Loathed by many who produce them, yet loved by those who read them. The biggest names who cover the draft weigh in on the mock draft phenomenon

By Emily Kaplan
March 21, 2017

The draft is 37 days away, and already 195 outlets have published mock drafts online. That’s according to letsgoredskins.com, a blog that, inexplicably, has been charting such data since 2001. That count doesn’t include spinoff posts—other media outlets literally reporting on the results of said simulations. It also doesn’t factor in repeat offenders. I, for example, have published two mocks. SB Nation’s Dan Kadar, whose Twitter handle is, aptly, @MockingTheDraft, has authored one every Monday since Nov. 28.

If any of this sounds outlandish, imagine how ESPN’s Mel Kiper assesses a modern landscape littered with mocks. The godfather of NFL draft coverage, Kiper produced his first mock draft in 1978, as a community college freshman. He sold 100 issues of his draft guide, then quit school. A few other draft publications, such as Pro Football Weekly, included mocks at the time—but Kiper willed the niche into the mainstream.

“People talk more about the draft than NFL games,” Kiper says. “And for many people, how they talk about the draft is through mock drafts.”

If the NFL draft is the most popular non-sporting event in sports, mocks are the primary vehicle for the hype. This is not an industry secret: No matter the time of year, no matter the author, mock drafts draw a huge audience.

“If I wrote a thoughtful piece about how we marginalize black quarterbacks in scouting, people would read it,” says Matt Miller of Bleacher Report. “But 10 times the amount of people might read my mock draft.”

Adds Todd McShay, Kiper’s ESPN teammate: “I’m always mildly surprised by how many people read these things. But I know I shouldn’t be.”

And NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah says: “When I made the transition from scouting to the media, I learned to never read comments on anything I write. And for the love of god, never, ever read the comments on a mock draft.”

The question I’ve always wondered: Why do people care—and care so much—about mock drafts?

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Mock drafts will always carry the stigma of a work-from-your-basement industry; wannabe analysts filling in Mad Libs. Insert some jargon, add a little bit of recycled wisdom citing trends, and make a series of educated guesses.

“I think my 3-year-old could make a pretty good draft,” Miller says. “I mean, picking out of a hat, you’d probably get a few right.” Insiders have legitimized the practice by picking up the phone and checking in with sources, and yet the distinction is still muddled.

Perhaps as confusing as why people like them is why they exist in the first place (besides the aforementioned traffic numbers). The editor of this column, Gary Gramling, likes to say a mock draft sets a baseline for fan expectations. NFL front offices conduct dozens of mocks; it helps project the market.

“I do see some benefit in going through the exercise,” says Jeremiah. “It’s easy to flippantly say, This guy is a first-round pick, this is guy is a second rounder. But when you put names to teams, including team needs, it’s like, Hold up, not all of these guys can go in the first round.”

Adds McShay: “I’ve always said, Chris Mortensen and [Adam] Schefter, the scoop guys, they should be doing these things if you want them to be most accurate.”

In the early ’80s, Kiper produced twin mock drafts: One version detailed what Kiper believed should happen. The other predicted what he believed would happen. It confused the hell out of his readers.

“I got so many letters,” he says. “I had to write people back. Having to explain myself became burdensome.” So Kiper benched his opinion. Miller, who also ranks the top 300 players based off his own tape study, says his rankings are his eyes and his mock drafts are his ears. Jeremiah, too, produces a popular top 50 ranking.

“I’ll defend any questions you may have on that, because that’s how I view the players after studying them,” Jeremiah says. “Mock drafts for me, are solely based off what I am hearing. So I can’t take offense if you don’t agree.”

Not that it matters. Readers will inevitably get upset.

• WE DO MOCK DRAFTS TOO!: Here’s Emily Kaplan’s second one, from March 7

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A romantic might say the mock draft’s popularity is rooted in unbridled optimism. Just as, each August, hope springs eternal at training camp, approaching the draft, mocks give you a sense that your team could be one piece away.

A cynic’s alternative: America loves listicles.

Theories are sprinkled across the spectrum.

“Mock drafts are popular because the audience is larger,” McShay says. “It’s the intersection of college and NFL fans.”

“It has a fantasy football vibe to it,” Jeremiah says. “You’re trying to match up [players and teams] and see how many you get right.”

“Fans love mock drafts because it’s almost more fun than the draft,” says Kiper. “Like Christmas, it’s all about the speculation. You know you’re going to get a gift, but you wonder, Will it be perfect? Will it fit right?”

