Experts outline 12 rules for creating a respectable NFL mock draft
Todd McShay was supposed to be in Bristol for a meeting on Feb. 6. But once word spread that the NFL draft analyst would be on campus, McShay's afternoon was shot. Producers at SportsCenter, NFL Insiders and NFL Live grabbed McShay, got Mel Kiper on a remote and made the pair explain their recently released "Mock Draft 2.0."
Just four days after the Super Bowl, McShay had Jadeveon Clowney at No. 1, while Kiper had Johnny Manziel in the top spot (Kiper has since moved Clowney to No. 1). They agreed on No. 2 -- Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson to St. Louis, but still have to make a point. "He's the most explosive blocker at the point of attack I've scouted," the 37-year-old McShay said. "I'm not a dinosaur like Kiper and wasn't around for Orlando Pace."
"Settle down you two," interjects the host, but there's not much friction this early in the offseason. McShay maintains that the 53-year-old Kiper, widely considered the pioneer most responsible for popularizing NFL draft coverage, could have made life very difficult for him as the new kid on the block, but was actually very helpful. (McShay says he gets more questions about Kiper's hair than the actual draft, and he claims it's real and he's seen it stand up to hurricane-like winds.)
"Every year it starts earlier," said McShay, a former quarterback at Richmond (1995-97)."I have a lot of tape left to watch. Team draft boards aren't set. I can write the most thoughtful piece on football strategy of all time -- no one will care compared to my mock draft. The demand is unbelievable."
But how much of the mock draft craze is just noise? Have they become the Buzzfeed lists of NFL reporting? Almost every sports site (including SI.com) will post multiple mocks, and every NFL writer is expected to produce at least one, even if they haven't seen a college game since they were undergrads. If those aren't enough, an army of amateur GMs have stormed the Internet and Twitter to post their own mocks or point out what they don't like about the existing ones.
Former Colts GM Bill Polian had his staff track five or six prominent mock drafts every year throughout the 2000s. "We found that through the first 20 picks," Polian said, "they were 86 to 89 percent accurate in terms of which players would go that high -- not the exact slot or team. After 20 and in the second round, it was closer to 50 percent."
SI.com talked to some of the men who tackle mock drafts every spring. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have very different approaches. But they all take the daunting task head-on. Here are 12 rules for creating a respectable mock draft:
1. It's All About Relationships
Rick Gosselin handled the mock draft for the Dallas Morning News from 1992 to 2011. TheHuddleReport.com has tracked a wide range of published mock drafts since 2001 and graded Gosselin as the most accurate analyst in '03, '06 and '11.
"Everybody talked to me," said Gosselin. "I've been covering the NFL for 40 years. I knew at a certain point that I was the one guy talking to all the teams. I was like a consensus draft board. I gave information out. They gave me information. It's all about relationships."
Gosselin stopped doing mock drafts when he transitioned from reporter to columnist, and doesn't necessarily miss them. "Like everything associated with the draft, they've just exploded," Gosselin said. "There's so much noise out there, it's hard to make sense of it all. In 2011, my last mock, I had five quarterbacks in the first round. Everyone told me I was crazy. Turns out, four QBs went (Gosselin predicted the Vikings would select Andy Dalton at No. 12 -- Dalton went in the second round). What they didn't realize is that I had pretty good intel from around the league."
SI.com's Don Banks believes the key is filtering the information.
"Sometimes a good source on a team will give you four names," said Banks. "The right name will be in there. They want to help you write something meaningful and they provide accurate parameters. But they can't give up the name, or they might not know yet."
For mock drafters who rely primarily on their reporting skills, getting the right pick can come down to being at the right place at the right time. Banks recalled how longtime Sports Illustrated mock drafter Paul Zimmerman was held hostage in his house every spring:
"Dr. Z would tell me horror stories about how he would go to get the paper, the phone would ring and he'd miss the one personnel guy on the Redskins he trusted. Everything was predicated on the home phone before cells and texting. The personnel guy might go back into his meeting and never call back. He'd be held hostage in his own house by the calls. Nothing bothered him more than when he was on one line talking to a scout and the other line rang. Did he drop one call for another? It was an impossible choice."
2. Don't Trust Anyone
Agents and representatives are happy to tell draft analysts why their players should be in the first round.
