Arizona quarterback Matt Scott as a possible selection. "I could be dead wrong," Dilfer said, who would prove to be dead wrong. "I didn't talk to anyone in Philly. To me, this Matt Scott is a prospect."
Dilfer offered a scouting report of Scott and explained why he could be a good fit for a Chip Kelly offense.
Then came Mel Kiper, the veteran draft warhorse who still delivers for this production. Kiper brought up the Eagles' second-round pick, Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, who finished with 106 receiving yards and a career-high 11 catches against Kelly's then No. 1-ranked Oregon team. This was a great point: Kiper explained to the audience that Kelly had a familiarity with Pac-12 players both in game situations and recruiting.
Wingo, sensing something interesting brewing, asked Kiper for his draft grade on Scott. "Matt Scott, it's amazing, being where he is right now to be in the same discussion as Matt Barkley," Kiper responded.
The production then turned to Schefter and information partner Chris Mortensen -- and Schefter nailed it. "It turns out the quarterback the Philadelphia Eagles have been eyeing and scouting and doing a lot of work into is USC quarterback Matt Barkley," Schefter reported. Mortensen then explained that the idea that Kelly would only draft an up-tempo, run-pass quarterback was a misconception and that Barkley reminded Kelly of current Eagles quarterback Nick Foles.
When the production returned to the main set, McShay told a great anecdote about Kelly watching Drew Brees and being amazed at the quick eyes and release of the Saints quarterback. "Matt Barkley has some of those same qualities," McShay said.
The production then moved to the Eagles' draft table at the Radio City Music Hall, where an Eagles fan announced that Philadelphia had selected Barkley with the No. 98 overall pick.
Said Wingo: "Well, he had to wait two days but he didn't have to wait very long on Day 3. Matt Barkley is a Philadelphia Eagle." Then Wingo did what good draft hosts do: He stopped talking so his analysts could continue.
Dilfer immediately followed with an analysis of Barkley, and here is where ESPN was really great: The network showed nine different highlights of Barkley passing, including one in which he held the ball too long and took a sack. Dilfer and McShay spoke cogently over the highlights and Kiper jumped in to tell viewers that Barkley had nine touchdowns in the last two years against a Chip Kelly defense -- a great stat.
Wingo then tossed it over to Bill Polian, the former GM who was sensational during the draft by being the opposite of an over-packaged TV analyst. "Well, we said all along that Chip has knowledge of this college crop," Polian said. "I'm a little surprised because I thought it would be Scott as well because of the mobility factor. But here's the thing about Matt Barkley: He's drafted, the chatter is all over with, he's now a Philadelphia Eagle. The most important thing is not when you are drafted but that you were drafted ... I'm anxious to see what this means to Nick Foles, if anything."
Dilfer jumped back in to talk about Kelly being a proponent of high-performance training and skill development, and how Barkley could excel under him. Kiper pointed out that since Michael Vick had bought into Kelly's philosophy, Barkley could end up being in an ideal situation as a backup with time to develop. McShay called the Eagles "the most fascinating team" in the NFL.
Wingo piloted the coverage back to Mortensen, who reported that the Eagles started thinking about Barkley late on Friday as he slid in the draft. Said Mortensen: "Chip Kelly has been warning people: Don't try to fit me here in a certain particular box. I can go anywhere with this offense."
Schefter then referenced the financial component to Barkley's selection, given that Barkley was projected as a top 10 pick the year before. Schefter said the USC quarterback would get a four-year deal worth about $2.5 million and a roughly $500,000 signing bonus. "Not close to the money that he might have made had he come out last year, but that was a decision Matt Barkley made," Schefter said. "And in the NFL, it is always about the second contract anyway. So if Matt Barkley plays well in Philly, the money will come later but it won't be as readily available right now." Schefter then took the audience to commercial by referencing all the quarterbacks (Tyler Bray, Landry Jones and Ryan Nassib) still available in the draft.
