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NFL draft in perspective: Obscure event to premier off-season show

Just hours before the start of the 2016 NFL draft, Don Banks puts into perspective how much the spectacle enraptures fans—and how much it will likely continue to grow.

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Later this summer, Cleveland and Philadelphia will hold the national conventions that promise so much intrigue, but of course the national obsession is back in Chicago again this year—meaning the NFL Draft.

The draft relocated from New York to roughly the nation’s mid-point in 2015 because it simply needed more room to spread out and get comfortable, given the enormity of an event that seems to exponentially expand each year. It’s an oxygen-consuming monster, and it’s only getting bigger as more and more cities line up to fight for the right to host future editions.

Watch NFL Draft Live tonight, starting at 7:30 p.m. ET. Presented by MET-Rx and Carhartt.

Denver has decided it wants to host the draft. Kansas City, too. And don’t forget about Los Angeles; Canton, Ohio; and reportedly more than half the cities that boast an NFL team. It’s probably shorter to just list the markets that are willing to take a pass on the draft, letting someone else woo the NFL in pursuit of what has grown into one of the league’s top two marquee events.

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The same way the Super Bowl provides the exclamation point for the NFL regular season and the playoffs, the draft now clearly serves as the event that headlines the league’s offseason. But in some ways, the draft has become something that even the Super Bowl can’t match, given how much of the year-round conversation and coverage now centers on whose stock is rising or falling in the annual meat market formerly known as the NFL’s player selection meeting (that stuffy title was never going to cut it; just think of how many characters it would have used up on Twitter).

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After all, depending on who makes the Super Bowl, not everybody cares desperately about the league’s biggest game of the year. But who doesn’t binge at least a little bit at some point on their team’s draft needs or plans or outlook? Everybody cares about the draft to some degree. Everybody buys in when it comes to the notion of hope.

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It’s remarkably easy to forget, but in the end, the draft still just an exercise in people reading names off a card, and yet we’re fairly well mesmerized by the spectacle of it all. While once it was simply conducted by telephone, in semi-obscurity, now it’s this telegenic extravaganza that comes complete with red carpet walks, man hugs on the podium and all the over-the-top pronouncements and breathless analysis we can muster.

I’ve never been more acutely aware of how all-encompassing the draft has become on the NFL landscape than while reporting the recent oral history I wrote on the quarterback-laden 1971 draft, which featured passers going in the top three slots for the first time ever. Compared to today’s monstrosity, the draft back then was more a curiosity piece than anything else. Archie Manning got drafted second overall, took the Saints’ phone call, then got his butt to class. Jim Plunkett, the No. 1 pick, and his entourage didn’t even get a free trip to New York out of it, which kind of erased any need for the expensive new suit purchase and that fresh-look haircut.

But in the NFL’s glamor event that’s all about the future, there’s no going back to the past. The spotlight on draft night in Chicago will be hotter than ever, and it figures that after all was said and done, Los Angeles and Philadelphia will lead off the festivities this year with the No. 1 and 2 picks. In a nation consumed with all things NFL, the draft just had to have that coast-to-coast feel to it, with the city of Chicago right in the middle of things. Thanks for playing along with the theme this year, Tennessee and Cleveland, and good luck with all those picks.

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And what would the draft be these days without a dose of quarterback intrigue at the top? What a room-service lead storyline the NFL lucked into once again. The Rams and Eagles have been speaking in code words for days now, all the better to disguise their intentions when it comes to Cal’s Jared Goff or North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, the presumed top two picks and highest-ranked passers. And it’s working to a degree, because while I’m pretty sure L.A. is going for Goff, I’m not 100% certain of it and few probably are.

Back in January I would never have dreamed the NFL could manage to build legitimate dramatic tension around where those two quarterbacks were going to land, but this just in—I was wrong (again). Goff and Wentz are not exactly Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel when it comes to Q rating, but we’ll all be watching to see which one of them is going to be wearing Rams horns or Eagles wings, won’t we?

With all its excesses, the draft has basically morphed into a three-day reality show, where the 32 NFL teams get to play The Bachelor and make their big choices. And we all get to watch it unfold and spout our snarky opinions in real time (what were they thinking going with him?). And there’s always color galore to the highly-choreographed proceedings, what with all that chatter about red flags, green room sliders and blue-chip prospects. The first round especially makes for a captivating evening of television, even though this time the game doesn’t involve a ball.

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The draft has become downright exhausting, with its months-long buildup and endless debate, and it trends that direction a little more so each year. But that’s not the same as saying we’re tired of it. Far from it. The selling of hope that the draft represents has become a national obsession, and we’re hooked on each new episode and every new season. The NFL was smart to figure something out smack dab in the middle of its offseason. While real football is still three-plus months away, everybody loves to watch those featured coming attractions. At long last, it’s time to start the clock and let the picks roll in.