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The NFL draft is sort of back to normal this year, but oddities and challenges remain

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces a selection during the 2019 draft in Nashville. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

This NFL draft won’t be about Roger Goodell’s basement, Kliff Kingsbury’s house, Jerry Jones’s yacht or Bill Belichick’s dog.

Coaches and general managers will be back in teams’ draft rooms. There will be an in-person event before a sizable crowd in Cleveland. Goodell, the commissioner, presumably will be back to hugging drafted players onstage after announcing the selections.

It’s an NFL draft that will be about a return to normalcy — sort of. It will be a modified normalcy, still accompanied by coronavirus-related peculiarities and challenges, from how the league stages the event to how the teams have evaluated the prospects.

“We know that the pandemic is still out there, and that guides our every move,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events. “But [we] also want to be able to point to brighter days ahead. … It’s a platform and opportunity we take very seriously.”

The NFL draft will be held in person this year, with a live event in Cleveland

Beginning Thursday night, the league will conduct a second straight pandemic-altered draft. The NFL, like the rest of the country, is taking steps back toward its pre-coronavirus routine but still needs to find ways to compensate for the fact that it’s not there yet. This draft will reflect that.

According to the league, a maximum of 50,000 fans per day will be allowed to attend the three-day draft and its accompanying events, held outdoors and spread over an approximately 2.5-million-square-foot “campus” in downtown Cleveland. Protocols involving mask-wearing, distancing and sanitizing will be strictly enforced, NFL officials said, and certain areas will be reserved for vaccinated individuals.

“We have every confidence in the protocols and the guidance that we continue to get,” O’Reilly said during a conference call with reporters last week.

According to the NFL, 13 players are scheduled to attend the draft, and 45 more are lined up to participate remotely. Goodell has been vaccinated, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, who said the commissioner’s draft-night interactions with jubilant players will be “brief” and “unscripted.” So, apparently, let the onstage hugs resume.

“Sometimes it is spontaneous and it’s part of the draft,” McCarthy said. “But we think that we’ll be in a good place on that front.”

A year ago, the draft was conducted entirely virtually. The in-person event in Las Vegas was canceled. Coaches and GMs worked from home. Goodell announced teams’ picks from the basement of his home in Bronxville, N.Y. Kingsbury, the coach of the Cardinals, showed off his luxurious home with its panoramic Arizona views. Jones ran the Dallas Cowboys’ draft operation from his yacht. Belichick’s dog, Nike, achieved a measure of fame when he was shown taking over the home workstation of the New England Patriots coach.

The NFL pulled off the 2020 draft basically without a hitch, and league officials say some of those remote elements will be blended into what they call “hybrid” television broadcasts this time around. But teams’ decision-makers again will be gathered in draft rooms. For some teams, coronavirus protocols will be eased, based on the vaccination rates of the participants.

Not all of those draft rooms will be at the teams’ facilities. The Los Angeles Rams have turned a 9,000-square-foot Malibu mansion into their draft headquarters, prompting Kingsbury to aim a good-natured barb at Rams Coach Sean McVay.

“I really think it’s just a ploy by McVay to allow himself the opportunity to take his shirt off again and jump in the pool like he did on ‘Hard Knocks,’ probably sip a little rosé, dip in the ocean and make some draft picks,” Kingsbury said during a video conference call last week.

An early run on quarterbacks is anticipated, with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence expected to go first to the Jacksonville Jaguars and BYU’s Zach Wilson probably headed to the New York Jets with the second choice. The San Francisco 49ers could use the third selection on Alabama’s Mac Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

At some point during the ­seven-round draft, things will get far more complicated. The 2020 college football season included some players opting out and some schools playing abbreviated schedules. New York Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman suggested last week that some of the college players who had opted out were less than impressive at their pro day workouts for NFL scouts.

“There were a few of those opt-out guys that showed up looking like me,” he said during a news conference. “So that wasn’t real good for them.”

The league canceled this year’s scouting combine in Indianapolis, forcing teams to evaluate players at their on-campus pro days. Teams’ interviews with players were conducted remotely.

“It’s maybe a little bit less information than we normally have,” Belichick said during a recent video conference call with reporters. “But all teams are working with the same general information. Each team is going to have to make its own decision on that. But, yeah, the evaluation’s definitely different. We’ve had a lot of conversations about it.”

The combine is particularly valuable for teams to gather medical information on the more than 300 players usually in attendance. This year, with no combine, about 150 players were invited to Indianapolis for in-person medical evaluations.

“The math doesn’t work out when you look at the number of picks [and] you look at the number of physicals,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for NFL Network. “There’s going to be a lot of guys that get picked this year that teams are not comfortable with medically. And that’s why I think you’re going to see teams very willing to part with late picks in this draft to move up in Rounds 3 and 4 and all the way up into Round 2. And you’re going to see teams comfortable with trading some picks this year for picks next year just because, once we get to the back half of the draft, you’re literally flying blind on these kids medically.”

So while it’s a closer-to-normal NFL draft, it’s not a normal NFL draft. Not quite. Not yet.

“To me, the football side of it, people aren’t freaked out about the football side of the evaluation,” Jeremiah said. “People are majorly freaked out about the medical stuff.”