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Column: How to enjoy the virtual NFL Draft

Just because it’s not what we’re used to doesn’t mean it’ll be bad.

NFL: NFL Draft Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Alas, the NFL Draft is upon us. Normally, around this time, I’d say “I can’t believe the draft is already here!” Under other circumstances, with college basketball taking us through March, the playoff races in the NBA and NHL heating up and (yes, I’ll say it since Wrigley Field is my down-the-street neighbor) baseball throwing the first pitch, the April draft is a bright and shining event we didn’t know we needed until it finally arrived. Even NFL free agency can get lost in the milieu of activity in a typical April.

But here we are in this alternative universe where I actually paid attention to free agency because there was nothing else to cover in the sports world. And yet we’ve still managed to arrive at draft week. Kudos to us!

The draft has always been one of my favorite sporting events of the year. Like Selection Sunday to open March Madness, it’s a really cool experience to watch dreams come true en masse as players get picked. Selfishly, the draft is also a signal that football, which has been dormant since the Super Bowl, is sprouting. And like the spring shoots that emerge after the last snowfall of the winter, these sprouts give us a glimpse of what’s to come when football is in full bloom in the fall.

I love the promise of the future the draft holds, even for teams like, say, the Cleveland Browns (#TheresAlwaysNextYear) who have struggled severely at points. I was close to throwing a shoe through the television after the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel in 2014, but alas, throwing shoes is simply not worth the price of TV repair and I still have the ever-annoying “I told you so” to fall back on whenever my husband mentions him.

This year’s draft will certainly be different than those of years past. As previously noted, the event, previously scheduled to take place in Las Vegas, will be completely virtual. Instead of Roger Goodell standing at a podium, announcing the top picks, we’ll have Goodell in his living room or man cave maybe announcing the picks on a laptop camera to audiences waiting with bated breath.

The top prospects are expected to receive a “draft package,” whatever that means, and will likely participate in the draft through social media, video interviews and other means. And we won’t be without the traditional donning of the new team cap, as the NFL sent each of these top prospects a range of all 32 teams’ caps, with the expectation the drafted player will don the cap and get on “camera” through the smartphone/tripod setup included in each kit.

Having spent my fair share of time on Zoom calls and Google Hangouts in recent weeks, I’m almost excited to see how this all plays out. Will Dan Snyder cat walk in front of the webcam? Will Roger Goodell be wearing sweatpants but we’ll never know? Will Joe Burrow accidentally grab a Browns hat? (If only…)

The WNBA just had a successful virtual draft Friday night. It was a good primer for what we can expect later this week, and you better believe the NFL has watched the WNBA’s draft and learned areas to build upon.

For most viewers, the fact we’ll be watching the draft while sitting on our own couch might be nothing new, as it’s only a small portion of fans who physically attend the draft itself year-in and year-out. (However, as a caveat, this year’s draft was expected to pull in half a million live viewers along the Las Vegas strip).

The difference, obviously, is that we can’t watch together, and that the content itself will look very different than it has in previous drafts. It’s kind of a bummer for Ohio State fans since the top three projected picks are basically all Buckeyes (and, no, you won’t convince me otherwise), and it would have been a great excuse to saunter over to my local Ohio State pub to cheer on Joe Burrow, Chase Young and Jeffrey Okudah.

Instead we’re having a virtual draft party, just like our happy hours have turned into virtual happy hours, brunches into virtual brunches and weddings into virtual weddings (the last one is a lie but my coworker did attend one last week). And we get the advantage of watching the NFL experience exactly what we all have to go through in our fantasy drafts every fall: the ever-present fear of the draft board freezing, of the wi-fi going out, of trying to pick a player who already got drafted or of getting to the end and realizing you never picked a tight end. However, we’ve been assured there will be no auto-pick option in the virtual draft.

No, Thursday offers a chance to make some of our favorite football snacks (Veggie chili? Mac and cheese? Buffalo cauliflower? Anyone? Sorry, been vegetarian for five years) and enjoy the fact we (1) have something to talk about in sports again and (2) get to watch the megacast featuring smartphone shots of 22-year olds being drafted.

Let’s be real, we all love the user-generated celebration content, especially when it’s put into a montage and voiced over by the smooth cooing of Tom Rinaldi. TBD on how that’ll play out in real time as it’s being recorded on a smartphone and broadcast to the world, though.

Bottom line: Am I excited for this new format of the NFL Draft? You bet, because the alternative is no draft at all. However, would we all prefer a live draft where we can watch the laughter, tears and unbelievably awkward interviews of 20-22 year olds with mics shoved in their faces? You better believe it.

It’s also got to be a letdown for Burrow, Young, Okudah and others to not be able to be at the draft in-person. Surely their NFL dream scenarios didn’t involve a smartphone camera set up in their homes, filming as soon as their names are called. Rather, the walk across the stage, the handshake with the commissioner and the jersey with their name already sewn on - those moments are being lost, and it’s another real and unfortunate bummer to add to the list of COVID-related sports downers.

But let’s not get down, because there’s still a lot to celebrate. So what are we going to do? We’re going to Google Hangouts with other Browns fans to watch Cleveland trade down its pick. Or pick Donovan Peoples-Jones. Either way, here’s to hoping my shoe doesn’t end up through the TV.

Bye for now.