The journey from the green room to the stage Thursday night in Las Vegas was a short one, lasting about one minute and 100 steps. It was enough time for NC State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu to reflect on the longer one he had just completed, from Pop Warner to three-star college recruit to the sixth overall pick in the draft.
He thought about the days when he received extra one-on-one sessions with his high school coach. He recalled his growth at NC State, where he entered as the ninth best recruit in his class.
So when he was handed a Carolina Panthers hat and stopped in front of a mirror, he could think of only one thing to say.
"Wow," he mouthed.
The word summed up that moment.
"It almost didn't feel real," Ekwonu said three days later. "It was like, my name just got called. I really just got drafted. I started playing back all the work I put in the last couple years, especially the last couple months. I had to take a step back and breathe a little bit and think about the absurdity of it all."
The NFL draft experience is different for each participant, whether you're a top pick like Ekwonu, a late-round pick, an agent, general manager, coach or parent. It can include playing in an all-star game, attending the NFL combine, running drills at pro days, reading the endless mock drafts and scouting reports, and then the moment itself.
Here's what the process looks like from the perspective of players, parents, general managers, an agent and a head coach:
The season starts
The draft process hits high gear when the season starts in the fall -- even for underclassmen, who might need to make a decision about their future. NFL teams start scouting players and agents start courting them, though for players being considered for name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, that process begins earlier.
Brandon Beane, Buffalo Bills general manager: "I'll start in training camp watching film [of college prospects]. Once we start playing preseason games until the final cutdown. I watch film all the way through the fall as I'm also going to see games."
Dax Milne, Washington Commanders receiver (a seventh-round pick in 2021): "The NFL talk started to happen midway through [my junior] season. At first it was just coaches on my team coming up to me saying, 'I've had a ton of scouts asking me about you.' Shortly after that some agents were hitting my line."
Andy Ross, NFL agent: "They pick their agents because of NILs. Back in the day it used to be November and December when you'd reach out to kids. Now you've got to start working for a kid two to three years out. I met with a high school kid the other day. I feel really good about him. He's a rising senior. Now I have to wait for four years advising a kid [with] the hope that he turns into a player."
Steve Mills, father of Houston Texans QB Davis Mills (a third-round pick in 2021): "I reached out to different people and got a couple of recommendations [about agents], and also got help through the process at Stanford. We got it down to three folks. He interviewed all three. He met personally with two and talked to one on the phone."
All-Star games (late January)
Players get a final chance to prove their NFL worthiness. For players such as former Tampa Bay guard Ali Marpet, the first Division III player to participate in the Senior Bowl, this exposure is essential.
Ross, who was Marpet's agent: "Before he went there I said you need to block through the whistle. You need to be a dominant Alpha dog out there. In the five weeks we had to prepare, I brought in a bunch of former defensive linemen who played in the league. I wanted him to get beat while practicing to see how he'd respond if you go against an SEC player. ... He absolutely dominated. That's what helped him get drafted higher."
Washington GM Martin Mayhew: "Sometimes you're watching tape of smaller schools. And you're wondering like, who was this guy really playing against? So when you get to see him match up with some of the SEC guys and some of the ACC guys and guys from the Power 5 conferences, it gives you a better measure of where they fit in."
NFL combine (late February)
It's one of the most hyped events of the NFL offseason, a chance for players to display what sets them apart and for teams to interview them and conduct medical tests.
Milne: "In the quick drills -- the 20-yard shuttle, the cone drill -- I scratched a couple times, so I got tired and didn't get the best numbers. But it was still a good experience. What I kept hearing [after the combine] was, 'All that mattered was your film.'"
Ekwonu: "I wanted to show off my football knowledge a little bit. I wanted teams to feel confident I could pick up material quickly, that I was more than just brute strength. Every time I got a question I tried to overexplain and include every detail."
"I couldn't imagine going through [the process] now, just the noise. It's 24 hours a day on the draft. I didn't have that." ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a sixth-round pick in 2000
Greg Curl, father of Washington safety Kamren Curl (a 2020 seventh-round pick): "He was on the tail end of a hip flexor injury and was still healing from it. I thought he'd wait until his pro day to run, but he ran anyway. We knew the 40 [-yard dash] time he needed to get. The target was a sub 4.5 or a 4.5. He ran a 4.59 and a 4.6. We were watching on TV. I felt like I was running with him because I was out of breath and my heart was pumping a thousand miles a minute."
Pro days (mid-March to mid-April)
The next step in the process involves players working out at their school in front of officials from NFL teams. The head coach and general manager don't travel to every pro day, but when they do they're observing everything, from how players interact with one another to how other teams react. And agents sometimes have to work relationships to get players into local pro days, held at NFL team's facilities.
Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera: "At one pro day, one player, every time he finished the drill he ran back. Another guy at another position would finish the drill and walk across the line, and you have concerns at that point."
Ross: "I knew [guard] Wyatt [Teller] was a good fit for [offensive line coach] Bill Callahan and [asked Callahan] to go back and watch his junior film. Bill watched it and said he saw the potential. ... and said they wanted to invite him [to their local pro day]. Bill called in the fifth round and said, 'I think we're going to draft Wyatt.' They drafted Tim Settle. Buffalo takes Wyatt, he gets traded to Cleveland, Bill [later] leaves and goes to Cleveland. It's great how it worked out."
