Suspense is making a comeback at the NFL Draft. Executives at both ESPN and the NFL Network know how much you dislike when they foreshadow or tip picks before the official announcement, so both networks pledged during interviews with SI.com last week that broadcast cameras will no longer show first-round draftees on the phone with their teams before being selected.
"The league, the NFL Network and ESPN have recognized that it has probably tilted too far in taking some of the suspense out of the draft," said ESPN senior NFL producer Seth Markman, who is overseeing his first draft for the network. "Part of the problem in this world of instant news and social media is that you can't hold the news. But I think we do need to find a way to find a way to bring back some of the suspense of the commissioner making the announcement.
"We realized that we have been doing the viewer a disservice in that we have lost some of the excitement of when the commissioner walks up to the podium and announces the pick for the first time," said Eric Weinberger, the executive producer of the NFL Network. "We're not going to tip when the kids are on the phone with their team. The first time the public hears officially that a young man is chosen is going to be from Commissioner Goodell's mouth."
Markman admits that there is still plenty about his production that he and his staff cannot control, from teams sending out their selections on Twitter to the larger question of whether networks should hold back if staffers learn of a pick in advance.
"Are we supposed to just hold that information and wait?" Markman asked. "I don't think so, but I do recognize that for the viewer sitting at home, I think there is some animosity toward us about tipping the pick, especially on camera. But if our information guys have information, I don't think we will hold back."
So who are the people who will provide such information? Here's a scouting report of those who will be on your screens Thursday (Round 1 begins at 8 p.m. ET), Friday (Rounds 2-3; 7 p.m.) and Saturday (Rounds 4-7; 12 p.m.)
Like a Vegas vaudeville act that just won't end, ESPN will trot out Chris Berman to host its primetime coverage on Thursday and Friday night. This is Berman's 32nd year covering the draft, which means he has occupied viewers' homes since the Carter Administration.
The main set has two additional staffers for the first two nights: Mel Kiper Jr., still solid as ever, is ESPN's main draft analyst. He'll be joined by Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden, who is clearly the apple of ESPN execs' eyes these days.The reporters are first-rate with Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, who will be based on a second set at Radio City Music Hall. Reporter Suzy Kolber will conduct interviews on-site with draft prospects.
I consistently hear from readers and sports bloggers about how the show would improve with Trey Wingo as the lead host. These people are entirely correct, and the network, as always, will hit its stride come Saturday when Wingo hosts with Trent Dilfer, Kiper, Mortensen, Schefter, ESPN Scouts Inc. director of college scouting Todd McShay and former Indianapolis Colts president and vice chairman Bill Polian. Both McShay and Polian will shift from the ESPN studios in Bristol to New York on the second night of the draft.
On Saturday, Kolber will co-host a set from Bristol featuring analysts Tedy Bruschi, Herm Edwards and Ron Jaworski. ESPN will have reporters at team sites across the country, including Josina Anderson (Rams), Bob Holtzman (Browns), Rachel Nichols (Dolphins), Sal Paolantonio (Jets) and Ed Werder (Cowboys). For those who cannot get to a television, ESPN Radio will host the first two days of the draft with co-hosts Mike Hill and Mark Schlereth and ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton.
Inside Game: Markman said his takeaway from watching last year's draft was that less is more. "Last year was the first time we cut our set down to three (Berman, Gruden and Kiper)," said Markman. "Before that we had subscribed to 'the more voices, the better.' I think we realized we wanted to find the right people on set and there is not as much time as you think to talk."
This is Markman's first time overseeing the draft, and he believes Gruden will have a huge draft. "I'm expecting him to really turn some heads this year," Markman said. "He gets more and more comfortable every year, but he was naming players that actually had Mel Kiper going to his book."
The main set on opening night includes host Rich Eisen, and analysts Mike Mayock, Marshall Faulk, Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin. Eisen is terrific in this role and Mayock is incomparable as a draft talent, the best staffer on any network during the draft coverage. NFL Network executives remains besotted with Irvin, who will provide his usual tortured analysis.
A news desk near the main stage will consist of a pair of excellent information gathers -- Jason La Canfora and Michael Lombardi. Deion Sanders will be on the stage and provide viewers with his usual inanity. Melissa Stark has been charged with red carpet and Green Room interviews. On Friday the main desk becomes Eisen, Mayock, Charles Davis and Brian Billick. That's a very good set.
Weinberger is a big believer in tonnage, so LSU head coach Les Miles and Stanford head coach David Shaw will join Eisen, Mayock and Davis on the main set on Saturday. Billick will join the main set late on Saturday while La Canfora and Lombardi will be on the news desk all weekend.
The long list of staffers that viewers will see from the NFL Network's studios in Los Angeles includes Bucky Brooks, Paul Burmeister, Charley Casserly, Fran Charles, Jamie Dukes, Michael Fabiano, Heath Evans, Scott Hanson, Kara Henderson, Adam Rank, Andrew Siciliano, Jason Smith, Matt Smith, Tom Waddle and Kurt Warner.
Like ESPN, the NFL Network has reporters stationed at team sites, including Brian Baldinger (Eagles), Albert Breer (Colts), Jeff Darlington (Dolphins), Kim Jones (Jets), Ian Rapoport (Cowboys), Steve Wyche (Redskins), Ari Wolfe (Vikings), Solomon Wilcots (Browns), Michelle Beisner (Broncos team party) and Stacey Dales (Patriots team party)
Inside Game: Weinberger said Irvin, Faulk, Sanders and Warner will provide perspective on players at the specific positions they played at in the NFL -- and make judgments on which current NFL player might serve as a parallel. One of the things the NFL Network promotes is its behind-the-scenes access inside the team's war rooms; network cameras will be with the Colts (who draft first overall), Rams (6), Dolphins (8), Seahawks (12), Cowboys (14), Broncos (25), Packers (28) and Niners (30).
