NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock says the Senior Bowl is his favorite time of the year. It is there, on the turf of Ladd-Pebbles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., that the NFL prospects he has studied on film suddenly spring to life. The players either confirm Mayock's initial assessment or prompt him to intensify his film study.
"Basically, I'm a one-man outfit," said Mayock, who also works as a game analyst for NBC Sports. "I try to watch tape on as many kids as I can leading into the draft. My philosophy is to stack kids at the beginning based on pure scouting, on what I see on tape and what kind of player I think a kid will be. As more information starts to fill in as far as off-the-field issues, then I start to change some of what I have based on what I've learned. I'm not big on innuendo and I don't have a private security guy working for me. In reference to off-the-field issues -- and I'd lump medical, work ethic and any kind of trouble into one off-the-field-issue category -- I rely heavily on my contacts throughout the league."
The opening round of the NFL draft will commence April 28 in New York, but the next few weeks are when Mayock earns his money. He's spending this week at home in Philadelphia, watching tape provided by the Senior Bowl coaches. He'll then move on to the many underclassmen who have declared for the draft. Once Mayock concludes the process of going through all the prospects, he'll have a solid base for the NFL Scouting Combine, which takes place Feb. 24 to March 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
This column has often praised ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and respects his preparation. Same with Todd McShay. But Mayock has become the gold standard of the glamour NFL evaluators. What's refreshing is that he recognizes that his impact with teams is minimal.
"In the media world, if I say a kid is a first-round pick, people will pick it up and talk about it," Mayock said. "The only true reality is what is going on in the building of the 32 teams. They have big staffs to figure this out. How much they respect or don't respect my opinions is anyone's guess. I think you are giving me a little too much credit if you think I have impact on that.
"But I do I think that agents believe they can influence me," Mayock continued. "An agent's job is to get their best foot forward for their client, and I think I frustrate them a bit because they want to tell me how good their player is or give me some statistic. My reaction most of the time is, 'I appreciate the information, but the tape doesn't lie.' I'm a tape guy. If I don't agree with you, you can tell me anything you want to tell me, but it doesn't change my feelings for your kid."At the Senior Bowl, Mayock says he grabs players before and after practice, especially the quarterbacks. He knows, as any player personnel executive will tell you, that the league revolves around the search for the franchise quarterback. Three weeks ago, Delaware senior quarterback Pat Devlin, a 6-4 prospect from Downingtown, Penn., asked Mayock if he could watch tape with him at his home.
"I had him walk me through his pass protection -- like the teams would do," Mayock said. "I wanted to get a feel for what kind of football IQ he had. For me, the quarterback position is the most important to figure out. The more I know about these kids, the better job I can do."
Last week the NFL Network released Mayock's initial top-five prospects by position. SI.com asked Mayock to amplify some of his thoughts from that list.
SI.com: Where do you stand on quarterbacks regarding first-round talent?
Mayock: I see four quarterbacks with first-round ability but I have not figured them out yet. I need a lot more work on Ryan Mallett. He makes too many mistakes in the pocket. Cam Newton is just this awesome talent who is further along from a mechanical perspective than Tim Tebow or Vince Young, but I don't know if he is a top-10 pick right now. I've seen four of his game tapes. I need to see six more game tapes and figure the kid out. What kind of work ethic does he have? Will he be the first one in the building?
Blaine Gabbert might be most gifted quarterback in this draft. He might be the next Sam Bradford. On the other hand, he might be the next Alex Smith. At this point, I caution people. I gave out my top-five list, but this week is when I'll review all the Senior Bowl tape and more junior tape. These lists will change and get updated. Ultimately, when we get through the combine and these players get taken off boards because the teams have told me something, then my board starts to mean something. Right now, it is like a crossword puzzle. I'm mixing pieces in and out.
SI.com: Mark Ingram and A.J. Green are at the top of your running back and wide receiver lists, respectively. How strong would you say they are at the top of those positions?
Mayock: Mark Ingram is the only running back that I have identified that I think is a first-round running back. I think he will probably go -- and this is just eyeballing the tape -- between 15 and 25 overall. I need more work on Mikel LeShoure of Illinois, who is a very talented underclassman. Maybe he becomes a first-round pick in my mind, but I have not done enough work on him yet. A.J. Green is a top-10 pick. I look at A.J. Green and say: I don't think he gets past the 10th pick. I look at [wide receiver] Julio Jones and he probably goes somewhere between 11 and 20.
SI.com: Most people believe the defensive end position is stacked, and perhaps the deepest in the draft. How much of an impact do you think the group will make?
Mayock: If you are looking at a deep grouping in this draft, it is the defensive lineman in general, because the defensive tackles are pretty good, too. I think you'll see a run on the defensive line early. It's a pass-first league now, and anyone who can get pressure on a quarterback is highly coveted. [Defensive end] Da'Quan Bowers is one of those guys who jumps off the tape when you watch him. Incredible explosion and strength, he plays hard and you don't have to worry about him off the field from what I know so far. Forget team needs and who is picking in the first five; I don't think Da'Quan Bowers gets out of the top five.
To me, Von Miller of Texas A&M is one of the most gifted pass rushers in this draft, though most of the teams look at him as a 3-4 rush linebacker, so he is not listed as a defensive end. You have Robert Quinn, and that's a kid where you have to take other considerations into play: How good a football player is he after he missed a year [because of suspension]? You have to go back to the tapes in '09. You know there is talent and ability there, but you have to do the homework with the coaches at North Carolina. There is a lot of work to be done on Robert Quinn. I put him in my top five because I recognized the talent, but I'm not going to confirm it until I recognize the kid.
SI.com: What did you think of the league's move last year to a three-day draft?
Mayock: I think the fans loved it. I think it gave the league and the two networks the opportunity to have a red carpet night, like an Oscar night. Here's my take from a football perspective: I think some of the teams liked it because they could go home and set their board, but the interesting thing for me is that the teams that are really good at drafting and really well-prepared for every pick, I think they thought it took away part of their advantage. If you are a really well-prepared team, nothing throws you. But if you are not, and all of a sudden a trade happens or the guy you wanted gets selected right in front of you, now you are panicked. The well-prepared teams thrive on that kind of pressure and expect the other teams to make mistakes.
(I asked Kiper the same question earlier in the week. His response: "I thought it was the best that it had ever been in terms of pacing, in terms of the way you were able to look forward to Day One and go through the day and the buildup to the first round. It gave teams a chance to redo their boards. And Day Three became a normal Day Two. ... I thought it was the best scenario rather than that whole marathon when the teams were kind of worn out. To sit there for that long and be sharp was not easy. This made it a lot crisper.")
SI.com: There are others draft evaluators who appear on television as you do, including, most notably, ESPN's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay. How much do you look at their work, or do you approach the process in isolation from other evaluators?
Mayock: It's an interesting question. I want to own all my own material to the best extent I can because if I make a mistake, I want it to be mine. Not because I listened to somebody or read something. The qualification is I have a lot of guys throughout the league who I trust and who trust me, and what they do for me is provide a tremendous cross-checking service. I'll get a call from somebody who is a real good personnel evaluator and he'll say, "Mike, why do you have so-and-so at No. 3? He stinks." Or someone will say, "Mike, this guy is way better than you have him." It causes me to go back and watch more tape and figure it out.
Now as far as the external -- other people who do what I do -- the guy that I trust and like as far as an evaluator is Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly. He kind of took over for Joel Buchsbaum when he died. Nolan is a grinder. He's a guy I trust, and we sometimes compare notes. It's not like we are sharing info that we shouldn't, it's just like, "Hey, why are you higher on this guy?" As far as Mel and Todd, I really like those guys as people and see them out on the circuit, but for the most part, outside of the people in the league I trust, I try to keep my situation to myself."
Don Ohlmeyer's 18-month tenure as ESPN ombudsman came to a close last week with a 5,830-word column that punctuated the value of listening to the audience. The column spent much energy on the work of Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's senior vice president for research & analytics, who explained that "ESPN is fanatical about listening to the audience."
It is a principle everyone in sports media should follow.
Those who follow me on Twitter know my chief complaint with Ohlmeyer's tenure: a lack of timeliness to his columns and a limited focus beyond the television platform. The digital age forces the newspaper and radio ombudsman to work under a faster metabolism, and those at NPR, TheWashington Post and TheNew York Times have been up to the challenge. Too often Ohlmeyer's columns felt dated. On the day of The Decision, a landmark moment for ESPN (and LeBron James) last year, Ohlmeyer examined how vuvuzelas presented a dilemma for ESPN at the World Cup in South Africa. Such a column about buzz, alas, lacked buzz.
The Decision, in fact, is where Ohlmeyer starred, an issue in which he could dive into his legendary career as a sports TV executive and explain incisively how trust had been broken by the network. His column on that program was the best work of his tenure. But criticism is subjective, and my own magazine's Scorecard editors praised Ohlmeyer's tenure in one of the magazine's final issues of 2010.
Ohlmeyer wrote one column after Oct. 21, and in his final piece, he apologized for the spotty presence of his column, citing health issues. This column wishes him only the best of health. It is important for me to note that when I confirmed news of Ohlmeyer's health from a source outside of ESPN after an ESPN employee had told me Ohlmeyer had not been feeling well, I stopped tweaking him on Twitter for his absence. Whether Ohlmeyer should have been transparent earlier to the ESPN audience (or stepped down) is an issue reasonable people can debate.
