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Always Keep Your Eyes Open For Those Sleepers

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Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

If I’d have been challenged that April Saturday, I would have had to admit I was wrong.

During a dinner conversation a few weeks earlier, I had made a prediction. We were in Syracuse, covering the East Region of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, but the topic that dominated the table that night was the upcoming NFL Draft. Specifically, we were talking sleepers. And I had a guy.

It was a player I’d seen at the Senior Bowl that January. Stalking the sidelines of a practice session, I was trolling for buzz. My attention toggled between the action on the field and the reaction of the NFL coaches and GMs and scouts. Who was turning heads, I wondered? Whose draft stock was on the move?

I noticed a fair number of heads turned toward the linebackers and tuned in, too. One player seemed to be in a consensus of crosshairs, so I stopped to watch, to see if maybe my reporter’s eyes could pick up what already had raised some eyebrows.

After several high-energy reps, the scrutiny shifted elsewhere. I scribbled a few notes on my rolled up roster sheet and committed to memory the name – not one I recognized. Someone to keep an eye on, I figured.

I didn’t hear much about him again after Mobile. Nothing after the Scouting Combine, nothing leading up to the draft. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d been privy to a discreet moment of discovery. There was something about the heightened energy of those coaches when they watched him. It was as if they had seen something exciting but didn’t want anyone around them to catch on. Secrets don’t usually survive Senior Bowl week.

Just one year earlier, one such secret had blown up at the Senior Bowl. It was my maiden voyage to Mobile, and I’d gone to work on a story about small-school prospects. There were more than a handful of prospects to choose from at that 1996 Senior Bowl.

It didn’t take me long to find a face for my feature . . . a linebacker from Division II Kutztown State (Andre Reed’s alma mater), who looked every bit like he belonged with the big boys. I locked on to that golden-helmeted blur and figured, “I’ll be the one to tell the world about him.”

My secret didn’t last the first session. This kid was such a force at Senior Bowl practices, he played himself all the way from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference to the first round of the NFL Draft. John Mobley had taken Mobile by storm, and the Broncos took him with the 15th overall pick.

Mobley had been so good that there wasn’t enough buzz left to spread over any of the other small-college hopefuls on hand. Not even that raw receiver from UT-Chattanooga (a kid named Terrell Owens, who wound up falling all the way to the 49ers late in the third round).

Which is why, when I returned to the Senior Bowl in ’97, I had trained myself to track any trace of buzz. I wanted to be out front of the next John Mobley.

And so, as I sat at that restaurant in Syracuse, I felt positively Kiperian scooping my colleagues on my latest longshot – someone, I boldly suggested, who might even sneak into the first round.

I was wrong. My guy didn’t go in the first round. Or the second. He was the 73rd player taken in the 1997 NFL Draft. And had I seen those same dinner companions at the Paramount (or the Felt Forum, or whatever that theater inside Madison Square Garden was calling itself then), they’d have been well-justified to pelt me with I-Told-You-So’s. “I ask you for a legitimate sleeper pick,” they’d laughed back in Syracuse, “and you give me a guy from Akron?”

Sixteen years later, as it turns out, I wasn’t wrong. Neither Jason Taylor nor I have anything to be ashamed of regarding his NFL career (the whole “Dancing With the Stars” thing, I never saw coming).

Every year since, one of my favorite aspects of covering the Draft has been finding that guy. The guy who comes out of nowhere. Sometimes you hit with these longshots. Sometimes you whiff. In 2000, I did both.

I focused one story about a stunningly versatile athlete who played 83 snaps a game for the University of New Mexico – at safety, at linebacker, at wide receiver, returning kicks. I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his name until I met him at the traditional Senior Bowl Steak Dinner on the USS Alabama (“Er-Lock-Er,” he told me). That same year, I followed another player with a difficult-to-pronounce name from an off-the-radar program (does anyone else remember that Hofstra’s Giovanni Carmazzi was the second QB taken in 2000? 134 picks ahead of Tom Brady?).

As we prepare for our first season covering the Draft for Football.com, I can make one prediction with absolute certainty: we’re going to get a few things wrong. Nate Silver we’re not.

But that makes us no different than every NFL team, who miss on about half of the picks they make – and that’s just in the first round.

And that’s not really the point of what we’re doing here anyway. Our objective is to look at the draft in a way that’s more prescriptive than predictive. We’re not content just to give you our best guess of what team is taking what player with which pick of what round. We know the more important question on the minds of most football fans is, Why?

It’s our job to make sure fans understand the complexities of the process, not just predict the picks. Mock Drafts are fun to compile, and we’ll make our first one available after the Combine. But even with all the video available on YouTube and the live coverage of the Combine and the scouting reports provided all over the Internet, most Mocks turn out so woefully inaccurate, weathermen look at them and think, “Really? That’s the best you could do?”

So, enjoy our Mock Draft, but don’t look to us as fortune tellers. We’d rather help you figure out what your team should be doing than boldly and blindly forecasting what they’re going to do 65 picks in the selection process.

And then be patient. What may appear on draft night to be a missed prediction might just be proven over time to have been the right call all along.

In which case, expect an “I told you so” from me in about 16 years.