No one should begrudge Mel Kiper Jr.’s success at cashing a year’s worth of checks from a job pegged to three days in the spotlight. The man makes an honest living on the NFL draft even if what he does is irrelevant.
A doctor buries his mistakes. Fans forget Kiper’s errors since they don’t become apparent for months, if not years. So, football fans just keep on coming back for more — even when his predictions are way off course.
Analyzing the NFL draft really is a full-time job for Mel Kiper Jr.
Although the NFL draft is a three-day event, the teams and media outlets put a lot of work into it. With 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, not to mention the Football Championship Subdivision and Divisions II and III, there are as many as 4,000 potential pro players coming out of college each spring. Realistically, 40 schools matter most, and only 28 programs have produced 20 or more first-rounders since 1967.
But scouting the prospects translates to thousands of hours of video analysis each year for teams. Those in the market for a quarterback have probably scrutinized every pass that Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones threw this fall.
Kiper is no less diligent. He looks at his share of video and makes use of the connections he has made with NFL front offices and college coaches over the years to gain additional insight for his mock drafts beginning shortly after the season.
He dishes out criticism and sometimes draws fire
Mel Kiper had been working on ESPN draft coverage for a decade when he finally reached a new level of notoriety.
“Who in the hell is Mel Kiper?” Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Tobin asked on live television during the 1994 draft.
The Colts already owned the No. 2 pick and acquired the seventh selection by trading Jeff George to the Atlanta Falcons, leaving Jim Harbaugh as the heir at quarterback. Kiper opined that the Colts should draft Heath Shuler or Trent Dilfer to replace George, but Tobin’s first move was to select running back Marshall Faulk, a future Hall of Famer.
After the Colts traded up to No. 5, creating an assumption they were zeroing in on Dilfer, Tobin instead drafted Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts, who lasted just three years due to injuries and ineffective play.
“That’s why the Colts are picking second every year in the draft and not battling for the Super Bowl like other clubs in the National Football League,” Kiper proclaimed.
Tobin was having none of it.
“Here’s a guy that criticizes everybody, whoever they take,” he said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “He’s got the answers to who you should take and who you shouldn’t take. … Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he’s doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor’s a postman, and he doesn’t even have season tickets to the NFL.”
For the record, the ’94 Colts climbed to 8-8 and then made the playoffs the next two seasons. They fired Tobin after Indianapolis slipped to 3-13 in 1997.
JaMarcus Russell is a reason not to take Kiper too seriously
Just as Kiper spends untold hours preparing to analyze the NFL draft, there are critics who spend time chronicling the ESPN analyst’s bad takes. Do a search of Google for his worst draft mistakes, and you’ll unearth all sorts of reading material. With quarterbacks being the hot commodity in most drafts, two ice-cold takes by Kiper stand out because they are regarded as two of the biggest NFL busts ever: Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell.
Kiper correctly favored Peyton Manning over Leaf in 1998, but he was still high on the latter.
“His attitude will be an asset in the NFL and give him a mental advantage over other players in his draft class,” Kiper said, according to Awful Announcing.
Kiper added: “I think Ryan Leaf is more mature than Drew Bledsoe (as a rookie), he’s very much a grown-up, 21-year old.”
The Raiders made the mistake of taking Russell first overall in 2007.
“Three years from now you could certainly be looking at one of the elite, top-five (NFL) quarterbacks,” Kiper said of Russell. “Look out, because the skill-level he has is certainly John Elway-like.”
Russell dissuaded the league of that notion in less than a year. Of course, Kiper didn’t have to sign his paychecks long after the quarterback bombed out.