The draft is 37 days away, and already, 195 outlets have published mock drafts online. That’s according to letsgoredskins.com, a Redskins blog that, inexplicably, has been charting such data since 2001. That count doesn’t include spinoff posts—other media outlets literally reporting on the results of said simulations. It also doesn’t factor in repeat offenders. I, for example, have published twomocks. SB Nation’s Dan Kadar, whose Twitter handle is, aptly, @MockingTheDraft, has authored one every Monday since Nov. 28.
If any of this sounds outlandish, imagine how ESPN’s Mel Kiper assesses a modern landscape littered with mocks. The godfather of NFL draft coverage, Kiper produced his first mock draft in 1978, as a community college freshman. He sold 100 issues of his draft guide, then quit school. A few other draft publications, such as Pro Football Weekly, included mocks at the time—but Kiper willed the niche into mainstream.
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“People talk more about the draft than NFL games,” Kiper says. “And how many people talk about the draft is through mock drafts.”
If the NFL draft is the most popular non-sporting event in sports, mock drafts are the primary vehicle for the hype. This is not an industry secret: no matter the time of year, no matter the author, mock drafts draw a huge audience.
“If I wrote a thoughtful piece about how we marginalize black quarterbacks in scouting, people would read it,” says Matt Miller of Bleacher Report. “But 10 times the amount of people might read my mock draft.”
Adds Todd McShay, Kiper’s ESPN teammate: “I’m always mildly surprised by how many people read these things. But I know I shouldn’t be.”
And NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah: “When I made the transition from scouting to the media, I learned to never read comments on anything I write. And for the love of God, never, ever read the comments on a mock draft.”
The question I’ve always wondered: Why do people care—and care so much—about mock drafts?
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Mock drafts will always carry the stigma of a work-from-your-basement industry; wannabe analysts filling in Mad Libs. Insert some jargon, a little bit of recycled wisdom citing trends, and make a series of educated guesses.
“I think my 3-year-old could make a pretty good draft,” Miller says. “I mean, picking out of a hat, you’d probably get a few right.” Insiders have legitimized the practice by picking up the phone and checking in with sources, and yet the distinction is still muddled.
Perhaps as confusing as why people like them is why they exist in the first place (besides the aforementioned traffic numbers). The editor of this column, Gary Gramling, likes to say a mock draft sets a baseline for fan expectations. NFL front offices conduct dozens of mocks; it helps project the market.
“I do see some benefit in going through the exercise,” says Jeremiah. “It’s easy to flippantly say, This guy is a first-round pick, this is guy is a second rounder. But when you put names to teams, including team needs, it’s like, Hold up, not all of these guys can go in the first round.”
Adds McShay: “I’ve always said, Chris Mortensen and [Adam] Schefter, the scoop guys, they should be doing these things if you want them to be most accurate.”
In the early 80s, Kiper produced twin mock drafts: One version detailed what Kiper believed should happen. The other predicted what he believed would happen. It confused the hell out of his readers.
“I got so many letters,” he says. “I had to write people back. Having to explain myself became burdensome.” So Kiper benched his opinion. Miller, who also ranks the Top 300 players based off his own tape study, says his rankings are his eyes and his mock drafts are his ears. Jeremiah, too, produces a popular Top 50 ranking.
“I’ll defend any questions you may have on that, because that’s how I view the players after studying them,” Jeremiah says. “Mock drafts for me, are solely based off what I am hearing. So I can’t take offense if you don’t agree.”
Not that it matters. Readers will inevitably get upset.
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A romantic might say the mock draft’s popularity is rooted in unbridled optimism. Just as, each August, hope springs eternal at training camp, your team could be one piece away.
A cynic’s take: America loves listicles.
Theories are sprinkled across the spectrum.
“Mock drafts are popular because the audience is larger,” McShay says. “It’s the intersection of college and NFL fans.”
“It has a fantasy football vibe to it,” Jeremiah says. “You’re trying to match them up and see how many you get right.”
“Fans love mock drafts because it’s almost more fun than the draft,” says Kiper. “Like Christmas, it’s all about the speculation. You know you’re going to get a gift, but you wonder, Will it be perfect? Will it fit right?”
“I grew up in Cleveland,” says Kadar. “So the draft is our Super Bowl.”
Surmises Miller: “It’s the same reason we follow election polls. You want your thoughts to be validated by someone in the know.”
It’s not just fans tuning in.
“I’ll get guys [in the NFL] calling me saying, ‘Bro we’re not taking that guy,’” Jeremiah says. “Most of them will deny it publicly, but they all read that stuff.”
And Jeremiah’s usual response: “That’s fine. I don’t really care who you take.”
It’s not as much apathy as a resignation that perfect prognostication is near impossible—especially on Jan. 19, when Jeremiah’s Mock Draft 1.0 was released. (Consider how much has changed in these two months—from the combine to pro days to teams addressing needs in free agency.) “But, it’s good for the website,” Jeremiah says. “No use complaining about it, just do it and move on.”
For those who are lukewarm on mock drafts, there is only one thing worse. “There is no way I would ever do draft grades,” McShay says. “Maybe three or five years later you could retroactively look, but how can you assess a grade before any of the guys play a down?”
And so when McShay balked at that assignment, editors offered an alternative—as McShay views it, a tradition unlike any other. “It’s my least favorite activity,” he says. “But probably does the best of anything I write.”
On Wednesday, May 3, he will publish his first mock draft for 2018.