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Virtual NFL draft both a distraction, reminder of coronavirus pandemic

It served as both a distraction from and reminder of our uncomfortable situation, because there was no other way.

The football highlights played, the familiar music blared, and through it all an inescapable pall hung over the 2020 NFL draft, which began as scheduled, if not as originally planned Thursday night, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The broadcast opened with a jarring live shot of the empty Las Vegas Strip, which would have hosted a bash for the ages. It segued into a video of the world at a standstill and medical personnel repping their favorite teams.

“This may look like separation, but it's actually solidarity,” Peyton Manning said, narrating the video and kicking off 15 minutes of what amounted to a combination of public service announcements and justifications for the league’s offseason continuing while America’s infections and death toll continue to climb. “It's sacrifice and service to the greater good. It's a sign that through isolation, we are fighting as one and there's no better reason than that for hope.”

The screen shifted to packed stadiums, to a clip of Kobe Bryant, to fans' wedding proposals.

Trey Wingo, the solo host of the broadcast in the ESPN studio in Bristol, Conn., called the draft “one of the greatest communal sports events of all time.”

The bright lights of the Vegas Strip were replaced by camera lights in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement in Westchester County, as the NFL’s virtual draft began with the first round televised on ABC, ESPN and NFL Network. The second and third rounds are Friday. The fourth through seventh rounds are Saturday.

The show's format, as a whole, wasn’t an extreme departure for the television networks, which have long broadcast the draft with cameras set up in numerous remote locations, typically team practice facilities, where the decision-makers from all 32 teams hunker down in “war rooms,” but also from players’ homes and private parties.

With team practice facilities shuttered, NFL general managers and team personnel set up shop in their homes.

Perhaps no image was more memorable than Giants GM Dave Gettleman, shown wearing a surgical mask, despite sitting alone in his house.

Others appeared on camera with their children in the background.

Sixty video feeds showed the remote setups of potential draftees across America as Wingo gave a shout out to ESPN analyst and commentator Todd McShay, who was unavailable to participate as he recovers from Covid-19.

“It’s different for us and it’s different for you because it has to be…” Goodell said, standing before a modest bookshelf, offering praise and support to medical workers, healthcare heroes and first responders. “We will get through this together, and when we do, we will be here for you.”

Goodell said he hoped the draft would provide a break from everyday challenges as we dream of better days. He offered a moment of silence to honor and remember those we have lost, as the broadcast showed the Statue of Liberty and American flags.

Harry Connick Jr. performed the national anthem on piano from his home in New Orleans. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recorded a video, essentially offering his blessing as one of the more bizarre and memorable sporting events in American history got under way.

Goodell said he’d miss the interaction with fans before turning to his television monitor, which played a compilation of people booing him in a manufactured moment of levity.

“My body won’t miss those great big bear hugs, but I will,” Goodell said, before officially putting the Bengals on the clock at 8:16 p.m.

Cincinnati had long decided to select LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the national champion and Heisman Trophy winner, with the No. 1 overall pick, but took their sweet time before making it official.

NFL teams were connected to the league office through a traditional telephone conference call and by using the video chat platform Microsoft Teams.

Bills GM Brandon Beane wore a gray team hoodie while seated behind a desk in the family rec room, surrounded by keyboards and numerous television, laptop and desktop computer screens, his teleconference phone flanked by a Bills helmet and pump bottle of hand sanitizer.

Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula were expected to join Beane using Zoom.

Buffalo did not have a first-round pick after trading the No. 22 overall selection to the Vikings in March as part of a package for veteran wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who spent the evening with his brother, Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs, who the Bills might have interest in taking in the second round.

Social distancing measures weren’t always adhered to.

The commercials, hawking everything from cars to insurance to sandwich chains, nearly all addressed the pandemic, while the NFL, through its “Draft-A-Thon,” worked to raise funds for charities to honor and support health care workers, first responders and essential personnel on the front lines.

Burrow wore a long sleeve white T-shirt featuring the outline of the state of Ohio and his hometown area code 740. After he was selected, the broadcast showed him sitting on a brown leather couch in his parents’ living room, headphones on, staring at his cell phone, the green and eggshell curtains in the background apparently older than he is.

There was no reaction.

ESPN cut away to the familiar highlights and music, to the analysis from a team of reporters and personalities, all broadcasting remotely, and returned to the Burrows’ living room in time to show him hugging his mom and dad.

The celebration was muted, but like the draft, a long time coming.

Former Buckeyes drafted 1-2-3

After Cincinnati drafted Burrow with the first overall pick, Washington selected Ohio State defensive end Chase Young at No. 2 and Detroit took Ohio State defensive back Jeff Okudah with No. 3. All three were teammates with the Buckeyes in 2017.

The Lions didn’t pick until 8:38 p.m., and while some fans griped on social media about the event dragging, others were in no rush.

Young, widely regarded as the most talented player in the draft, had a framed photo of his late grandfather. Okudah wore bracelets in remembrance of his late mother.

Dolphins’ Tank for Tua worked

The Giants selected Georgia left tackle Andrew Thomas at No. 4, giving the Dolphins their pick of quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama or Justin Herbert of Oregon at No. 5. Tagovailoa, whose season was shortened by a hip injury, received the call. Herbert went to the Chargers at No. 6.

Miami had two more first-round picks, adding USC tackle Austin Jackson at No. 18 and Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene at No. 30.

The Dolphins owned the No. 26 pick before trading back. They dealt the selection to the Packers, which moved up to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, the heir apparent to Aaron Rodgers.

Jets draft tackle, Pats trade out of first

The Jets selected mammoth Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton with the No. 11 pick, getting a 6-foot-7, 364 pound bodyguard to help protect Sam Darnold. Becton, who had a drug test flagged at the Combine, was the third tackle off the board. Alabama's Jedrick Wills went to the Browns at No. 10.

The Patriots traded out of the first round, sending the No. 23 pick to the Chargers for second- and third-round selections.

Protection for Tom Brady

The Buccaneers traded up one spot for the 49ers’ No. 13 pick, which they used on Iowa right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Tom Brady likely approved.

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