As the oddity wore off, it became a night to celebrate the remarkable ascent of first overall pick Joe Burrow, to debate whether the Las Vegas Raiders picked the right wide receiver, to wonder how quickly Tua Tagovailoa could turn around the Miami Dolphins and how soon Jordan Love might step in for Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers. Typically an annual spectacle for football die-hards, this year’s draft provided a national diversion during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the first major sporting occasion since the country started shutting down in mid-March.
The NFL draft is an annual exercise in imagining the future. This year, it also provided warm reminders of the past and constant signs of present crisis. Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. extolled the virtues of offensive tackles at a molecular level. His partner, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, did not participate in the broadcast after announcing earlier Thursday he was recovering from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“This is different for us, and it’s different for you,” Goodell said at the start of the broadcast, staring into a camera alone in his basement. “Because it has to be.”
The difference was unavoidable. Goodell called for a “virtual moment of silence” before the first pick. Just before the New York Giants selected Georgia offensive tackle Andrew Thomas fourth overall, ESPN cameras showed General Manager Dave Gettleman, a lymphoma survivor, pulling a surgical mask over his face.
The NFL and its teams pulled it off. The first round unfolded with no apparent technological mishaps, which will be tested Friday and Saturday as later rounds mean less time between selections. Goodell made only one misstep: He announced Las Vegas, which would have hosted this year’s draft, will instead host the “2020 NFL draft” when he meant to say 2022.
The first round held mostly to expected form. The Cincinnati Bengals took Burrow, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from LSU, with the first pick. The Washington Redskins took Ohio State defensive end Chase Young second, and the Detroit Lions, as many expected, took cornerback Jeff Okudah, Young’s Buckeyes teammate, third.
The first pivotal moment of the draft came with the Dolphins picking fifth. Many in the league wondered if Tagovailoa, regarded as a possible first overall pick before a gruesome hip injury he suffered late in the fall, would slip. But the Dolphins, who passed on Drew Brees in free agency owing to health concerns in 2006, did not want to let another precise-passing, quick-processing quarterback get away from them and took Tagovailoa.
Miami’s pick meant the Los Angeles Chargers could take Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert sixth.
Quarterbacks always shape the draft, but offensive tackles were also prominent. Teams took six tackles in the first round, including four in the first 13 picks.
Evaluators viewed the wide receiver class as perhaps the deepest ever, and the first pass catcher off the board came as a mild surprise. The Las Vegas Raiders chose Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III with the 12th pick over his teammate Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, both of whom produced far more prolific college stats.
The Raiders opted for the pure speed of Ruggs, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds, over the balletic route-running of Jeudy and Lamb’s freakish pass-catching ability. (Ruggs made an immediate impression by appearing on camera wearing a plush white bathrobe.)
The depth of the receiving class seemingly made teams content to wait until later rounds to draft wideouts, which pushed two elite talents further in the draft than expected. The Denver Broncos benefited by taking Jeudy with the 15th pick, and the Dallas Cowboys nabbed Lamb with the 17th pick, later than most any expert predicted.
Once the wide receivers started going, they didn’t stop. The Philadelphia Eagles took TCU speedster Jalen Reagor 21st, and the Minnesota Vikings immediately followed with LSU’s Justin Jefferson, who caught four touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game. The San Francisco 49ers took Arizona State wideout Brandon Aiyuk 25th.
Before Green Bay moved up four spots to pick Utah State’s Love 26th, the night provided few major surprises. Trades were limited, with the first deal coming when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved up just one spot, flipping picks with the 49ers to take Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs 13th.
The Bengals selected Burrow with the first pick, a choice both predicted and remarkable. He knew he would be the focus of the draft. “Nobody’s allowed to make fun of me tonight none of the barbershops are open,” Burrow tweeted Thursday afternoon.
Burrow had become the clear-cut best prospect in the draft but only after a quixotic path and sudden ascent. Burrow, the son of a longtime college assistant coach from Athens, Ohio, spent three years at Ohio State before Dwayne Haskins, now the Washington Redskins’ quarterback, beat him out for the starting position after his redshirt sophomore season. Burrow transferred to perennial SEC power LSU, an audacious choice that revealed Burrow’s confidence and competitiveness.
After a solid, unspectacular junior season, Burrow entered this past fall regarded as a fringe NFL prospect, potentially a third- or fourth-round pick. Under a new system installed by 29-year-old co-offensive coordinator Joe Brady, whom the Carolina Panthers hired in January to call plays, Burrow erupted. Brady’s scheme emphasized sending five receivers into the pattern, which accentuated Burrow’s quick mind, athleticism inside the pocket and accurate passing.
Burrow became a cult hero as he threw a record 60 touchdown passes and led LSU to a 15-0 national championship season. In his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, Burrow referenced the poverty and hunger many people from southeast Ohio face and told kids there they could follow his example. In less than a month, online fundraisers directed more than $650,000 to the Athens County Food Pantry, according to the pantry’s website.
The fates of the draft presented Burrow another chance to make an impact in his home state. Burrow faces the challenge of elevating one of the NFL’s woebegone franchises, located less than a three-hour drive from Athens. The Bengals last won a playoff game in 1990 and finished 2-14 last season, which earned them the first pick for the fourth time since that victory.
“To jump up to number one overall is crazy to me,” Burrow said in an interview on ESPN while wearing a shirt with the outline of the state of Ohio around 740, the area code for Athens. “But it’s a dream come true.”
When and under what circumstances Burrow and his fellow draftees first play professional football remains uncertain. But the draft is always about what might happen in the future, and for one night an invitation to imagine was welcome.
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