Rivera: "Some head coaches get animated in front of a player or two, and other guys you see them and you watch how quietly they nod and tap each other and point out subtly, like they don't want to be seen pointing at that guy. But then you watch them with other guys and they're real demonstrative and you say, 'That's a smokescreen.'
"This is lying season. It's like playing poker."
Beane said he'll ask everyone who came in contact with a player -- from the person who picked him up at the airport to the lunch staff -- how they were treated. That's what sold them on quarterback Josh Allen.
Beane: "We talked [in] this restaurant and I watched Allen. He didn't know I was watching him, but I saw how respectful he was to the staff. Little things like that tell you a lot about a person's character. Whether he was talking to the hostess or someone waiting on us, it was, 'Thank you.' Please.' Everyone knew who he was, but he wasn't walking in there all high and mighty."
Ross: "I tell the guys to make sure that they do role-play. Ask yourself the questions that I text. Have them research the team, go on NFL Game Pass and watch film so you know what offense or defense they're running. You give them an idea of the people they'll meet so they can connect on a personal level."
Beane: We have a team psychologist and ... I'll ask her, 'What are your thoughts on him? What am I missing?' She might say, 'The kid seemed very nervous when you asked him about X or Y, what's the story on that?' Sometimes I have her do a follow-up Zoom with him to dig more if we don't have the answers."
Mock drafts/scouting reports (January until draft day)
The most popular NFL activity from January until late April? Mock drafts. That means dozens of chances for parents, players or anyone else to try to discern information about where a player might be headed.
Milne: "People kept sending me mock drafts. When you see your name on a mock in the third round you get excited. Obviously those weren't correct. But, yeah [some reports] got me a little angry. I'm a guy that does well when people doubt me."
Rivera: "The mock drafts, if you ... start lining them up, you'll see a pattern. We have ESPN's mock draft and this person's and that person's and that group's mock, and all of them have this guy going here. ... So why would he have him at three but everyone else has him at 15? What has he heard? So it's not just doing your own mock drafts as much as reviewing others."
Mills: "Do I believe any of the guys writing this stuff are influencing any of the real scouts? No."
Matt Bowen, ESPN analyst and former NFL safety (a sixth-round pick in 2000): "I talked to my agent; that was it. If you turned on ESPN, they weren't talking about Matt Bowen. [ESPN analyst] Mel [Kiper Jr.] had this big book. That book is still over at my parents' house. I couldn't imagine going through [the process] now, just the noise. It's 24 hours a day on the draft. I didn't have that."
On the clock
There's tension, excitement, disappointment, elation. And it can all happen in a span of 10 minutes. For a GM, it's about trying to land a coveted player. For a parent, it's about seeing a dream fulfilled. For players selected late, it's about the end of a long wait.
Beane on trading up from pick No. 12 overall to No. 7 to get Allen: "We had a deal for five with [then-Denver Broncos GM John Elway] but he said I have to wait until they're on the clock. He said there's a player we like if he were to fall. He called on the clock and said [linebacker] Brandon Chubb was the guy. So we began having calls down the line. Next was Chris Ballard in Indy. They had already moved from three to six with the Jets and he was like, 'We're not moving.' When Tampa was on the clock we had two different calls before [Buccaneers GM] Jason [Licht] and I agreed to the terms. It was a huge relief once Jason said we had a deal."
Ekwonu: "It felt like a blur. It happened so fast. The anticipation of it felt like it took all day."
Mills: "In a nutshell it's nervous elation. You want your kid to be called and you don't want him to be stressing, but when his name is called, that's great. You hug them."
Tim Renfrow, father of Las Vegas receiver Hunter Renfrow (a 2019 fifth-round pick): "We didn't know he'd be drafted. His agent did think he would be, right around when it happened. I always watch the draft and love athletics, but when you're sitting with your son and waiting on that phone call ... then it happened and the Raiders called and we sat and listened to them talk. It was surreal."
Curl: "Relief, joy, all balled up into one because it was the last day of the draft. [Kamren] went outside by himself, he wanted to be alone. We see him grab his phone, and he stands up and puts his hand on his face and everyone runs outside."
Bowen: "It was a long wait and I was pick 198, and 199 was Tom Brady. I remember looking at the screen -- I had played against Brady in college -- and I thought nothing of it. But that's my claim to fame. If I'm uncomfortable at a holiday party I can say, 'You know what, I was drafted one spot ahead of Tom Brady.'"
Ross: "Ali Marpet's story was great. I was in a wedding the day he was drafted. It was one of my best friends and I told him the only way I could go to the wedding was if the party had a room on the side where I could sit with my computer. They had the reception on the night of Rounds 2 and 3 of the draft. I was there, but in another room. I went out for the cake and did pictures and was out there for a dance, but then I was in the back room working while everyone was partying."
Milne: "I had family and friends over, and it got to the point I felt embarrassed and disappointed that my name wasn't being called as early as I'd like it to be. But the phone rang again [in the seventh round] and it was a number I hadn't spoken to before, and it ended up being Ron Rivera saying he wanted to draft me. My family thought it was another free-agent deal. I said it was the [Commanders], but they didn't cheer because they didn't know until I hung up the phone and said I got drafted. Then it came up on TV and everyone was cheering. Seeing your name on TV is special, especially being around people we loved."