Kiper, other NFL draftniks cashing in
Mel Kiper Jr. didn't sound as if he was trying to be arrogant. His tone was more matter-of-fact.
About 20 minutes into a conference call last month that media members dialed in early and sat on hold for the privilege of presenting the ESPN draft analyst a question, Kiper was asked whether the Dallas Cowboys would take a quarterback with the No. 4 pick next month's NFL Draft.
“ I think they should,” Kiper said, emphasizing the first word. “But it's not me making the call. I've been told by everybody I've talked to (within the NFL) that they're not.”
Kiper's reputation and status among the league's inner-circle has come a long way since Indianapolis Colts executive Bill Tobin famously declared, “Who the (heck) is Mel Kiper?” after Kiper criticized a Colts pick in 1994.
Everyone knows who he is today.
Tobin was fired three years later, and Kiper has been in the draft scouting business for more than 35 years, becoming a brand of his own (he runs “Mel Kiper Enterprises” with his wife) and as synonymous with the draft to fans as the ceremonial commissioner's handshake with the newest draftees.
He has been evaluating drafts longer than a majority of NFL general managers and scouts. So why wouldn't he be, at least, just as qualified?
“You can get a lot of different opinions (on prospects), and we put it all together,” Kiper said. “It's never-ending because you are starting to look at these guys, in fact, for next year's draft, as soon as the draft is over. That's what you spend all summer doing.”
Kiper remains the most recognizable name in his craft. But unlike the early 1980s, the professional media draft analysis game is far from solely his domain. Thanks to the internet and the widespread and effortless availability of downloadable game film, the draft analyst game has exploded.
Major outlets covering the NFL all seem to employ multiple full-time NFL draft analysts. Internet-only media outlets that didn't exist before have a dedicated “draftnik.” And that doesn't count the seemingly endless number of smaller sites and lesser-known publications or independent bloggers out there.
A Google search for “NFL mock draft 2016” returns 2.1 million hits.
Whereas in the not-too-distant past, the average fan had to spend money to mail-order and read a draft handbook to be familiar with more than a handful of first-round picks or former college skill-position stars. Today, scouting reports of every draftable player — broken down by position — are available at people's fingertips.
“I have a ranking of 400 players due before the draft,” said Matt Miller, BleacherReport NFL draft lead writer. “I want to make sure I'm not missing out on any one player out there who might get drafted.”
Kiper estimates he watches film 6-7 hours per day beginning in late summer through the draft. That seems typical — or maybe on the low end — of the industry.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock relayed earlier this month he spent 10 hours looking at historical comparisons of former and current NFL players to those on this year's draft board.
“There's value in being able to compare kids from this year to past years,” Mayock said. “For instance, (Defensive end) DeForest Buckner, who's coming out of Oregon this year at 6-7, 295, who does he remind you of? Well, (the Arizona Cardinals') Calais Campbell, at 6-7, 290, who years ago ran a 5.0, 40.”
Such encyclopedic knowledge of current and past players seems to be a common trait held by draftniks as they accumulate experience.
“You can't say whether or not (Alabama's) Derrick Henry will fail as a running back until you've seen enough big running backs fail,” draftbreakdown.com co-owner Bryan Perez said. “If you haven't seen Eddie George play in 1998 and '99 and '97, you can't be confident in saying Derrick Henry in 2016 will be a good football player. Good scouting is an art, something you get better at and learn over time.”
Perez said he makes it a point to watch at least three game “tapes” for each prospect — often watching each many times. And forget about simply dialing up, for example, an Alabama game and taking notes on all 10 of the draftable-graded prospects NFL.com rates.
“I don't think I can focus properly on any more than one player (at a time),” Perez said. “If you do that, I feel like you're not being fair to that (particular player's) evaluation.”
Draft analysts tend to rely heavily on their observations when making their evaluations and rankings — though not completely. Combine and pro-day measurables play a part (to varying degrees), as does analytics and college production.
“Every year, try to learn from your mistakes,” said USA Today Draft Wire senior draft analyst Jon Ledyard, a Greensburg native. “Sometimes, different writers will fall in love with a prospect because of a certain scheme or a particular play or game — and then they tend to evaluate that player through that lens. Preconceived bias is a big part of analyzing the draft, so it's something you have to try to avoid.”
That means giving every player a clean slate — which leads to the hours of analyzing game film.
The sheer volume watched by the full-time draft analysts likely dwarfs the amount an NFL team's general manager does.
Analysts have their misses — but the teams do, too.
Like Tobin 22 years ago, fans tend to see the miss evaluations and quickly dismiss the “draftnik” as someone who couldn't scout for a team. Nowadays, though, analysts say the media option is an attractive career path.
“I had a conversation with a general manager at the Senior Bowl,” Miller said. “I said, ‘Man, one of these years, I would like to work for a team, just to prove I could do it.'
“He said, ‘Why would you want to do that? You're making more money, you have job security.' Scouts, you might be on the road 200 days a year, and you write 100 scouting reports — but the team doesn't end up drafting one of your players.”