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2012 NFL Draft - Day One

April 26, 2012
Lou Pickney, DraftKing.com

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First things first: a major thank you is in order for my friend Brook Gardiner, who works in the NFL legal department, and also to Tracie Rodburg, who works for the NFL as well and who secured me a VIP Pass for night one of the 2012 NFL Draft. As I understand it, those VIP Passes were extremely sought-after credentials. It made me think of one of the many great lines by Alec Baldwin's character in Glengarry Glen Ross: "To you they're gold, and you don't get them."

If it wasn't for Brook, I wouldn't have been able to make it up here for the draft. No passes to get into Radio City Music Hall, no side entrance access to the event, no place to stay (NYC hotel prices are too rich for my blood), etc. I've known Brook since 1994 and he is a great friend. Plus he's super-smart (Princeton undergrad and NYU law school) and has great social skills as well, which is a rare combo.

There is no place on earth like New York City. Fast-paced, abrupt, at times rude, and certainly larger than life. If you have never been to NYC before, I urge you to go out of your way to pay it a visit. Culturally it's drastically different than my hometown of Nashville in a wide variety of ways, but I love both cities even with their contrasting styles. Plus, if every city felt the same, what fun would that be?

The taxi cab I took from LaGuardia to NFL headquarters in Manhattan pulled over at the prescribed spot that Brook told me to tell the cabbie: 51st Street and Park Avenue. The ride itself was like being inside a real life version of the video game Crazy Taxi. From there it took a little bit of figuring to find which building actually was 345 Park Avenue, since the numbering system in that area didn't match the numbered cross-roads like I had expected.

But it didn't take long to find the proper building (the big 345 out front clued me in when I saw it), and once inside I found the corridor of elevators which all lead to the section of floors that includes the section which houses the NFL's headquarters. The security desk by that group of elevators has an NFL logo on it, which is a nice touch.

It felt like being back at Sirius in the McGraw-Hill building in 2006 again, with well-dressed security guards in place to make sure that the only people there were those who were supposed to be there. Much like Warren G once said, "You can't be any geek off the street." A security guard took a shaky digital photo of me, which was about as unclear as the Polaroid shot that Leonard Shelby snapped of Natalie in Memento. The blurry photo printed out on a sticker that also included the date, my name, and who I was going up to see.

The guard escorted me into the designated elevator bank area, a setup like nothing I had ever seen before. There is a keypad there where you punch in which floor you want and then the system directs you to one of the multiple elevators in the corridor to take you up to the floor you chose. It was *very* odd to be inside of an elevator with no number panel inside.

NFL Headquarters in NYC

Yes, that's artificial turf in the waiting area near one of the banks of elevators at the NFL's headquarters. (Photo Copyright 2012 Lou Pickney)

(Addendum: there are video walls on either side of the giant photo from the Super Bowl on either side of the artificial surface, as you can see here.)

Once I made it up to the NFL front lobby, it was sensory overload. A giant video wall of monitors showing NFL game video clips extended from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. They had several trophies on display and a backlit wall that normally holds a ring from every Super Bowl ever. Sadly for me, the rings were gone, having already been transported over to Radio City Music Hall.

As I waited for Brook to make it to the lobby from his office, I spotted Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen chatting with two other men. Mullen was in town to support Fletcher Cox, a highly-touted defensive tackle from State who was expected to be (and ultimately was) a top twelve pick. Brook and I ended up sharing an elevator ride down with Mullen, who was flummoxed by the listing of 1 and 0 for the floors. "Which one is the lobby?" he asked. Brook indicated that 1 was what he wanted, then joked that floor 0 was a big mystery and that you didn't want to end up down there, intimating that it was a special NFL interrogation room.

Brook was just joking... I think.

We made it to Radio City Music Hall early, around 6 p.m. EDT. Luckily, thanks to Brook's NFL super-credential and my VIP pass, we were able to cut in through a side entrance. That was convenient considering that there were fans waiting literally blocks deep to get inside. With the NFL Draft as with life, it's all about connections and credentials.