"I stopped returning agents' calls," said McShay. "I was getting nothing out of them. There's always an angle. I don't understand why. I'm not going to change teams' minds."
Gosselin tried to get all his information in January and February, because "April is lying season. Teams start to try to control the information coming out of their building."
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn has been covering the draft since 1985 and built up connections throughout the league. He won't talk draft with any of them at the combine. "I avoid personnel guys in Indy," said McGinn, who finished first last year in TheHuddleReport.com's Top 100 contest (he accurately predicted 87 of the first 100 players drafted). "I want to try to develop my own opinion of these guys first and then talk to people later on. That serves you better in the long run. You just don't know where people are coming from. And I certainly don't want to talk to other draftniks or read what they're doing."
3. Character Study
Daniel Jeremiah was a scout for the Ravens, Browns and Eagles and now is a fulltime analyst for the NFL Network. He knows how much emphasis teams put on character -- it's one of the main reasons he's sharing his mock drafts on television and online instead of working for a team.
"The job changed," Jeremiah said, "When I started in '03, I would say 70 percent of the job was football evaluation and 30 percent was character background. When I finished up, it was 60-70 percent character background. That's not why I got into scouting."
Jeremiah played quarterback at Appalachian State and was contacted about possibly being a camp arm for the Redskins ("I was already a good enough scout to know I wasn't going to make it in the NFL," said Jeremiah). But now that he's out of the league, he tries to focus primarily on game tape. "I'll talk to people and take character into account," Jeremiah said, "but if I'm not in the league anymore, I serve the audience better by focusing on what players did on the field."
Polian believes even the best draft analysts can't compete with teams on character evaluation. "There are in-depth character reports only the GM and coach had in Indianapolis," he said. "We didn't want that stuff to get out. So even our scouts never saw the whole picture."
Polian claims most NFL GMs know when character issues are throwing off the media. "We saw Aaron Hernandez in the first round of mock drafts [in 2010]," said Polian. "That was never going to happen because of character." (Hernandez fell to the fourth round.) On the other hand, Polian says negative reports in the media on Manti Te'o in 2013 never jived with their research. "We knew he just got tricked and wasn't a bad kid," Polian said. "The only reason [Te'o] wasn't a first rounder [he went No. 38 overall] was size and position. It wasn't for the reasons the media portrayed."
Russ Lande admits he lost his first NFL job because he "thought he was the smartest person in the room." The former Rams and Browns scout has had several media positions and is currently an analyst for USA Today's site Sports on Earth and director of college scouting for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. Lande considers game tape the most important tool in scouting, but also considers character an essential part of the equation.
"The reality is the intangibles are generally what leads to success and failure," said Lande. "Most scouts can figure out if a guy can play football. It's now become a cliché, but how much does he love football? I know a draft expert doesn't have access to all the information, but he should at least try to make connections to find out what he can. Otherwise he's not painting an accurate picture."
4. Beware Of Workouts
The coverage of the combine seems to grow every year and now pro days are must-see TV as well. Johnny Manziel throwing in shoulder pads and a helmet spurred a national debate. Teddy Bridgewater's accuracy problems caused the Louisville quarterback to drop in mock drafts everywhere, and Jadeveon Clowney's ability to pick up tennis balls solidified his status as a top pick (and possibly the most intimidating ball boy of all time). But NFL executives caution not to read too much into pre-draft workouts. "We were never big on pro days," said Polian. "We thought they provided the wrong kind of information."
For mock draft writers with less access to information, pro days can be even more problematic. "I believe in what you see on tape," said McShay. "I make every effort not to be swayed by workouts. But it happens. If I could take one evaluation back, it'd be JaMarcus Russell in 2007."
McShay's not alone. The former LSU quarterback was selected No. 1 overall by the Raiders and played just three years. "Best workout I've ever seen," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "I have that one in the back of my head a lot as I go to pro days around the country."
Lande believes draft analysts' dilemmas also play out within teams. "You can't discount pro days when you're writing a mock draft," said Lande. "Generally coaches are more into what kind of athlete a player is. They're going to lean more toward drafting great athletes rather than great players. When they work him out they see the potential. They think they can fix them. Coaches are teachers. They think they can fix it. Scouts think they [the prospects] are what they are. The competitiveness, the instincts, those things don't change. Directors grew up as scouts. ... They're going to lean toward the very good football. Guys who have questions about competitiveness don't' get better when they get millions. ... You kind of have to try to figure out how teams work."
