When ESPN was just starting out in Bristol, Connecticut it was a dirt lot, with few employees and Getty Oil was the biggest financier of Bill and Scott Rasmussen’s project. Programming included college soccer, wrestling and slow-pitch softball games.
ESPN’s biggest draw was their pre-taped, half-hour highlights of the U.S. Open – tennis, that is.
Then, in 1980, then-General Manager Chet Simmons made a move that would keep football fanatics on their couch for three days in April every year. He received the approval from Commissioner of the National Football League, Pete Rozell, to air the draft, but he did not believe it would be good television.
In 1988, ESPN asked the NFL to switch the draft to the weekends. The ratings began to rise, and kept rising all the way to the global power that ESPN is today.
As ESPN’s popularity grew, so did the draft, which, in essence, was their first-born, their pride and joy and their leader. So what did they do? They began to cover the draft more than Jets camp, Tim Tebow, and a Heat winning streak combined.
ESPN brought in “draft experts” who were College Football virtuosos to help add some flavor to the draft stew. They brought in Todd McShay and Mel Kiper, Jr.
Those experts, when they’re not bragging about the amount of time spent watching game film, fill out mock drafts – their predictions – about which team will draft which player.
In fact, the April 22nd edition of ESPN the Magazine is the “NFL Draft Preview” which happens to coincide when exciting regular seasons for the NBA and NHL were coming to a conclusion and the leagues were just about to begin playoff action. But the draft came first.
In that April 22nd issue McShay and Kiper, Jr. published their mock drafts and since the draft was April 25-27, these must have been their finest and most up-to-date pieces.
Both had Luke Joeckel, the Offensive Tackle from Texas A&M, going first, but after that the two agreed on little else.
In fact, Sports Illustrated led off their draft preview with, “Luke Joeckel is a lock at number one, but after that, the first round is anybody’s guess.”
Really? They should have stuck to their original assertion that it was “anybody’s guess” because ESPN the Mag writers McShay and Kiper, Jr. were three for 32 in the first round…combined! And Sports Illustrated analyst Peter King pegged exactly one pick. One, the first round.
Those few correct predictions did not include Mel Kiper, Jr.’s guess of Geno Smith being taken with the fourth overall pick. Smith was taken 39th by the plane-wreck of a team in New York called the Jets. He was so happy he was drafted by New York that he grimaced when his name was called and immediately fired all of his agents.
For those counting along, the three writers combined went four for 32. That’s a 13%. No matter what it is, batting average, test score, dating success rate, whatever it is, it isn’t good.
But yet, after the weekend was over, their jobs as experts were safe and their reputations were fine…and certainly better than Amanda Bynes.
Now I’m not saying that I expect the draft gurus to anticipate all the first-round trades (there were five) that would shake up the draft order, and therefore their mocks, but that isn’t important because it is still a case of “Who can we take that’s available?” Teams weren’t selecting who the “experts” thought.
Which brings up the question: if they don’t know who is going to be picked by whom, then why should their opinions be validated when it comes to draft grading?
A microcosm of draft talent evaluating is found in the Sports Illustrated archives. I found the 2000 New England Patriots draft card and they received a B+. Why did they receive that mark? King wrote that, “Redmond will be an every-down back right away” and that he was a steal in the mid-second round. Redmond who? JR Redmond, the Half-back out of Arizona State, who played 50 games and rushed for 676 yards…in his whole career.
That was juxtaposed by the Pats 6th round choice of Tom Brady who was, “not what you’re looking for in terms of physical stature, strength, arm strength and mobility” according to the scouting report. The report left out things such as motivation, work ethic, and intangibles.
But perhaps the most ludicrous misevaluation of talent was when SI gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a solid D for their 1998 draft. That was the draft that netted them 7-time Pro Bowler and 5-time All Pro selection Left Guard, Alan Faneca. Faneca made 96 consecutive starts at Left Guard for the Steelers.
Then there was the third round. With the 92nd overall pick, the Receiver from Georgia by the name of Hines Ward was still available and the Steelers drafted him. Ward became a 4-time Pro-Bowler, a 3-time team MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, and the franchises’ career leader in receptions (800), receiving touchdowns (72), and receiving yards (9,780). Utah Running Back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala provided a complimentary speed option to Jerome “The Bus” Bettis and Arizona State Corner Jason Simmons also played well for four seasons. Overall it was a deep, fruitful draft and certainly worthy of more than a D rating.
So what we can determine from the three-day, non-stop media hullabaloo of this glorified version of school-yard pick is that, well, it really all doesn’t matter. It’s about the system, it’s about how they’re coached and it’s about their effort. Where they’re drafted matters (it’s more likely a first-rounder will contribute as opposed to a seventh-rounder), but it is certainly not a guarantee. Looking at you #1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell and you, #199 overall pick Tom Brady.
Next year, those who label themselves football “die-hards” will once again waste three nice days in April, sitting inside waiting for their team to pick a supposed “cornerstone” of their franchise or a complementary piece to take them to the top. If that player pans out, but only if.
But either way, as sure as the New England Patriots will trade down, not a single mock will be right that day.