“I grew up in Cleveland,” says Kadar. “So the draft is our Super Bowl.”

Surmises Miller: “It’s the same reason we follow election polls. You want your thoughts to be validated by someone in the know.”

It’s not just fans tuning in.

“I'll get guys [in the NFL] calling me saying, ‘Bro we’re not taking that guy,’” Jeremiah says. “Most of them will deny it publicly, but they all read that stuff.”

And Jeremiah’s usual response: “That’s fine. I don’t really care who you take.”

It’s not as much apathy as a resignation that perfect prognostication is near impossible—especially on Jan. 19, when Jeremiah’s Mock Draft 1.0 was released. (Consider how much has changed in these two months—from the combine to pro days to teams addressing needs in free agency.) “But, it’s good for the website,” Jeremiah says. “No use complaining about it, just do it and move on.”

For those who are lukewarm on mock drafts, there is only one thing worse. “There is no way I would ever do draft grades,” McShay says. “Maybe three or five years later you could retroactively look, but how can you assess a grade before any of the guys play a down?”

And so when McShay balked at that assignment, editors offered an alternative—as McShay views it, a tradition unlike any other. “It’s my least favorite activity,” he says. “But probably does the best of anything I write.”

On Wednesday, May 3, he will publish his first mock draft for 2018.

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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

Watson’s pro day didn’t do anything to stall his momentum heading toward the draft.
Rainier Ehrhardt/AP

1. Deshaun Watson’s pro day was on Thursday, and I’m not sure he significantly altered his stock. (His stock, by the way, has been very high since the combine. It now seems feasible Watson could be the first quarterback drafted.) I checked in with one scout in attendance, who said this: “If you like Watson in your evaluations so far, you probably walked out thinking he did a good job. If you were unsure of him, the concerns you had going in probably remain.” The emphasis of Watson’s throwing session—in front of reps from all 32 teams—was footwork when taking snaps from under center. The scout I talk to noticed how Watson had made a concerted effort to alter some mechanics, specifically with his lower base, in his throwing motion. Working with tutor Jordan Palmer, Watson’s transition from dual-threat spread quarterback to traditional drop-back passer is well underway. Two more things on Watson: He told NFL Network he plans to attend the draft in Philadelphia this year. Also, his college coach, Dabo Swinney, is doubling-down on his declarations that passing on Watson is like an NBA team passing on Michael Jordan. It’s a cute statement, but the coach has a reputation for saying very flowery things about all of his prospects—privately to NFL evaluators and in public.

THE COLLEGE COLUMN ON THE QBS:  Mitch Trubisky | Deshaun Watson | DeShone Kizer | Patrick Mahomes | Davis Webb | Nathan Peterman | Chad Kelly

2. Clemson wideout Mike Williams is not known for his speed. But he was fast enough when it mattered. After opting out of the 40 at the combine, Williams ran the most anticipated 40 of the pro day season. Hand times varied, though Clemson’s video board at pro day flashed 4.50 and 4.49 for Williams’ two attempts. NFL.com’s Gil Brandt reported the times to be 4.53 and 4.51 seconds. Anything in that range is impressive, considering Williams is 6' 4" and weighed in at 240 pounds. He is a physical, win-in-traffic type of target, but many believed a decent 40 time would cement his status as the top wideout of this class (edging Western Michigan’s Corey Davis and Washington’s John Ross).

3. Speaking of Corey Davis, he, too, has a 40 to run at some point. Like Williams, speed isn’t Davis’s best attribute—smooth route-running is what distinguishes the Western Michigan wideout as a likely first-round pick. Davis is recovering from what he categorizes as minor ankle surgery in January. He did not run the 40 at the combine and did not participate in any drills at WMU’s pro day last week. Davis is taking team visits and could hold a private workout session for scouts closer to the draft.

• HOW COREY DAVIS CAUGHT THE NFL’S ATTENTION: He almost missed out on college altogether. How Davis helped put WMU on the map, and how he could be the second MAC receiver ever selected in Round 1

4. Malik Hooker of Ohio State might be slightly behind LSU’s Jamal Adams as the top safety in this draft. Though Hooker has been compared to Ed Reed in terms of his instincts, there are still plenty of unknowns surrounding the redshirt sophomore, who was essentially a one-year starter for the Buckeyes. Hooker had surgery on Jan. 16 to repair a torn labrum in his left hip and repair sports hernias on both sides. He did not participate in any physical activities at the combine, but in a draft diary for NFL.com he announced that he returned to jogging last week. Hooker is also quoted as saying his physical therapist was “shocked” by his progress and that “[the physical therapist] didn’t think I’d be moving that well, but I’m progressing a lot faster than everybody thinks.” Next up for Hooker: Ohio State pro day on Thursday, team visits and the inevitable Instagram video boasting about his rehab (odds on favorite: Hooker running on a treadmill).

