The 2020 NFL draft is going virtual: How it will work, and what you should know

Goodell to relay draft picks from his basement (2:14)

Jeremy Fowler explains the precautions and procedures that the NFL has decided to take in order to hold a functional NFL draft. (2:14)

The best way to describe the 2020 NFL draft plan is "fluid."

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the league is devising an entirely new structure of logistics to comply with local and state physical distancing guidelines. It hasn't yet communicated much of it to the public, however, as it works to refine and adjust technology and fail-safes to ensure that the most basic purpose of the event -- distributing 255 players among its 32 teams -- can happen over the course of three days (April 23-25).

Just days remain until the Cincinnati Bengals, who own the No. 1 overall pick, are on the clock. Let's take a closer look at what we know about how -- and why -- the draft will take place next week. And we'll continue to update as more information becomes available.

Why is the draft still happening right now? What's the rush?

You're not alone in asking those questions. General managers across the league objected to the league's decision to push forward at a time when teams can't pursue their usual medical rechecks and in-person visits, nor gather together in their "war rooms" for the event itself.

But the NFL decided that the show would go on for two reasons.

First, there is no guarantee that physical distancing guidelines will uniformly change in the weeks and even months ahead. Remember, there are teams in 22 states, and current league policy requires that all 22 lift their quarantine guidelines before team facilities can open.

Second, the league and its partners have an opportunity to capture an audience that is thirsting for a shred of sports normality. In a FaceTime interview with Kairos CEO Ankur Jain, commissioner Roger Goodell said he hoped the NFL could "show people that there is a future out there and that we're all going to be a part of it."

So the league doesn't have much sympathy for those GMs?

Nope. In an interview with Baltimore's 105.7 FM radio, Troy Vincent -- the NFL's executive vice president of football operations -- said: "We're going to find out exactly where the true talent evaluators are." He also admonished Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who had expressed concerns about cybersecurity, saying: "Coach Harbaugh, no one is going to hack into your system. Stop it."

Let's back up. How is the draft process going to work?

Because team facilities are closed, almost every person involved in the draft will be working from home, including Goodell. That baseline has required a massive IT effort to install and/or confirm reliable internet connections, appropriate equipment and backups for all. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told ESPN's Adam Schefter that each team is allowed to put one IT specialist in the decision-maker's home. All 32 teams will be connected via one video conference, through a modified Microsoft Teams application, and will have a separate broadband connection with members of the league office.

Falcons GM shows off his virtual draft setup

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff showcases the office space where he will participate in the virtual NFL draft.

So will each general manager make every pick on his own?

No. Every team's arrangement will be different, but each of the final decision-makers will have some form of a secure connection with key advisers, coaches and other staffers as desired. They'll be able to discuss and debate before a final decision is made. But their plans have changed directions multiple times because of new NFL guidance. Most teams conduct their own mock drafts and dress rehearsals in the days leading up to the draft, and this year will be no exception.

Weren't the New Orleans Saints planning to work together at a brewery?

For a time, yes. At that moment, the state of Louisiana was still allowing groups of fewer than 10 people to work together. But in the interest of competitive balance, the NFL decided that all league employees must work at their own homes regardless of local guidelines.

That has prompted some coaches, executives and scouts to commandeer parts of their homes they have never used before. Washington Redskins coach Ron Rivera said he took over his daughter's work station. Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, meanwhile, is working from Minnesota (where he was previously the Vikings' offensive coordinator) because his wife and children had not yet moved to Cleveland by the time the shutdown began.

How will general managers actually make the pick?

When they've decided on the player, they can pass it along directly to league officials via an internet connection. As a backup, a club representative can call the selection into the league's player personnel department or via a leaguewide conference call that will be kept open throughout the draft. To guard against technology breakdowns at the decision-maker's house, three separate individuals from each team will have authority to submit picks.

A full mock draft will be held on Monday (April 20) to practice the process, including making picks and discussing trades between teams and the league.

Do teams get any extra time?

At the moment, there is no plan to add to time schedules. That means 10 minutes between picks in the first round, seven minutes in the second round, five minutes in Rounds 3 to 6 and four minutes in Round 7. As a result, Rivera said the Redskins are among the teams that are likely to move up their default time for submitting picks, to account for possible complications.

What if a team does miss a pick?

