The Draft's Real News: No One Markets Like the NFL

By John Feinstein
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 27, 2009 3:34 PM

Another NFL draft has -- mercifully -- come to an end. Even better, the endless run-up to another NFL draft is over.

Let's review what we've really and truly learned: almost nothing.

You see, for all the expert analysis of the draft before, during and after, no one really knows who did well and who didn't do well. Name someone who told us that the New England Patriots had taken one of the all-time great quarterbacks in the sixth round 10 years ago. Five years ago, you could hear the moans from here to San Diego when New York Giants general manager gave away about half his team in order to get Eli Manning.

The list of bad picks in the first round and great picks in the sixth and seventh rounds -- not to mention stars who were undrafted free agents -- is endless. Even the smartest teams make mistakes. The league's defensive MVP in 2008 was cut in 2004 by the Baltimore Ravens, a team that would be on anyone's list of the five best organizations in football.

So here's what we really learn on draft weekend: No one in the history of sports has ever marketed itself as well as the NFL. It has been 30 years since the NFL and ESPN decided to make the draft into a TV show, and what is most remarkable about it is that as god-awful as that show is, millions sit transfixed by it for most of two days.

This year, the NFL, which has always played the patriot card with the best of them, augmented Saturday's broadcast with a tribute to the armed services. Leave it to the NFL to be the one entity on earth that finds a way to get Jets and Giants fans to cheer -- or, more accurately not boo -- the same thing in the same place at the same time.

Of course ESPN deserves a good deal of credit -- or is it blame? -- for all this. Not only does the network televise the draft and treat it as if it is considerably more important than a national election (those only come every four years), it endlessly hypes the draft for weeks and weeks before it happens. On one ESPN radio show on Friday morning, listeners were breathlessly informed that Todd McShay -- aka Mel Kiper Jr. lite -- would be back in an hour with an update.

An update of what? Mel's mock draft? News about new rankings of the top 10 left tackles? An update? Yup, that's the way this works: We now get updates on what the experts are speculating on from hour to hour.

Meantime, the Washington Capitals were in the process of turning their first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers completely around -- no way do the Caps lose game seven on Tuesday night. But the names most mentioned in this area weren't Alexander Ovechkin or even Simeon Varlamov, but Mark Sanchez and Brian Orakpo.

Ovechkin and Varlamov are real right now, young stars who have a chance to do something special over the next few weeks and years. Sanchez may or may not turn out to be an important player for the New York Jets. Maybe he'll be Peyton or Eli Manning or maybe he'll just be Chad Pennington, whom the Jets surely wish they still had around. Then again, he could be Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith or Joey Harrington -- all disastrous top-five picks.

Orakpo's future is unsure, too -- although pass-rushing linebackers are usually more of a sure thing in the first round than quarterbacks. The consensus is that the Redskins got lucky when the Jets outbid them in order move up to the No. 5 pick and take Sanchez. Orakpo should improve the weakest part of an already good defense. And the Dan Snyder-Vinny Cerrato notion that the team's Achilles heel is at quarterback will likely be proven untrue by Jason Campbell.

Campbell is a solid young quarterback. He's certainly not Tom Brady, or for that matter either Manning or Philip Rivers. But if you give him a reasonably good offensive line -- an area once again ignored by the Redskins in the draft -- and someone to throw the ball to, he's good enough to win.

Exactly where, how or why Snyder and Cerrato got it into their heads that Sanchez was the cure-all for their team's mediocrity is a mystery, just as where, how or why they decided that using their first three picks on receivers a year ago (or any pick on a punter) was a good idea is a mystery.

Even so, it is their good fortune that fixing the team's relationship with Campbell shouldn't be all that difficult. He is not the spoiled, whiny brat that Jay Cutler is by any stretch. He has a good relationship with Coach Jim Zorn. All Zorn has to do is sit him down and say, "Look Jason, the Sanchez thing wasn't my idea, it was the football know-nothing owner and his comical sidekick's idea. I believe in you and so do your teammates."

That should do it. The teammates will rally around Campbell because they want to win. The second the Redskins win a game this fall -- or perhaps as soon as he completes a pass in mini-camp -- Campbell will say he never really wanted to leave and Snyder and Cerrato will start a whispering campaign saying the whole Sanchez thing was a media fantasy.

In the meantime, there is no way of knowing if any of the players chosen after Orakpo will be contributors. Drafting in the first round is an inexact science, but it is a lot less inexact than drafting in the late rounds. The teams that are consistent playoff contenders are the ones that make hay with late-round picks and undrafted free agents. Almost everyone will hit on a certain percentage of their first-round picks.

Of course the Redskins didn't have very many late-round picks this year, since they had only six picks overall. A year ago, with 10 picks -- none in the first round -- they pretty much bombed. The mantra now is, "We won't know about that draft for another couple of years."

There's actually some truth to that, which is why it's so silly to hear the experts tells us instantly about whether a pick was a good one or a bad one or to read the "grades" teams are assigned at the end of the draft. The Washington Post's Mark Maske gave the Redskins a B and the Giants a C-. The Sporting News swapped those grades.

Of course the NFL could care less whose grades are right or which teams really got better. All it knows is that it is April and, even though the hockey and basketball playoffs are in full swing, major league baseball is well underway and the Masters has just ended, the most talked-about and written-about story is the NFL draft.

The story that best sums up this town's obsession with its football team and the draft dates from 31 years ago -- the last year before the draft became Must-Miss TV.

It was draft day and a very important Washington Post editor marched back to the sports department and shouted to his sports editor, "Hey George, who'd we get?"

A wise-guy kid reporter turned to the editor and said, "Gee, I didn't realize The Post had a pick in the NFL draft."

To which the editor responded succinctly, "Listen kid, you don't like the Redskins, you can do one of two things: Leave town right now or shut the hell up."

The kid didn't leave town. Maybe someday -- if everyone else gets lucky -- he will shut the hell up.

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