The entire segment lasted 11 minutes, and it was as good a stretch as you will ever see on an NFL draft broadcast.
This is the ESPN crew I wish we'd get on opening night, but ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman is likely to keep the same groupings together with one exception: He told SI.com Sunday night that Ray Lewis is likely to work the first round of next year's draft.
"Ray told me he wants to work hard on learning the players in the draft and getting to know them, especially the defensive players," Markman said. "If Ray Lewis tells me he is going to work hard on something, I am not one to doubt him. I think he can add something on the big night. I don't want him to have to know 300 players, but if I told him to study the top 25 defensive players, I think it could be really special."
Both ESPN and NFL Network executives said they plan to once again reinforce the Twitter pick-by-pick ban for staffers during the opening rounds of the 2014 Draft. "I haven't talked to ESPN about it, but we think this will remain as we move forward," said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger. "It carried through Night Two for us and we think it really made for a better show, a better draft and a more interesting product for the viewer."
When told of Weinberger's comments, Markman said he was inclined to do the same thing again.
(SI.com examines some of the more notable moments and news from NFL Network and ESPN's coverage of the draft.)
1. NFL Network Notes: NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock continues to be the singular best talent on either set, and it really becomes apparent on the third day of the draft when his deep research kicks in. Mayock breaks down NFL film as good as anyone who has ever appeared on television, but he probably doesn't get enough credit for his ability to provide viewers with the draft philosophy of teams. He did this on Saturday when he explained why the Giants traded up for Nassib at No. 110 overall.
"Remember we talked about the footprint of general managers?" Mayock explained. "[GM] Jerry Reese has a very clear footprint: They are a value team. And I think that is why they are always in the hunt every year. When you are talking about a guy that might be on your board anywhere from 20 to 40 and he is on the board at 110, you have to make that pick and especially with a quarterback getting older and a backup quarterback that is already old ... I know as a fan you are anxious to draft another piece that might win you a Super Bowl, but what I see is a team being consistent with their overall draft philosophy."
I could provide hundreds of other moments throughout the draft where Mayock shined and all that we ask as viewers for this event is that you don't con us on preparation. Even as his television star rises, Mayock keeps doing the work. He's a self-proclaimed grinder, and it's appreciated.
1b. Of course Mayock isn't perfect, and often the fun moments in the draft are when the analysts are dead wrong. Mayock did something I appreciate on the Barkley pick. He was significantly off on his prediction of who the Eagles would select (as were the rest of the NFL Network crew members) and he didn't talk his way out of it. He had repeated that Barkley would not be a fit for Philadelphia and that the pick might not even be a quarterback. "Boy, am I wrong," Mayock said. "I'd like to put my hand right up and say I am a dummy."
He also went big on Miami drafting Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson with the No. 3 overall pick after the Dolphins traded with the Raiders to move up. "You can't spend all the money Miami just spent to win now and not have a left tackle protect your quarterback," Mayock said. "This is an obvious move and I have been waiting for it all day. It has to be Lane Johnson." Miami then selected defensive end Dion Jordan, but this is why Mayock is great. He quickly moved on to explain Jordan's potential -- saying he could project as Jason Taylor-type of player with added weight -- and told the audience he didn't have it. "Boy, was I wrong," Mayock said.
1c. Mayock had a great line at the top of the Saturday broadcast: "Day 1 was a Fat Boy day," said Mayock. "This day is about value. It's about special teams and grooming guys to eventually start."
1d. I asked Weinberger on Sunday about an issue that bothered many fans on Twitter -- his network not showing enough pick-by-pick selections after the opening round. The most specific complaint came on picks being missed for a discussion of the Jets' selection of Geno Smith, as well as an overload on Manti Te'o. "We made a significant editorial decision and we discussed it before Round 2 started," Weinberger said. "Once we saw where Geno went and it was right around the same time Manti Te'o was chosen, we had an opportunity to talk about a significant storyline and we knew we had interest from the fan base and interest online. We thought it was a fascinating turn of events for a team that has had 12 to 18 months of fascinating events."
