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Inside how the NFL is pulling off its first ‘virtual’ draft: Be prepared, no excuses

Let's just that Bill Belichick, who would prefer pen and paper, is not technologically savvy.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

This year’s virtual NFL Draft will produce challenges never before faced by the NFL. The three-day draft, which runs Thursday to Saturday, will be conducted with IP technology — teams and prospects will be beamed into the TV broadcast remotely from their homes, while the draft itself will be conducted on chat rooms and phone lines. The potential for technical glitches is almost endless.

The NFL’s response to the 32 teams: Be prepared. No excuses.

“There’s a lot of ways you can get a pick in instead of submitting it on your app,” said Michelle McKenna, the NFL’s chief information officer. “We’re not going to pause the draft because they didn’t prepare.”


McKenna and her IT team have helped make sure all 32 teams are prepared for doomsday scenarios during the draft. They sent a checklist to each team to ensure that nothing short of a disaster will prevent them from making their scheduled draft picks.

The NFL recommended that each team’s decision-maker have the following:

▪ At least one landline.

▪ Voice Over Internet Protocol phone capabilities.

▪ Multiple cell phones.

▪ A backup power generator.

So if the storms forecasted for New Orleans Thursday night knock out the power at Sean Payton’s home, he still should have several ways to phone in the Saints’ draft pick.

“We gave them all of the scenarios they needed to plan for,” McKenna said. “We’re not auditing to see if they have them all, but they know what they need to do. If there is a catastrophic failure, I’m sure there is something there will be done. We’re hoping that we don’t have to have any pauses.”

This year’s draft will be unprecedented in its use of technology. The NFL’s big tech partners all stepped up to help: Amazon Web Services will host and manage the 100-plus video feeds being piped into the broadcast; Verizon provided the phones that will be used as cameras; and Microsoft’s “Teams” software will be the official draft channel and will be how teams log their picks. Instead of calling in a draft pick, filling out a card and handing it in to the NFL, all of that will be handled virtually in Microsoft Teams.\


The biggest concern, of course, is security. McKenna said the NFL has beefed up its security to ensure the virtual draft isn’t hacked, but she declined to provide details.

Each team is allowed to set up its virtual war room — 49ers GM John Lynch posted a phone of his setup, which included five computer screens, a TV screen and three landlines.

And each team has one designated IT specialist who can help troubleshoot any problems. The Patriots’ IT team has been led by Michael Israel, the team’s vice president of IT, and Dan Famosi, an IT specialist for the Patriots since 2000.

While everyone realizes that extraordinary measures are needed to hold the draft, reaction from teams and coaches has been mixed, as some were hoping the NFL would delay the draft until later this year.

“For the most part everyone has been very supportive and knows that this is a challenging thing to do,” McKenna said. “But certainly you’ve had the people who are not happy about doing it this way.”

The NFL held a dry run Monday, and reports quickly emerged of technical difficulties and glitches in technology. But McKenna said those reports were overblown. She said one of the main issues was people not using the mute button properly, which won’t be an issue during the draft because the 32 teams won’t be connected on a conference call. And the other issue was a technical glitch in which the communication lines went down — but it was a planned glitch to test the effectiveness of the NFL’s contingency plans.


“And it worked as designed,” McKenna said.

Of course, this virtual draft won’t be easy for GMs such as Bill Belichick who are, let’s say, technologically challenged. This is a man who jokes about not being on “Spaceface,” and once said the only app he uses on his phone is “flashlight,” and didn’t know how to set the clock in his car.

But Belichick knows how to use a phone, and the Patriots’ IT people have gotten him up to speed the best they can.

“I’m certainly better at it than I was four weeks ago,” Belichick said last week. “I mean, I didn’t know what half of this was. But, at least now I can do more than I did, let’s put it that way. So, I get a little better every day — learn a new button or learn a new thing to click on and see what trick that does.”

Belichick also better put on his nicest cut-off hoodie sweatshirt, because he’s going to be involved in all three days of the broadcast.


The NFL sent a kit to everyone scheduled to participate in the draft — all 32 GMs or head coaches, plus 58 draft prospects — that includes two Verizon phones, two light stands, a tripod, a microphone and Bose headphones. One phone will be an “interview camera” and the other will be an “always-on” phone that the NFL can use to show coaches making picks or talking on the phone.

This image provided by the NFL shows the electronics that will be used to broadcast the 2020 draft from locations around the United States.NFL

Belichick couldn’t say no to it, either. As McKenna noted, “it’s required” for all 32 decision-makers.

“We definitely have spent a lot of time with them,” she said. “Change for anybody is hard. And change for something this important is super hard.”

McKenna said that on a scale of 1-10, organizing the logistics of this draft over the last six weeks has been a “15.” Notably, equipment such as microphones and light stands were hard to find.

But the NFL believes it has come up with a creative, effective and technologically unprecedented way to broadcast the draft for the next three days.

“I know that it’s not going to be perfect because of all the variables that we can’t control,” McKenna said. “But I’m excited about the opportunity for us to do something different and has never been done before. I guess I should be careful for what I wish for, because this is going to be a big one. And hopefully it will go really well.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.