CLEVELAND – Last year, when the NFL broadcast its draft from commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement, Lake Erie and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were not part of the backdrop.
On the other hand, it didn’t rain.
Even as the league jousts with its players association over how much in-person activity is advisable this spring for teams, the NFL is making its draft a live event again Thursday, with all the NFL Experience trappings spread across the parking lots and plazas between the Hall and the Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium.
As the forklifts beep-beeped and the hammers tap-tapped Wednesday, the weather could hardly have been better for Cleveland in April – a high of 77, under partly cloudy skies. But when the draft and the three-day fan festival open Thursday, nearly an inch of rain is forecast, with 14-mph average winds and highs in the 50s.
If the Eagles’ targeted prospect is among the dozen or so scheduled to attend Thursday evening, let’s hope he brought a jacket and maybe an umbrella. The forecast is reminiscent of what happened at the 2019 draft in Nashville, Tenn., a fierce thunderstorm sweeping through just as the draft began. Andre Dillard, the offensive tackle the Eagles ended up drafting 22nd overall, was sitting under a tent facing the stage, along with his family. Water was dripping on them as Dillard’s big moment arrived. Foreshadowing for what would happen in the first two years of his career.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman can’t afford for the top pick he selects Thursday to spend two seasons spinning his wheels, as Dillard has done, through an up-and-down rookie campaign and then a year lost to a biceps tendon tear. Roseman traded down last month from sixth overall to 12th, and he could be on the move again, either up or down, but the bottom line on what is expected won’t change.
Roseman last selected a Pro Bowl player in 2016, in quarterback Carson Wentz, who is gone. This is a huge draft for the Eagles, as they launch the post-Wentz/Doug Pederson era. We’ve talked at various intervals since 2018 about turning the page from Super Bowl LII; this offseason, the aftermath of going 4-11-1, has drawn a profound line of demarcation.
The Eagles are scheduled to pick four times in the first 85 selections, 11 times overall. Somewhere amid all that they are expected to trade disaffected tight end Zach Ertz, who scored the Super Bowl’s winning touchdown.
We don’t know how much input new head coach Nick Sirianni will have, but this draft will figure into how the start of Sirianni’s tenure is perceived. The Eagles have critical needs at wide receiver, cornerback, and linebacker. They certainly could use a dominant edge rusher, and key parts of the offensive line are aging.
Sirianni has been an offensive coordinator and a wide receivers coach but never a head coach. When he, Roseman and player personnel vice president Andy Weidl spoke with reporters last week, Sirianni mentioned that this is the first time he has looked at defensive prospects during the draft process.
“What was really great for me is when I was watching these defensive players … it was giving the perspective as an offensive coach on what I thought of the defensive player. That’s really what Howie had asked me to do when I was looking at defensive players: ‘As an offensive coach, how would you game plan against this guy?’ I’m not trying to be an expert on something that I’m not, but I’d spend a lot of time watching defensive ends. I spend a lot of time watching corners in my career as a coach,” he said.
We aren’t sure if Sirianni has a franchise quarterback in Jalen Hurts, but the move back from six to 12 pretty much ended discussion of drafting that player this year. It will be interesting, if this pandemic-affected draft swings as wildly as some observers predict, to see what the Eagles do, if a QB such as Trey Lance or Justin Fields somehow drops within their reach.
Denver’s trade Wednesday with Carolina for veteran QB Teddy Bridgewater could affect the Eagles – if it takes the Broncos out of the first-round quarterback market at ninth overall, that means one more position player gone from the pool of Eagles targets. And that in turn would push a QB down closer to the Eagles.
Two NFL personnel people from other teams polled Wednesday thought Eagles fans might end up welcoming South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn in the first round, if Roseman stays in the 12th spot. Horn has the kind of difference-making athleticism the Eagles lack. One of the evaluators tabbed Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith as his second choice. The other went with Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye.
As Eagles fans wait to see how all this unfolds, the NFL isn’t pretending life is completely back to normal. Yes, Goodell, fully vaccinated, and his basement leather chair that became a draft celebrity last year will both be on hand at the temporary amphitheater built on the shoreline. But the 50,000 or so fans a day the league expects to attend the Draft Experience had to register through the NFL OnePass app, must wear masks, and will be given wristbands good for three-hour shifts. When it’s time for one group to leave so another can come in, the first group’s wristbands no longer will work to enter exhibits. Fans seated in the amphitheater will have all been vaccinated.
The number of prospects on hand is much lower than in previous years. It shrank by one Wednesday when Virginia Tech corner Caleb Farley, already a bit of a medical mystery because of the follow-up back procedure he underwent in March, was scratched from the list after testing positive for COVID-19.
Forty-five prospects who didn’t come to Cleveland have agreed to go live virtually, with cameras on them as they await selection.