Baltimore Sun April 23, 2008

No formula for becoming an NFL draft expert

Draftniks have emerged from diverse backgrounds, but whose mock drafts are the most accurate?

| Sun reporter

6:50 PM EDT, April 22, 2008  

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 like 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's 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 like Drew Boylhart, a former aide for 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's 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. 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 Hail Redskins.

"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.'"

"It gives everyone a chance to be the general manager of their favorite team," says former Evening Sun writer Clark Judge, who covers the NFL for CBSSportsline. "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 general manager flip through a Street & Smith's magazine when the time came to make a late-round pick.

The 1970s saw the rise of a small but fervent wave of writers, known to many as draftniks.

Copyright 2008, The Baltimore Sun