Mel Kiper on the NFL Draft, Then and Now
Mel Kiper has never attended the NFL scouting combine. That’s right, Kiper, the father of NFL draft coverage, has never gone to Indianapolis to see the top prospects showcased in person. He’s always preferred to stay home and watch tape while waiting for their 40 times, vertical leap measurements and the rest to roll in. With the combine quickly approaching, Kiper spoke to The MMQB about his combine viewing habits, the players in this draft pool who can create the most buzz with a good workout, the biggest combine snubs, and NFL’s stance with the non-invitees.
KAHLER: You’ve been in this business since 1978. How many combines have you covered, and how has it changed in those years?
KIPER: I’ve never been to the combine. You can’t watch anything, it’s a waste. My time is better spent watching tape of players than wasting time at the combine where you can’t get in to see the guys. I can’t get into the event, none of us can get into the event, it is only for the select NFL people. All you can do is stand outside and wait for the kids to come out. That’s a waste of time for me. You get the results from it, which is all you need. We all can get the results, we are able to watch it on TV now. Back in the day, you didn’t have a chance to see it, you just got the results and they are all measurables, so I don’t need to see guys catching the football, I’ve watched them catch a football their whole career. I don’t need to see all the drills in that environment, I don’t need to see quarterbacks throwing to receivers they have never thrown to before, that tells me nothing. There are a lot of things with the combine that really are misleading when you watch kids their whole career. I think the measurables for the underclassmen are very important because when kids come out early, you have no idea what their height, weight, speed and overall athleticism is. The strength numbers, the athletic numbers and the speed numbers, you don’t know what any of that is because they haven’t been tested yet and the seniors already had in the spring. So for the almost 100 underclassmen, a lot of whom figure very high in the draft, that’s the first time you really get to see and find out accurate measurables.
KAHLER: Is there anything that could change about the combine that would make you consider going in person?
KIPER: No, all you are looking at are the results. I don’t care what a kid does in shorts and t-shirt, it really is about what they are doing with pads on. When I get the results, I look to see if their measurables are in-range. You have parameters at each position, is the speed where it needs to be? Is the strength where it needs to be? As long as they are within those parameters, they are fine. But I’ve always said, Tom Brady had a 24-inch vertical and ran a 5.24 40. It was the slowest 40 time and the worst vertical of any quarterback I’ve written up in 35 years and he is the greatest quarterback of all time. So, measurables for a lot of positions are very overrated, especially for quarterbacks. For quarterbacks, Tom Brady proved that you don’t need to care if a player is outside the range.
KAHLER: For which position groups are the measurables most important?
KIPER: Corners and wide receivers, the speed guys. You want a vertical threat with your receiver and the speed factor for those guys is important. For corners to be able to match up in coverage is very important. You want linebackers who are able to run and cover. The quickness and speed of the pass rusher, there are certain parameters over the years, if you are in a parameter, you can be a great pass rusher, if you are outside the parameters for speed, you are going to struggle a bit. Offensive linemen you don't care that much. Running backs, I mean Emmitt Smith ran a 4.6 40, so I’m not really worried too much, it’s more about quickness than speed for running backs. Tight ends are now glorified wide receivers, so the parameters are important for them as well. It’s important for the corners, receivers, speed edge rushers, and now linebackers, because you need to cover, you need to run with guys who are fast coming out of college. And now the linebacker is almost like a glorified defensive back position.
KAHLER: Which guys will generate the most buzz at the combine this year?
KIPER: You look for guys who have a lot to prove, the underclassmen:
I’m curious to see Jabrill Peppers from Michigan, he is the most interesting guy at the combine. Is he a safety? Is he a linebacker? Are you going to use him on offense or use him to play the return game? If he tests off the charts, all of the sudden now people don’t care as much if he is a tweener, or a wild card. If he doesn’t test great, then that tweener label will hurt him. The combine is very important for Peppers.
[Alabama CB] Marlon Humphrey didn’t have a great year in coverage, but he should test well. His father, Bobby Humphrey, was an outstanding running back at Alabama and played in the NFL. Marlon Humphrey should test great, he should run well and vertical an impressive number. I think he is one that I am going to watch very closely because I think he could move up a bit if he tests well.
[Clemson WR] Mike Williams had a great year, he came back from a neck injury last year that sidelined him most of the season. I think you look at him, and wonder, how fast is he? If he runs a really impressive 40, then he catapults into the top 10. If he doesn’t, then he may not even be the first wide receiver taken. There is a lot on the line for Mike Williams.
[Tennessee edge rusher] Derek Barnett had like 32 sacks and 52 tackles for loss in the SEC. The question is, is he a great college player who is going to run into a little resistance in the NFL and not be quite as a good of a pro, or is he a guy that can be a great college player and also a great NFL pass rusher? He needs to test well.
Then you get into the whole medical part, you want to see what the medical results are. A couple of guys that are going to be interesting from that standpoint would be [Wisconsin OT] Ryan Ramczyk, the offensive tackle from Wisconsin who had a hip injury. Malik Hooker, the safety from Ohio State, has had some injuries and surgeries, so I want to see how he is. John Ross, the wide receiver/ kick returner from Washington, had a knee injury and he is having shoulder surgery after combine. Jake Butt, the tight end from Michigan had a knee injury, so how does he look medically?