We asked ESPN and NFL Network executives and on-air people to answer a couple of additional questions regarding the Draft:SI.com: Why is Chris Berman the right person to host your coverage?
Markman: It's not even a debate for us. I know how you feel, but it's not even a discussion in this building. He is the face and voice of the NFL on ESPN. He is as knowledgeable as anyone I have been around and as passionate as anyone I have been around about football and the draft. He is dialed in. He makes everything feel bigger that he hosts, and I think that comes through to the viewer. ... I would not want anyone else to host this thing. This is not about Boomer and Trey. It is not a discussion for us. Boomer is hosting the draft and we're thrilled. That's how I feel.
SI.com: Why is Rich Eisen the right person to host your coverage?
Weinberger: Rich does this 24/7. He does it every day. He has been around Mayock and our college football people for the most crucial evaluation parts of this process, meaning the Senior Bowl, combine and all-star games. He is just so well-versed with the players but also with the direction Mayock is going. His stamina at this event is unmatched. He does all three days and he always has. He is just immersed in football, from the ownership level to player level. And he can weave a discussion with any member of our team in any different direction. Not only that, he is not afraid to share his point of view and that comes across with the viewer. Because of his knowledge base and confidence in this topic, he can also become a voice.
SI.com: How should you be judged by viewers? Should it be based on the accuracy of where you slot people, your specific analysis or something else?
Mayock: What I hope comes through is my body of work, not just how many first-round picks I got right with the correct team or my Top 100. That's fun stuff and easy to quantify, but what I hope comes through is that not only can I give you my Top 100, but hopefully for three days we can have a conversation in people's living rooms and talk about what these picks are going to mean to their NFL teams, how it helps or does not help, and pay respect to the college constituency that is interested...
To oversimplify it: I look at it as I am the GM of all 32 teams and I hope I can kind of help the guy at home figure out what happened with that pick and why. That's how I hope I'm judged.
McShay: I hope it's not on mock drafts, because to me one pick can change and it goes in a bunch of different directions. I've always said the Chris Mortensens and Adam Schefters should do the mock drafts because that is more kind of information gathering and buzz.
Personally, I would like to be judged on a combination of things: Not necessarily even where players are drafted as much as the success of their career compared to where I had them ranked. So when I sit there and put together, quote unquote, my board, or however you want to look at it, and I come up with the top 100 players, how did they succeed at the next level compared to where I ranked them? And then to compare where I ranked them to maybe where they came off the board and everybody else. And then finally the specifics of the analysis.
I pride myself on watching tape after tape after tape, a minimum of six tapes on every single player that there's an evaluation on. For the quarterbacks, it's every single throw they've made their final season and at least four tapes from the previous year. So how accurate I am with the information? That's hopefully how I'm judged ultimately.
SI: What should viewers take away from your coverage by the end of the draft?
Markman: For the most part, I want people to feel we did a good job balancing covering the actual event that is the draft, the kids that are being drafted, and how they fit into their teams. Also, we must do a good job talking about the state of the NFL and how each of the teams set up for the 2012 season.
Weinberger: We hope to give the viewer a feel of not only what is happening in Radio City, but what is happening across the 32 teams. We hope the viewer takes away that we are the most thorough of the networks.
• For both networks, the Saturday show is no longer a pick-by-pick play. The thesis is to examine how each team did in the draft and what it means for the coming season. But the philosophies are different as to whom you will see. The NFL Network will use college coaches Miles (LSU) and Shaw (Stanford) on its main set, and Weinberger is hoping for the possibility of Shaw and expected first overall pick Andrew Luck on set together on Thursday. "Les could have four to five first-round picks and David Shaw will have the first overall pick," said Weinberger. "There is nothing more exciting for the viewer than to stumble across a new talent. These guys are at the top of their profession and they have been preparing kids for this moment.
• Markman says he has been approached by plenty of college coaches who would like to be on the air. While ESPN will interview Nick Saban on Thursday, they view this as an NFL event. "I think college coaches could add some value to it, but we look at this as an NFL event for NFL fans," said Markman. "We're taking Saturday as a real opportunity to talk NFL football. I'm just not sure how much I care about the coaches' opinions of some of the players who are going on Saturday. We'll have Todd and Mel both on the set on Saturday and those are the guys I want to hear from."
• ESPN will air one commercial for the first hour of the draft on Thursday. "It gives us the ability to really stay and talk," Markman said.
• Warren Sapp is not assigned to the draft, but Weinberger said it has nothing to do with his comments about Jeremy Shockey. Sapp is currently on the NFLN schedule through May.
• The NFL Network will have cameras at military bases, as well as some on NFL fans overseas.
• SiriusXM NFL Radio will provide comprehensive coverage of all three days, including the live announcement of all teams' selections as well as interviews with Goodell, draftees, and general managers and coaches from around the league. The on-site broadcast team includes Gil Brandt, the former VP of player personnel for the Cowboys, Tim Ryan and Adam Schein, who does a nice job hosting. Polian, who joined SiriusXM NFL Radio in January, will also contribute to the channel's Draft coverage. Mad Dog Radio host Dino Costa, who often provides interesting radio, will roam the crowd at Radio City during his show to ask fans what they thought of certain picks.