After some deliberation, I had decided to wear the powder blue #55 Titans jersey with PICKNEY on the nameplate that I referenced in my Nashville airport column. I immediately regretted that decision when we were down on floor level and almost everyone there was dressed in sharp suits. Fortunately I had on a long black jacket that covered up the jersey, so at least I didn't look like some rogue fan who had wandered into an improper section. But I felt self-conscious about my attire.

The NFL Network and ESPN had dueling elevated stages, and both crews were doing pre-draft television work not far from our location. Out of nowhere, I spotted Artie Lange not too far from where I was down on the main floor level. I met Artie in 2006 when he was working for the Howard Stern radio show and I was working for the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show. I did a double-take seeing him there since he stood out amongst the suit-and-tie crowd. I saw Fox Sports' Jay Glazer there as well, and I had to resist going up to him to strike up a chat about MMA. That probably would have been out of order at an NFL event.

Brook helped me find the VIP Access section up in the first balcony overlooking the scene below. There was a mix of fans and professional types in suits up there, so I felt less out of place at that point with my Titans jersey. Brook introduced me to some people he knew, including Tracie from the NFL office, who hooked me up with my VIP Pass as I mentioned earlier. I also met Jets offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson's wife Kirsten, who was as friendly and amiable as she is gorgeous.

Two very noteworthy elements in the VIP area: first off, there were lots of tall guys there, as in taller than me and I'm 6'2". I'm guessing several former/current players were in the crowd, but with my mild prosopagnosia (face blindness) I'm horrible at recalling faces I've only seen a few times. The other noteworthy element: plenty of very attractive women in the mix. Lots of tall, long-legged model types. Hey, it's the VIP section for a reason, right?

Another great perk with the VIP section: an open bar! Plus there was plenty of free food, which would have saved Brook and me a trip to Chipolte had we known that would be available to us.

While lingering in the VIP lobby area, a full-screen image from one of the networks covering the event showed what looked like a trade between Minnesota and Cleveland on one of the many monitors visible. I scurried to get a closer look, and sure enough the Vikings got what they wanted, trading back from 3 to 4 with a team they knew was pretty likely to not take Matt Kalil. Like I had said all along, the Vikings were bluffing/churning up the water just trying to get the best deal they could to still also be in position to draft Kalil. And, for them, it worked.

Though, as Tampa Bay found out the hard way later on in the evening, trading back based on perceived team needs in the spot (or spots) you move down below can be a dangerous thing.

Soon after reading about the Cleveland/Minnesota trade, Brook headed over to the NFL employee only area, while I took my seat and waited for the fun to begin. The draft was just minutes away from commencing at that point, and there was a buzz in the air as fans in attendance awaited the start of the proceedings.

The NFL had four huge video screens mounted to either side of the stage, two per side, airing ESPN, the NFL Network, and two in-house video feeds. In something that was no surprise to me, it was all done in first-class fashion, though the overhead lighting structure in place for the TV networks obscured our view of the far left top screen (NFLN) to a degree. They also had gift bags for the VIPs in each seat, as if it was the Academy Awards or something. More on the gift bags in a bit.

My phone ran out of juice rather early on during the draft, which was horribly disappointing since it kept me from meeting up with Tony McClean, who I've talked with on the Batchelor Pad radio show for the past three years but never have met in person. I love my Droid 4, but the battery drain with smartphones can be brutal.

It was interesting to see how the draft is clearly a made-for-TV event. There were points both early on and later in the event when 2-3 picks were in but hadn't been announced yet, a backlog of sorts that was a bit frustrating for the live audience. You would hear something to the effect of "San Diego has made their selection; Chicago is on the clock." But you might not know who had been picked one or two spots before that since it hadn't been announced yet.

It would have been nice if there was a monitor with a list of teams that had picked, the players taken (if announced), and who held which picks. The video wall up on the stage sometimes posted this information, but never long enough to fully be able to take in everything before it flipped to animated team logos or virtual versions of the home jersey with a freshly-drafted player's name shown on the back. At times there were people around me legitimately confused about who was on the clock, if picks were traded, etc. Even I found myself a bit confused at times, though that might have also had something to do with the open bar.

