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ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman knew halfway through the first round of last year’s NFL draft that analyst Louis Riddick would be getting a major promotion in 2016. Subbing for Ray Lewis when the former Ravens linebacker opted to stay in Baltimore to assist in the aftermath of riots in that city, Riddick seized his opportunity on the main desk. He dominated his network’s coverage of the opening round of the draft with cogent, thoughtful and intellectual analysis. Riddick, hired in 2013 as an NFL front office insider, had originally been assigned to cover the draft for ESPN Radio. When opportunity met preparation, a television draft star was born.
Said Markman: “As soon as we were halfway through the first round, I thought to myself, ‘We are never going back.’ That’s not a knock on Ray Lewis or anyone else in that role. It’s about Louis’s performance. Everyone here thought he did such a phenomenal job that night. It happens in this business, and I hate to use this analogy, but it is not unlike if a quarterback comes in and lights it up, you are not taking him out of the lineup. It’s not about Ray Lewis or Trent Dilfer. It’s about Lou.”
Where Riddick working all three nights for ESPN is a major change in the composition of ESPN’s NFL draft coverage, what won’t change is how ESPN and NFL Network will handle social media in relation to the television production. Over the past few years, the networks have had an agreement not to report draft picks via staffers’ social media feeds ahead of the broadcast. That same de facto agreement between the two will exist Thursday night and Friday night. The one caveat is if there is a major trade or something so newsworthy that news cannot hold.
“For us it is the simple philosophy of listening to our viewers,” Markman said. “I have seen the criticism from some critics or other reporters (who say that withholding information goes against the primary tenet of journalism) but as I have said in the past, every time we have done research on this it has been an absolute landslide that our viewers have asked to watch the show and not have any of our talent spoil the experience.”
“No picks will be tipped by us on Night One or Night Two,” agreed NFL Network coordinating producer Charlie Yook.
Both networks have major draft coverage plans, and below we offer a television guide to the 2016 NFL draft.
On-air faces: Host Chris Berman, longtime NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden and Riddick will be on the main set for ESPN’s opening round coverage on Thursday, beginning at 8 p.m. ET from Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. NFL Insider Adam Schefter will provide reports and NFL host Suzy Kolber will interview draftees.
On Friday (Rounds 2–3, 7 p.m. ET) and Saturday (Rounds 4–7, Noon), Trey Wingo will host with Kiper, Riddick, Schefter and NFL draft analyst Todd McShay.
The network’s bureau reporters—Josina Anderson (Browns), Bob Holtzman (Niners), Britt McHenry (Chargers), Sal Paolantonio (Eagles), Shelley Smith (Rams) and Ed Werder (Cowboys)—will contribute to the telecast from team sites for the duration of the draft.
Markman said McShay is the one talent analyst for whom he wishes he could get main set air time on Day One but ESPN has opted to limit the number of voices on opening night, where the NFL Network goes with many more.
Significant changes: Along with the addition of Riddick, longtime insider Chris Mortensen will miss his first draft in many years. ESPN executives believe one of their major advantages for draft coverage over the years was having Schefter and Mortensen over the NFL Network’s insiders. Markman decided out of respect to Mortensen and Schefter that a second insider would not be brought in on the set.
Production elements: ESPN said it has 400 player highlight packages, 50 player personality bumps and 25 specialty technical breakdowns.
Ratings: The 2015 NFL draft on ESPN averaged a 1.9 rating and 2.9 million viewers, down 30% in ratings and 29% in viewership from 2014 and down 3% in viewership from 2013. How worried is Markman about a repeat of down ratings?
“In all honesty I wish these trades (for the top two picks) happened on Thursday,” Markman said. “I wish the league would have delayed it until teams are on the clock, because it sucked some of the drama out of the first round. If we think we know who the first two picks are and the draft does not really start until pick No. 3, I think it’s a similar situation to last year. There are a lot of good names but I’d be lying if I said I was not concerned [about ratings]. There is no Tim Tebow or Johnny Football [storylines]. But I do like the Cowboys picking high in the draft, so the big teams are high up in the draft.”
Feature to watch: Markman said he is proud of a piece his group did on Auburn offensive tackle Shon Coleman, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia as an 18-year-old high school senior (he is now five years in remission). “He will be watching the draft live from St. Jude Hospital and we will have a camera with him,” Markman said. “It will be a very special moment.”