1e. Weinberger praised NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who made his draft debut this weekend: "His command over this topic is pretty special," Weinberger said. "To put a young guy like that in between Charles Davis and Mike Mayock is not an easy to thing to do and we thought he excelled. But we don't think we had him on our air or NFL.com nearly enough."
1f. Weinberger said he would look into the complaint from some viewers that the network went away from its "best player available" graphic after the first night of the draft.
1g. The NFL Network set has at least one too many voices on opening night, and that voice is usually analyst Michael Irvin, who brings little to the production ("Miami is looking for game-changers," Irvin explained after the third pick, as if the other 31 teams were not.) The spell Irvin has over television producers remains perplexing. Perhaps they like having him around simply to nod in affirmation at everything Mayock says.
1h. On the topic of too many voices on set, here is the NFL Network's take: "I know a lot of people think we have too many voices and I think that is a distinguishing difference between the two networks," Weinberger said. "I am a believer in as many perspectives as you can get that night. Obviously, Mayock is the priority but off of him, we are doing a better job year over year of getting more perspective even if that means someone like [analyst] Steve Mariucci speaks just 20 words in an hour."
1i. Weinberger said that he believed that the network had an obligation to cover the Te'o story as it was happening and that's why the NFL Network went away from showing pick-by-pick selections on both Friday and Saturday to focus on Te'o. The network had employed significant resources on the story including sending reporter Alex Flanagan to Oahu. The production team also saw that both Te'o and Geno Smith were trending on Twitter. (Both networks monitor Twitter throughout the draft, as do each network's PR departments.)
1j. Props to NFL Network production assistant Zach Arnstein for cutting the highlight of South Carolina tight end Justice Cunningham. Both networks make it a goal to get the highlight of the player selected with the final pick of the draft and both got it.
2. ESPN Notes: Regarding his network's terrific moment with the Barkley selection, Markman said the USC quarterback was highlighted prior to the draft in ESPN production meetings as one of the top storylines of the draft. "He was going to be one of the moments where we stopped, paused, and put everything into context," Markman said. Markman added that every on-air staffer let him know through their IFB ear pieces that they wanted in on the Barkley selection. "We were not going to speed through that pick," Markman said. "When Matt slipped through on Friday night, we talked about how we would approach it when he was selected."
2a. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden was significantly better this year than in previous drafts. He was strong on the significant questions regarding Smith, he suggested Buffalo take a quarterback at No. 16 and he wisely pointed out how difficult that selection would be for Bills coach Doug Marrone given that Nassib was a big factor in why Marrone was now an NFL head coach. Best of all, Gruden never hesitated on questions regarding the No. 3 overall pick. "I am shocked about this pick," Gruden said on Dion Jordan. "When I watch Dion Jordan play, I just don't see him play ... when you watch Dion Jordan play 70 snaps in an NFL game, that will be the first time you have ever seen him do it because he hasn't done it in college. He's narrow, he's got a shoulder problem. He is a great athlete but there is a lot of unknown right now at No. 3 overall."
2b. Said Markman: "This was the best I've ever seen Jon Gruden. Jon has been doing this a few years now and he's supremely talented. But I thought the Jon we saw Thursday night was the best we have ever seen him."
2c. Markman could also not stop raving about the work of Polian. "It is on me and my team to find ways to get Bill on the set more," Markman said. "When we put him on the set for Day 3, I was a little nervous because I wasn't sure he knew every player the way Todd and Mel do. We gave him the option of staying on the balcony set, but he told us he wanted to go on the main set and if he didn't know something, he said he wouldn't say anything. As I've told you before, that is so refreshing. I thought he owned Day 3, I told him he won Saturday."
