CLEVELAND (AP) — Roger Goodell's leaving his man cave for this year's NFL draft. The Commissioner missed welcoming new players last year — and being booed.
"He’s excited to get out of the basement,” joked league executive Peter O'Reilly.
A year after a three-day stop in Las Vegas was scrapped and one of its signature events had to go virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league announced Monday initial plans for this year's draft in Cleveland, where thousands of fans will be safely welcomed in a step toward normalcy.
Goodell hosted last year's draft from home, but he'll be on hand for this year's event, which will incorporate all the health and safety protocols learned by the league over the past year as well as the city's best known locations along Lake Erie — FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Browns, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Before announcing picks, one of Goodell's duties on the first night is to open the draft, a moment followed by a chorus of loud, playful boos.
This year, they'll be music to his ears.
The NFL feels confident it can hold a large-scale event after a successful run at this year's Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida. And, given the events of the past year, the league feels this draft can have an even deeper meaning than just teams picking new players.
“The draft is every year about hope. It’s about fans having hope with new players, clubs having hope," said O'Reilly, Vice President, Club Business & League Events. "The weather turning in parts of the country to spring, and the hope that comes with that.
"But this year, probably more than ever, is about coming together and signaling a brighter future and communities being able to come together safely with the right protocols and pointing to what’s ahead.”
With health and safety guidelines changing almost daily, the league does not yet have an “exact” figure of how many fans will be allowed to attend the free, outdoor festivities associated with this year's draft, which coincides with the Browns' 75th anniversary season.
Masks will be required and provided, and the league will use many of the same health protocols implemented last season to accommodate “tens of thousands” of football fans.
"The general message is that certainly we want to welcome fans, not only from Cleveland but outside as well,” O'Reilly said.
The league is continuing to work with state and local officials on finalizing safety protocols, with a priority on social distancing of any non-vaccinated fans. Some vaccinated fans selected by the teams will be allowed near the stage area.
Some of this year's top prospects and their families are in the process of being invited to Cleveland, where they'll have their own “living room” space as players are selected. And like last year, players taken in the later rounds will participate remotely from their homes around the country.
The league received positive feedback on some elements from last year's virtual draft — players being shown on camera with their families, coaches and general managers working from home — and it intends to capture some of those intimate moments going forward.
With the lake serving as its backdrop, a large stage will serve as a hub for the draft's activities, which will include picks being introduced by some of the NFL's former and current stars. New on Day 3 will be teams announcing their own picks remotely.
In keeping with Cleveland's rock and roll tradition, there will be music performed daily by “headlining acts,” which have not yet been announced.
While it might not be the full-blown draft Cleveland was hoping to host when it was awarded the annual event, it's better than not having one.
And it allows the Commissioner to leave his house.
“His chair is a little worn out at this point,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said with a chuckle. “It should be a lot of fun for all of us.”
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