2020 NFL draft: Execs on what worked, what didn’t in virtual mode

Zac Taylor was sweating in the days leading up to the 2020 NFL draft, and it had nothing to do with the Cincinnati Bengals‘ No. 1 overall pick.

The head coach had ordered a “Dark Chocolate” Ridgeley U-shaped desk to anchor his at-home setup in time for Thursday’s broadcast. But the online order kept getting delayed — until Taylor got word it would arrive the week after the draft.

And so, as Taylor suspected, the internet had its way with his outdated desk, which he says was positioned “horribly” next to the only bare walls in his basement. Taylor’s brother, Philadelphia Eagles passing game coordinator Press Taylor, naturally texted Zac every embarrassing screenshot he could find.

“I was going to have this beautiful setup, and the whole world won’t be able to see it,” Taylor said. “You have to be able to laugh at yourself.”

Home decor malfunctions didn’t stop the NFL’s first virtual draft from becoming a resounding hit.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone to stay home, but the NFL was determined to hold a draft largely reliant on Wi-Fi bandwidth. This prompted skepticism from coaches and general managers not used to abandoning draft rooms for online conferencing.

But everyone involved lauded last week’s operation, experiencing minimal issues and plenty of memories:

Taylor called it “awesome.”

“Fantastic,” Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

“Outstanding,” Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson said.

All 255 picks and 29 trades were submitted without issue. The NFL placed cameras in the homes of 64 NFL luminaries and 58 draft picks, all of whom showcased their homes with minimal glitching. And the NFL raised more than $100 million for COVID-19 relief.

The shots of kids draped over NFL decision-makers humanized the event. From IT departments to personnel staff, NFL organizations experienced a new level of teamwork.

And now, some teams are imagining the possibilities for future years.

“The draft may have just evolved,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead concluded.

“Technology is an amazing thing,” New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said.

But it wouldn’t be an NFL draft without some paranoia, good-natured ribbing and, in this case, well-positioned cable trucks, oversized monitors, candy vices, police cars and kids put to work.

Several general managers, along with coaches and execs, recounted their experiences of the first virtual draft to ESPN.

Be prepared

Most executives entered this draft with some level of nervousness. Putting on the suit, working the big board in a team facility shoulder to shoulder with confidantes offers comfort.

Not only was the NFL taking that away, but the leaguewide mock draft last Monday started slowly when the Bengals and Dallas Cowboys tried to execute an imaginary trade (Taylor said it wasn’t a big deal). One head coach, in a word, predicted the draft would be “chaos.”

Dimitroff loaded up for contingencies. His home office featured an 80-inch screen in front of him and two 60-inch monitors by each shoulder: one for each trade, one for team needs and a draft chart.

Then, there were the two 27-inch monitors with offensive and defensive big boards. He had his trusty draft calculator and needs charts on his desk. He had two trade phones: one for the AFC, one for the NFC. A bowl of M&Ms was nearby.

Before Thursday night’s festivities, as GMs were calling each other to compare trade notes, Dimitroff made a pact with Seahawks GM John Schneider that they should contact one another via cell if they had any issues that night.

“That was a fail-safe,” he said.


What to wear?

Another pressing matter among general managers: dress code.

“We’re not getting in a suit, right?” the Titans’ Robinson remembers texting to a few peers in the hours before the draft.

So everyone went business casual or even the T-shirt-and-jeans look. And then there was Eagles GM Howie Roseman, who wore a suit coat. Even Dimitroff, who rarely works without a suit and tie, was surprised by Roseman, who was in line for good-natured ribbing.

“You’re making us look bad,” Robinson jokingly told Roseman.


One extra step to make a trade

A big concern was how trades would go down in the first round, with the stakes higher and resources more stripped down. The first trade off the board was at No. 13 overall, with Tampa Bay moving up one spot to select tackle Tristan Wirfs.

A Tampa Bay Buccaneers source said the trade with the San Francisco 49ers went smoothly, but required one more step than usual: discussing the matter on video chat (Zoom technology was the preferred method for most teams, and Microsoft Teams was the main channel of communication with the league). Afterward, they had a personnel staffer call the 49ers to negotiate, report back to GM Jason Licht, then call the 49ers back to hash it out.


Some minor tech snafus

The looming question: What would happen when or if someone did experience technical issues?

Snead thought it was perfect that his internet went out about 10 picks before he selected Florida State running back Cam Akers at No. 52 overall. The Wi-Fi never went out when his kids did their homeschooling.

“This isn’t a coincidence anymore,” Snead joked. “This is a crime scene.”

While his in-house IT guy got to work on the hot spots, Snead called his football operations guy to inform him that Akers was the pick if available, and if not, he had two backup names. The internet came back up pretty quickly after that.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Chargers GM Tom Telesco got Zoom-greedy, resulting in an issue in the seventh round.

