The COVID-19 crisis is front and center at all times these days — even during the NFL draft. The broadcast of the annual event, which got under way last night, April 23, was radically altered to accommodate social distancing, resulting in a presentation that whipsawed between carefully produced segments and awkward live shots from the homes of executives, coaches, prospects and fans scattered across the country.
Still, there were plenty of highlights for Broncos fans desperately in need of a distraction from the novel coronavirus and the effects that it's having on society as a whole. Among them were a look inside the home of team president John Elway, where he'd essentially created an altar for his three Super Bowl trophies, and the selection by the squad of Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy — an ultra-lucky break that may have happened in part because of communication challenges that arose within the patchwork system set up for the big day.
The show began with an emotion-pumping montage of images starring health-care workers, first responders and footballers that was narrated by another Mile High hero, Peyton Manning. The theme revolved around how the draft offers hope — a message briefly undercut by a shot of 2017 Denver pick Garrett Bolles, among the biggest busts in recent Broncos history (though he's a superstar in comparison to Paxton Lynch).
Next up was host Trey Wingo, seemingly alone in a giant ESPN studio. Given the enormity of his task, which required him to pivot between fundraising pitches for COVID-19 relief and chatter with the usual series of pundits and experts, among many other things, Wingo did a tremendous job. Yet that didn't mean everything ran smoothly.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who announced each selection, spoke while standing in front of a screen filled with images of boosters across the country, and his attempts to interact with them were beyond awkward. He proved completely incapable of coming across as a likable human being, emerging instead as an elite money man who doesn't give shit one about the little guys out there, no matter how many phony smiles he pasted on.
Once the picks were made, ESPN directors cut immediately to the living rooms of drafted athletes, who tended to be dispassionately looking at their phones as opposed to jumping up and down with delight — likely a result of delays put in place to prevent something offensive or bizarre from being blasted across the network.
Interviews were also scattershot as opposed to routine, despite the fact that most of us have figured out Zoom by now. For the same reasons, banter between ESPN commentators had to be delivered in chunks with pauses between them rather than with the sort of fluid exchanges to which sports viewers have grown accustomed.
Several days before the draft, Elway suggested that these technological obstacles might result in fewer trades among teams, and that's definitely the way it worked out. The first pick swapped was number thirteen — a huge surprise — and this conservatism carried over to the selections themselves, with teams opting to pick up building blocks such as offensive linemen instead of trying to make a big splash.
As such, Alabama phenom Jeudy, whom plenty of prognosticators had identified as the best receiver in the draft, was still available at number fifteen — a scenario that precisely no one anticipated. And as he did when he grabbed Bradley Chubb in 2018 when circumstances turned in a fortuitous direction, Elway snapped up Jeudy as quickly as he could.
Granted, the Broncos have no shortage of needs; they could use a bunch of high-caliber offensive linemen, too, plus defensive linemen, linebackers, secondary help — pretty much everything. But the void at receiver following the departure of Emmanuel Sanders last season was particularly alarming, especially given the need to help young quarterback Drew Lock develop into the field general of the future.
Jeudy should help do just that. He may lack sophistication — he caused a stir during the NFL combine in February when he revealed that he wore a Star of David necklace not because he's Jewish, but because his nickname is "Jeu" (he later tweeted an apology) — but he's a gifted and precise route-runner whose hands are far superior to those of college teammate Henry Ruggs, a speedster who went three slots ahead of him. Predicting stardom in the NFL is a fool's game, and Jeudy's progress will be dependent upon whether Lock succeeds or fails. But from this distance, the pick appears to be an unexpected coup.
Of course, there's no guarantee that the next NFL season will start on time, or what it will look like if it does. But in the age of COVID-19, a little optimism is a wonderful thing — and so is an excuse to think about something that doesn't involve life-or-death stakes. Which is why we're happy the draft continues tonight, beginning at 6 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time.
Better polish those Super Bowl trophies, Big John — because they're going to get more screen time.