5. It’s another big week for pro days. Tuesday is UNC, where all eyes are on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (his favorite target, slot receiver Ryan Switzer, will generate interest as well). Also on Tuesday: UCLA. Top pass-rusher Takkarist McKinley will not participate; he underwent shoulder surgery for a torn labrum after the combine. Instead, scouts will hone in on Fabian Moreau, a big corner with bigger upside.

On Wednesday, highlights include Connecticut (first-round safety candidate Obi Melifonwu), Pittsburgh (developmental quarterback prospect Nathan Peterman, potential Day 2 running back James Conner and offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, both projected in the Round 2-4 range). Also Wednesday, Southern California: College Column alumnus Zach Banner and fellow offensive lineman Chad Wheeler, plus wideout JuJu Schuster-Smith and corner Adoree’ Jackson, who is a darkhorse first-round candidate.

On Thursday, expect a huge contingent at Ohio State and Notre Dame. I’m planning to be in South Bend, where I expect many top evaluators will be there for quarterback DeShone Kizer. First-round candidates Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas headline at Stanford; Utah will feature offensive linemen Garett Bolles and Isaac Asiata (see below); two trendy small-school receivers will perform at East Carolina (Zay Jones) and Eastern Washington (Cooper Kupp).

On Friday, look out for quarterback Davis Webb at California and the plethora of prospects at Michigan. Here’s a story I’ll be following from Ann Arbor: Last week, cornerback Jourdan Lewis was charged with one count of domestic violence after allegedly assaulting his 20-year-old girlfriend.

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GET TO KNOW A PROSPECT

Timothy J. Gonzalez/AP

A quick Q&A with a prospect generating buzz. This week: Utah offensive lineman Isaac Asiata. The 6'3", 323-pound Asiata has a body for the interior, though he mostly played right tackle for the Utes; his versatility is attractive to NFL evaluators. (During his redshirt freshman season, he actually played right tackle, right guard and left tackle—sometimes all three in one game; he was also Utah’s backup center, though never saw game reps there.) Asiata plays nasty, and he’s strong: In Indy, his 35 reps in the bench press tied defensive lineman Carl Lawson for most of any player, across all positions. The three-time All Pac-12 lineman was turning heads at Senior Bowl practices before a hamstring injury ended his week early. He hopes to rebound at Utah’s pro day on Wednesday…

Give me a scouting report on yourself.

Run blocking is my thing. For a 323-pound guy I move very well. I'm athletic, very strong in the run game, very quick in the pass game. Right now I’m working on foot speed. I feel like my foot speed is just O.K. now, but I know I can move better. I'm trying to play more in control. I like to be physical, go for those kill blocks, and sometimes I don’t play in control of my body.

Your cousin is former Vikings running back Matt Asiata. Are you close?

My parents got divorced when I was young, and growing up, I hadn’t really talked to him much because of that. We’re family, and right now it’s kind of a big brother professional type deal where he’ll check in on me. He texted me when I was going to college, he told me ‘just go to work.’ He did the same thing when I was going to the combine. I’ll text him every now and again for advice. He’s a good reminder of who I represent, what I represent, so that’s pretty cool.

Have you heard concerns about your age? [Asiata redshirted in 2011 then took a two-year LDS Church mission in Oklahoma before rejoining Utah in 2013]

I heard a lot of stuff about my age. I’m 24 years old. I’ll be a 25-year-old rookie. A lot of people see it as a negative, but what I’ve told teams is... because I’ve matured, because I’m not a 20-, 21-year-old younger guy, I’m all about my business. I'm a grown man who is not about partying, I'm about doing my job and providing for my family.

Hey, Terence Newman was a 25-year-old rookie, and that turned out pretty well!

Really? I guess I should use him as a good example.

The weirdest thing you were asked at the combine?

It was more of a funny question. In my meeting with the 49ers, Kyle Shanahan asked me how in the hell I married my wife because she’s way too good-looking. I thought it was hilarious. I told him I definitely outkicked my coverage, my wife is way more attractive than I am so, lucky me.

