Friday, May 16, 2014

The 2014 NFL Draft Was No Joke

Is there really such a thing as a 'buzz in the room'? 

I know I've heard plenty of people use the phrase. I've done the same in blogs and tweets and probably in conversation. But what does it mean? Who is making the buzz? Is it an actual noise or just a feeling?

Well, after attending my first NFL Draft in person last week at Radio City Music Hall, I'm here to tell you...the buzz is real. 

It started on my walk up 6th Avenue towards 50th street. About 10 blocks from the venue, a noticeable influx of NFL jerseys started dotting the sidewalk along with a steady stream of commuters. Of course this is New York City. Midtown Manhattan. At the end of a work day. So there were just as many people heading downtown as there were NFL fans making their way towards mecca. And just like sports bars in the City of Angels, fans of every team are in attendance, even Jacksonville! (more on the new Blake Bortles fan club in a minute)

The night received an early jolt of blog juice as I walked in to the Hall right behind Paul Rudd. He's a known Kansas City Chiefs fan, although he didn't seem to be sporting any red, but was dressed exactly like someone who wanted to go as Paul Rudd for Halloween. Jeans, plaid shirt, hoodie, charming grin. And while Rudd did not choose to wear his Jamaal Charles jersey, the rest of those in attendance had other plans.

It was almost as if you had to wear your team colors in order to get in. Purple, green, black & gold...I can see how Tide got the idea for their latest campaign. The result was a crowd unlike any other in football. I imagine this is why NASCAR races are so popular with fans of 30+ drivers rather than just two teams.

As I made my way to the seats I was excited to learn that I was just one row back from the makeshift radio row where draft picks would be taken immediately following their on-stage introduction. Jay Glazer and Mark Schlereth were among the broadcasters who had set up shop for the evening in front of me, but even more impressive was the set to my right. NFL Network (along with ESPN next to them) had set up their own studio with the Radio City stage set to serve as the backdrop for 3 full days of speculation, skepticism, and oh yea, the actual selections.

The first guest of the evening was none other than the man of the hour (no, not JM2) but RG1. The Commissioner was doing an interview with ESPN Radio just before he was about to assume his position at the podium. However, before the picks began, the show got started with the National Anthem was performed live and all potential draft picks who were in attendance were introduced on stage. While the future stars were announced in alphabetical order, the biggest noise of the night came midway through the ceremony when Johnny Manziel's name was called for the first time. And from that point on, it seemed like the whole crowd was on the edge of their seat waiting for it to be called again. Which would take a while...

No need to recap all the picks, but a few interesting stories tied to some choices:

1. Houston Texans - Jadeveon Clowney
The selection was as expected, but the way I learned about the pick was not. At least not when I was actually at Radio City. But as the time ticked down on the draft clock and it was announced the the 'pick was in' we were left waiting for Goodell to make his way to the stage to tell us who that pick was. Of course Twitter waits for no man so when I checked my phone to see the #NFLdraft chatter, I was surprised to see that some beat writers had already confirmed that Clowney was chosen. My thoughts at the moment:

I later learned that the delay was in part due to the fact that they quickly pressed the last name of the draftees on the jersey of their new team after they were informed of the selection. A nice touch for those made for framing moments.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars - Blake Bortles
While it was interesting that Manziel wasn't the first QB off the board, what made this pick notable to me was the fact that the section to my right was filled with at least 100 of the Jaguars biggest (only? I kid...) supporters. As the Jags were put on the clock, they all stood in unison, clad in teal and black, with smart phones at the ready and started cheers typical of English soccer stadiums. When Bortles name was announced, they seemed content, while not ready to celebrate (yet). That show of emotion was saved for a few minutes later when Bortles made his way to radio row. You couldn't miss the fan club and before starting his interview, Bortles came by to high five the crowd, take pictures and subsequently cement himself as a fan favorite (at least he throws his first INT).

4. Buffalo Bills - Sammy Watkins
While Watkins may be the biggest offensive star of the 2014 draft class, the pick was notable for who wasn't taken. The Bills traded up to the 4th pick with the Browns. Many expected the Browns to take Manziel (with the 4th pick....more on him later) so the fact that Johnny wasn't going yet was big news. But since it was the pride of Western New York making the selection, the smart money was on them taking UB standout, Khalil Mack. The match made so much (emotional) sense and to top it off, I was sitting next to Mack's college coach from Buffalo, Jeff Quinn. I was excited to see his reaction at his star pupil was about to see his dreams realized. However, Mack won't be playing on Sunday's in the snow...

5. Oakland Raiders - Khalil Mack
...that's because Mack was taken 5th overall by the Raiders. A great pick and it did allow me to witness the reaction I was waiting for. Special to see up close. (Random fun fact - when typing Khalil's name in to Google to confirm spelling, I noticed that the first hit when you just included 'khal' was Khaleesi)

16. Dallas Cowboys - Zach Martin
So about that buzz. While any one of the teams picking between 5 and 16 could have taken Johnny Football, you could sense in the room that as the Cowboys came closer to being on the clock, the excitement level grew, like a lottery jackpot growing each time a winner isn't chosen. Earlier that week, while listening to the REP (h/t Brockman) Rich Eisen made a comment along the lines of, "Can you imagine the scene at Radio City Music Hall if Johnny Manziel is still available when Dallas goes on the clock." And he was right. You could hear the conversations amongst fans even if you couldn't hear what they were saying. Everyone in the room was weighing in on what the Cowboys would do. And it wasn't about what their needs were on the field or who was on their draft board. It was Johnny or no Johnny. Almost like betting Tiger vs. the field at a major. So when Goodell approached the mic, I didn't even want to check Twitter. I wanted to see the history unfold in front of me. Of course Dallas went with the safe pick - a lineman to protect an aging Tony Romo rather than a Romo replacement - but it was great theater in that old theater for those 10 minutes, Eisen was right. 

17. Baltimore Ravens - C.J. Mosley

And now the pick you've all been waiting for. To the video tape:

From everything I read pre-draft, Martin, C.J. and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were the names most likely to be wearing Purple after Thursday night. Of course Martin was off the board so it seemed likely to come down to the Alabama teammates. I was rooting for Ha Ha for no other reason than the possible puns I'd be able to tweet out come Sundays this fall. No joke! (get it). Ah, but it was not to be and likely it will turn out to be another Ozzie gem as many already have Mosley pegged as the DROY favorite, if not the heir apparent to #52 (who also was in attendance on the ESPN set for the weekend).

I unfortunately left the draft after the next pick so I did not get to see the drama Johnny would elicit when he was finally taken by the Browns. But don't worry, Twitter was all over it. Before, during and well after. It's probably a good thing Dallas didn't take him. As Manziel said, "I dont know if the world could have handled that, honestly."

As for the Ravens world, I think C.J. will fit in just fine: