Mel Kiper Jr. hasn't just covered the NFL draft for the past two decades. He's tried to shape it in his own image. By his early 20s, Kiper was the most revered draft guru in the country, producing his highly sought-after Draft Report in his parents' basement. In 1984, he became the high pundit of ESPN's annual coverage, tsk-tsking teams that failed to obey his commands. After one particularly repugnant selection by the New York Jets in 1989 (Virginia linebacker Jeff Lageman), Kiper grumbled, "It's obvious to me the Jets don't know what a draft's all about."
But neither does Mel. Last year, his mock draft proved worthless on Draft Day. His frequent on-air explosions—once a sure sign that a team had flubbed its pick—now show how poorly he anticipates the selection process. He has practically surrendered his guru status to Rick Gosselin, a little-known writer for the Dallas Morning News, who consistently upstages him. What happened? Kiper knows just as much as he ever did. That's precisely the problem.
In the early '80s, Kiper made a name for himself by outhustling every draftnik in the country. He watched hundreds of hours of game tape, hung around college all-star games, and became a message board for agents, players, and general managers. He collected the info in his annual Draft Report, in which he ranked hundreds of prospects by position—all this when as late as the 1960s, some NFL teams showed up on Draft Day with nothing more than a college football magazine. Kiper joined ESPN just as the draft was becoming a made-for-TV event, and for a whole new generation of fans, Mel's opinion seemed to carry a lot of weight.
But it didn't. NFL teams spend far more time studying the draft than Kiper does, pouring millions into scouting every Kutztown offensive lineman and Bethune-Cookman nose tackle. Teams assemble their own rankings by inviting prospects in for workouts and by patrolling the league's annual draft combine—events Mel isn't privy to. (Kiper's Web site brags that he works in an office hard-wired to receive 20-25 college games a week, but everyone else with a satellite dish can do this, too). Although his Draft Report is a bible for fans, general managers basically ignore it.
Judging by his mock drafts, Mel hasn't realized that. His Web site offers this ambiguous claim: "Mel's in-depth knowledge … has enabled him to accurately predict as much as 80 percent of first-round draft selections." Translation: At some point in the last two decades, 80 percent of the players Kiper thought would be drafted in the first round were drafted in the first round—never mind by what team or with which pick. Last year, Kiper didn't quite match that mark, but he still correctly predicted 77 percent of "first-round draft selections."
But when you look at his mock draft on a pick-by-pick basis—i.e., how he matched specific players with specific teams or, at least, specific picks—Kiper's batting average slipped to a dismal 29 percent. A few picks weren't even close. Three players he thought would be first-rounders fell more than 30 picks, and one, Georgia Tech wide receiver Dez White, fell 47 picks. Mel thought these players deserved to be first-round picks. The problem is, no NFL team agreed. It's Kiper's recurring fault: He substitutes his own rankings, which carry little weight, for in-depth reporting. And because he attempts only to understand the draft on his own terms, he doesn't understand it at all.
Gosselin, on the other hand, is less interested in his own rankings than in discovering exactly what's going to happen on Draft Day. His day-of mock draft, printed annually in the News' sports page, has become legendary in sportswriting circles. Using Kiper's "first-round draft selections" criteria, last year Gosselin scored a superior 87 percent. On a pick-by-pick basis, he completely outclassed Kiper, accurately predicting more than half of the first round. And near the end of his mock draft, when Mel had switched to autopilot, Gosselin nailed four of the final eight picks.
How does Gosselin do it? Simple. He calls his sources around the league and asks them which player their team is going to pick. He realizes that calling oneself a "guru" in any sport necessitates understanding the event one purports to be a guru of. And understanding the NFL draft can be achieved only through relentless reporting. Despite all the 40 times, vertical leaps, and maximum bench presses Kiper can rattle off from memory, he just doesn't do enough reporting to get a grasp on which teams will pick which players.
It's one thing when one draft reporter outworks another. It's another when would-be college prospects read Kiper's rankings as gospel and assume the rest of the NFL agrees. Last year, Virginia Tech running back Shyrone Stith left college after his junior season with dreams of securing a hefty NFL contract. And why not? Kiper had him pegged as the 46th-best player in the draft, a sure-fire second-round pick.
After two days of waiting, Stith was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 243rd pick overall. He now earns the NFL's minimum salary and spends most of his time on the bench. He lost, at the very least, a shot at a college degree and possibly the chance to improve both his draft position and the size of his contract. In a post-draft chat on ESPN.com, despite having overestimated the NFL's interest in Stith by nearly 200 picks, Kiper was unmoved: "Everybody has to be held responsible for their own decisions." Everybody, that is, except Mel Kiper.