2d. When ESPN reporter Suzy Kolber had a chance to interview Jordan following the pick, she never asked him about Gruden questioning whether he was a one-dimensional edge rusher. (She should have). Outside of that, Kolber had an excellent draft (see notes below).
2e. Gruden's love for Rams pick Tavon Austin has no ceiling. "He is a devastating modern-day weapon to have," Gruden said. "Kick it to him. Hand it to him. Tap it to him. Throw it to him. Get this kid the ball."
2f. Schefter was all over Buffalo's fondness for E.J. Manuel prior to the team's pick at No. 16, which was quality information given most of the pre-draft talk regarding the Bills pointed to Nassib or Barkley.
2g. Props to ESPN production assistant Jeremy Drummond for cutting the highlight of Cunningham for his network.
3. ESPN averaged 3,035,000 viewers for its three-day draft coverage, up four percent over both 2012 (2.92 million) and 2011 (2.918 million). The network said the top-10 metered markets for the three days were New Orleans (4.7 rating), Birmingham, Ala. (4.5), Kansas City (4.4), Buffalo (4.3), Dayton, Oh. (4.1), Jacksonville (3.6), Pittsburgh (3.5), Milwaukee (3.5), Cincinnati (3.4) and Nashville (3.4).
3a. The NFL Network averaged 930,000 viewers for its three days, up 23 percent over 2012.
3b. The first round of the NFL Draft is the number most cited when it comes to ratings. The combined average for both networks this year was 7.7 million viewers -- the third most-watched first round ever -- but down from 2012 (8.1 million).The NFL Network drew a record 1.5 million viewers -- a seven percent increase over last year (1.4 million viewers).
3c. ESPN's first round coverage averaged 6,199,000 viewers, down seven percent from 2012 (6.6 million). But those numbers were up three percent from 2011 (6.0 million).
3d. Both networks combined for an average of 3.7 million viewers for Rounds 2 and 3, up six percent from last year.
4. Upon re-watching the first round of the draft on Sunday, I became even more impressed with NFL Network host Rich Eisen's tenor in the four hours of the first round. He understands the rhythms of the event, he's prepared, and there's an implicit relationship with the viewer to get to Mayock as much and as quickly as possible.
4b. Regarding the two opening night hosts, I watched the two productions back to back over the weekend, and four minutes into the draft, there was Berman screaming with as much self-indulgence and look-at-me-ointment as a sportscaster can muster: "IT'S THE ANNUAL SELECTION MEETING OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE! FOOTBALL'S RITE OF SPRING! Later on, Berman referenced that he wished he was still doing NFL Primetime so he could reference Ziggy Ansah and Barkevious Mingo. The lads in Bristol can spin it how they want, but the difference between Berman and Eisen is the difference between performance and substantive performance.
Predictably, Berman was crushed by journalists and Twitter Nation on Thursday night. The more I deal with television people, the more I realize that relationships are often as important (if not more) than talent and performance. Berman has the backing of high executives at ESPN who believe much of the criticism toward him is the product of a snarky blogosphere and a loud minority. It has become white noise for them. In short, Berman will be back next year, ESPN PR people will tell me I am too hard on Berman, and the cycle will continue. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.
4c. For the record, Markman thought Berman had a terrific draft. I respect him for defending his colleague and we've had some terrific conversations on this topic over the years. He knows I think Berman is the wrong fit for a news event (my words) as opposed to a highlight-driven show. I appreciate his dialogue.
In an ode to Peter King's MMQB column, I conclude with Six Things I Think I Think About the 2013 NFL draft coverage:
1. I think I find Polian's refusal to sugarcoat his opinion incredibly refreshing. After Wingo asked the former Bills and Colts GM if LSU's Tyrann Mathieu was worth the risk, here is what Polian said: "No, in a word. This is a guy who is a nickel back, who is a return man, who has a deficiency covering man to man and who is speed deficient. On top of that, he has proven to be irresponsible and continues in my mind to show some degree of irresponsibility. That makes him a poor teammate and a poor risk. I don't know why you would want him at any price but if you were going to take a chance on him, it certainly wouldn't be tonight [Round 2] ... We would take him off the board because in our opinion, based on our philosophy, we did not want a player with this level of irresponsibility and this level of disrespect for his teammates and his team because that is what he has shown failing these tests."