In this year's draft, the central focus of this debate is Clowney. His April 4 pro day workout was impressive enough to vault him to No. 1 in many mock drafts. But he had only 3.5 sacks last season.
"Clowney is the ultimate tease," said Lande. "He was dominant his sophomore year [13 sacks]. This year you'd see the occasional play, but you'd also see bad technique, playing high, not using his hands well. Coaches see the size and speed and don't care. They think they can fix that."
5. Write What You Know
McShay knows what it's like to face pressure. A star quarterback in Swampscott, Mass., McShay was humbled when he arrived at University of Richmond. "I got my ass kicked every day in practice," said McShay. "I was the scout quarterback and two future NFL linebackers, Marc Megna and Shawn Barber, played a game I call 'Meet at the quarterback' on what seemed like every play."
Just like NFL teams, draft analysts get more attention for their take on quarterbacks than any other positions. McShay spends more time watching their tape than any other position ... but tries to only focus on certain plays.
"In college," said McShay, "quarterbacks face pressure 30-40 [percent] of the time. In the NFL it's 70-80 percent. I'll study the pressure drops and get a lot more information. "
Jeremiah was a mobile QB at Appalachian State and says people within the league have a hard time agreeing on style. "That's one of the challenges, trying to accurately predict what teams are going to do," said Jeremiah. "Are they worried about health? What kind of receiving corps do they have? That's where a scout's or a draft analyst's best judgment comes in."
6. History Doesn't Always Repeat Itself
NFL teams presumably follow patterns, but trends can get you in trouble when you're building a mock.
"The Giants hadn't taken an offensive lineman in the first round this century," said McShay. "Then they take Justin Pugh out of Syracuse in the first round last year."
Following trends is even more difficult given the transient nature of coaches and executives. This season, analysts have the difficult task of reading new Texans coach Bill O'Brien.
"O'Brien's decision at quarterback is the most intriguing question in the whole draft," said SI.com's Doug Farrar. "Just because he coached Tom Brady in New England doesn't mean he has to draft a Brady clone. If you dated Kate Upton you didn't do it because she's your type. You dated Kate Upton because she's Kate Upton. ... We don't know. He might be intrigued by Manziel even though he's a different kind of QB."
7. Take A Stand
Mock drafts are typically graded on accuracy. But for some former scouts, it's an opportunity to share their opinion on players. Some take the approach of assigning players they think teams should take instead of trying to guess who they will take. That approach led Lande to put Ryan Nassib at the top spot in his 2013 mock draft.
"He blew me away," said Lande. "I finished grading him and thought, This guy is a top five pick. Slam-dunk. I immediately called a senior scout in the league and said you're going to think I'm crazy, but I think Nassib is the best QB in the class. He agreed. So I went with it."
Come draft day, Lande noticed many mock drafts had dropped Nassib down the board, but he believed his hunch would pay off. "But when his former coach at Syracuse [and new Bills coach] Doug Marrone passed on him at No. 16 and took [Florida State's] EJ Manuel -- I knew teams were going to jump off him," Lande said. "Everyone was going to wonder why his own coach didn't want him." The Giants selected Nassib in the fourth round.
Lande, however, hasn't given up on the second-year quarterback. "It remains to be seen whether I was right or not," said Lande. "He'll get a chance some day and we'll see what he can do."
8. Spread The Word
Walter Cherepinsky's big breakthrough was not a dead-on mock draft or a brilliant evaluation. In 2007, Cherepinsky researched how to make his site, WalterFootball.com, more prominent in Google searches. This was before search engine optimization was a standard practice in online publishing, and through hard work Cherepinsky got his site to the top of the ranks. "When I first started in 1999, I had about 30 people on the site every month, and I'm pretty sure one of those was my Mom," said Cherepinsky. "Ever since 2007, if you Google NFL mock draft, we are usually one the top three or four results."
Cherepinsky, a Philadelphia native, started WalterFootball.com as a project in a high school computer class. Last April his site had over 40 million page views. He's gotten enough advertising to quit his job as a loan officer and now dedicates all his time to the site. While he covers all aspects of the draft, Cherepinsky says mock drafts ... both for this year and next ... are the lifeblood. "We post evaluations and position rankings .... they don't move the needle compared to mock drafts. That's what people want to read."