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COLLEGE COLUMN ALUMNI UPDATE

Remember Cody Heiman? The former seven-man football player from a tiny Kansas town, and alumnus of Division II Washburn University, was featured in “The Longshots” column a few weeks ago. Heiman, a linebacker who may also get a look at fullback, participated in Pittsburg State’s pro day on Thursday and put up some very good numbers.

Here are his results, according one scout in attendance, and how that would rank among those at the combine:

40 time: 4.58 seconds (on his third attempt)
Would have been tied for second-best among linebackers (trailing only Jabrill Peppers), tied for 16th among running backs and fullbacks.

Bench: 31 reps
Would have been most among linebackers, most among all running backs/fullbacks.

Shuttle: 4.21 seconds
Would have been tied for fourth among linebackers, fourth among running backs/fullbacks

Vertical: 36 inches
Would have been fourth among linebackers, tied for sixth among running backs/fullbacks

Broad Jump: 10 feet, 2 inches
Would have tied for eighth among linebackers, alone in eighth among running backs/fullbacks

Three Cone: 6.92 seconds
Would have tied for sixth among linebackers, fourth among running backs/fullbacks

Many teams still view Heiman as a future fullback in the pros but would give him a chance to play linebacker first. No matter, after his pro day performance, it seems increasingly likely that Heiman will get a shot to compete for an NFL roster spot this summer.

• THE LONGSHOTS: A 28-year-old former drug addict turned sack master, a promising receiver who walked away from Clemson just before they won it all. Meet the prospects who have taken the most unusual paths to the draft.

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MAILBAG!

I’ll be fielding questions every week between now and the draft. If you’d like to send a question to The College Column for next week’s mailbag, tweet @emilymkaplan or email talkback@themmqb.com.

@decatur_g: How do you think the Falcons’ free-agency signings on the D-line impact their 1st/2nd rd. picks?

Do you think the Falcons will have an ‘against the grain’ pick in Rd. 1 like ’16, when DE was almost foregone conclusion?

(Two questions, both related.) Though the Falcons return a lot—the biggest loss is Kyle Shanahan—the defensive front seven could use depth. There’s a great young core, centered around Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, but (1) The Falcons want more speed, and (2) Most general managers adhere to this rule: You need three pass-rushers to be successful. Free agent Dontari Poe should help clog things up as a run defender, but he’s only on a one-year deal. Versatile defensive end Jack Crawford, another free-agent addition, is due for a rotational role. However, these signings might allow GM Thomas Dimitroff to be patient in identifying the right pass-rusher to pair and grow with Beasley, and instead go for one of two other positions in the first two rounds: safety (to pair with Keanu Neal) or guard. In fact, that’s a perfect transition into our next question…

@TimV1311: Hi Emily. Do you expect that the dropoff after the first 4 OL will cause a run on them (e.g. all in the first round)?

Excellent question. When there’s a shallow position group in the draft, it can go one of two ways. Either teams rush to grab the best available (and reach), or everyone exercises patience to let the market correct itself. In the case of offensive linemen in 2017, the consensus is: There’s probably not more than two players worthy of a first-round pick. And outside the top four tackles and guards, no offensive lineman is really more than a third-round pick. But I think you’re on to something. Once one O-lineman goes, teams might panic, and we could see as many as three or four lineman go in the first 32 (the candidates: Garett Bolles of Utah, Forrest Lamp of Western Kentucky, Ryan Razmczyk of Wisconsin, Cam Robinson of Alabama). Why? Because the supply of offensive linemen doesn’t meet the demand right now for NFL teams—look at the contracts shelled out for O-linemen in free agency. What’s interesting to me is that there might be a similar effect for tight ends. Even though this is the deepest tight end class in years—and teams might get a legitimate starter in the third round or lower—we’ll still see teams rush toward the premiere talent: O.J. Howard of Alabama and David Njoku of Miami. Why? Market correction for the lack of supply in the last few drafts.

@MatthewPArmstr3: I think Dalvin [Cook] is the best and most explosive player in this draft. Will contribute most to teams. Tell me why I’m wrong.

You’re not crazy, and a lot of evaluators feel the same way. Consider that the most frequent pro comparisons for Cook are Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson. Remember the explosiveness of both of those players in their primes? What’s great about this year’s running back class is not only is it deep, but there’s a player that fits almost any style. We’ve talked about Cook’s value in splitting wide as a pass-catcher, but his change of direction ability and extra gear are truly something else. The only player who might be more explosive: Washington wideout John Ross, he of the 4.22 40-yard dash fame.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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