If a team can't submit a pick because of technological issues for all three executives, the player personnel department will be authorized to stop the clock to ensure that an intended pick or trade can occur. That decision makes it pretty unlikely that a team will miss its spot. In previous years, if a team missed its pick, the next team was eligible and could jump ahead. The initial team jumped back in line as soon as it could.

This actually happened in 2003, when the Minnesota Vikings' time expired as they were trying to trade out of the No. 7 overall pick. In the ensuing confusion, the Jacksonville Jaguars submitted a pick for quarterback Byron Leftwich, and the Carolina Panthers chose offensive tackle Jordan Gross. The Vikings finally got their card in at No. 9, selecting defensive tackle Kevin Williams.

That episode is not to be confused with a 2002 fiasco in which the Dallas Cowboys were late to submit a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 6 overall. The Chiefs wanted to draft defensive tackle Ryan Sims, as did the Vikings. Had the Vikings been quicker, they could have jumped ahead of the Cowboys/Chiefs and drafted Sims. Instead, they wound up with offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.

So the NFL can have a draft without writing names down on a card and walking it to a podium? Who knew?

Indeed. This experience could and should prompt a rethinking about the nature of the draft industrial complex.

"There are many things that come out of moments like this," Los Angeles Rams COO Kevin Demoff said. "I don't know that having to have a card and a call to a draft center are needed protocol in 2020 even in the best of scenarios, so maybe a different way to submit picks is an advancement that comes out of this time rather than something that's just historically done."

How will the NFL ensure that the draft doesn't get hacked?

Its security department has been working with Microsoft to gird its Teams application as much as possible. But to be clear, this isn't a paranoid concern from Harbaugh or anyone else.

The NFL's Twitter feed, and those of many teams, were hacked in January. And those concerned about teams spying on each other can look no further than 2016, when a scouting director from baseball's St. Louis Cardinals pled guilty in federal court to unauthorized access of a Houston Astros computer.

"You get into the security aspect, which is probably the most important for teams," Demoff said. "How do you make sure your conversations are protected? ... That would be my biggest concern, just from an encryption standpoint, of how do you have these conversations confidentially and make sure they go through?"

Should the NFL be worried about technology during virtual draft?

Woody Paige and Jackie MacMullan ponder the potential technical difficulties that could arise during the virtual NFL draft.

How will all of this all be depicted on the draft broadcast?

A combined broadcast between ESPN and NFL Network will originate from ESPN's studios in Bristol, Connecticut, with Trey Wingo as the studio host on all three nights. Analysts from both networks, working from home, will contribute.

There also will be a separate broadcast on ABC for the first two nights, hosted by Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and Maria Taylor. It will focus on storytelling and the path of draft picks to the NFL.

Here is the full schedule, with all three days on ABC, ESPN, NFL Network, ESPN Deportes and ESPN Radio:

  • Round 1 on Thursday, April 23, from 8-11:30 p.m. ET

  • Rounds 2-3 on Friday, April 24, from 7-11:30 p.m. ET

  • Rounds 4-7 on Saturday, April 25, from noon-7 p.m. ET

Is Goodell going to give out virtual handshakes?

Goodell joked on his FaceTime interview that he was more likely to give out "virtual hugs" from his home in New York, where he will announce at least the first round on the first night. The league has shipped, or will ship, video equipment to 58 prospects for interview opportunities, including top prospects Chase Young (Ohio State defensive end) and Joe Burrow (LSU quarterback). It also will have connectivity with a key decision-maker for each of the 32 teams.

How can anyone boo Goodell if the whole thing is virtual?

Oh, there are ways to keep up one of the lasting traditions of recent NFL drafts. The league is working on ways to incorporate fans into the broadcast. Among them: Submitting videos through this ESPN portal.

This draft was supposed to be in Las Vegas. Will it be there next year?

No. Cleveland has been awarded the 2021 draft, but 2022 in Las Vegas remains a possibility.

Is the NFL really calling this a "Draft-a-Thon"?

Yes, and for good reason. It will pay tribute to healthcare workers through advocacy for six primary charities: the American Red Cross, the CDC's Combat Coronavirus Campaign, Feeding America's COVID-19 Response Fund, Meals on Wheels' COVID-19 Response Fund, the Salvation Army and the United Way's COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund.

The draft is great. But amid the pandemic, what happens next for the 2020 NFL season?

The NFL announced plans on Monday for a virtual offseason that covers rules for players working out at home, and eventually participating in video conferences with coaches, beginning April 20.