The draft goes prime time

The other shoe has dropped on coverage of the NFL Draft. The league does a masterful job holding interest in the sport long after the Vince Lombardi Trophy has been handed out, and now we’ve come to the next logical evolutionary step.

The draft has become an entity unto itself, with increasing interest every year in players who give hope and faith to NFL teams for the coming years. College players are poked, prodded, debated, broken down, analyzed and sifted through by teams, their fans and the media for four months leading up to the big event in New York at the end of April.

Now that event has taken two big steps that were really only a matter of time: The draft has gone prime-time, and it’s gone to three days, starting on television-friendly Thursday night.

The first round, the most popular viewing segment of the draft even with the most down time between selections, will now be on Thursday night, with the second and third rounds on Friday night and the lower rounds on Saturday.

Teams will have to adjust to a couple things logistically with the change. The date to present offer sheets to restricted free agents, whereby the incumbent team has a right to match an offer up to a day before the draft or not match and receive draft-pick compensation, has traditionally been the Friday eight days before the draft. It will now likely be moved to the Wednesday eight days before the Thursday kickoff.

Also, the annual frenzied chase of undrafted free agents will move up a day, from Sunday to Saturday, as teams will fill out their rosters a day earlier. It will also allow teams another day of preparation for mini-camps, most of which occur within days of the draft. An extra day to exhale after the draft before the rookies come in will be a welcome addition for teams.

The industry surrounding the NFL Draft will now continue to grow with the added day of focus. And the move to Thursday night (1) validates that this is the most important date in the busy NFL offseason calendar and (2) brings even more focus and attention on first-round draft picks.

As I’ve said in the past, we often hear more about first-round prospects in the NFL Draft in the weeks and months leading up to the draft than we do in their entire NFL careers. How much did we hear about Andre Smith – his suspension from the Sugar Bowl, his weight, his taking off early from the Combine and his dalliance with several agents – in the long winter of 2009? Probably much more than we’ll hear about him over the next few years (at least the Bengals hope so).

More so than any other incoming players in professional sports leagues, we as fans and media are well-acquainted with these players prior to their arrival into the league (and no one gives better information than our own Wes Bunting).

Now these players and the NFL enter prime-time in the offseason. It’s a testament to the power of the league and the power of this growth industry called the NFL Draft. For a drama show whose biggest action comes when the commissioner reads names at a podium, it’s a fascinating phenomenon that is now getting bigger. An eye-popping 39 million people watched last April. Now, with a Thursday prime-time show as the highlight of the programming, expect that number to rise significantly.

The popularity of the draft never ceases to amaze me. Perhaps it’s a hope, a regeneration, a spring fever, an infusion of football, anticipation, optimism and endless debate. And we all love football and debate.

The draftnik countdown begins. Only eight months to the April 22 draft, now appearing in prime time…

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