Every year, I’m reminded by sports television executives that the NFL draft is a television show and not a journalistic enterprise. It’s a refreshing bit of honesty from a group that can at times be as straight as Varys on Game of Thrones. That television executives consider the draft a theatrical presentation more than a news event has always guided the talent assignments. Over the years ESPN has rolled out what it considers name brands and high-priced talents for draft analysis, from Joe Thiesmann to Jimmy Johnson to Dennis Green to Michael Irvin to Steve Young to Jon Gruden to Ray Lewis. If you are going to pay NFL talent exorbitant money, the thesis goes, that talent should appear your highest-rated, non-game NFL property.
That’s why it was so refreshing to watch Louis Riddick dominate ESPN’s coverage last night, and by dominate, I mean, dominate with cogent, thoughtful and intellectual analysis. (The NFL Network remained a slightly better watch on Day 1 given Rich Eisen and Mike Mayock are superior in their roles to ESPN’s equivalents; I also liked how the NFLN incorporated Chicago into its broadcast.)
Of course Riddick would have never even been on the set had it not been for Ray Lewis opting to stay in Baltimore to assist in the aftermath of the riots. He learned of the assignment two days before the event when Seth Markman, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for the NFL, called him Tuesday afternoon to tell him that he was replacing Lewis for the opening round. Riddick had originally been assigned to the radio broadcast on Thursday and Friday for ESPN Radio so he had already prepared heavily for the event.
“He was fired up and simply told me that he was ready and would seize the opportunity,” Markman said.
Riddick was strong from the start of the draft, discussing the issues surrounding Jameis Winston and how the Bucs needed to examine their own organization to see whether they had the structure in place for Winston to succeed. Later, on the Rams’ selection of Georgia running back Todd Gurley, as his fellow analysts were celebrating (understandably) Gurley’s potential, Riddick took viewers to another level. “The only question I have here with this pick is, ‘Who is blocking for him?” Riddick said. “Because this offensive line is totally getting turned over this year and last year they did not do very well in creating running lanes for the running back and/or protecting the quarterback. So what are they doing to do to address that? ... You have to address the offensive line to get the best out of him (Gurley).”
“He was everything we expected him to be and more,” Markman said. “When Ray asked to stay in Baltimore and help the city that means so much to him, we had a few options to replace him. It's actually a good problem to have to have so many talented, dialed-in analysts that we felt could step right in. In the end, we felt that Louis would bring a bit of a different perspective that our viewers hadn't heard before on the NFL draft telecast. I think we saw that with his smart commentary throughout the night. I think viewers found out what we have known for a while-—Louis is a rising star.”
Riddick worked the draft for ESPN Radio last year and told Markman that he had hoped to do television in the future. But Riddick said he didn’t lobby for the part after Lewis opted to stay in Maryland.
“I was sitting at home preparing to do radio and things came out of the blue,” Riddick said. “I wound up taking an earlier flight to Chicago to make a TV production meeting Wednesday morning. Obviously, I knew that it would be a bigger stage but I knew I was prepared, and I take pride in my preparation. It was unfortunate how it came about because I knew and respect Ray’s position. But for me personally, it was a great, great opportunity and I had full intention of taking advantage of it.”
Riddick said his adrenaline was on overdrive right before the start of the telecast and felt he was talking too rapidly at the start. He said the fanfare at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in Chicago made it initially difficult to hear his producer and on-air colleagues. What helped him, he said, was familiarity with his fellow analysts. Riddick had worked with Mel Kiper Jr. in the run up to the draft. (“Mel is one of the great human beings on this earth,” Riddick said.) And he had played for Gruden as a safety for the Raiders in 1998. (Riddick played in the NFL from 1991 to 1998.) Riddick also praised Chris Berman for being an icon as a host.
“The magnitude of the moment did not hit me,” Riddick said. “It was just about talking ball. Nothing changed about the preparation because I was already done. I was excited. I wasn’t nervous. I’m a big, big process guy and I know that sounds boring to some people but it is what allows me to prepare and do the kind of job I think I am doing. I’m just putting my head down and grinding, but it felt good that people noticed.”
Riddick, who worked his way up from a pro scout with the Redskins to director of pro personnel for the Eagles in the decade after his playing career ended, has been a rare truth-telling NFL voice for a rights-holder since joining ESPN in late 2013. He directly criticized Roger Goodell on the Ray Rice adjudication and spoke for much of the public when questioning NFL officials who claimed they never saw video from inside the Atlantic City hotel elevator of Rice assaulting Janay Rice. A source told me Riddick was making less than $1,000 for his initial ESPN appearances, an absurdly low figure for a staffer on a major sports television channel. (Trust me, he’s making much more now.) I’ve enjoyed his work for many months now and, yeah, it’s pretty nice when someone you respect succeeds on a big stage.
“ESPN often doesn’t realize that they have good, knowledgeable people right under their nose,” wrote an on-air ESPN-staffer in an email to me Thursday night. “They may have found a star tonight—by accident.”
Riddick said that he hopes to be at ESPN for a long time, and both sides are working on a deal to make that happen. “It has been more than anything I expected and I didn’t know what to expect,” Riddick said. “Everyone there has been a A-plus to me professionally and personally.”
Riddick said he definitely wants to work on the television side next year, a desire he expressed to Markman long before this week. “Getting a taste of it last night, feeling the juice and energy in that auditorium, and being able to talk about the draft to a much larger audience is something that everyone should want,” Riddick said. “[Markman] is aware that this is something I want to do more of, but that decision will be made well above my pay grade. Hopefully, I gave everyone something to think about.”
I have no idea how ESPN will staff the draft next year—neither likely do ESPN executives at this point—but Riddick should be there on Day 1 based on merit and performance. He might have been the least famous name on his set Thursday night, but he was the best for viewers.
GALLERY: 2015 NFL draft first round in Chicago