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Mel Kiper Jr. Still Ticking: Baltimore's NFL Draft Guru Still At Work

April 15, 2016
The bunker in Mel Kiper Jr.'s northern Baltimore County estate doesn't look much different from the basement rec room of a suburban high school guy. There's the bench with free weights, the stair-stepper and a relic of a drum kit slumped drunkenly against a wall.

Only Kiper's presence in the corner -- a plastic wire tucked behind his ear, snaking down underneath the back of his shirt, with studio lights highlighting his trademark helmet of hair -- nixes the notion that an unsanctioned kegger could break out at any minute. A backdrop, an impressionistic blast of purple emblazoned with the ESPN logo, frames him as he discusses NFL Draft prospects on camera with a TV host that only he, among those in the basement, can hear. His legs jitter at a pace that an electric sewing machine would envy, even though he's sitting down.

"I still think Tennessee will go with Mississippi tackle Laremy Tunsil with that No. 1 pick," he said, his voice booming. With Kiper's decibel level rising, his draft predictions can sound like commandments, albeit ones that he tends to qualify.

"That's if they don't move down for cornerback Jalen Ramsey or take another tackle later on," he added.

Then, he offered his pick for this season's winner of "The Bachelor" -- a running gag between Kiper and the ESPN "SportsCenter" midday host, David Lloyd. Kiper's gift for prognostication is rich enough to be the subject of self-satire: "I predict Lauren B. will get the rose," he said, laughing.

Kiper's eye for talent, combined with his infectious enthusiasm and boyish energy, has made him a media maven, his name a synonym for "NFL Draft."

'Its Own Kind Of Industry'

When he graced the cover of PressBox's debut edition 10 years ago, Kiper was already the swami of NFL Draft pundits, his crystal ball working more clearly than others' -- and with a media presence and reach none could match.

Nothing has changed since then, at least not with Kiper. But the draft has become even more of an obsession with fans. New draft websites pop up around this time of year like spring weeds. Several networks run their own sprawling draft coverage. Thousands of draft articles and online chats dominate sports sites each spring. The seven-round extravapalooza is now a capital-e Event.

And it's one Kiper can rightly take some credit for creating, those who know him said. 

"Draft day is now regarded as the second-most popular day for the NFL," said Ernie Accorsi, a consultant to the Detroit Lions and a former general manager with the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants. "Mel was the NFL Draft's first TV star. He's become the face of the draft."

Added Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' assistant general manager: "He's taken something that can be very boring and made it exciting for fans. He's the best at it. He's made the draft its own kind of industry."

Kiper won't comment on his contribution. Instead, he drops the challenge flag on those who say his work has benefited the NFL. When he and ESPN offered to televise the draft in 1983, the league refused to cooperate.

"They thought that the reading of names and numbers was boring, not ready for TV," he said.

The network and Kiper, who made a whopping $400 for ESPN's one day of coverage, went ahead anyway.

His relationship with many in the league, with the notable exception of several industry insiders with ties to Baltimore, remains fractious. Many teams' talent evaluators, even general managers, have grown bristle when Kiper has challenged their draft selections.

"If someone makes a pick that is not good, he'll say so," said Accorsi, who hired Kiper to a short-lived personnel position with the Colts just before they left for Indianapolis. "He doesn't work for the NFL or any of its teams. He works for ESPN. That's what makes him entertaining."

Issue 220: Mel Kiper With ESPN
Photo Credit: Courtesy of ESPN

For his part, Kiper doesn't care what the NFL thinks of him. He doesn't really need help from the league to do his job.

"It's no concern of mine," he said. "Most of the guys in the league don't know me. They have no idea what I do or how I do it. A lot of people think if you're not in the league, you don't have a right to an opinion."

In an era when the NFL hopes its fans have a short memory -- all the better to forget about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, scandals (including some that don't even involve the New England Patriots), shameful refereeing and trashed heroes like Johnny Manziel and Ray Rice -- the league just might need Kiper, though. He offers fans a way out of the miasma of the game's present by providing a bold glimpse into a sanguine future.

The draft, scheduled this year for April 28-30 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, is the football complement to a birth, a wedding, a hefty tax refund -- anything fresh and full of possibility. The fans of every team, except for the ones that trade their top picks, can get giddy over an influx of new talent. And get giddy, they do: Who are the sleepers? Just how much impact can our top pick have? Will this draft get us over the top/into the playoffs/Super Bowl-bound?

They turn to Kiper as their prophet bearing good news.

And no one is surprised -- as he is that.

"It was all an unknown," he said of his beginnings in the draft-predicting business. "I had never trained as a broadcaster. I never saw myself as one."

A Family-And-Home Business

Kiper had no idea his childhood fascination with player performance and potential would become a lucrative career. Early on, he couldn't conceive of a nation of would-be draft junkies.

All that started for him, appropriately enough, as a high schooler in his basement.

"Even as a kid, I always analyzed everything," said Kiper, the son of a baseball coach at the University of Baltimore. "You could look at which players would be great or subpar. Football lent itself to analytics. It still does."

Most of us learn to modify, even blunt, the enthusiasms of our youth and succumb to the demands of workaday living. Kiper, on the other hand, has made a living, even a life, out of his childhood obsessions with players and numbers. The kid from northeast Baltimore's Ramblewood Road --  who later handed out mimeographed scouting sheets for free to front-office members and observers at Baltimore Colts training camp at Goucher College nearly 40 years ago -- is now Mel, Incorporated.

The enterprise is run entirely out of his home. Upstairs, his wife, Kim, handles all the logistics -- accounting, bookkeeping, correspondence, travel arrangements -- while Mel deals with football matters in the basement.

Issue 220: Mel Kiper With ESPN Backdrop
Photo Credit: Jim Burger/PressBox

It's a family-and-home business that they both find comfortable. (The couple has a daughter, Lauren, 21)

"We're both home bodies," Kim Kiper said. "If I don't leave the house for two months, I'm totally fine."

For all of Mel Kiper's on-air intensity -- none of which comes from caffeine or other stimulants ("It's all natural. It's 100 percent Mel," Kim Kiper said) -- he's pretty easy to work for and live with.

"One of Mel's friends calls him 'Kiper the Viper' because of the pit bull persona he has on air," Kim Kiper said. "I tell him that he scowls too much -- 'People won't like you.' But generally, he's not all that intense. He's laidback. He's pretty [easy going], actually."

Crunch Time

These days, what Kiper is mostly, is busy. Enough people like him, maybe even find him fascinating enough, to keep him busy with ESPN chats and blogs. As the draft gets closer, his obligations to ESPN grow.

A typical Mel Kiper day begins around 5:30 a.m. He'll prepare for one of his frequent appearances on the "Mike & Mike" radio show later in the morning. Then, it's on to conference calls for "NFL Insiders," where Kiper often drops by at 3 p.m. There's the mid-day "SportsCenter," during which Mel will drop draft tidbits and take a stab at which damsel will receive a bachelor's proposal. And there are the Kiper podcasts, which he'll record from 4:30-6 p.m. Unless the draft is a few days away, he'll tape his spots for the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter" at 6 p.m.

Even after all that, he's working the phones, talking to scouts, agents, college coaches and others about what they're hearing or to further size up the talents of certain college players, most of whom he's already watched several times in televised games or on tape. His goal is to figure out which NFL teams are looking at which players, as well as where they will fall in the draft order -- a chancy business.

"It's really hard to figure out where guys will go and to which team," Kiper said. "It's the hardest part of what I do. If you get seven or eight good picks out of the first 32 from your last mock draft to click, you've done well."

He and his fellow analysts compile mounds of stats -- heights, weights, times in the 40-yard dash, agility metrics, as well as yards gained or tackles made. Kiper factors in which positions are easiest to convert from college to the pros, in terms of talent. Running backs are the most predictable on that basis, he added, with quarterbacks being the toughest to gauge.

