NEW YORK—The NFL draft began Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall with fans venting their frustration about the sport’s labor strife, and with the Carolina Panthers making Auburn’s Cam Newton the top overall selection to start a league-wide first-round run on quarterbacks.
Player moves have been replaced by labor conflict and courtroom maneuvering this offseason, but the opening round of the three-day draft finally gave teams a chance to begin retooling their rosters for the season that is scheduled to begin in September.
After NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was booed by the crowd and spectators chanted about their desire for a return of football, the Panthers got the draft going by making their widely anticipated choice of Newton.
“I wouldn’t say I have more to prove to people,” Newton said. “I have more to prove to myself. It’s a lot of goals and aspirations that I have.”
Three more quarterbacks were taken in the top 12 picks of the draft. Washington’s Jake Locker went eighth to the Tennessee Titans. The Jacksonville Jaguars engineered a trade with the Washington Redskins to get Blaine Gabbert of Missouri 10th, two selections before the Minnesota Vikings chose Florida State’s Christian Ponder.
Defensive linemen also came off the board quickly, and the draft’s early stages contained only mild surprises. The Denver Broncos took Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller second, followed by the Buffalo Bills’ selection of Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus third overall. Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green went fourth to the Cincinnati Bengals, Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson was taken fifth by the Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons traded up to get Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones with the sixth choice originally owned by the Cleveland Browns.
The ongoing courtroom clash between the league and the players threatened to overshadow one of the sport’s showcase events. The players’ side held its own separate event for the draftees and their families at a nearby hotel hours before the draft started.
About 2 1/2 hours before the opening round began, Goodell stood inside a mostly empty Radio City Music Hall and said: “I spent two hours outside with the fans [Wednesday] night. They just want it out of the way. They want football. They want the draft and they’re excited about being here today. And they’re frustrated, just as I am. We’ve got to find a resolution to it.”
The night’s main storyline clearly was the unique feel that this draft had to it, coming in the middle of the sport’s tumultuous offseason and before teams have had a chance to sign any veteran free agent players to fill their needs.
Thursday night’s opening round came three days after Susan Richard Nelson, a St. Paul, Minn.-based federal judge, granted the players’ request for a preliminary injunction to end the lockout imposed by team owners March 12.
The draft began against the backdrop of the league pursuing a stay of Nelson’s injunction from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, and hours after the NFL announced tentative plans to resume some aspects of its operations Friday in an attempt to comply with Nelson’s injunction.
About half an hour before the draft began, fans inside the hall chanted: “We want football! We want football!” Goodell was booed by fans when he was announced to the crowd approximately 20 minutes before the draft.
“I hear you,” Goodell told the crowd. “I hear you.”
The “We want football!” chant started again at that point, even louder.
“Me, too,” Goodell told the fans from the podium.
The crowd’s negative pre-draft reaction to Goodell dissipated when he led a moment of silence for victims of the storms in the South.
Goodell managed to prompt cheers by the fans in attendance when he officially opened the draft by saying: “Let’s get back to some football.”
Less than a minute after announcing the Panthers were on the clock for the top overall selection, Goodell returned to the podium to confirm that Carolina had done as expected and chosen Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner.
Controversy about Newton’s eligibility swirled around him last season, and some analysts raised pre-draft questions about his NFL readiness as a passer. But his talent was unquestioned, and it became clear in recent days that the Panthers were focused on him as their pick to be the centerpiece of their rebuilding project.
The Broncos, picking second, went with Miller over Dareus. Miller is one of the 10 named plaintiffs in the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the owners. Yet he and Goodell greeted one another with a hug, not just a handshake, on the stage.
Dareus went third to the Bills, the first of the defensive linemen to be taken. The Bengals, with Chad Ochocinco talking about his tenure with the team possibly being over, got the draft’s most coveted wide receiver in Green.
Peterson was regarded as the top cornerback available by a fairly comfortable margin, and he went fifth to the Cardinals.
The Falcons surrendered their first-, second- and fourth-round picks in this draft and first- and fourth-round choices next year to move up 21 spots in the first-round order to get Jones.
Perhaps the first significant surprise of the draft was Locker being the second quarterback taken, ahead of Gabbert. But Gabbert didn’t drop far, going 10th to the Jaguars. That was two spots after the Titans took Locker.
“You really don’t have an idea until your name is called,” Gabbert said. “Being the 10th pick in the draft is pretty great in my book.”
The Vikings got a potential replacement for the retired Brett Favre when they made Ponder the fourth quarterback taken among the top dozen selections. The early run on quarterbacks had been forecasted by many draft observers, who reasoned that teams unable to get a veteran at the position this offseason would be eager to fill that need on draft night.