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Draft coverage a select process

When talking about the NFL Draft, it's mandatory to tip your cap to ESPN. The folks in Bristol, Conn., have covered the draft for the past quarter-century, building an event that, at its core, is nothing more than moving names from one line to another into a year-round topic of conversation and an important date on the sports calendar.

Senior coordinating producer Jay Rothman said 31,402,000 viewers watched all or part of last year's coverage, an increase of 8 percent over 2003.

ESPN did such a good job of "growing" the draft, it is now part of the NFL's television rights package.

The draft even plays well in Boston, where college football does not get high ratings and local colleges do not have many players projected to go in the first two rounds. Yet last year's first round did a 3.2 rating on a Saturday afternoon when the Yankees and Red Sox were playing on NESN (11.0 rating).

The ESPN-pire will cover the entire draft. Tomorrow, ESPN has the action from noon-5:30 p.m., then ESPN2 takes over through the third round, projected to be 10 p.m. Sunday, ESPN returns from 11 a.m. through the seventh (and final) round, projected to end at 6 p.m. The ESPN coverage involves a "videoconferencing" setup at each of the 32 team headquarters. Should the Patriots make a major move, ESPN could have coach Bill Belichick on the air within 30 seconds of the announcement.

ESPN's main set at the Javits Center in New York City will be manned by host Chris Berman, analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Chris Mortensen, and, for the first time, an active player, Rams receiver Torry Holt. Suzy Kolber will anchor a second set at the Javits Center tomorrow with Sean Salisbury.

The network also has three additional sets: the ESPNU studio in Charlotte, N.C.; a roundtable at ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" studio in New York City with host Andrea Kremer and current players, including the Patriots' Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel; and a studio in Bristol with Trey Wingo as host with "NFL Matchup" analysts Merril Hoge and Ron Jaworski.

"We've got the first five minutes scripted," said Rothman. "The next 16 hours and 55 minutes are by the seat of our pants."

ESPNU will cover the draft from the college perspective. The coverage will be a separate production with host Rece Davis and analysts Mike Gottfried and Bob Davie, with ESPNU's anchor Mike Hall and studio host Mike Gleason also participating. ESPNU is available only to DirecTV customers in New England; however, ESPN and ESPN2 will drop in on the ESPNU coverage when appropriate. Boston College coach Tom O'Brien is scheduled to be a guest on ESPNU.

There's plenty of ancillary coverage:

* The NFL Network will have one-hour editions of its signature "NFL Total Access" tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. The NFL Network's Kara Henderson will be filing reports from Patriots headquarters all weekend.

* The league's website celebrated its 10th birthday April 10. This spring, the NFL's owners voted to keep their NFL Internet agreement -- linking all 32 club sites from the league site -- for another 15 years. The league is in the homestretch of a five-year, $250 million deal with AOL and CBS, which handles the traffic for the site. will have chats with at least six of the top picks following their selections, have live audio from the podium, web cams in select "war rooms," and a live "draft tracker" crawl.

* Video News/ Radio: The home team's web radio will broadcast live from Gillette Stadium tomorrow from 3-6 p.m. and from noon-3 p.m. Sunday. That will include Belichick's news conferences and website postings of frequent draft updates. "Patriots Video News" will do nightly shows introducing the newest members of the team.

High profile

Comcast's On Demand feature has the NFL Network's profiles of the draft's top 50 players, available by position or alphabetically . . . The Globe's "Sportsplus" show (tonight and tomorrow, NESN, 5:30 and 11:30 p.m.) looks at the draft with Jerome Solomon and Ron Borges. In addition, Bob Hohler looks at baseball's amphetamine problem . . . ESPN debuts "SportsCentury: Pat Tillman" today, on the one-year anniversary of the former Arizona Cardinal and Army Ranger's combat death in Afghanistan and a week after his agent said Tillman had turned down a discharge to return to the NFL. The documentary airs at noon (ESPN and ESPNHD) and at 8 p.m. on ESPN Classic . . . Tomorrow's Pacers-Celtics playoff opener (8 p.m.) will be available in high definition on FSN (with Mike Gorman and Tom Heinsohn) and ESPN. Sean Grande and Cedric Maxwell have the call on WWZN (1510). FSN can broadcast games through the first two rounds before the telecasts become exclusive to ABC, ESPN, and TNT . . . Revolution fans can find tomorrow night's match with D.C. United on Channel 56 at 7:30.

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