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Surviving the NFL Draft: Tips for the Casual Observer

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What does the intellectually curious would-be football fan need to know about the NFL draft?

Football is so popular that the league's annual player draft, which involves no actual athletic participation whatsoever, is now a three-day event. While this is a beautiful thing for those of us who think way too much about football, one realizes that not every citizen is filled with unmitigated glee that two prime time evenings and one full Saturday of television viewing will consist of a man at a podium announcing the names of other men, who then enter stage-left, put on a hat, hold up a T-shirt and take photos. Some will cry. Did I mention the part about the delusional screaming audience members? Doesn't this sound like fun?

If it does, you should move on to the next column because you, too, think way too much about football.

If it sounds just about as appealing as a trip to the dentist -- you're on the right page. When some NFL addict in your home or social circle seizes the remote on Thursday, fear not: you will not only live through draft weekend, you will dazzle the football fiend with your sports acumen. Who knows? You might even enjoy it.

Official Name of this Sacred Event: The NFL Annual Player Selection Meeting.

Why: To provide a (mostly) orderly and (usually) civilized procedure by which professional football teams lay claim to the promising athletic talent coming out of colleges. The draft was created in 1936 to prevent the wealthiest owners from snapping up all of the good players and players from choosing only the most successful teams.

The Experts: ESPN has two draft gurus: Mel Kiper (the granddaddy of college talent coverage) and his relatively new sidekick Todd McShay. Kiper is a walking hairstyle joke, but he explains the strengths and weaknesses of each prospect in relatively down-to-earth terms. He and McShay have been getting on each other's nerves for several months, so expect some sparks.

The NFL Network features earnestly acerbic Mike Mayock, who is the scotch of analysts in that he's an acquired taste. But his knowledge is encyclopedic and he takes no prisoners in his draft coverage.

Given a choice, the casual fan will prefer the more mainstream ESPN. If your football junkie is glued to the NFL Network you might as well embrace the sport -- or book a cruise that sails from Labor Day to the second week of February.

Draft Order: Is designed to encourage something that the NFL likes to call "competitive balance." The team that lost the most games picks first (thereby theoretically getting the best college player), while the team that won the Super Bowl picks last. And so on. Teams make lists ("Boards") of the players that they covet.

Round:: All 32 teams have the opportunity to either pick a college player or trade with another team for some mutually agreed upon compensation. There are seven rounds in the modern NFL draft, but trades change picking order/frequency. Just go with it.

The top, unbelievably over-hyped 32 selections are known forever as "first-round draft picks." They get big salaries and carry a lot of pressure to earn that money immediately. The first round will take place on Thursday night. The second round is Friday night and the third to seventh rounds take place on Saturday.

The Green Room: Pretend it's the Oscars, with larger people and mercifully without acceptance speeches. This year 26 potential first-round picks have been invited to Radio City Music Hall, where they will wait for their names to be called. Every year, some poor young man who anticipated being drafted early, ends up sitting all alone for hours as he waits. And waits. This sad sight is called "falling down the board." Don't feel too badly: he'll still be a multi-millionaire.

TV crews will be camped out in living rooms across America as the rest of the young men, usually endearingly surrounded by family and friends, await their fate.

On-stage: The NFL Commissioner (Roger Goodell) serves as the "presenter." The first team sends up a card. Goodell reads the card with appropriate solemnity; the "winner" comes onto the stage, hugs Roger, puts on the team hat and holds up a jersey for the cameras. Tears are optional.

Some dramatic thunder was stolen when the Indianapolis Colts announced they will be using their first overall pick on quarterback Andrew Luck. The Washington Redskins, who traded with the St. Louis Rams in order to move up from the sixth to second position in the draft, are almost certain to take Baylor QB Robert Griffin III, who will be referred to as "RG III." So, the nail-biting can't start until the third selection.

Process: The moment that the commissioner announces a name, the next team has 10 minutes to submit their card. This is called "being on the clock."

In between, analysts talk endlessly, sharing every possible perspective on the young man just chosen and the wisdom (or lack thereof) shown by the team who picked him. There are interviews in the waiting area, in the wings, in the living rooms, on the red carpet.

Getting the idea?

These days head coaches phone their newest players just before the pick is announced. This is kind of weird when the draftee is 20 feet away, but comes into play with all the many, many remote cameras across America.

Undrafted rookie free agent: So, all 253 picks go by and no one has chosen you. You are then free to sign with any team starting Monday. You will not make very much money at first and you may not even end up on the team, but it's a shot. There are always a few surprise stars in the NFL who came in this back door. The current biggest examples are former Defensive Player of the Year, Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison, and the NFL's 2010 Leading Rusher, Houston Texan Arian Foster.

Compensatory draft picks: These are also designed to increase the chances of competitive balance and are extra selections awarded to teams based on a math formula that I would explain except that I don't care.

Mr. Irrelevant:: The last player chosen in the draft. Isn't that mean? The good news is that this young man usually gets a spot on Letterman.

Bust: What happens when a player who was vastly successful in college and gets paid a huge rookie contract turns out to be completely incapable of playing at the professional level. Astoundingly, this happens about 50 percent of the time. The teams could virtually save all of their scouting money and throw darts. But, then we wouldn't have draft weekend -- and what fun would that be?

Crazy Jets Fans: You may remember that Radio City Music Hall is in New York. Which is the home of the New York Jets. Which is unofficially the poor stepbrother of the New York Giants. For some probably deeply-seated psychological reason, Jets fans are wont to show up, pack the peanut gallery and "share" their opinions on every pick -- loudly. This is where the draft stops being like the Oscars.

Best Draft Class Ever: Pittsburgh Steelers 1974. Built the team that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. All four selections are now in the Hall of Fame (wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster).

Worst Draft Pick Ever: Ryan Leaf. Just like this year, the top two draft prospects in 1998 were highly touted quarterbacks: Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Leaf had a stronger arm; Manning was more mature. Virtually all pundits agreed that it was a coin flip and you couldn't possibly go wrong with either QB.

Leaf was drafted by the San Diego Chargers and Manning took over the Indianapolis Colts.

Ryan Leaf was an emotional train wreck and football disaster from Day One. He is now facing four felony charges.

Manning is a lock for the football Hall of Fame, has been named to so many Pro Bowl games that they call him "The Mayor," won a Super Bowl and took the Colts to the playoffs 11 times.

But let's face facts: if you've never heard of Peyton Manning, you have just wasted 10 minutes of your life since you will clearly never be a football fan. Forget everything I just wrote and buy a book for the weekend. Maybe a romance novel. Just a suggestion.

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