Cherepinsky also has a comprehensive database of mocks from around the internet and runs a year-ahead mock draft long before most outlets -- he currently predicts the Jets will take Marcus Mariota at No. 1 and Jameis Winston will go to the Jaguars at No. 2.
9. You Don't Have To Quit Your Day Job
Rob Rang has been covering the draft professionally since 2001. He's currently a senior writer for Pro Sports Exchange and his mock drafts are regularly featured on CBSSports.com. He watches tape, goes to the Senior Bowl, combine and pro days and admits he doesn't have a social life. The only thing that gets in between him and covering the draft? Teaching English and history at Mount Tahoma High (Wash.).
"I have two passions -- the NFL draft and teaching," Rang said.
Rang developed his passion for the draft growing up as a Seahawks fan, and thus always looked ahead to a brighter future during the franchise's down years.
"I've always felt I could scout college players and fit them to schemes as well as any knowledgeable fan," Rang said. "So I started to get my opinions out there and things just took off."
Rang believes his experience working with high school students helps him interview players at the Senior Bowl and combine. "I can get a read on a kid quicker than most people," said Rang. But he has no interest in taking what he's learned to the NFL.
"I've been approached by teams about interning in the scouting department," said Rang. "I know how many hours those guys work. I want to do other things and have a life for at least part of the year."
10. Develop Thick Skin
McShay started appearing on ESPN in 2007, but it wasn't until the 2010 draft that he understood the impact he could have. At the Senior Bowl, McShay made a comment on ESPN News about Tim Tebow. "I said Tebow wouldn't make it as an NFL quarterback," said McShay. "The backlash was stunning. I got mail to my house. People were killing me on talk radio. And it didn't stop."
For draft analysts who are active in social media, the debate never ends. "Some people love everything you write, not matter what it is," said Bleacher Report senior draft writer Matt Miller. "But then there are others who will disagree with everything you say. You have to be careful not to bite every time or you could get in big trouble."
"I'll never read the comments on NFL.com," said Jeremiah. "You can't avoid it on Twitter. Sometimes a GM I have a good relationship with tells me his team likes Player A and not Player B, and then fans will crucify me for not putting a certain player on a team. I want to tell them the GM hates that guy."
Farrar says that almost 90 percent of the reaction he gets to mock drafts is negative. "It's a lot more impassioned with mocks," he said. "For one thing, you're telling fans of a team what inefficiencies they have. That strikes the first match. Then you're offending college fans, too. It's a perfect storm of upsetting fans."
Mayock has the perfect solution: "That's one of the reasons I like putting out only one mock the night before the draft. That way no one has time to tell me I'm wrong."
11. Be Responsible
A record 98 underclassmen declared themselves eligible for the draft this year. Miller thinks the proliferation of mock drafts is one of the reasons.
"College players Google themselves," Miller said, "and if they look hard enough they're going to find something good."
Eligible players who ask will get feedback from the NFL College Advisory Committee by Jan. 15, at the latest. But the committee is notoriously conservative, so players may not believe it if they get a fifth-round grade.
"These kids have probably been told they have 4.4 speed their whole life," said Lande. "Then they get to the combine and run a disappointing time. Teams dig into the tape. And then they're falling. ... I try not to include underclassmen in the first round unless I'm reasonably sure they're going to make it."
12. Have Fun
Long before he landed an NFL job or became the Eagles GM, Howie Roseman was an amateur mock drafter. "Since I was a kid, I would do mock drafts all the time," said Roseman. "I'd buy every magazine and sit there during the entire draft with all my paperwork around me. I loved it. I still do ... I just don't have time to read all of it any more."
Behind every mock draft -- whether it's on the Internet, TV, a magazine or scribbled on a notebook -- there is a passion for football.
The lucky few who can earn some income usually know how lucky they are. "I get to watch football .... all day and all night," said McShay. "How cool is that?"
For better or worse, the Internet and social media opened up the game to everyone. Sites offer public mock draft contests and social media provides a limitless platform for opinions. If you don't think the mock drafters know what they're talking about, every fan has the ability to show they know better. So go ahead and prove it. You're on the clock, America, go ahead and make your picks.