DAN BICKLEY

NFL Draft follows strong offseason that delivered in multiple ways

Apr 21, 2020, 6:05 PM | Updated: 6:11 pm

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks ahead of the first round at the NFL football draft, Thursday,...

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks ahead of the first round at the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Behold the biggest smallest draft in NFL history. No crowds, no street festivals, no bro hugs with the commissioner on the big stage. The NFL Draft has been shrunken by a global crisis.

This draft is also stuffed with spiritual importance. Inflated by a nation that needs diversion and hope. Concrete proof the NFL must and will go on. The audience will be enormous and invisible, just like the pandemic that prompted all of this.

As America grows increasingly anxious and disoriented, we need anchoring rituals more than ever. Maybe sports can’t galvanize or unify America at a time like this. But they can keep us from splintering beyond recognition. And here’s the best part:

In recent years, the NFL Draft has become the Disney World of professional football, a utopia welcoming fans from all over the country while separating them from the dollars inside their wallet. The massive gatherings were an over-the-top con job, filling us with excitement and false hope and promises that could never be kept.

The draft became an overweight cottage industry that fueled our appetite for football and the owners’ appetite for more revenue. It was easy money, from the steady stream of mock drafts to the leaked Wonderlic tests. From what I remember of Nashville 2019, it can be a heck of a party.

But the NFL Draft has grown far beyond its usefulness. General managers have become paralyzed by over-analysis and extreme pressure. The size and scope of this event is better suited for actual athletes. Until they find a way to measure heart and ambition, the NFL Draft will always be a roll of the dice, an educated guess.

The 2020 NFL Draft has been reduced in scale out of necessity. But it was never meant to be this big in the first place. And no matter what happens in the coming days, the league has already scored an enormous victory. The offseason fireworks have already exploded, through a series of dizzying trades and free-agent acquisitions. To wit:

Rob Gronkowski was just traded to Tampa, adding more fuel to the NFL’s greatest grudge match. It proves that Gronkowski quit on the Patriots and not the NFL. That says something about the existing culture under Bill Belichick.

Gronkowski also joining Tom Brady to play under Bruce Arians, giving a showtime feel to a laughingstock franchise and market. It changes the balance of power in the NFC. It gives Brady a familiar asset and red zone target in uncertain times. It’s all happening at a time when “The Last Dance” excoriates the Bulls’ organization for prematurely unplugging a dynasty and effectively casting off on Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time.

Which is exactly what the Patriots did with Brady.

Meanwhile, DeAndre Hopkins came to the Cardinals in the most lopsided trade of the century, and the star wide receiver just admitted that he manipulated Texans coach Bill O’Brien, asking for a “little pay raise” to ensure his trade from Houston. For proof, he told Sports Illustrated he’s not seeking an immediate contract extension from the Cardinals.

David Johnson and Todd Gurley have landed in Houston and Atlanta, with chips on their shoulders, representing the perils of paying running backs in 2020. Philip Rivers had to find a new job while Cam Newton and Jameis Winston are still looking of work. Tall, pocket quarterbacks are suddenly frowned upon in the same way running quarterbacks were once stigmatized back in the day. These days, Patrick Mahomes is the champion and Lamar Jackson is on the upcoming cover of Madden NFL 21.

Point is, the NFL draft might be a smashing success, a tribute to the league’s resilience and incomparable skill at creating drama, headlines and good television. But it won’t compare to the groundbreaking transactions that have occurred before the NFL Draft, the difference-makers and impact players who will wear different uniforms in 2020.

The NFL’s logo is a shield, and let’s hope it somehow works against this pandemic. The 2020 season looks too good to be wasted, canceled or played inside empty stadiums.

Dan Bickley

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NFL Draft follows strong offseason that delivered in multiple ways