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2020 NFL Draft 'a wild ride' with lessons to be learned for future

A draft like none other finished, with the intimacy and humanity unmatched in any previous version of the NFL Draft, and the most indelible image was probably ... a dog.

Bill Belichick's dog, to be precise. When the camera cut to the dining room table previously occupied by the Patriots coach when his team was on the clock, it was instead a shot of his dog, Nike. Pouring over notes.

"I looked over at the screen and said, 'That is fantastic,'" NFL executive vice president, club business & league events Peter O'Reilly said. "I love Coach's sense of humor on that. Nike is one of the most famous dogs out there now."

Belichick's dog and all other memorable scenes that were watched on NFL Network, ABC and ESPN, ESPN Deportes and on digital platforms combined to average 8.4 million viewers, the most watched draft ever -- by far. Perhaps just as importantly, the Draft-A-Thon LIVE helped raise $6.6 million, contributing to a collective total of $100 million to support COVID-19 relief efforts.

Along the way, the draft paid tribute to workers on the front lines and as O'Reilly noted, "That was a huge piece. It was special."

O'Reilly spoke with on Monday to recount the 2020 Draft experience and detail what can be used going forward.

"We provided an escape to fans and allowed them a little bit of hope," O'Reilly said. "A record number showed up, and the tone was right, which you could tell by the way the fans embraced it. I think we did right by the moment. It was a wild ride, and it took a tremendous effort across every club, every department, every partner, all across the league. We accomplished something safely and with equity so there was competitive balance. All the boxes were checked."

At one point, it seemed improbable considering the global pandemic, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and the ever-changing world thanks to the coronavirus. O'Reilly was asked if there were any doubts along the way that it would happen. "Honestly, no," he said.

"It wasn't always perfect, but there was never a point where there was any sense of wavering," O'Reily added. "It felt right. The Friday before, the mock draft on Monday, all the TV tests, the 100 remotes, it started to feel OK and that it would come together."

O'Reilly said there were no technical breakdowns, no reasons to stop the clock. They had several redundancies just in case, and he credited the various technical experts for making it happen.

The shots inside the homes of prospects, coaches and GMs were among the most touching images. Coaches on couches, GMs with children helping make selections, owners on yachts. That felt right, too. Different but somehow right.

Observers noted it felt different, not like a big event and that was OK. In fact, it led to calls to replicate some facet of the experience for future drafts. But what? What could the NFL use out of this year's version for future years?

"The prospects, being able to allow fans to see into the homes of prospects and understand the moment and celebrate that moment with more players," he said. "Normally, you have 20-25 players in Vegas or Cleveland and the networks have a handful of cameras at draft parties. But this year, the total was more than 85. You still have the ability to bring that core group to Cleveland... Now, there is still something powerful about that moment on stage. Hugging the Commissioner -- there is nothing like the live experience."

In other words, the green room isn't going anywhere. Prospects will still be celebrating on stage.

"But beyond that core group, to bring that prospect experience to life and do it in a way that's honest and real and celebrate it, hopefully we can do that," O'Reilly said. "Now, I loved the way the GMs and head coaches embraced the cameras in their homes -- the hugging, the high-fives, dogs everywhere. I don't know if there's the ability to replicate that. The draft rooms are an efficient hub of activity. But that humanity, those elements were really powerful. We'll look at everything. But from a tech perspective, there is no going back."

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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