And then the interview process, that is going to be important for guys like Cam Robinson from Alabama, the offensive tackle. Tim Williams, the outside linebacker from Alabama, Malik McDowell, the defensive tackle for Michigan State who did not have a great year, he was kind of an underachiever so how he works out and how he interviews is going to be important. Teez Tabor, the cornerback from Florida, Dalvin Cook, the running back from Florida State, I think the interviews for them are going to be very important.
KAHLER: This year, the NFL announced it will no longer allow players with convictions for domestic violence, sexual assault or weapons offenses to attend the combine. Prospects like Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, who was caught on tape punching a woman, and Baylor’s Ishmael Zamora, who was caught on tape beating a dog with a belt, are excluded from participating. But these players will still be able to participate in the pro days at their schools, so the non-invite won’t prevent a team from drafting them. What do you think of the non-invites this year?
KIPER: Thirty-two teams have a chance to draft players and [Kansas City WR/KR] Tyreek Hill came out of a small school last year with a serious off-the-field issue and he ended up being a fifth-round pick, and having a great rookie year. They were celebrating everything he accomplished in Kansas City, all the Chief fans were happy with the way he produced. He was a great rookie player and had a serious off-the-field issue and still went in the fifth round. And he didn’t finish out his career at a major college level like Joe Mixon did. Joe Mixon is going to have a pro day, there are going to be teams there to see him. [For the NFL] to take a stand like that is fine, but I think you are trying to showcase kids that are eligible for the draft, that is the purpose of the combine, to showcase all the players that could get drafted and see what their measurables are. I don’t know if you need to take a stand on an issue because [not inviting them to the combine] is not impacting anything, they are going to have a pro day. Somebody drafted Tyreek Hill last year and he had a great rookie year. Now, would every team have drafted Tyreek Hill? Probably not, but one team did, the Kansas City Chiefs, and it paid major dividends. Talent won out there. I don’t know where Joe Mixon is going to go, I know that if he didn’t have an off the field issue, he would be a first- or second-round pick. Where will he go with this major off-the-field issue? I can’t speak for that. I just think from a combine standpoint, you are there to highlight the players that could be drafted and give them a chance to showcase their skills. If the NFL wants to take that stand than that is their prerogative, but these kids are going to have a chance to show their skills at a pro day. I am not associated with the combine, so they can do whatever they want and obviously they have decided to do this, so I have no problem with it. It doesn’t impact me one way or another and how the NFL feels about it doesn’t impact them either because they are going to have a chance to evaluate Joe Mixon at a pro day. Now, who is going to take him? I don’t know. What round will he go in? I don’t know, he is an X factor player, you just don’t know where he is going to go. If I had to guess, I would say third to fifth round. If Tyreek Hill is a fifth round pick out of West Alabama and this kid played at Oklahoma and had a great year, I would say third, fourth or fifth round.
KAHLER: Who are the biggest combine snubs?
KIPER: There are a number of players who surprised me that didn’t get invited. DeAngelo Brown, defensive tackle from Louisville, he had a really impressive year. A number of Louisville’s players on defense will be at the combine and I thought he was arguably the most underrated player on their defense. I thought that Derek Griffin, the wide receiver/ tight end from Texas Southern was a surprise. He is a junior coming out early, he was a basketball player and a football player. I was surprised he wasn’t invited. Chad Williams, a wide receiver from Grambling, who had a really good year, he was at the Senior Bowl and did a really good job at the Senior Bowl practices. Jordan Sterns, a safety from Oklahoma State, another guy who had a very good career in the Big 12 was not invited. Steven Taylor, outside linebacker from Houston, he had a really good year rushing the passer and had some versatility with the Cougars. Adam Butler, defensive lineman from Vanderbilt, I had a draftable grade on Adam Butler. Erik Magnusson, tackle/ guard from Michigan, a versatile player for the Michigan Wolverines.
KAHLER: If there was one pick in your first-round mock draft that you feel the most confident about, which pick would that be?
KIPER: I think I would say Tennessee at five, they have a pick at five from the L.A. Rams. I have them taking Marshon Lattimore, the cornerback from Ohio State. I feel pretty good about that one, Tennessee taking Lattimore. Even at four, Jacksonville taking Jamal Adams, the safety from LSU. At three, Chicago taking Jonathan Allen, the defensive lineman from Alabama. I think three, four and five, I feel pretty good about. Down a little bit further, I thought an interesting pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers would be Haason Reddick, the outside linebacker from Temple, and then I like Christian McCaffrey to Green Bay at 29.
KAHLER: How would you compare this year’s draft class to years past?
