Let’s just get this out of the way: The New York Giants have many needs (chief among these being a time machine with the destination dial set to “2007”), and no single NFL Draft pick is going to turn the franchise around. That said, the only rational choice is Cincinnati corner Sauce Gardner, if only because no fan base is better suited to embrace a guy named “Sauce” who isn’t afraid to hit people. Also, the inevitable culture war that flares up as soon as North Jersey fans begin referring to Gardner as “Gravy” will be right up there with the “Is Joe Flacco Elite?” meme.
Given the sheer unpredictability of this year’s draft class, that’s about as far into the Mel Kiper bit we’re willing to go. Mina Kimes is of a similar mindset as Bristol gears up for tonight’s opening round; the ESPN senior writer and NFL Live analyst says the composition of the 2022 field effectively has eliminated any sure things.
“There are so many variables in play that it’s impossible to go chalk in this draft,” Kimes says, before adding that she’s not even sure which name Roger Goodell will call out when her Seahawks make the No. 9 pick. “In recent years, a lot of the top picks have been almost preordained, and so the thing that makes this year so exciting is that nobody really knows what’s going to happen.”
Speaking to Sportico from Las Vegas, Kimes says the dearth of highly sought-after quarterbacks in the draft should make for a nail-biter of a night out in the desert. Last year, the first three picks were quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance), and five signal callers were selected within the first 15 picks. This year, it’s entirely possible that a QB won’t make his way to the podium until Pittsburgh snatches up Liberty’s Malik Willis with the 20th pick. Or the Saints could strike first with the No. 16 pick, although they could just as easily take a shot at Pitt’s Kenny Pickett. In the immortal words of William Goldman, nobody knows anything.
Then again, nobody does more homework than Kimes, who in the interval between the moment the confetti starts flying at the Super Bowl and the opening night of the draft is said to put in more film study than Bill Belichick and Pauline Kael combined. Kimes says her self-imposed homework load is necessary because she doesn’t watch an inordinate amount of college football during the season and therefore must make up for it in the media room, but the claim seems a bit less credible once she starts extolling the virtues of a bunch of edge rushers, offensive tackles and various playmakers on either side of the ball.
“The cramming starts after the Super Bowl, but the NFL Live group chat goes on all year long,” Kimes says, noting that she and fellow analysts like Field Yates and Dan Orlovsky for the last month have been engaged in conversation with each other and the show’s producers about the draft’s biggest storylines. From studs to sleepers, the task at hand is to gather intelligence on every viable candidate, and then react to the opportunities presented to those players as they unfold in real time.
All of this makes for great TV, and a whole lot of compelling Internet content. (After the NFL Live crew wraps the flagship show at 5 p.m. EDT, the team will reassemble at 7 p.m. for a live Twitter production.) When Seattle picked DK Metcalf in the second round of the 2019 draft, an ebullient Kimes went viral with a vocal outburst that made her sound like a grizzly bear who’d just been handed the keys to a salmon hatchery.
While the Seahawks may not execute the sort of moves that are destined to traumatize Kimes’ co-workers—a shaken Mike Golic Jr. flinched his way through the remainder of that 2019 show—there are another 24 teams scheduled to make some noise in the first round. ESPN and broadcast sibling ABC are hoping for a few primal scream moments to break out during their televised draft coverage, although the hollers heard during the X’s-and-O’s cablecast are likely to be somewhat more subdued than those that erupt in the course of the broadcast.
As is the case with the different flavors served up by ESPN2’s ManningCast versus the primary Monday Night Football feed, each of the Disney nets will present a wholly distinct viewing experience. The hardcore ESPN production will focus on the analytics of the draft, while ABC’s coverage will be centered around a more story-based approach, as the network will spend a lot of time relating the prospects’ personal narratives. ESPN Deportes, meanwhile, will serve the NFL’s expanding base of Spanish-speaking fans.
In viewing the draft through a soft-focus lens, ABC looks to connect with a somewhat more casual fan base, one that aligns with the network’s core demos. The impetus to tell more personal stories about these young athletes and their families and friends is one that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched NBC’s coverage of the Olympics; Dick Ebersol pioneered the method of crafting inspirational narratives as a means of drawing more women to the Games. (ABC’s primetime programming, which includes such long-running shows as Grey’s Anatomy, Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor, is overwhelmingly female-skewing.)
“The key driver behind our draft coverage is to better serve our fans across all the platforms at our disposal,” says Tim Reed, VP of programming and acquisitions, ESPN. “Obviously, ABC’s audience makeup favors a production that targets less-avid fans, and the draft coverage will reflect that.”
The ad loads for each production will be unduplicated, which allows for a much more organic pairing of brands and target demos. The diversity of impressions made possible by the multiple formats has served to attract a host of new advertisers; all told, some 30 first-time sponsors have picked up units in Disney’s draft coverage, and no fewer than 45 categories will be represented. That’s a significant step up from 2021, when ESPN and ABC cut deals with representatives from 32 marketing categories in what iSpot tv characterized as a $112 million draft market.
None of which is to say that the endemics that are all but inescapable during football season won’t be haunting your screens over the next three days and nights. It is, after all, Chevy Truck Month, and ornithophobes should be advised that the nightmarish Liberty Mutual emu will be a draft-day fixture. On the in-house promo front, ESPN’s rowdy new campaign for the NHL Stanley Cup tourney is a reminder that Andrew W.K.’s wreck-the-joint anthem Party Hard dropped 21 years ago. Ulp.
Expanding the parameters of the draft coverage should provide Disney with another massive opening-night audience, even if there are no Trevor Lawrences or Mac Joneses in the mix. Last year’s first round scared up 12.5 million viewers, making it the second-largest audience behind only the 2020 edition, which came to you live from Goodell’s basement and delivered 15.6 million viewers.
A Patriots fan, Reed says he is mystified as to whom Belichick & Co. might select with the 21st pick. While New England has enjoyed decades of success in the first round, walking away with the likes of John Hannah in 1973 and Irving Fryar in 1984 and Drew Bledsoe in 1993, Reed believes his inability to so much as guess who might be holding up the blue jersey later tonight is a promising sign.
“From a fan’s perspective, the intrigue going into the draft is unprecedented,” Reed says. “There are no foregone conclusions, in terms of how this all plays out, and the suspense is already getting to me.”
For Kimes, the uncertainty extends to the NFL Draft set, which is perched above the roaring cataracts of the Bellagio Hotel. “We’re on the Strip for both shows, and this could be the first NFL Draft to get interrupted by a bachelorette party,” Kimes cracks, moments after selling us on LSU corner Derek Stingley. “We’re all locked in, but I’m not sure how you prepare for something like that.”