Inside each of the gift bags we received was a small radio headset gadget that had an A/B switch: one to pick up audio from ESPN and the other from the NFL Network. It was a nice touch and a practical gift, though I'm not sure what use I can get out of it after the draft since I'm not sure what radio frequencies they utilized.

Two Patriots fans were seated in front of me, and they were pretty sharp at knowing what was going on and predicting what was about to happen. The one to my right who kind of looked like Gary Busey had his radio in use for much of the time, which helped him to tell his older buddy (and also me since I was close enough to hear) what was going on with some of the TV coverage. One amusing bit of conversation took place when Minnesota's pick was up and they showed USC OT Matt Kalil on one of the big screens.

Busey Guy: "Kalil's been picked."
Older Guy: "How do you know?"
Busey Guy: "He's smiling."

And, of course, Busey Guy was right. It's nice to have clued-in people around you.

As for the crowd in general, the Jets seemed to have the most fans in attendance. Two Jets fans I talked with before the draft began asked me my opinion on who they should draft at #16. I mentioned Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw and they bristled at the notion. "No! We want speed at outside linebacker!"

Some notable chants included a very loud "RG3" before pick two and what sounded like "Poe, Poe, Poe" for Memphis NT Dontari Poe before Carolina at pick nine, who actually ended up selecting Boston College ILB Luke Kuechly at that spot. As for snarkiness, when the announcement came at number six overall that Dallas had traded up, the packed house erupted in a loud cascade of boos.

Tampa Bay followed Minnesota's lead, trading back from #5 to #7 with Jacksonville, who leapfrogged the Rams to draft Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon at the five spot. With the Rams having signed unrestricted free agent CB Cortland Finnegan (formerly of the Titans) last month to a five-year, $50 million deal with $24 million guaranteed, it seemed unlikely that they would take LSU CB Morris Claiborne at #6. And the Rams didn't, but once they missed out on Blackmon, the Rams traded back to Dallas in exchange for the #14 and #45 overall picks.

You know what happened next: the Cowboys promptly plucked Claiborne at #6, the consensus top cornerback in the draft, off the board. That was perhaps even more surprising than if the Rams had taken him there, considering that the Cowboys signed former Chiefs CB Brandon Carr last month to a five-year, $50.1 million contract with $25.5 million guaranteed. The scenario made me think of a memorable exchange from season three of the legendary television series The Wire.

Cutty: "The game done changed."
Slim Charles: "The game the same, just got more fierce."

Under the new CBA, it's much easier to trade into and out of the top five of the draft due to changes to the NFL rookie wage scale. And, while the Buccaneers have spun their selection of Alabama strong safety Mark Barron at #7 as what they wanted all along, I don't buy it. If Dallas had moved up to take Barron instead of Claiborne, do you think the Bucs would be saying the same things about Barron being tops on their wish list? I sure don't.

One particularly fun moment for me was when Miami drafted Ryan Tannehill at #8, just as I predicted they would do, and I abruptly yelled "BUST", which drew laughter and comments of agreement from those around me. For Tannehill and Dolphins fans and management, I hope I'm wrong about that. But 61.6% (his 2011 completion percentage at Texas A&M) will hang over his head in my estimation until he shows that he is in fact capable of being an accurate NFL quarterback. As always, time will tell.

The first round of the draft flies by faster than you might think it would. It's 10 minutes per pick and 32 picks, but no team used its full allotment of time. For those of us who remember the days of two rounds of drafting on the first day of the draft, having a one-and-done setup is still a new thing... albeit a brilliant one since it makes being a day one pick something truly elite and special.

Toward the end of the event, an argument broke out over one of the gift bags. The bag from the seat next to mine disappeared during one of my trips to the open bar, and I saw two grown men literally trying to rip a gift bag from each other's grasp. That's the reason I stashed my bag under my seat as soon as I arrived -- out of sight, out of mind.

If you're an NFL fan, and odds are that you are if you're reading this, I highly recommend that you make at least one trip to Radio City Music Hall to attend the NFL Draft in person. Unless you are extremely offended by profanity (and if you are, you might want to avoid New York City altogether), it's a fun event and a night of happiness across the board, with most teams landing at least one new player to give them hope for the future. And there's something to be said for that.

Read more: Day Two of the 2012 NFL Draft

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