Chicago impact: Markman said he loved Day Three’s coverage last year, where teams picked from draft parties locally. “My only criticism was that after the Bears picked on Night One, we lost a lot of people in the building [auditorium] versus New York City, where there are so many fans of so many different teams that stayed throughout. I’m hoping this year that there is a little more diversity of fans and the energy stays inside throughout because the Bears are picking fairly high again.”
The Goodell interview: ESPN requested Goodell and they expect to get him in the hour before the draft starts on Thursday.
What ESPN hopes fans take away from its coverage: “I think this year viewers will come out realizing that the guys we have on set, given the amount of study work and effort they have put in, will be nothing like they have seen in the past,” Markman said.
Radio coverage: ESPN Radio will broadcast Rounds 1–3 with host Dari Nowkhah, NFL Front Office Insider Bill Polian and NFL Insider John Clayton. Freddie Coleman and Ian Fitzsimmons will provide post-draft analysis Thursday and Friday at 11:30 p.m. ET.
On-air talent, Thursday, April 28 at 8 p.m. ET (Round 1):
Main Set (Inside Desk): Rich Eisen, Mike Mayock, Steve Mariucci, and Stanford head coach David Shaw. This is Shaw’s fifth year appearing on the NFL Network’s draft coverage.
Outside Desk: Rhett Lewis, Charles Davis, Daniel Jeremiah, Kurt Warner.
Selection Square location: Ian Rapoport.
Onstage reporter: Deion Sanders.
Friday, April 29 at 7 p.m. ET (Rounds 2–3):
Main Set (Inside Desk): Eisen, Mayock, Davis, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.
Outside Desk: Lewis, Jeremiah, Brian Billick, Michael Robinson.
Selection Square: Rapoport.
Greenroom/Stage: Melissa Stark.
Saturday, April 30 at Noon ET (Rounds 4–7):
Main Set (Outside Desk): Eisen, Mayock, Davis, Jeremiah.
Selection Square: Rapoport.
Draft Town: Maurice Jones-Drew, Ike Taylor.
Social Command Center: Colleen Wolfe.
The reporters at team sites include: Judy Battista (New York Jets); Tiffany Blackmon (Baltimore Ravens); Albert Breer (San Francisco 49ers); Stacey Dales (Dallas Cowboys); Jeff Darlington (Philadelphia Eagles); Kimberly Jones (New York Giants); Aditi Kinkhabwala (Cleveland Browns); James Palmer (Denver Broncos); Mike Silver (Los Angeles Rams Draft War Room): Steve Wyche (Los Angeles Rams Draft Night Party); Jeff Chadiha (with the New England Patriots on Friday).
Meyer will make his NFL Network draft debut. How did the network land the Ohio State coach? At Ohio State’s pro day on March 11, Meyer was casually talking to NFL Network producers when he offered up his TV services. “If you guys need me,” Meyer told them, “I’d love to do something at the draft.”
Yook said the network contacted Ohio State and Meyer’s agents to make it happen. NFLN execs particularly liked the idea of using Meyer because of the number of Ohio State players expected to be selected over the first two days.
Significant changes: The NFL used to alternate between ESPN and the NFL Network regarding which TV partner got the first TV interview for first round draft picks. That has changed: The league is now giving the onstage first interview of draft picks to the NFL Network. ESPN will get the second interview. “That’s a decision the league made—they wanted all the interviews this year to be available for the people watching live in the theater, and their decision was it should be one interviewer,” Markman said. “They felt that obviously because he’s connected to the league, the interviewer would be Deion Sanders. You can read between the lines how I feel about that.”
The NFL Network is using fewer people than it did last year (no Marshall Faulk or Michael Irvin this year), though it has made some significant adds, including Meyer.
Production elements, Part I: With a camera inside the Los Angeles Rams’ draft room, this marks the seventh consecutive year NFLN has had a Draft War Room cam for the team with the No. 1 pick. Additional teams with cameras inside include the Cleveland Browns (No. 2), San Diego Chargers (No. 3), Dallas Cowboys (No. 4), Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 5), San Francisco 49ers (No. 7), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 9), Tennessee Titans (No. 15), Atlanta Falcons (No. 17), New York Jets (No. 20), Houston Texans (No. 22), Minnesota Vikings (No. 23), Seattle Seahawks (No. 26), Green Bay Packers (No. 27), Kansas City Chiefs (No. 28), Arizona Cardinals (No. 29), Carolina Panthers (No. 30) and the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (No. 31).
