The National Football League draft begins in Las Vegas on Thursday night with a big open question: Who will be picked first?
The Jacksonville Jaguars have the top pick in the draft again, a year after they used the No. 1 selection to take quarterback Trevor Lawrence out of Clemson. Yet unlike in many years past, when the top pick is foretold weeks or months beforehand, there is little consensus as to who will be taken first this year.
Will it be Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker, a pillar on the Bulldogs’ national championship team who wowed scouts with his combination of size, speed and strength? How about Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who had 14 sacks and was a Heisman Trophy finalist in his stellar senior season?
Or perhaps it will be one of the NCAA’s nimble and powerful offensive lineman in North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu or Alabama’s Evan Neal?
The answer will come shortly after 8 p.m. ET when the draft makes its hotly anticipated Vegas debut. Round 1 takes place Thursday, followed by Rounds 2 and 3 on Friday at 7 p.m. ET, and then Rounds 4 through 7 on Saturday at noon.
Once a quiet proceeding conducted in a hotel conference room, the draft has grown to become the NFL’s premiere offseason event both on TV and in person, providing hope for fans of the NFL’s bottom-feeders and fulfilling the lifelong dreams of college football’s best players and their families.
All seven rounds are broadcast on ESPN, garnering an average viewership of between six and eight million people throughout the three-day event the last three years.
In addition, different cities have taken turns hosting the draft since 2015, bringing in hundreds of thousands of fans to city centers. Recent hosts include Dallas, Nashville and, most recently, Cleveland.
The draft’s move to Vegas – two years after the Raiders franchise moved there from Oakland – further illustrates the NFL’s rapid embrace of sports gambling. This year’s main stage will be at the Linq Promenade on the Vegas Strip, where NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will announce each team’s first round selection.
In Sin City fashion, a red carpet has been built over the Bellagio fountain for the 21 prospects set to attend, and NFL officials said to expect glitzy Vegas touches throughout the event. Fans will also be treated to musical performances by Weezer on Thursday, Ice Cube on Friday and Mashmello on Saturday.
The Jaguars aren’t the only team with a big night ahead. Due to a number of trades, eight teams have two first-round picks, including the New York Giants at picks No. 5 and No. 7 and the New York Jets at picks No. 4 and No. 10. By the same token, it likely will be a quiet night for fans of the eight teams without a first-round pick, including the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.
According to scouts for ESPN and NFL Network, the strength of this year’s draft is thought to be in its bevy of offensive tackles, pass rushers and wide receivers, while there are few quarterbacks thought to be worthy of a high draft pick.
But expectations rarely match reality in the draft; or need we remind you of the tale of a certain flabby, unathletic Michigan quarterback taken with the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft?