At this year’s scouting combine, there were some high-upside prospects that even the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock didn’t recognize. They weren’t Saquon Barkley or Minkah Fitzpatrick. They were the new draft gurus. “I don’t know 90 percent of the media people at the combine every year,” said Mayock. “Guys are running around talking about trail technique and hips and hand placement. I’m, like, Wow, I have no idea who has the right credentials or not.”
“But far be it from me to criticize,” Mayock continued. “Because if you know how to write and you know how to break down tape, you can be categorized as a, quote, evaluator.”
A decade ago, the people arguing about NFL prospects were mostly TV types like Mayock, Mel Kiper Jr., and Todd McShay—an oligopoly their online counterparts call “Big Draft.” Big Draft is now surrounded by a few dozen gurus who write, tweet, and compile draft guides. As Jonathan Givony and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor did with the NBA, the new gurus used the draft as an entree into sportswriting in a time when conventional entry points are vanishing. “You can be a nobody,” said Alex Dunlap, who covers the draft for RosterWatch, “and if you hustle enough and work hard enough and know your shit about football, you can really make a name for yourself.”
That Mayock would ask, “Who are these people?” is appropriate. The draft guru has always been the sports media’s Horatio Alger figure. Kiper began his road to guru-dom as a teenager, when he handed out his own DIY draft analysis at the Baltimore Colts’ training camp. By age 22, he was blowing up GMs on ESPN. As Colts vice president Bill Tobin once asked, “Who in the hell is Mel Kiper?”
The new gurus have similar origin stories. NFLDraftScout.com’s Rob Rang teaches high school literature and history in Tacoma, Washington. Dane Brugler published his first draft guide when he was a freshman in college. Kyle Crabbs, who founded the site NDT Scouting, and Josh Norris, of NBC Sports and Rotoworld, turned to writing when they couldn’t score jobs in the league.
Matt Waldman, who writes the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, was working for a company that manages call centers when he was reverse-inspired by an article claiming Brian Westbrook was too short and too light to be a top-10 pick. “The NFL is no different than the corporate world,” Waldman told me. “I thought I would like to just evaluate players based on their talents, not on the cover-your-assets kind of risk management teams use when they’re investing money in the first round.”
Some of the new gurus started in sports radio (NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein, The Athletic’s Bob Sturm). Others like Pro Football Weekly’s Greg Gabriel, DallasCowboys.com’s Bryan Broaddus, and The Ringer’s Mike Lombardi are refugees from the NFL. When Daniel Jeremiah lost his scouting job with the Browns, he asked his pal Chris Mortensen what he should do with his life. Mort told Jeremiah to start a Twitter account and then blessed him by directing his followers there. In 2012, Jeremiah left a subsequent job as a scout for the Eagles to become an analyst with the NFL Network.
One of the old lines about the draft is that crappy teams like Cleveland create a permanent army of draft fans. Some of them also become draft gurus. “I’m a Northeast Ohio guy,” said Brugler. “When the Browns came back in 1999, I was fascinated by the discussion about Tim Couch and Ricky Williams and Akili Smith and what made a college player successful or not.”
“It triggered something,” said Brugler. “I realized early on that this is not only what I want to do for my career but for the rest of my life.”
Big Draft, at least in its TV incarnation, is about being a pundit. Think of Kiper scolding the Jets on an annual basis. The new draft gurus are more focused on providing intel. Their model is Joel Buchsbaum, the Pro Football Weekly guru who died in 2002 at age 48. Upon his death, Juliet Macur observed in a profile, Buchsbaum’s apartment contained “500 cans of mushrooms, 100 bottles of Diet Sprite, some popcorn and dozens of ice cube trays filled with soda. The gas to the oven was off. No one cooked there. The air conditioner had been broken for years.”
The new gurus preach a gospel of self-denial. “I remember when I first started,” said Crabbs. “I was 24 at the time. I lived with two buddies I went to high school with, and they liked to go to the bar on Thursday nights. They made fun of me when I stayed home to watch Buffalo on a Thursday night. But they had Khalil Mack!”
“Oh, gosh,” said Brugler, when I asked about his workload. “Basically, I have a three-hour window, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., that I reserve for family. With everything else, I’m doing draft. I’m doing football.”
Mayock said: “I remember Bill Belichick told me—and I played for Coach—‘If you can live without it, you should.’ I think that’s the best one sentence about the coaching or scouting vocation. You got to embrace it or it’ll eat you alive.”
To be a draft guru is to be eaten alive for money. Or—the sports media being in the state it’s in—the promise of money at some indistinct point in the future. Or—failing that—some minor, unpaid Twitter celebrity. Your labor helps a draftnik who wants nothing more than to win his dynasty fantasy league or complain about his team’s picks. As Waldman writes, “the masochism is provided at your convenience.”
Draft gurus earn their merit badges by binge-watching college tape. (If they put #grindtape in their Twitter bios, all the better.) They also earn merit badges by getting tape. Anybody can buy NFL All-22 tape for $49.99. But colleges are notably paranoid, so draftniks have to enter a black market and acquire the All-22 from agents, scouts, college position coaches eager to tout their pupils, or other draftniks who are willing to trade.
In addition to grinding tape, you can outflank the competition by attending college games. Between the two of them, Crabbs and colleague Joe Marino attended 27 in 2017. Rang teaches high school full-time, but he has been to every combine since 2007.
“Then you get to the question of what qualifies me to evaluate a football player,” said Sturm, who was breaking down Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander the day I called. “That’s an extremely fair question. The answer is general narcissism, probably. But if you do it enough years, you begin to think you know what you’re looking for.”
Player evaluation is not a “crapshoot,” but the difference between doing it superbly and poorly is probably like the difference between batting .280 and .240 in baseball. “I think it’s really cool everyone does their homework now,” said Sturm. “In the end, I hope everyone realizes we’re still just as wrong on most of these guys as we ever have been, regardless of all the extra work we’re doing.”
Gabriel, who spent nine years as player personnel director of the Bears, sees part of his job as correcting the misconceptions peddled by fans and the media. Lately, he’s been saying that the media are much higher on this year’s quarterback class than NFL teams. “People like Lombardi and myself get a lot of shit on Twitter by the wannabes because we did it at the highest level and for the most part successfully for a number of years,” Gabriel wrote in an email. “Many of these people are jealous because we did what they want to do and won’t ever be able to do. Rather than treat us with any respect they take shots ... as you have seen, I gladly throw it back.”
All this agita and film study for … what? It’s the rare guru like Waldman whose guide sells briskly enough to make evaluating players a full-time job. If you get a gig, you earn the right to do even more work. Zierlein writes 500 draft profiles annually for NFL.com, each of which takes him between 45 minutes and three hours. And yet, he said, “There are guys who would stab me in my sleep to take my job.”
At first glance, the articles the new draft gurus produce sound just like the ones we’ve been reading for decades. Who’s this draft’s QB1? How did Da’Ron Payne have only one tackle for loss last season? I want Shaquem Griffin on my team. And then there’s that old standby, the mock draft, which can be “updated” an infinite number of times. “Mock drafts are a great mystery to me,” said Optimum Scouting’s Eric Galko. “I don’t know why they do so well traffic-wise, but I know my editors want more and more.”
One difference is the new gurus can judge the response to their writing in real time. Galko noted that the articles that get a lot of traffic are the ones about an NFL team’s needs or ones that predict when a particular college’s prospects will come off the board. The articles that fare worse are lists like “Top 5 Running Backs,” which have no built-in readership.
NBC Sports’ Josh Norris, who pounded the table for late-rounders like Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, said that it’s safer to praise a prospect than tear one to pieces. “People remember when you’re very positive about someone and he turns out to be good,” he said. “They rarely remember when you’re positive about someone and he turns out to be bad. And they’re at their most lethal when you hate a prospect and he turns out to be great.”
