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ESPN's Mike Greenberg to host NFL Draft ... and keep Jets fandom separate

ESPN's Mike Greenberg on the set of "Get

ESPN's Mike Greenberg on the set of "Get Up!" at the network's South Street Seaport studio on Oct. 26, 2020. Credit: ESPN Images/Kelly Backus

Mike Greenberg plans to keep his fan interest to himself when he hosts the NFL Draft on ESPN for the first time starting next Thursday, but between us, let’s just say he will be keeping a particularly close eye on picks 2, 23 and 34.

"I have hosted talk shows for 30 years, and the general premise of a talk show is that people are tuning in to hear what I think of stuff, right?" he said. "This is obviously the opposite of that.

"So while obviously I'm emotionally invested in what happens with the Jets, I know the audience is not tuning in to hear my opinion."

He does have opinions, though, including being "resigned" to the likelihood the Jets will select BYU quarterback Zach Wilson No. 2 overall.

Greenberg was and is a Sam Donald supporter, and said, "I remain a believer that the most valuable thing you could have on draft day is a pick that equals a quarterback when you don't need one."

Trading that choice, as the Dolphins did with No. 3 overall, would have yielded a bounty of draft picks. But that strategy is "water long since under bridge," Greenberg said.

"I'll be rooting for the kid like crazy when he gets here," he said of Wilson, "but next Thursday night won't be the night for me to talk about that one way or the other.

"That aside, I am very, very, very interested to see what they do with number 23 and all the picks after that. Of course, I am."

Greenberg, who grew up in Manhattan, is not the first Jets fan to host the draft for ESPN. Chris Berman grew up following the team and quarterbacked the event from 1987 to 2016, before Trey Wingo took over for the past four years.

But that is all Greenberg expects to have in common with Berman when he hosts the first two nights.

"Anyone who tries to try channel Chris Berman is making the biggest mistake you could ever make in your entire life," he said.

Greenberg said there are certain unique figures in the business one never should try to imitate, a lesson he first learned while a student at Northwestern who fell in love with Harry Caray’s calls of Cubs games.

He puts Berman in the same category as the iconic baseball announcer. "No one can be Chris Berman," he said. "If I sat up there and tried to be Chris Berman, I think that would be an enormous mistake. He is singular."

While Greenberg is not the face of ESPN to the extent Berman once was, he is one of its current stars, as a radio host and host of the morning TV program "Get Up!"

He long has been interested in expanding his portfolio into live event coverage in general and NFL coverage in particular. When Wingo’s contract was not renewed after last year, there was an opportunity on one of ESPN’s most visible events. The network essentially invented NFL Draft coverage in 1980.

"They called and said, ‘Would you like to do this?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you don’t have to ask me twice,’" Greenberg said. "It was a very, very short conversation."

He recalled working the 1991 Bears draft for the Illinois News Network, the first event he ever was paid to cover as a media member.

"Mike Ditka walked in between the picks and talked about it with the media," Greenberg said. "I thought it was the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to me. I got finished with all my work and got home at midnight and I got paid $20, and I still think it’s one of the best days of my life.

"Here I am literally 30 years exactly later getting this opportunity, and it’s hard for me to believe."

Greenberg said he was unaware of social media criticism that ESPN focuses too much on the real-life hardships some drafted players have overcome, but he said that topic is part of the story.

"We will try and find the right balance," he said, "between capturing the emotions of these young men and their families, and what it means to them, with what I think the audience is generally more interested in, which is the impact that it's going to have on their teams and all the other teams in the league."

The year’s draft in Cleveland will look closer to normal than last year’s, which was centered on commissioner Roger Goodell’s home basement.

Greenberg credited ESPN (including Wingo), the NFL Network and the NFL for doing a "brilliant job" under the circumstances.

"For them to pull off what they did last year, I think, was incredible," he said. "But I think this will feel and look a lot more like what we have come to expect the draft to look and feel like."

As a talk show host, Greenberg usually only needs to study up on the top 20 or so players in the draft. This year his goal is to watch video of at least 120.

"If at any point you hear me just say, ‘Mel [Kiper]?’ you’ll know that was a guy I didn’t expect to get to in this draft," he said.

It is highly unlikely that will occur with any player on the Jets’ early round radar.

Greenberg is hoping they take cornerback Greg Newsome II – whom he watched as a collegian at Northwestern – No. 23 overall and running back Najee Harris or Travis Etienne with the second pick of the second round.

"I think the dream setup for the Jets is they take the quarterback at No. 2, the corner, probably Greg Newsome, at 23, and then if they get Travis Etienne with that second pick of the second round, it could be the makings of a really nice start to the draft."

When a reporter jokingly asked Greenberg to name the Jets’ fifth -and sixth-round picks, he threw out several plausible names for that as well.

By then he will be watching at home and free to cheer for – or criticize – his favorite team’s picks without journalistic hesitation.

New York Sports