No amateur draft

The Baltimore Sun

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 HailRedskins.com 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 CBSSports.com: "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 TheHuddleReport.com, 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.

Dedication

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.

Kiper joined ESPN in 1984, and as the network set the template for broadcasting and popularizing the draft, he became its helmet-haired wise man.

"I used to see Mel at the Colts practices at Goucher College," Judge recalls. "Mel was a nobody. But then I remember looking up one day in the 1990s and thinking, 'Wow, Mel's a media personality.'"

Kiper has vivid memories of the days when his draft obsession was met with derision.

"'Why are you doing this? Why does anybody care?' These were the questions we heard all the time," he says. "But I haven't heard those criticisms in the last five years. I guess you can't criticize something that everybody loves."

In 1994, Kiper initiated the signature confrontation between inside football men and draftniks. The Colts picked Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts fifth overall that year, passing on Fresno State quarterback Trent Dilfer. Kiper lambasted the decision.

"Who the hell is Mel Kiper?" spat Colts vice president Bill Tobin on a live ESPN interview. "He has no more credentials to do what he's doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor's a postman."

As it turned out, Dilfer had a better career than Alberts. Score one for the outsiders.

The next Kiper

Most of the guys who post mock drafts from home or record YouTube videos of themselves talking over workout footage want to be the next Kiper.

"He's the godfather of the NFL draft," Wright says.

The godfather is happy to welcome new pundits to the world he helped create. "The more the merrier," he says. "I hope the business keeps expanding."

Kiper, by the way, still projects the first round pretty well. In The Huddle Report's most recent three-year rankings, he sat 13th, one spot behind Wright.

If Kiper isn't the most accurate, who is? According to TheHuddle- Report, it's Gosselin. Colleagues speak in awe of how the longtime NFL writer shows up to the scouting combine, his notebooks overflowing with information and his mouth unleashing torrents of arcane questions about each prospect.

Some of the new wave of draftniks have modeled themselves after the Gosselins and Judges of the world. Wright corresponds with team scouts, beat writers and NFL executives. Every winter, he travels to the Senior Bowl in Hawaii.

Like Kiper, he's a self-invented draft rat who was scribbling mock selections in his math notebook as far back as middle school. He studied sports journalism at St. Cloud State University, but his site was already up and running by then, and its burgeoning popularity obviated any need to seek a newspaper job.

Wright, 29, knew he was on to something when he nailed 15 of the first 16 picks in 2004. He now makes a "comfortable living" from advertising on his free Web site.

"A lot of it is just a gut feeling," he says of his method. "Just a feeling for whether a guy can play or not."

On draft day, he'll sequester himself in his home office with his television, a stack of books and a large board covered with labels bearing each prospect's name.

As accurate as Wright is, he's a little terrified that college prospects decide whether to stay in college based on opinions such as his. "I say on my site not to take my word for it," he says. "I don't know everything."

Boylhart, who rates players on TheHuddleReport, might be even more bemused by the interest in his opinions. When he assigns an unpopular selection to say, the New York Jets, he is barraged with vitriolic fan e-mails. When he predicts a player they like, he's Mr. Wonderful.

The crazier thing? Some of the e-mails come from CEOs and other power brokers. It's a lot to take for a guy who started out ordering Kiper's books and didn't divulge his draft mania until a few years ago.

Boylhart, 56, says his lack of contact with players and coaches lends him greater objectivity than most scouts. Because he looks for intangibles, his ratings sometimes differ drastically from common wisdom. For example, he loves LSU quarterback Matt Flynn, a probable mid-round pick.

"If I'm correct and he becomes a hell of a player, great," Boylhart says. "If he doesn't, who cares? I'm a jerk either way."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

SCHEDULE

When: Saturday, 3 p.m., rounds 1-2; Sunday, 10 a.m.; rounds 3-7.

Where: Radio City Music Hall, New York

TV: NFL Network, ESPN and ESPN2

Ravens picks

Round 1: Pick 8 (8th)

Round 2: Pick 7 (38th)

Round 3: Pick 36 (99th)

Round 4: Pick 7 (106th)

Round 4: Pick 34 (133rd)

Round 6: Pick 7 (173rd)

Round 6: Pick 40 (206th)

Round 7: Pick 8 (215th)

Round 7: Pick 33 (240th)

Coming tomorrow: Wide receivers the Ravens might have their eyes on.

Coming Saturday: The Sun's Ken Murray predicts the first round in his mock draft.

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