KIPER: I don’t really judge draft classes, because they are all about the first round normally and they are not really getting into the mid and later rounds enough because you are speculating there and your opinions will be different than what teams have and what different analysts have. I don’t really evaluate those types of things, but I think we have to do it. I think this draft has some depth at a variety of positions. Running back depth is decent, wide receivers, not great. I’ll tell you where it is a great year: It is a great year for tight ends. Good year for interior offensive linemen, terrible year for tackles, decent year for interior linemen, really good year for defensive linemen, and I think a good year for cornerbacks and safeties. I think there are some good combo guys, some of those defensive end/outside linebacker types that can rush the passer. Quarterbacks, very average. Running backs, O.K. Wide receiver, just average. But tight end is spectacular, the tight end depth is the best that it has been in awhile.
KAHLER: How do you think the quarterbacks will shake out in the first round?
KIPER: I think when you look at the quarterbacks, it is going to depend on San Francisco at two. They hold all the cards because I don’t think Cleveland will take a quarterback at No. 1. I think [Texas A&M defensive end] Myles Garrett makes sense there, so I think San Francisco would be the first team to make that decision, which quarterback do they want? Kyle Shanahan is the new head coach, and John Lynch is the new general manager. So you’ve got a new head coach and a new general manager taking a quarterback they are going to be tied to for a very long time. This pick could determine their fate. They have to really love that quarterback and really have a strong feeling for that quarterback. Mitch Trubisky from North Carolina I think would most resemble Matt Ryan, who Shanahan had great success with this year. Deshaun Watson, he had quarterbacks like that in Washington with RG3. You could make a case for Watson if you want to get that dual threat. If you want that pocket guy who can make every throw that an NFL quarterback has to make, then you would take Trubisky. It will be interesting what happens with San Francisco, one of those two quarterbacks. And then the second quarterback, I don’t know where that quarterback goes. I don’t think the Jets at six will do it, because they need to win now. They need an established quarterback coming in. Chicago at three, Chicago has to win now. John Fox and Ryan Pace can’t be drafting a quarterback for the next coach. They have to win. They have good pieces in place on that team which is why Tony Romo has been mentioned a lot, Jimmy Garoppolo, Mike Glennon. I don’t think they take a rookie. I think Buffalo at 10 could take a quarterback. Cleveland at 12 certainly could, but they could end up trading that pick as a part of a package for Jimmy Garoppolo. At 13, Arizona could go quarterback, so the second quarterback is going to be hard to find a spot for. The first one I think will be San Francisco, but whether it is Trubisky or Watson, I can’t make that call right now.
KAHLER: Do you ever look back and think about how much the combine and draft have evolved since you began your career?
KIPER: The NFL draft, back when I started my business in 1978, and in 1983 with ESPN, it was totally different. When I started with ESPN, we were only covering the first round and into the second round. We would get to maybe the middle part of the second round and then sign off. It went from that, to eventually covering every round and then from a two-day draft to a three-day draft, and then from being on Tuesday morning to being on a weekend. I can tell you, as somebody who was in this from the beginning, when people were asking me, Why are you putting out draft reports, why are you wasting time doing something that nobody cares about? To see it get to this point, and know that you really proved all of those doubters and skeptics wrong, it is a source of great personal satisfaction for me. A lot of people asked me, Why are you wasting your time? Get a real job. Nobody cares about the NFL draft, nobody cares about your opinions. So when you see it now, I am glad to see that everybody has an opinion, there are bloggers out there and websites out there for the draft all over the place. I am glad to see the millions and millions of people watching and to see the interest all year. We start talking draft in August and we go all the way up until May. It is really a 10-months-a-year thing, where you are talking the draft on a regular basis, it is pretty amazing. I thought it could be, and it’s the one thing I have been right about. I thought back when I started that there has to be a way to get information to the fans. They couldn’t see these players, they weren’t televising many games then on a Saturday and your team is drafting these players and you don’t know who the heck they are! So my job was to provide that information and let everybody know who these players were. I really thought there was a market for this when I started this, so I was correct in that regard, because I had a heck of a business for a lot of years and that led to me being at ESPN. The business when I started it in 1978 was something that proved everybody wrong, that you could build a business by doing this and certainly the draft on ESPN could be a huge success.
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KAHLER: Do you think that your draft reports helped make the draft and combine coverage the phenomenon it is today?
KIPER: That’s for others to decide and to make that determination. I think from an entertainment standpoint, it became something where it was your opinion against the NFL. I thought it made it a fun and entertaining thing to watch because you had somebody giving a counterpoint of view, an objective point of view, not shilling for the NFL but giving an objective opinion right or wrong on what these kids could do and what the teams did in their evaluations, did the player fit in with what they had personnel wise? It allowed people to get access to information on players that they had never had. I think the books provided that, and because they had my draft report in their hand, people were able to have more interest when they watched the draft. If you have a book in your hand telling you all about these players two months before the draft, then you can sit there on draft day and look up players and see where I have them rated. If you didn’t have that and your team just drafted a player, and you didn’t have any information about the player, would you care as much? I think the information that I provided was a vehicle to provide the draft with more viewership, because the people who got the books were sharing it with friends and I was doing 20 radio shows a day then. The more information that was out there on these players, the more viewers you have, I would think. I think what I did provided that vehicle to the fans and, in turn, allowed them to have more interest in watching.
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