After a certain outspoken analyst had questioned his NFL Draft selection, former Colts general manager Bill Tobin once famously asked in frustration: ‘Who the hell is Mel Kiper?’
No one has to ask that question now.
From humble beginnings, Kiper has parlayed his passion and knowledge for the draft into a lucrative career as the preeminent analyst and public face of the NFL’s biggest offseason event. Athlon’s Mitch Light sat down with the sometimes-controversial, always-entertaining Kiper for a chat about his three decades as the world’s foremost draft expert.
Athlon Sports: Did you envision years and years ago that the draft would be as big as it is today?
Kiper: Yeah, I did. I had that kind of vision for it, I really did. A lot of people were kind of naysayers about it, but I thought that since the NFL was the king of all sports, and the only way to improve your football team back in those days, was through the draft. I mean, there were very few trades, there was no free agency. The only way to change your roster, tweak your roster, improve your roster, was via the draft. And, I grew up during the whole Bill Walsh era, Gil Brandt with the Cowboys, and some of the greatest personnel evaluators ever. That’s the way you did it. I remember in high school doing stuff, planning for the draft, evaluating players, and doing reports. I thought that if you’re a football fan, you want to know who these guys are. First of all, what are the need areas, where could you go on draft day to get these players, and once these players are drafted, you know, who are these guys? What can they do? What can’t they do? I was encouraged then by Ernie Accorsi, who was the GM then of the Baltimore Colts, to do this. I became friends with Ernie back when I was just a teenager. I had given him a lot of my reports just for him to look over and check out, and he was the one who encouraged me. He said, ‘Hey, don’t just give this stuff away, make this stuff available to the public. They would love to have this stuff. They crave this stuff.’ So, through Ernie’s encouragement, through my father’s business sense, to be able to run the business and to give me great advice, between Ernie and my father and what they meant to me then, was huge.
So, specifically, how did you get started? Just newsletters in your parents’ basement?
Well, the first thing was, I put out a book. That was the Draft Report, which came out in 1979. In 1980, they were just going to teams and the media. In 1981, that was the first one we made available actually to the public, and that was the Draft Report that came out in March, mid-March, and it covered the needs of the teams, evaluated all the NFL teams, projected the first three rounds or six rounds, or whatever it was. And then, it did all the evaluations of all the players. So that was the first one that was available to the public, in 1981.
And, when did you start at ESPN?
The 1983 season, ‘84 draft.
You obviously know your football, but you also get information, I imagine, from football people. How much do you trust your own evaluation and weigh that against what football people are telling you?
I have been watching tape forever. That’s how I evaluate players. You watch film. You watch the games. You watch the tape. That’s what you do. Now, do you also talk to people in the league? Do you become friends with a lot of people in the league? Do you share notes? Sure. If you respect somebody, and they see something that you didn’t, you obviously have to weigh it in with what you know. Everybody does it that way. I’ve never been one to brag about how much I’ve watched. Everybody watches players. I don’t have to sit there and tell the fans that are watching, the listeners, or the viewers how many games I have watched of a player. You know, you can watch two games and figure out if a guy can play. … So, the bottom line is, yeah, you weigh everything into the equation. Any information you can get is all factored in. What is his medical stuff? Whether it was off-the-field concerns, character stuff, you know. If someone in the league tells me something that I didn’t know, I factor it in because I didn’t know it. I mean, you never have all the answers. But I always get down to the fact that people are paying for my opinions, and that’s what I’ve always provided. So, this notion that has always been out there, it has kind of been aggravating, it has kind of been insulting: ‘All Kiper does is worry about what everybody tells him.’ Well, guess what, if you talk to the NFL, (you will) find out how many people I talk to. I have just a couple of people that I even have conversations with on a regular basis, so it’s not like I am getting information from the league or from anybody else. That whole thing was always an inaccurate statement.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
What I enjoy most is talking about this stuff. I like the interaction with fans. You know, anything that is back and forth. Todd (McShay) and I have a lot of fun going back and forth on opinions. Just basically doing all of the radio stuff I do, all the TV stuff, all the .com evaluations. Any way to just get this information out to the fans, and to the listeners, and to the viewers is what I enjoy. I enjoy the debates. I enjoy the differences of opinions. I enjoy, you know, bringing to life players that people didn’t really know a lot about. That’s the fun part. Not the first round, but talking about guys when we get into Round 6 and Round 7. As soon as the draft is over, we go right to, ‘Who are the top undrafted free agents.’ You know, bringing the not-so-obvious to life is fun. Talking about the guys from the small schools, talking about the guys who are going to be, maybe, not even drafted that can play. So, all of that is a lot of fun. To be able to cover all of that and all of those kids, who, like I said, are going to get a chance but who aren’t going to be the marquee names come draft day is the fun part of it as well.