The new gurus have their own sites and hawk their own guides. But Draft Twitter is their Colosseum. As nerdy subcommunities go, Draft Twitter is a great place to get ratio’d. This month, FanSided’s Peter Bukowski found that out when he proposed that the Browns put their high picks in a trade for Jarvis Landry and Ryan Tannehill.
“If you want to lock up your phone, you got to bring up Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson or anything with the Browns,” said Crabbs. “I think every Browns fan is on Draft Twitter.”
What the new gurus fear about Draft Twitter is its potential for inducing groupthink. Every year, there’s a fast, undersized linebacker or tall, bendy pass rusher that Twitter falls head over heels for. Sometimes, groupthink comes from Twitter reacting to Big Draft. “The case of Lamar Jackson is probably a great one,” said Sturm. “A lot of us really like him and really think he has a future. Then you have Bill Polian saying he’s probably a wide receiver. Those of us who really think he could be a great quarterback, we end making him even better than he is to cancel out a dissenting opinion.”
What Twitter did for draft writing is take those boring player profiles and bring them thrillingly to life. When draft gurus watch tape, they keep Giphy open so they can share their latest finds with the world. “That’s something you don’t see from Big Draft a lot,” said Crabbs. “They really don’t show their work.” Big Draft makes lists; the new draft gurus make GIFs.
The prospect GIF is understood as a best-case scenario: Here’s what this guy could be if everything goes right. (Watch Nevada offensive lineman Austin Corbett judo-chop a defensive end to the turf, and he instantly becomes a folk hero.) As Bukowski notes, the GIF is also an essential bridge between the guru and the average fan—like me. I don’t and will never understand the intricacies of secondary play. But I have watched a lot of GIFs this month. And on draft day. I will feel comfortable sending someone a text that reads, “I love the way Iowa’s Josh Jackson attacks the ball at its apex.”
“Why this cottage industry has opened so wide,” said Mayock, “is that it’s the job of 32 teams and their GMs not to let the public know what they’re really thinking.”
Indeed, as Big Draft has grown (this year, for the first time, parts of the draft will be televised on Fox, NFL Network, and ESPN) the amount of inside dope has stayed about the same. The draft guru fills the content void. Several new gurus told me they have to beg out of sports-radio invitations, because there are so many.
Writing about the draft also solves a bigger problem with writing about football online. The NFL cracks down on unlicensed highlights; and when a reporter tries to take video of a college practice, the SID turns into Marquise Goodwin. But when a prospect is between these two worlds, they belong to everyone. Pro days are typically open to video. And the prospects have an incentive—maybe for the only time in their careers—to sell themselves to the writers. “You can be the biggest prospect there is, and you still do yourself a favor by going on the dinkiest draft podcast,” said RosterWatch’s Alex Dunlap.
ESPN’s Todd McShay told me he’s well aware of the growing number of draft gurus, but he’s making an effort not to read them. “I try not to follow anyone legitimately outside of Mel, because I have to, and Daniel Jeremiah, because we’re friends,” said McShay. He wants to keep his evaluations free of influence or incorrect information. McShay’s job is more or less the same as it always was.
Asked if a draft guru can be self-created, Mayock said, “I’d like to say you can. But I think you need a certain base of knowledge. And you got to have people who are willing to help you watch the tape and help you learn how to watch it.” When Mayock started, he relied on contacts inside the NFL. Now, draft gurus rely on Twitter. You make mistakes, you take your medicine. The good part is, you can judge your rankings as soon as next season.
The appeal of being a draft guru for the gurus themselves is a hard thing to pinpoint. Most of the ones I talked to have been grinding for so long that they weren’t able to come up with an answer. The best I got was from Rob Rang. “I have always received some type of internal satisfaction from seeing someone amazing for the first time,” he said.
“With teaching, it’s the same idea,” Rang continued. “You have a student who isn’t a superstar in every phase. But you just got to listen to her sing. Or you just got to watch him play chess. You see someone where they excel and you acknowledge that brilliance and think about how it projects to the next level.” The joy of being a draft guru is that you allow yourself to fall in love with imperfect people.