No amateur draft

Event's rise in popularity breeds new generation of experts

Mock draft mania

April 23, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

They are stressed-out professionals looking to soothe themselves on sleepless nights or recent college graduates trying to hack out work in the new-media world.

Some do it the old way, staring at game film, attending workouts and picking the brains of scouts. But others simply watch a lot of college football and fire from the hip, just like their buddies who think the Ravens need a quarterback right now.

In the past decade, we have become a nation of NFL draft experts.

A job once reserved for a few hundred team employees and a handful of media obsessives is now shouldered by thousands of fans, their predictions flying as quickly as their fingers on the keys of their home computers.

A database of mock drafts at features 243 entries, up from 30 seven years ago. Draft-specific Web sites, run by guys with no formal background in scouting or coaching, receive 60,000 unique visitors a day.

These new experts are men such as Scott Wright, who started his Web site, NFL Draft Countdown, as a high school junior in Minnesota and now makes a living at it. He has projected the first round better than ESPN draft guru (and Baltimore native) Mel Kiper Jr. since 2005.

"I've almost gotten too good at it," he says. "I gather so much information that I overthink it."

Others are such as Drew Boylhart, a former aide to New York Gov. George Pataki who discovered scouting college football players was the best counter to his insomnia. He learned to read body language in his first profession and believes he can see past 40-yard-dash times and college completion rates to the souls of the best prospects.

He says he has gotten calls from NFL owners who wonder why he's in love with a player who is low on many draft boards.

"I think it's comical," he says. "I just don't think my opinions are that important."

Several factors explain the draft's popularity boom. It provides an interface between two of the country's most popular sports, pro and college football. But more than that, sports fans love a chance to pick the results of a complex exercise. Just look at the fervor around NCAA tournament brackets in college basketball. Better still, the paid experts mess it up enough that they give average football fans plenty of chances to feel superior.

The widening and deepening draft obsession never ceases to amaze Mark Buterbaugh, a Pennsylvania resident who maintains the mock draft database at HailRedskins.

"I get e-mails from people saying, `I don't know what I'd do without it,'" he says. "And I think, `I don't know ... live.'"

Says former Evening Sun writer Clark Judge, who covers the NFL for "It gives everyone a chance to be the general manager of their favorite team. I think it's that simple. Most of us can't own teams, and few of us get a chance to work for them. But there's always one weekend in every year when we can rent them and run them as we'd like. Who doesn't find that appealing?"

According to rankings of mock drafts assembled by, Judge, 56, has been the second-most-accurate prognosticator of the first round over the past three years.

Along with his buddy, Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News, he represents the establishment wing of the mock-drafting community. Judge has covered the NFL for 25 years and prepares for his projections by talking to scouts and executives around the league.

"You have to go with the evaluations of experts, and you have to remember that the experts aren't us," he says.

For decades, fans - and even many team executives - paid the draft little mind. It wasn't uncommon to see a GM flip through a Street & Smith's magazine when the time came to make a late-round pick.

The 1970s had the rise of a small but fervent wave of writers, known to many as draftniks.


There was Joel Buchsbaum, a dietitian who wrote draft columns for Pro Football Weekly (the early bible for NFL junkies) from his cluttered, one-room apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. The late Buchsbaum was something of a recluse, but every significant talent evaluator knew his voice from repeated phone calls, and many respected his opinions, gleaned from watching reams and reams of tape. Bill Belichick once tried to hire him as a scout.

"You'd think, `God, who's looking at this much film?'" Judge says of early draft fanaticism. "And then you'd think, `Well, Joel is.'"

Next came Jerry Jones, a Cincinnati pharmacist who published his first "Drugstore List" in 1978 and later became a consultant to the Bengals.

Of course, the Johnny Appleseed of this set, the one who would take draft mania to the masses, was a Baltimore kid named Mel Kiper Jr.

Kiper, who had no formal football background, was so nuts about the game that he hung around Colts practices as a teenager, scribbling notes about everyone and everything he saw. He self-published his first draft guide as a freshman at Essex Community College in 1979. He sold about 100 and was encouraged enough to leave school and launch a one-man industry.

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