How has the explosion in the collegiate level of the spread offense affected how you evaluate offensive players, from linemen to quarterback to receivers? Has it made it more difficult?
Well, it has probably made it easier because they are throwing the ball a lot more. Receivers are catching more, quarterbacks are throwing more, and offensive linemen are blocking in pass protection more. You know, running backs have to block more in pass protection. So, the NFL has kind of opened up as college football has. It has kind of worked hand-in-hand. So, it’s not like the NFL was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. You see the motions, you see the wide receivers that are able to do a lot of different things, you see the tight ends that are, kind of, fourth or fifth wide receivers, you see backs now going into the slot. You see a lot of versatility in the way kids are moving around now, a lot of options in the passing game. Back in the old days, I am talking about the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, you had two receivers, a tight end, a fullback, and a halfback, and then you bring in a third receiver now and then. Now, you have all of these receiving entities on the field all the time. It’s just the way college football is, and, like I said, the NFL is the same way so it has kind of worked hand-in-hand. You know, the explosion of the pass offense, everything in the NFL favors the offense. The rules are geared to scoring points. The NFL has always been concerned about points scored. Everything revolves around the offense. The offense has the ability to put points on the board and to keep the quarterback healthy. Quarterbacks now, the rules protect the quarterbacks, and everything is protecting the quarterback. It is hard to play defensive back. It is hard to play cornerback in this league now. You know, offensive linemen are given more leeway as to what they can do to protect the quarterback. You can’t hit the quarterback high. You can’t hit the quarterback low. You can’t hit a defenseless receiver. They always give the benefit of the doubt to the receiver over the cornerback. So, in terms of evaluation, it is kind of proven easier because everything kind of works hand-in-hand from the NFL to the college game.
In all your years of covering the draft, which player or two has most exceeded your expectations? You look back and say, ‘Wow! That guy’s had a great career, you know, surprised me, surprised everyone.’
Oh, it’s been a lot of guys over the 34, 35 years that you do this that would come to mind. I mean (Ohio State linebacker) Chris Spielman is a great example of that. I mean, Chris didn’t have the great measurables, but he was a great football player. I have learned a lot from Chris Spielman, the fact that I missed on him. I had him as a third- or fourth-rounder. He went in the top of the second round, and he became a great player. Chris was just ‘all football,’ and that is the kind of guy that I always liked, but then you kind of weigh in measurables, okay. Well, that’s college. This is pro. Well, with Chris it didn’t matter. Whether it’s high school, college, or pro, Chris Spielman was a great middle linebacker. That is the kind of guys that I always gravitated to, and I was beating myself up for not being as high on Chris Spielman as I should have been. That was certainly, on the defensive side of the ball, a big mistake. And then, obviously, you always beat yourself up for not finding a guy like Kurt Warner. I was aware. I saw him in Northern Iowa. You watch guys go through the ranks, but, hey, when the NFL misses as well, you don’t beat yourself up for that. You just kind of say, ‘Hey, that’s part of the process.’ Evaluating players is a very difficult part of this because you are still taking kids from one level and projecting them to the next level. Look at all of the mistakes that are made in high school recruiting. Look at all of these kids who are rated high coming out of high school who you never hear from in college, you never hear from in the NFL. So, a lot of mistakes from high school to college, and, certainly, a lot of mistakes from college to pro.
When you first saw Andrew Luck play in college at Stanford, did you immediately say, ‘This guy has got it. He has got a chance to be the No. 1 pick?’
I don’t know about immediately, but once you saw him develop and you saw what he brought to the table, in terms of his physical ability and his mental capability, he looked to me — and I was there in 1983 watching — like John Elway. I gave the highest grade ever I have given a player at any position to John Elway, and I am going to give a good grade to Andrew Luck that is going to be very similar. Not as high as Elway, because Elway is always going to be my standard. He is going to be the highest guy ever, but Luck is not that far behind. And he is ironically from Stanford, so you go back to the 1983 draft and here we are in the 2012 draft, and it is pretty amazing that Elway and Luck have similar grades out of the same school, and that they are both quarterbacks.
—Interview from the pages of Athlon Sports, the nation's largest sports magazine.