“I think people like being backstage or getting a VIP pass,” Yook said of the value of war room cams. “It is one of the differentiating things between the coverages. I think in this day and age people want more than just talking heads. It’s a testament to all the operational people and remote people and it gives us individual team stories.”
Production elements, Part II: Yook said that the NFL Network has film on 750 prospects and 1,800 pieces of tape on those prospects. He credited NFL Network associate producers Zach Arnstein and Scott Sellz and NFL Films associate producer Ben Fennell for grinding out the tape.
Ratings: The NFL Network drew 1.816 million viewers for its Round One primetime coverage, down from 2.43 million in 2014.
Features to watch: Yook said they have a package to watch on Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, a top 10 prospect before he tore two ligaments in his left knee in this year’s Fiesta Bowl.
Behind-the-scenes love: Yook wanted to note some staffers who have put in endless hours over the years for NFLN’s draft coverage: Chris Weerts (coordinating producer for TV); Mark Brady (coordinating producer for digital); Steve Menzel (producer); Steve Beim (director); Sara Ries (associate director); and Bill Smith (lead researcher).
The Goodell interview: Yook said he expects NFLN to interview Goodell on Wednesday at a Play 60 event and air the interview on Thursday before the draft.
What NFLN hopes fans take away from its coverage: Said Yook: “I think the one big goal we have is, have we given our viewers everything they need to know about who this player is and what he will do for my team heading forward? Did we give them access they could not have gotten anywhere else?”
The impossible dream: Yook said one of his dreams would be to have draft analysts Kiper and Mayock appear simultaneously on both ESPN and NFL Network. “Neither [ESPN’s Markman] or my bosses would likely ever allow it but that would be one of my last dreams before I gave this up,” Yook said.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Here’s Mayock on how Carson Wentz will handle the pressure of being the Eagles’ franchise quarterback: “I do think he can handle it. I’ve gotten to know this kid a little bit, more than I typically get to know a kid, which makes me more confident in my quarterback evaluations. So let’s forget all the physical traits and go to the intangibles. Talking about a Midwestern kid with Midwestern values and work ethic. He’s a Division I-A player who goes to the Senior Bowl, and he’s not overwhelmed at all. As a matter of fact, he’s the best quarterback there by far. Handled himself beautifully. Every team I talked to at the Senior Bowl fell in love with this kid. Now, there is increased pressure in Indianapolis with the combine. Again, handled it beautifully. People come away buzzing about this Carson Wentz kid. I go to his Pro Day in Fargo, North Dakota, I spend a day and a half, his teammates love him, his coaching staff loves him. He has more freedom at the line of scrimmage for a college quarterback than just about anybody I’ve seen since Andrew Luck. He changes the plays. He’s never gotten a B in school. He's intelligent. He’s got a great work ethic, he loves the game of football, and if you’re talking about having a passion and being the face of a franchise, this is the kid. And I do believe he’ll handle Philadelphia because he’ll work so hard and be so humble. I think the blue-collar Philly fans are going to love him.”
1a. Here’s Gruden on Carson Wentz in Philadelphia: “Oh, that’s the million dollar question. That’s something you’re going to have to prove, no matter who you are, whether you’re a player or a coach in the NFL, and especially in Philadelphia, given what the Eagles just gave up to get a player. Let’s just say it is Carson Wentz, there is a tremendous amount of pressure. But the one thing that stands out about Wentz is his off-the-field intangibles. He’s a two-time captain, he’s a 4.0 GPA, he’s a fifth-year finishing senior, valedictorian in high school, very faith oriented. If anybody can stand the mental pressure that comes with playing in Philadelphia and withstand the physical pressure that it takes to play at a high level, it's Carson Wentz.”
