The NFL Draft is the biggest sporting event of the year in which no ball is kicked and no tackle is made. It is a massive spectacle that will probably soon be on every broadcast network, and something the league likens to election night.
At its core, it’s just a bunch of names being read off every few minutes, a concept that is ridiculous when you take a step back. It is a tentpole of the sports calendar, able to muscle NBA and NHL postseasons briefly off of the front of most sports pages, all because it’s chock full of the effervescent hope of “wait ‘til next year.”
Beyond that, the NFL Draft delivers on something we all desperately need by April’s end, because the run-up to the Draft is simply exhausting.
From the moment bowl games and the Super Bowl end, seemingly the entire sport ramps up to this spectacle. The rhythms of the news cycle are largely the same every year. The Combine comes in February and we hear the leaks of ridiculous interview questions and bizarre scouting reports. Calvin Ridley’s skin is too tight. Derrius Guice might like men, or he might’ve lied about a job interview. DeShon Elliott isn’t married yet. Bo Scarbrough needs to answer what clothing God will have on in heaven — you get it.
Anonymous NFL Scout’s word becomes law, and everyone with a Twitter account thinks they’re the next Mel Kiper Jr. So help me God, if I see another seven-round mock draft on my timeline, I’ll throw my phone into the nearest body of water.
But then the draft actually happens, and the league pulls off a continually evolving parlor trick: it renders all those things moot with humanity.
As the Draft has gotten further away from its Radio City Music Hall past, it has evolved. A league that can be fairly criticized for being as stuffy as a mothballed trench coat has found a way to put on a loose and light show, all filled with plenty of personality and color.
It’s now a road show, offering a venue change every year. This year it was in Arlington at Cowboys Stadium, and it was the catalyst behind the best new yearly Draft subplot: pick presenters straight up roasting the host site’s team and fans.
DAVID AKERS IS A SAVAGE pic.twitter.com/NP52RDmVmh— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) April 28, 2018
Michael Vick adding to tonight's Cowboys trolling while announcing the Falcons pick: "For the record I never lost to Dallas."— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) April 28, 2018
Watch: Justin Tuck announces the #NYGiants second round pick! pic.twitter.com/9WrOsxpxgV— New York Giants (@Giants) April 27, 2018
Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer announces the #Packers' selection of CB Josh Jackson at No. 45!— Green Bay Packers (@packers) April 28, 2018
: NFLN + FOX#PackersDraft #GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/BxY1YM0BHl
"To all of you Ice Bowl fans, great to see you," HoF G Jerry Kramer announcing Packers pick (45th)— Eric Zarate (@zarate_eric) April 28, 2018
Cleveland/Canton, Kansas City, Tennessee, Denver, and Las Vegas are the finalists to host the next two Drafts, so we’ll see what presenters will have up their sleeves in the coming years.
But the NFL mixes poignancy along with humor.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier walked out onto the stage,
What a moment for Ryan Shazier pic.twitter.com/YJ69wLrg7k— Laces Out (@LacesOutShow) April 27, 2018
A St. Jude children’s hospital patient announced Denver’s pick.
A special moment for @stjude patient Austin Denton, who announced @astronaut as the @Broncos’ first pick!— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) April 27, 2018
: #NFLDraft on NFL Network + FOX pic.twitter.com/OovITmre9I
A famous Bills fan named Poncho Billa was called out on stage while battling leukemia to deliver a pick, and Iowa DB Josh Jackson was given headphones by ESPN to listen to a message from children at the hospital that overlooks his college stadium.
Concurrently, the Broncos announced picks with dudes high diving next to the shirtless mascot ...
... some bros curled in a Vikings pick, Nate Burleson nailed a dated movie reference, and a damn parrot flew in the Bucs picks.
Oh, and R2-D2:
But the draft also has a soul, because it keeps its humanity as the central theme.
It’s not a perfect flawless television product, and that’s another reason why it’s fun. Both ESPN and NFL Network’s anchors are practically senile by the end of the final day. NFLN resorts to trying to stump its production truck, challenging the producers to find film of obscure players. It just works, and audiences are responding with ratings increases for the various networks.
The combined 11.214 million NFL Draft viewers is up 22% from last year. Highest NFL Draft since the Johnny Manziel Draft in 2014 (12.373 million). https://t.co/R4KQ0yR6Py— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) April 27, 2018
The bells and whistles and gimmicks are simply the window dressing of the three-day shindig.
The consistent joy and personality is the spine of the ~15-hour telecast. It’s the biggest thing that the run-up loses. What’s lost in Combine test results, tape breakdowns, coded racism, and minor storylines is found when we get to watch lives change in real time no matter who is delivering the pick.
Slogging through the pre-draft makes the image of triumphant young men hugging their loved ones even better.
If you don’t get chills/tears/misty-eyed watching the scene at Shaquem Griffin’s house when he was drafted, get your heart checked. pic.twitter.com/xD3x03prKa— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) April 28, 2018
We are all Jaire Alexander watching his teammate Lamar Jackson get picked.
Midway through @JaireAlexander's interview, his college teammate @Lj_era8 was selected with the last pick in the 1st round.— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) April 27, 2018
Here's his reaction: pic.twitter.com/NPnkDf56R6
If you’ve been bullied, a little piece of you can empathize with the triumph of Cowboys OL Connor Williams. If you have any idea what Nick Chubb has been through, you can’t help but light up when you see his name flash on the screen.
For each of the 250-plus picks in any year’s Draft their payoff is our payoff as fans and witnesses to their athletic exploits. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. If there is no build-up, there is no payoff.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to read a way-too-early mock draft for next year.