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Drama fuels ESPN’s two-day NFL Draft coverage

How do you add suspense to the start of an NFL draft when fans have known the likely first two picks for some time?

If you’re ESPN, you pile on the glitz and glamour, instructing your lead anchors to refrain from announcing picks everyone already knows until the commissioner gives his okay, drowning the whole proceeding in a blizzard of on-screen graphics, from the floor reports, expert analysis and buzzy catchphrases.

And it doesn’t hurt when the picks after the first two erupt in a blizzard of deal-making.

“This is buckle your seatbelts (time),” anchor Chris Berman announced during the channel’s live coverage of the NFL draft Thursday, noting four teams had switched their picking order by the sixth choice.

But fans had known since March that the Washington Redskins were getting the second slot, trading their place in the second round to the St. Louis Rams. The only draft-related news the public knew earlier was the fact that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was going to the Indianapolis Colts as the very first pick.

Still, ESPN’s coverage of the NFL Draft in primetime was an interesting look at how an experienced crew provides a gleaming platform for what could be a wonky step in the offseason.

Like it or don’t, professional football has become America’s Game – the last media platform which unites all demographics in an orgy of consumption and fan passion.

So it makes sense that the Draft would become one of the biggest rituals in sports television — despite the details knows before it starts — offered as a tasty offseason morsel to fans jonesing for a bit of pigskin madness before the baseball or basketball seasons get interesting.

ESPN, as always, is in the crosshairs of a gigantic sports event and its own corporate priorities. With so many important on-air franchises tied to the NFL, they have a vested interest in pumping up the Draft’s importance, even as they try to cover it incisively as a sports journalism entity.

For the Worldwide Leader, that means mostly accepting that the TV broadcast will be a celebration of all the hopes wrapped up in the marquee picks, hailing Baylor QB Robert Griffin’s “go catch your dreams” socks after his draft by the Redskins and welcoming Trent Richardson’s move to the Cleveland Browns with enough excitement to pop a forehead vein.

(Kudos to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden for his willingness to point out the weaknesses in some players, noting inconsistencies in Dallas Cowboy’s pick Morris Calibourne’s game after his selection.)

Both ESPN and the NFL Network spread word before the draft that they wouldn’t be tipping who was picked before they were announced by showing possible picks on the phone before Goodell announced their names onstage.

But that promise began to fray almost immediately, as Luck – who was already the known likely first pick – was shown on his phone before his name was called and the channel repeatedly cut to shots of early picks before they were announced.

Wasn’t long before a viewer could realize the guy shown onscreen was about to take the stage, though Berman, Gruden and analyst Mel Kiper Jr. avoided saying anything directly.

Analysts Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter also revealed who would be picked early, announcing likely picks by the Cowboys and Buccaneers minutes before they would be officially revealed. Not sure avoiding the cellphone shots of players helps much when you have NFL analysts calling out names with certainty, anyway.

I have other nitpicks up my sleeve as well: At times, the anchors had trouble making themselves heard over the crowd noise, a problem you’d think ESPN would be prepared for by this point. Trading limited commercials in the early going for a sea of Bud Light signage was probably a good idea, but still a bit intrusive (player interviews from the Bud Light Blue Room? Really?)

And at times the crowd was reacting heartily inside Radio City Music Hall with no comment from the anchors. Seems odd to use the raucous scene as a backdrop, then avoid noting when a chorus of boos breaks out or an avalanche of cheers erupts.

Still, I enjoyed the footage ESPN offered of early picks in their on-field performance, reminding fans of top players strengths and weaknesses. And the blizzard of information wedged onscreen through several tickers and zooming graphics provided enough information to choke even the hungriest fantasy football geek.

ESPN’s draft coverage continues from 7 to 11 tonight and noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, giving the Worldwide Leader plenty of time to make up for its few missteps on Thursday.

Wonder how they’ll get us all hyped about the second round?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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