1b. Here’s Gruden on Paxton Lynch: “Lynch is to me the most intriguing man in this draft because of his size and his athletic ability. You don’t find guys that are 6' 7", 245 that can run this fast. He’s got a 37" vertical jump, and he put Memphis on the map of college football. This man is winning a lot of games at Memphis, where football really was an afterthought. He’s a dual threat, over 280 career rushes. Has a poor man’s Cam Newton style about him. You don’t realize how much they rely on him as a runner in this offense. I like the way he’s been coached. Justin Fuente, the head coach, coached Andy Dalton at TCU. I’m not saying he’s Cam Newton, but I’m saying he’s big like Cam Newton, he’s athletic, and this kid is a dual threat who has a lot of people curious about what he could actually bring to an NFL offense and how long it might take. I think he could have used another year, but when you win 22 games at Memphis for three years and beat Mississippi, the way he played against Cincinnati, you know with the right coach and given a little continuity and supporting cast, this man can play at the next level.”
1c. And here’s Gruden on a Day Three quarterback to watch: “I like Jacoby Brissett at N.C. State,” said Gruden. “I think there is a lot of great stuff from that young man. I really like Nate Sudfeld from Indiana. I think those two guys jump off the screen when you ask that question as two candidates. And I think Cardale Jones at Ohio State, that size, that athletic ability, he’s an 11–0 starter, that arm talent. Those are three guys I’d like to work with later in the draft. In terms of Jacoby Brissett, I just know a lot of people who have worked with him. I know he has NFL size. He’s got some really good athleticism. He’s proven that he can make all the throws at the college level, and he’s just got to tighten up his consistency. He’s got to do it down after down, game after game, week after week, I think, to really improve.”
1d. ESPN International will provide television coverage of the NFL draft to more than 72 million households in 59 countries and territories throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and Canada (on TSN).
2. I offered some thoughts on why ESPN terminated Curt Schilling and the network’s inconsistent policies of political speech among talent:.
2a. Here’s Schilling, addressing his ESPN end, to Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM Patriot 125.
2b. The New York Times writer Greg Howard gives his view of Schilling’s social media offerings.
3. Welcome to episode No. 52 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch. In this podcast, which is published weekly, Deitsch interviews members of the sports media about their work and interesting people about the sports media. This week’s podcast features ESPN NFL Front Office Insider Louis Riddick, who will work all three days of the NFL draft on ESPN television.
On this episode, Riddick discusses in-depth how he his prepares to cover the NFL draft, how candid former NFL executives can be on television, how scouts evaluate draft picks, the sports television bias against those players who were not stars in their sport, why NFL teams and media missed so badly on Johnny Manziel, why certain teams are a terrible fit for players, whether he still has NFL executive aspirations, how to learn the mechanics of sports television, why NFL offices often have an adversarial relationship with the media, whether teams specifically put misinformation into the marketplace during draft season and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• The cast of The Color Purple pays tribute to Prince.
• Writer Rex Sorgatz returned to his remote hometown of Napoleon, North Dakota — once isolated, now connected.
• Stephanie Wittels Wachs on empathy, and the death of her brother.
• Caroline Framke spent six months with The Americans to find out how one of the best shows on television gets made.
• An NYT obit for William Shakespeare.
• The MTV News writer Brian Phillips on Prince.
• A short account of living with depression and anxiety, from Janie McManamon.
• From Esquire: Four Men with four very different incomes open up about the lives they can afford.
• From the Texas Observer: The draw of death row and rise of dark tourism.
• The Star Tribune had an excellent oral history of Prince.
• Tom Junod on a woman who went missing.
• A judge sentences a veteran to 24 hours in a jail, then joins him.
Sports pieces of note:
• Brilliant work by ESPN’s Wright Thompson on Tiger Woods at 40.
• Gay sports writer Chris Hine, on homophobia in sports.
• From SI’s Don Banks: An oral history of the quarterbacks selected in the 1971 NFL draft.
• The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas on the best NFL kicking prospect in years.
5. SI Films last week debuted a 33-minute doc on the relationship between Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing. It was really well done.
5a. The view from the CSN Chicago production truck for the last out of Jake Arietta’s no-hitter.
5b. The Vertical’s Alan Springer produced a short on Serge Ibaka reconnecting with his daughter.
5b. Thanks to the Rammer Slammer wrestling podcast for the invite.
5c. The iconoclasticallybombastic.com website had an interesting podcast with the Fox Sports 1 personality and establishment sports writer Jason Whitlock. The website also spoke with actress Alison Wright, who plays Martha Hanson on the brilliant FX series The Americans.
5d. Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel won a Peabody Award for a 2015 segment titled “The Killing Fields,” in which correspondent David Scott headed to Congo, Tanzania and Kenya to document the billion-dollar ivory trade criminal enterprise.