Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 29, 2021

Too Much Hype, But Still Some Hope In Jacksonville

At long last, the single most important day on the entire calendar of sports has arrived.  No, the Super Bowl hasn’t been moved to April.  Neither has the World Series, and there has been no rescheduling of the NBA Finals or Stanley Cup Playoffs.  On the other side of the Atlantic, the final match of this year’s Champions League is still a month away.  But while those events are important to some fans, clearly nothing is as central to our survival as a species as the NFL Draft, which starts today. 

That at least would be the conclusion an extraterrestrial visitor observing our culture would likely reach, given the extraordinarily voluminous and copiously detailed media coverage of this annual exercise in parceling out collegiate football talent to the thirty-two NFL franchises.  Thursday afternoon, as the clock wound down towards the 8 p.m. Eastern Time start of Round 1, the front page of ESPN’s website had a whopping twenty-four links to draft-related stories and pages.  By comparison CBS Sports, despite its longtime association with the NFL, was a barely interested observer with a mere nineteen separate analyses or narratives just a mouse click beyond the network’s home page.

Mock drafts, once the highly anticipated work product of a handful of self-styled experts like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are now ubiquitous.  Increasingly, even analysts most fans have never heard of don’t stop at forecasting which players will be among the glamour picks of the first round but go on to offer detailed assessments of hundreds of prospects, an exercise that presumably allows fans to speculate on the identity of the so-called “Mr. Irrelevant,” the dubious honorific given to the last player selected in each year’s draft.  It’s a title that is no longer quite so demeaning since 2009’s final pick Ryan Succop kicked a field goal and four extra points as the placekicker for Tampa Bay in this year’s Super Bowl.

Still, one cannot help but admire the 60-year-old Kiper, who has built a highly successful sports media career over more than three decades by sounding authoritative while engaging in what is at best informed speculation and sometimes plain guesswork.  Along the way, he’s been helped immeasurably by the NFL.  Never known for passing up a marketing opportunity, the league has turned what was once a meeting of team representatives in some big-city hotel into a multi-day spectacle that fans happily pay to attend, and which has those at home glued to their flatscreens.  When commissioner Pete Rozelle gave a 24-hour sports cable network then in its first year of existence permission to broadcast the 1980 draft, he strongly doubted ESPN would attract many viewers.   Four decades later, current commissioner Roger Goodell is no doubt grateful Rozelle agreed to set aside his personal doubts.

Yet for all the hype and hoopla the fortunes of most teams, not just for the coming season but for the next several, will not turn on what happens in Cleveland between now and Saturday.  That’s partly because of the nature of the sport, which is very much a team exercise.  Even a true impact player – and in any year’s draft there aren’t more than a handful of those – has limited sole influence on a game’s outcome.  But it is mostly because for all the time and energy spent on assessing young players, the draft remains a crapshoot.  As every football fan knows, the most successful player of this century was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.  Among the 198 players taken ahead of Tom Brady were six other quarterbacks.  None of them ever won a championship, something that Brady has reportedly managed to accomplish a time or two.  Or seven.  

That uncertainty is apparent every year in the wide range of opinions offered by the so-called experts prior to the draft.  This year, one of the plethora of stories on ESPN’s site was a discussion among the network’s college football analysts.  In response to a question about their favorite quarterback other than first overall choice Trevor Lawrence, one reporter began his reply with “I’m not sure any of the other quarterbacks are can’t-miss starters in the NFL,” while another opined that there were five with legitimate cases to become franchise quarterbacks.  That itinerant alien would understandably be confused as to whether the two ESPN staffers were discussing the same group of players.

Yet the hype continues, and if one manages to cut through the excess generated in equal parts by the media and the league, the NFL Draft does usually offer a franchise or two the opportunity to make significant strides.  This year, it is the Jacksonville Jaguars sitting in prime position.

The Jaguars enjoyed substantial early success.  Surprisingly for an expansion franchise, Jacksonville made the playoffs in four of its first five seasons, twice advancing to the AFC Championship.  But even in northeast Florida those years in the mid-90s are now a faded memory.  Over the last thirteen seasons the team has made only one trip to the playoffs, in 2017, the only campaign in that stretch in which Jacksonville finished above .500.  Overall, the Jaguars have posted a 128-208 record over that period, including a two-win season in 2012, the first year of current owner Shahid Khan’s tenure, a pair of three-win seasons in 2014 and 2016, and last year’s abysmal 1-15 mark. 

The reward for the Jaguars most recent exercise in futility was the number one pick, and for weeks now it’s been common knowledge that Lawrence, the former Clemson signal-caller, is Jacksonville’s quarterback of the future.  But for fans in that part of Florida, the real significance of this draft lies beyond the number one pick.  The Jaguars, through a combination of previous trades and the draft order dictated by last season’s futility, have four of the first forty-five picks, essentially four selections in the first round and a half, plus the first pick in Round 3, number 65 overall.  If history shows that no amount of analysis can guarantee great results from any individual pick, then quantity high in the draft is especially valuable, and this year Jacksonville has that to an unmatched degree. 

This rare opportunity has generated plenty of excitement among fans in Florida’s biggest city.  But does it mean that winning seasons, playoff appearances, and perhaps even championships lie ahead for new coach Urban Meyer, quarterback Lawrence, and the other players about to be selected by the Jaguars?  The truth is, not even Mel Kiper knows.

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