1a. I think I loved ESPN's pre-draft coverage shows when Polian was given time to tell stories. He provided terrific insight into how he procured three late-round prospects (Howard Ballard, Antoine Bethea and Robert Mathis) who developed into starters.
1b. I think I loved hearing Polian on SiriusXM NFL Radio this weekend with Jeff Rickard and Vic Carucci. Three smart people talking football.
2. I think how Gruden discussed Mathieu gave great insight into how a coach thinks versus a general manager and also Gruden as a broadcaster. "There is another corner -- I just want to remind you, Mel -- his name is the Honey Badger," Gruden said, after Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant was picked at No. 22 by the Falcons. "Don't forget about him. I still think he is the best corner in this draft. I know he has issues and the issues are very, very serious. But this kid can tackle, he's a ball magnet, he's a dynamic punt returner, he's a dominating player. Somebody needs to help the Honey Badger off the mat. Bring him back into football and let him become all he can be."
2a. I think I loved it when Kiper pushed back after Gruden sold the soap hard for Mathieu. Kiper calmly explained there was no way Mathieu was going to be taken prior to the end of Round 2. After Kiper concluded, Gruden gave Kiper a shove and smiled. It was excellent television, and not the kind of BS debate that the First Take crew is trying to champion across the ESPN networks.
2b. I think Wingo getting crushed by people on Twitter for asking Mathieu questions about his marijuana use and past behavior is ridiculous. Among his questions: ("Do you understand the responsibilities that are in front of you now?" and "Do you understand that it will be a process?). Eisen was much softer on Mathieu ("Describe the emotions you felt at the moment, what did you tell the Cardinals?) and both hosts probably should have been harder. Neither asked about Mathieu missing meetings with the Texans and Seahawks, though Schefter did address that in the broadcast. Plenty of viewers think the draft selection is the wrong format to ask tough questions of draftees, but Mathieu did not hide from the questions and they needed to be asked given his background. If Mathieu thinks questions about marijuana usage are unfair, he'd have every right to tell that to Wingo live on camera, and it would make for good television, too.
2c. I think I asked Markman for his take on Wingo's interview with Mathieu and here is what he said: "I told Trey afterward -- he actually looked on Twitter and some people were giving him a hard time about it so he asked me about it -- that I thought he was right there. Did he approach the line? He might have, but he did not cross it in my mind. The Honey Badger was a huge topic and I thought Trey, who is a great interviewer, asked tough, fair questions. We don't do softball interviews on the draft."
2d. I think, for the record, ESPN does plenty of softball interviews during the draft. Wingo's was not one of them, though.
3. I think Jets fans will not want to see this comment from Mayock about Smith: "Geno does an awful lot of good things. There are components of a franchise quarterback here. I just don't see it enough ... To be brutally honest, I think he fell to where he should have gone based on what the tape tells me. There are four or five games where he is not even worthy of a fifth-round grade. There areother games where you go 'Wow, that's a first round player.' To me, I don't think you can hand him the keys."
3a. I think I really enjoyed Eisen's reaction to the Jets pick: "They went ahead and did it! Oh, did they go ahead and do it! Oh, my Lord! And Tebow is still on the roster! Let the good times roll, baby! There is not enough space on back pages for this one! What does it mean? What does it mean? If we can only have a camera on Mark Sanchez right now."
3b. I think the NFL Network gave you something very cool with Mayock breaking down Smith, featuring highlight after highlight of Smith making poor choices, including missing a sure touchdown throw on a play-action pass. "In the NFL, this better be a touchdown," Mayock said. "I have a separate reel of 10 of these throws that should have been touchdowns."
