Saturday, April 24, 2004

The experts are everywhere. Do an Internet search for NFL Draft and you’ll receive page after page of listings from well-known outlets like SI.com and ESPN.com to recent additions like sportznutz.com, nfldraft.ws and football.about.com.

Mock drafts are beginning to rival NCAA tournament brackets in popularity.

Mel Kiper’s immovable mountain of hair will be as ubiquitous during ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage this weekend as Dick Vitale’s bald pate during college basketball season. One draft Web site relies on the expertise of a 17-year-old high school junior, another on a self-described “glorified fan.” And both claim more than a million hits a week.

So this is what it has come to? Anyone with a working knowledge of HTML can become the latest draft guru.

“Every Tom, Dick and Harry out there wants to show that he’s a draft expert,” said Tony Pauline, president of TFY Draft Preview, which is associated with the Insiders Network.



Of course Pauline considers himself a draft professional.

Pauline, 40, was working in the financial services industry when he got started in the draft business in 1997. The former decathlete, whose draft analysis is the official content provider for such team sites as Eagles.com and Jaguars.com and for SI.com, claims to run the No.1 Web site dedicated to year-round draft coverage. Pauline, who attends the Senior Bowl and the combine, will sell about 9,000 70-page draft books for $14.99 and has 10,000 Internet subscribers equally divided between annual ($80) and monthly ($7.95).

And then there’s former sporting goods buyer James Alder, who got hooked up with about.com as a sports trivia expert and has been the site’s draft guru for three years. However, he does almost all of his scouting via television and therefore misses seeing players from offbeat schools.

“I can’t claim to be as much of an expert as Mel Kiper and the rest of the guys who’ve been at this for 20 years, but I’m getting better at it,” Alder said.

So is nfldraftblitz.com’s Mike Strueming, who is 17. Strueming began posting messages on the site at 14. Site owner Chris Hordel contacted him and soon Strueming, who spends his fall Saturdays watching and taping college games, was a “certified” draft expert.

“My parents thought I was crazy, but they’re supportive now as long as it doesn’t cost them money,” said Strueming, who plans to attend college despite his early start in the business world. “What we provide that other sites don’t is videos of players. You can read about players and get rankings anywhere, but we let you see them for yourself.”

And with all these Web sites competing for viewer traffic there is bound to be some espionage.

“We have a serious problem with thievery. I post a copyrighted story at the [NFL scouting] combine and 15 minutes later it’s on someone else’s site,” Pauline said. “You have to send them a cease-and-desist order and contact their server.”

Obviously, there wasn’t always this smorgasbord of draft information. In fact, 30 or 40 years ago, word of mouth was the best way to find out something about a potential player.

“It was a different world when I started as a scout with the Raiders in 1963,” said former Packers general manager Ron Wolf. “The draft was at the end of November, so you did most of your scouting during spring football. You’d come back to the office to watch game film in the fall, and you’d be watching what was supposed to be a 90-yard run and you would see 10 yards and then the film would break. Plus, you didn’t have all these draft experts writing reports on players. The Bears drafted Harlon Hill [in the 15th round in 1954] because his college coach called [owner/coach] George Halas.”

So how lucky did young sportswriter Frank Cooney feel in 1965 when Wolf and other Raiders employees let him watch films of the top college players with them? Cooney then projected the entire draft for the San Francisco Examiner.

“Nobody else was doing it, but I was always a personnel guy,” Cooney said. “I didn’t understand why nobody else was as interested as I was. I always thought that if you learned the players coming into the league each year, pretty soon you would know the whole league.”

Cooney was ahead of his time, but he was not alone.

One of the first draft experts was suburban Cincinnati pharmacist Jerry Jones. (No, not that Jerry Jones.) The pharmacist drew up a first-round list in 1972 as a gentleman’s bet with a buddy. Year by year, the list expanded until it reached the full 17 rounds. In 1978, the “Drugstore Report” was featured in the New York Times, and Jones began publishing his predictions as a fans’ guide.

“This is an avocation that has turned into a cottage industry,” Jones said.

It’s much the same story with other draftniks. Ourlad’s began as a giveaway at the 1983 draft by computer programmer Tom Hepler.

“I had been going to the draft in New York each year since 1978 and I thought, ‘You go to a game or a play and you get a program. This would be the same thing,’” Hepler said. “We’ve grown so much that we had more scouts at the Hula Bowl than some NFL teams. We go to local games, and we’re always taping like mad. I have 11 video recorders in my house alone.”

Pro Football Weekly’s draft book began as a premium to subscribers in 1978. Resident draft guru Joel Buchsbaum was so respected that New England coach Bill Belichick called Buchsbaum “my best friend” at the latter’s memorial service last year. Still, 10 years ago, Buschbaum’s book sold only 10,000 copies. This year, with the explosion in draft interest, Pro Football Weekly editor Hub Arkush said the book is in its second reprint and figures to sell 30,000.

Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly credits the Internet for much of that growth.

“Before the Internet, it took a lot of more effort and money to publish,” noted Casserly, a 27-year NFL veteran. “Now almost anyone can do it. Most of the [established draft books] get their information from NFL teams, so I read them to know what other teams think of a player and to see if they have something that I didn’t know about a player.”

These days few secrets are kept from scouts and draft fiends. They not only know a players’ 40 time, vertical leap and Wonderlic test score, they also probably can tell you his favorite movie, ice cream flavor and whether he wears boxers or briefs.

This year there might be more interest because of the presence of Eli Manning (brother of Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning) and Kellen Winslow II (son of the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame tight end) at the top of the draft. However, the days when the draft was the NFL’s one moment in the spring spotlight among NBA and NHL playoffs and baseball are long gone. Twenty-five years on ESPN and 10 years in front of raucous Giants and Jets fans at Madison Square Garden took care of that.

This is a year-round business. If it wasn’t, how many people would be able to recognize Mel Kiper?

“The combine has become a media event,” said Cooney, whose Sports Exchange publishes incredibly detailed information at NFLDraftScout.com. “There were 130 players at the podium this year. [On-campus workouts] have become like a traveling circus. And all these private visits to teams are being publicized. The draft might not stay at quite the level of interest there is this year, but it will never go back to what it used to be. There are too many people interested, and there’s too much media coverage.”

And though some scoff at the plethora of draft experts, Arkush said the late Buchsbaum would welcome the competition.

“Joel always said the more the merrier,” Arkush said. “He said each new draft publication just gave him another opinion to consider.”

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