The next ESPN ombudsman will be named shortly and the hope is that he or she will work in a real-time age. I've long floated the idea that the ombudsman should work in a real-time medium -- be it a blog, mailbag or even a Twitter account -- to react swifter, even if that reaction is to merely inform viewers and readers that their voices have been heard and a longer examination is coming. Plenty of issues that have risen at ESPN in the past six weeks -- such as Will Selva's plagiarizing an Orange County Register sports reporter (and his one-week punishment for it); Ron Franklin's sexist comments to colleague Jeannine Edwards; ESPN's partnership with the University of Texas; reporter Erin Andrews' endorsing Reebok apparel; Mary Carillo's not working the Australian Open -- that have not been addressed by the public's representative to ESPN. The next ombudsman will have much to chew on, including highlighting the excellent work the brand does on a daily basis.
As many of you know, Erin Andrews recently signed with Reebok to endorse ZigTech footwear and apparel, which means she's the only working sports reporter who can call both Chad Johnson and Alex Ovechkin teammates. Last week The Oregonian's Allen Brettman (who covers Nike for the newspaper) posted this piece, which took a hard line on Andrews. Wrote Brettman: "If you cover the sports equipment and apparel industry, like I do, you're slightly agog at the endorsement. Because just about two weeks earlier, Andrews gave an on-air report that delivered a hit on one of Reebok's chief competitors, Nike."
The so-called hit referred to how Andrews reported that TCU football players were slipping in their new Nike cleats during the Rose Bowl. In his story, Brettman quoted the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride, the organization's ethics group leader who often weighs in on ethics in journalism. "Journalists can review products, but they can't take money from a company to endorse them," McBride told the newspaper. "That totally ruins their credibility."
ESPN does not have a formal policy regarding the endorsement of commercial products by its talent. The network has long said that it evaluates each of the requests on an individual basis, and it was quick to respond to Brettman: "It's rare she would cover stories involving shoes in her role," an ESPN spokesman said. "With that said, if something relevant comes up, she would disclose her Reebok connection."
If ESPN is cool with Andrews' promoting Reebok -- or Applebee's and NutriSystem, as Chris Berman once brilliantly juggled concurrently -- she has every right to do so. Let me state unequivocally that I don't believe for a moment that Andrews' reporting at the Rose Bowl was done to curry favor for her about-to-be employer. Such brazenness strikes me as preposterous, especially since ESPN has senior news editors (with distinguished print credentials) on site at remotes to provide checks and balances on everything.
But the key word here is credibility. Andrews can sell the soap for Reebok and get rich doing it if her employer is cool with it. But it reconfirms what I've always said about her: She's a personality who occasionally practices journalism. It's the same way I'd describe Berman, too. ESPN executives, especially those on the newsgathering side, understandably hate hearing charges that the network shows favoritism toward athletes. But its audience gets a mixed message when one of its most well-known talents is hawking Reebok alongside the Manning brothers.
ESPN PR is indeed correct that Andrews doesn't cover the shoe beat. But Reebok does have a ton of athletes on its payroll (John Wall, Sidney Crosby, Tim Lincecum, David Ortiz, etc.). Say Andrews covers the NFL draft, as she did in 2009, and she's interviewing a Reebok athlete: Can I trust her with questions of that athlete? If she found out newsworthy information damaging to a Reebok athlete, would she be willing to report it?
Those are fair questions, and if Andrews is going to take Reebok's cash, then examinations of the issue are going to come, be it from The New York Times, Larry Kramer, the former CEO of CBS Marketwatch.com, or former ESPN employee Keith Olbermann. In the Times piece, Bob Dorfman, the executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, said of Andrews: "She's not a paragon of journalism." ESPN countered otherwise. "We are confident in Erin's reporting ability and journalistic role," a spokesperson said. "If an instance of inherent conflict arises, we would obviously be transparent with the audience."
I've long been impressed by ESPN reporter John Barr, who consistently produces terrific work. His Outside the Linesfeature this week on the use of prescription painkillers by retired NFL players was ESPN at its journalistic best. (Producers Dwayne Bray and Ronnie Forchheimer get major props here as well.) The network says it commissioned the first scientific study of prescription painkiller use by retired NFL players, and the results showed an alarming rate of misuse.
The study (made up of 644 former players and commissioned by the network with additional funding by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) marked the first time researchers have explored the extent of the use and misuse of prescription pain medications by former NFL players. ESPN says researchers found more than half of the retired NFL players surveyed reported using prescription painkillers during their career and, of that same group, 71 percent admitted misusing the drugs during their time in the NFL.
It's groundbreaking stuff, and worth your time.
Finally, one quick note about a previous item on Matt Millen. As I stated in an earlier column, SI.com appreciates ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson responding to questions about production judgments made by he and his staff. Last month I asked him why ESPN would assign Millen to call games in Michigan when he is so intensely disliked by the public. Both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press picked up Williamson's answer and readers commented in big numbers on both sites, including 163 comments on the Free Press website. The comments were decidedly in one direction.
If ESPN is fanatical about listening to the audience, as Bulgrin stated, and as I also believe to be true, the audience for this market seems to be saying something.