NEW YORK (Reuters) – The final rounds of the NFL Draft capped a smooth and generally glitch-free affair on Saturday, as the league pivoted to a virtual format for the first time ever due to the coronavirus, with coaches and prospects staying out of the spotlight and behind closed doors.
Widely heralded quarterback and first pick Joe Burrow led a charge of 14 selections out of Louisiana State University, tying Ohio State’s 2004 record for the most players in a single draft class, as teams scrambled for a piece of the college championship-winning squad.
As franchises were filling out their rosters in the final rounds of the quarterback-rich draft, questions lingered over when the professional football calendar would return to normal, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell maintaining that the upcoming season will move forward as scheduled.
“What a unique and special three days,” Goodell said at the conclusion of the seventh round, having swapped a crisp opening night suit for a lockdown-friendly pair of khakis and a T-shirt.
“With this draft we set out to celebrate football and provide an escape. We are proud to have shared this experience with a record number of our fans.”
Three quarterbacks – Heisman Trophy-winning Burrow who went to the Cincinnati Bengals, University of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert – were among the first six selections for the first time since 1999.
The three-day draft was not an easy ride for all of the year’s quarterback talent, however, with Georgia’s Jake Fromm slipping to the fifth round before eventually being selected by the Buffalo Bills, where he is expected to serve as backup to starter Josh Allen.
“Thankful to be a part of #BillsMafia,” the 21-year-old wrote on Twitter. “You can count on me staying humble and hungry.”
The final day of the draft featured an early, high-profile trade that saw the Washington Redskins seven-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Trent Williams go to the San Francisco 49ers for a fifth-round pick this year and a third round selection in 2021.
But the LSU prospects were the biggest winners, with players ranging from the superstar Burrow to virtual unknown long snapper Blake Ferguson picked up after their undefeated season.
“THE BEST THERE EVER WAS,” tweeted newly minted Super Bowl champion safety Tyrann Mathieu, who played at LSU.
Originally intended as a kickoff party of sorts for the Las Vegas Raiders’ inaugural season, the event had been set to feature a flashy first-round presentation near the iconic Bellagio fountains in Sin City.
Instead, Goodell opened the proceedings from his basement, opting for virtual hugs and high fives with newly signed players via brief livestreamed interactions.
The diminished glamour of the event, however, did nothing to stunt the interest of sports-hungry fans, with a record-breaking average of more than 15.6 million viewers tuning in on Thursday for one of the rare few live sports events left on the calendar in the coronavirus era.
Goodell said on Saturday that more than $100 million was raised through the event for COVID-19 relief.
(Reporting By Amy Tennery; Editing by Christian Radnedge, Diane Craft and Daniel Wallis)