"It's all actually gotten easier," he said. "Back in the old days before the Internet, I'd have to call colleges for three or four hours a day just to get basic information. Now, a lot of that is online."

Others say that while Kiper might earn most of his audience by telling them who their team might pick, he earns respect from those in the gridiron business for his ability to judge players.

"He's really great on offensive and defensive linemen," said Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based agent for football players, coaches and broadcasters. "He understands which talents work in the NFL and which don't. He has an innate ability to recall all the guys who were successes and failures in the league."

Kiper's thoroughness mirrors that of league scouts and front-office personnel, he adds: "The only thing he can't do that the NFL does is give guys physicals."

Still, opinions about him are split within the industry.

"There are still some old-time scouts who say he's an entertainer," Agnone continued, "but generally speaking, he's very well respected by people in the game."

By the time players start going off of NFL Draft boards, Kiper is working 18-hour days and getting two hours of sleep. His search for last-minute information often means he's up until 2 or 3 a.m.

"During the draft, that's when we (Kiper and Todd McShay, another ESPN draft analyst) get back to our hotel rooms," he said.

His pursuit of the freshest dirt is the stuff of legend. Each year, DeCosta's phone will ring at 1 or 2 a.m. on draft eve.

"It's become a running joke between me and my wife that when we hear the phone ringing on that night, it's Mel," DeCosta said. "He'll usually tell me, 'This guy is falling,' or 'That guy is on the rise.' I don't tell him to stop calling because he always has valuable information."

Kiper, of course, is seeking information as well. Swapping the latest draft rumors and tidbits in what DeCosta calls "a relationship business" is how Kiper keeps his mock drafts up to date. In return, DeCosta gets a sense of a player's "league value"-- how other teams are sizing him up and possibly who will select him.

"It helps you learn who may be available when ... your pick rolls around," DeCosta said.

On the draft's first two days, which consist of rounds one and two, Kiper will give viewers the lowdown on each pick off the top of his head. By then, he knows the stuff inside and out. He'll also call a likely bust a bust, a reach a reach, and he'll express his strongest enthusiasm after a strong selection.

Once it's all finished, it's not. He and McShay will do several post-draft shows, more podcasts, more blog postings for a week or more. Then, Kiper will rest, maybe joining his wife and daughter at their Eastern Shore summer home for a few weeks or months, where he'll kick back on his boat, maybe walk his dog once in a while, before August rolls around and the cycle starts all over again.

"It's not a bad life," he said.

Still, Kiper, 55, is at an age when men can begin to wonder whether there are other things they can do. He's certainly made enough money to quit whenever he wants and spend his life lolling on the Bay.

His current contract with ESPN expires in 2018. Will Mel, Inc. stop the clock at that point?

"No way," he said. "I'm going to keep it going. There's nothing on my plate right now that I'd get rid of. And there's nothing else I'd rather do."

Mel Kiper Jr.'s Ravens Spotlight

The Baltimore-born draft guru said the Ravens will likely take one of three defensive players with the No. 6 overall pick, assuming they don't trade the pick to move up or down in round one:

Joey Bosa (6-foot-6, 276-pound DE, Ohio State)          

Kiper says: "At this point, a team that has multiple needs will find it hard to pass on Bosa, who is the best player on the board here. He comes in with the ability to immediately upgrade the pass rush, and unlike many rookies who can get after the passer, Bosa is also a dynamic run defender."

DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7, 287-pound DE, Oregon)

Kiper says: "A good combination of clear need and a really good player available. Buckner brings versatility and the ability to disrupt the pocket."

Vernon Hargreaves III (5-foot-11, 192-pound CB, Florida)

Kiper says: "This is just a truly gifted cover man, with the ability to press or play off and really just mirror a pass-catcher all over the place. There isn't a team in the NFL that wouldn't want this kind of talent on the roster."

Issue 220: April 2016