LAS VEGAS, April 28 (UPI) — Top college football prospects have long visualized themselves as first-round NFL Draft selections. They now strive to soak in every second before that dream becomes reality, with a unique Las Vegas flair.
The first round of the draft will be held Thursday, while subsequent rounds air Friday and Saturday. Draft coverage will air on ESPN, NFL Network and ABC.
Defensive linemen Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan and Travon Walker of Georgia are among the favorites to hear their name called first on the main stage, which is located alongside Caesars Forum and behind the 550-foot-tall High Roller ferris wheel.
“I’m taking every moment, bit by bit, and soaking it all in,” Hutchinson told UPI on Wednesday on the NFL Draft Experience campus between the Caesars Forum conference center and the Westin Las Vegas.
“Staying in the present moment has been my focus.”
Drafted players will walk a showgirl-lined red carpet, set up on the water in front of the dancing Bellagio fountains. They then will receive a call from their new team and walk out to meet and shake hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the temporary stage at the time of their selections.
Hundreds of drones will crowd the air with the lights and flair of the Las Vegas Strip shining in the background as teams wager big bets on potential franchise players.
Musicians Weezer, Ice Cube and Marshmello, as well as magicians and circus performers, will entertain for a large live audience, with more than a half-million people expected to be in the city for draft festivities.
Hutchinson is one of 20 elite former college football stars who accepted an invitation to be present at the event. He traveled with about 20 other family members and friends from Michigan.
Former Liberty quarterback Malik Willis says his group includes about 100 people, including 70 family members.
“Them being able to support me feels really good inside,” Willis said Wednesday at a youth football clinic he attended with Hutchinson and the other top prospects. “Since I was a little kid, they have always been supporting me.
“I don’t usually visualize moments like this. I’d rather wait, be surprised and be happy, but I’m definitely excited.”
The Vegas venue is fitting to form Cincinnati cornerback Sauce Gardner, who is all-in on himself as an NFL player. He recently told his mother to retire from work as a plant worker in Detroit because he plans to help provide for his family from his lucrative NFL deal.
“She didn’t want to quit working because she felt that the pressure might be on me, but I handle pressure very well,” Gardner said. “I know I’ll be OK, and she will, too.”
Gardner said he plans to buy his mom a house in the same city in which he lands after he is drafted.
The No. 1 overall pick is expected to receive a four-year, $41 million contract. All Top 10 selections are expected to get deals that exceed $22 million. The No. 32 overall pick is expected to receive a $12 million rookie contract. All first-round deals include a fifth-year option.
Former Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, one of the other top defensive backs in the draft class, said he expects about 40 friends and family members to be with him on draft night.
“It’s crazy. These are obviously the best players in the country,” Hamilton said. “It’s awesome to be here and in this position. I have the opportunity to be drafted. It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was 5.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars have the No. 1 overall pick. The Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, New York Jets and New York Giants also have Top 5 picks.
NC State’s Ickey Ekwonu, Alabama’s Evan Neal, Mississippi State’s Charles Cross, Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux are among the other top prospects expected to be picked early in the first round.
First-round draft coverage starts at 8 pm EDT Thursday. Second- and third-round coverage will air at 7 pm Friday. Fourth-through seventh-round coverage will start at noon Saturday.