He had one Zoom conference with Chargers ownership and his top personnel people, and another one with his pro scouts for trade updates. He attempted to launch a third Zoom to address college free agency, and that caused his ownership window to crash, he said. This happened right before the Chargers’ 220th overall selection, which they used to select Ohio State receiver K.J. Hill.

Telesco calmly called team president John Spanos, who helped submit the pick. The troubleshooting was actually rewarding.

“To do all this remotely, and to do it in short order, the teamwork was incredible,” Telesco said.


Taking no chances

The Falcons weren’t messing around on draft night after Dimitroff noticed a few fan emails with draft “recommendations” reached his junk folder.

A police officer patrolled the Dimitroff property on all three nights to prevent any hecklers.

“I really wasn’t that concerned about our fan base,” Dimitroff said. “We get a lot of divisional opponents. I didn’t want anyone to think they could throw rocks at our window.”

Telesco got creative too, using his cable guys for a classic rub route.

Spectrum workers with a van were parked outside for three days, and they strategically parked in front of a cable box in the yard “so no one would see it and try to cut any wires.”

The workers put up two lawn chairs and watched the draft from a satellite feed. Telesco hooked them up with Chargers swag for their efforts.


Lots of extra help when making picks from home

The family time was by far the best part of the draft for the teams involved.

Jacksonville Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell can’t talk about this year’s draft for very long without mentioning his 13-year-old son, David Michael II, who stayed by his side throughout the process. “He gives me all the advice,” Caldwell joked.

David Michael was also part of a simultaneous mock draft involving the kids of several NFL GMs who keep in touch.

“I’ve been working from home the last 40 days, and he deserves to be a part of it,” Caldwell said. “The whole process was rewarding, from a teamwork standpoint [with the Jaguars] and being with the family.”

Each person has a family anecdote from the weekend. Snead’s wife, Kara, had a virtual mock draft with friends and tried to work her husband for inside info.

Telesco’s daughter, Elena, served as the team’s social media coordinator, interviewing the GM after picks.

Taylor’s oldest son wanted his dad to revolutionize the draft by selecting a player, then trading him to get a “blocker.”

“He was trying to hold a pick hostage,” Taylor said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Why don’t you just trade for the guy you want?’ Everyone has their process, I guess.”

Robinson ended Day 3 in perfect form: by hopping on a virtual diabetes-fundraising gala in Nashville to guest-auction a Titans preseason game package. Robinson, whose 14-year-old daughter, Taylor, has Type 1 diabetes, is a major supporter of the cause.


Looks can be deceiving

Gettleman is aware of the perception that he’s technologically out of touch. This became a convenient talking point after his Dec. 31 news conference, when he mentioned having “four computer folks” in the Giants’ analytics department.

In a phone conversation after the draft, Gettleman made clear he handled draft tech just fine, and that he doesn’t care about those outside perceptions, as long as he’s maximizing the Giants’ talent pool.

Gettleman had a 75-inch big screen to accompany two smaller monitors on his desk. He had an IT guy on standby. And he helped organize a multiteam mock draft in recent days, separate from the league’s deal.

“I’ve never let the ancillary [stuff] get in the way,” Gettleman said. “What this [draft] has taught is to have reinforcement. Stay in your process and work through it. … We did what we do.”


2020 foresight: How this could change future drafts

The ease of the virtual draft has left general managers brainstorming about the future. The chance to work more from home has resonated with personnel people who grind long hours away from the family.

“The interesting thing is it sparked some ideas about how we move forward, the amount of travel the scouts have,” said Gettleman, who could see draft-related travel scaled back around the combine or pro day circuit for some.

The Falcons’ war room could experience change, Dimitroff said. Usually about 50 people occupy the room, and Dimitroff admits the “quiet and relaxing” atmosphere at home triggered “clean thinking.” Atlanta utilizes the traditional big board with magnets, and could segue to a more electronic approach.

Snead liked the process of sending the pick in electronically, through the NFL’s use of Microsoft Teams, instead of calling the team’s on-site representative to submit a card.

“It does seem like we should probably eliminate [the middle man] and just type the name into your computer and hit send,” Snead said.

Even if changes are slight and the virtual draft was a one-off, the NFL world savored the time. Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn got emotional just thinking about the lack of work-life balance in an NFL schedule.

“Jumping on flights and getting home late and sleeping for six hours and going to the office the next morning is hard, especially losing all the time we do during the season,” Quinn said. “So I thought it was cool for [family to be involved].”

ESPN’s Michael Rothstein contributed to this story.

Published at Wed, 29 Apr 2020 12:47:15 +0000

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