3c. I think Berman directly addressing Tebow when the Jets came up at No. 13 -- including suggesting he could go to Canada and find success -- was laugh-out-loud comedy given Tebow was an absolute non-story for this draft. Smartly, Gruden and Kiper didn't bite.
4. I think Dilfer does not like Oklahoma's offense.
4a. I think my colleague Jim Trotter did not like Kiper comparing Te'o to Junior Seau. NFL agent David Canter did not either: "Mel Kiper might need to re-watch the Te'o tape. He's no Junior Seau. Don't insult the man's legacy."
4b. I think I like the NFL Network's draft party cam much more than the war room cam, and I also think the phrase "war room" needs to be retired by broadcasters because it trivializes the real impact of the word "war."
4c. I think Todd McShay did not like Buffalo selecting E.J. Manuel.
5. I think I was surprised by how many people on Twitter reached out to me to say that they really enjoyed Stanford coach David Shaw as a guest NFL Network analyst. But what I was not surprised about was how good Shaw was on television. This is a bright guy with a television future if he wants it. He also said something about Smith that I've filed away. "This will be a completely different world for him," Shaw said. "This offense will be completely different. Forget about his skill set. He might not be ready his first year. Don't be surprised if Mark Sanchez fits perfect in this offense. This is what Mark played in college -- a West Coast offense, quick rhythm passing game. Mark might be a perfect fit now that they [the Jets] are putting pieces around him and maybe more effective than he has been in the past."
5a. I think Weinberger, not surprisingly, is sky-high on Shaw: "He's a fascinating young man who has been around a lot of football greatness already," Weinberger said. "He doesn't get as many huge national opportunities as some of these other guys but he pops. He speaks beautifully and his presence is great."
5b. I think Lions fans should file away this, from Mayock, on Detroit first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah, the fast-rising defensive end from BYU: "He's a boom or bust candidate. Three years from know he's an All-Pro or on the streets."
5c. I think I liked Suzy Kolber letting the audience know at the end of the first round that Geno Smith told her he would not attend the draft the following day. (Smith did indeed come back to Radio City the following day, but it was a solid reporting note.) I also really appreciated Kolber's reporting on Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden.
5d. I think I loved Mayock's line when Oakland drafted Florida State tackle Menelik Watson with the 42nd overall pick. "He has no idea what he is doing, folks, but he is gifted as all get out," Mayock said.
6. I think I emailed Eisen to ask him what he thought the best moment of the draft was for the NFL Network. "In terms of production value, our clear best moment was connecting live with Clarksville (Tenn.) resident and U.S. Army Major Thomas Taylor in Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan right before the Tennessee pick," Eisen said. "I asked him who he wanted to see his team pick and he said Chance Warmack. Moments later, after Warmack was indeed chosen by the Titans, our producer Charlie Yook cued up the video of Major Taylor celebrating the choice with his comrades. It was beyond heartwarming. And, no, we did NOT tip him the pick."
6a. I think it's silly how often the NFL draft broadcasters refer to a coaches as "Coach" instead of their first or last name. It reinforces the mythology of the coach as an all-knowing figure.
6c. I think fans lit up the NFL Network for missing picks during the second round in exchange for an extended discussion on Smith. But I think those fans were wrong. He was too big of a story not to discuss for a couple of minutes.
6d. I think CBS Sports reporter Jason LaCanfora and Yahoo! Sports reporter Michael Silver were consistently ahead of the networks on tipping picks.
6e. I think Markman really likes Schefter and trusted him to do something the traditional host does -- he let him take ESPN's production to break often during the weekend coverage.
6f. I think Markman knows Lewis is going to get a lot of attention if he's assigned to next year's draft. The move has big upside (tune-in for curiosity-seekers and Lewis being good) and little downside (he doesn't return for 2015).