RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Tonight kicks off one of the biggest events on the NFL calendar, but there will be not one tackle made or touchdown thrown at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Instead, just a guy in a suit, stepping up to a microphone every few minutes and saying the name of a college football player soon to be a professional football player. It is the start of the annual NFL draft, which will stretch into the weekend. And depending on your point of view, it's either Christmas in May, or an over-hyped non-event.
To get his view, we're joined by NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. So what about it, Christmas hype, Christmas hype? Which is it, Tom?
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Can it be both? I mean, the Christmas side, NFL fans at Radio City Music Hall or watching on TV will have that same wide-eyed anticipation of a kid ready to open presents. Although, in this case, it's often a 6 foot 5, 280-pound present. The draft is hope. There's also the fantasy element to it. Leading up to tonight, there are mock drafts. They're a big deal, whether it's ESPN experts or people in your office. Mock drafts, guessing which player is going to go where, are the football off-season's version of fantasy sports.
Now, on the over-hyped, non-event side of things, people are really going to sit and watch a bunch of names read off, and then watch a bunch of experts speculate about how that player will do? I mean, that's really not a lot happening, as opposed to actual sporting events. But when you are the number one spectator sport in the country like the NFL, fans will watch anything, obviously.
MONTAGNE: And, obviously, some people are going to be watching or even be there. What names will we hear tonight, up near the top of the draft?
GOLDMAN: There's a pretty solid consensus the number one pick is going to be the talented defensive end from South Carolina, Jadeveon Clowney.
The most talked-about player - I'm sure you've heard about him - he's also the most controversial, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. He won the 2012 Heisman trophy as a freshman. He's gotten in trouble off the field. He's a celebrity, and a very talented football player. The rap is he's a schoolyard player - great improviser, very instinctive, but missing some technical skills and the discipline NFL quarterbacks need. Now, most mock drafts have Manziel going in top five. A few say he won't even go in the first round, meaning the top 32.
MONTAGNE: And, Tom, there's always a lot of talk about quarterbacks. Is there a premium on any other positions?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, all revolving around the quarterback, because the quarterback is the most important player on the field, because the NFL has become a passing league. So the quarterback needs protection, so offensive linemen are key. Quarterbacks need to throw to someone, so wide receivers are key. Now, on defense, players who disrupt an opponent's passing game are key, defensive linemen who rush the passer, and defensive backs, especially big ones like Seattle's Richard Sherman. We saw him in the Super Bowl. They can clamp down on receivers. They're considered a real catch.
MONTAGNE: And one of the biggest stories of this draft, which will include seven rounds, is about a player who may be picked at the tail end if at all, and that is Michael Sam. What are his chances?
GOLDMAN: Well, in February, Michael Sam - a linebacker defensive end out of Missouri - was the most famous college player after he revealed he is gay. Talk about Sam has quieted since then, because he hasn't impressed at the events showcasing college players, including the NFL Combine. Now, scouts and NFL executives have been quoted recently, saying Sam - who is 6'2", 260 pounds - is too short, that he's not a really good athlete, that he hustles a lot, but he struggles in different facets of the game.
So, if he's drafted, it's expected he'll go between the fifth and seventh rounds. If he's not drafted, it could be a PR nightmare for the NFL. There will be accusations no one took him because of who he is. So Michael Sam's status definitely will create some drama in the later rounds of the draft.
MONTAGNE: All right. Tom, thanks very much.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR sports correspondent, Tom Goldman
This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.