NEW YORK -- The first guy I ever knew who cared about the NFL Draft was a kid named Robert. He was one of my best friends in high school. Robert taught me about many of the finer things in sports. He was the first person I knew who REALLY collected baseball cards -- cellophane sheets, rookie cards and all that. He knew exactly where to stand outside the arena to get the best autographs. He had memorized the dates when the baseball preview magazines would come out.
*Robert got Michael Jordan's autograph this way -- Jordan came to Charlotte to play in a college All-Star Game and Robert knew exactly where to stand outside the old Charlotte Coliseum while almost everyone else waited at the wrong door. Robert got Jordan’s autograph on a Sports Illustrated cover. I got a pat on the head from Jordan and a “sorry, kid, gotta go,” because people had spotted him and were running over.
Robert was the person who convinced me that I wasn't a real football fan unless I skipped school to watch the NFL Draft.
This was ludicrous back then. The first time I skipped school to watch the draft was 1983, my junior year in high school. I hope my parents aren't reading this. Skipping school was a common act … but to watch NFL teams pick players? This made sense to nobody. Even the Dungeon and Dragons contingent thought this was obsessive behavior. Nobody except Mel Kiper (still looking at film in a basement somewhere), big New Yorkers wearing small JETS and GIANTS jerseys and a few fanatics like my friend Robert cared about the NFL Draft in 1983.
Let's play old fogey for a minute and tell you what it was like watching the NFL Draft then. There were no draft previews, except what was in the paper (we lived in Charlotte then, but this was years before the Carolina Panthers, so the paper had almost nothing). There were no mainstream draft magazines on newsstands. This was obviously long before the Internet, and long before 24-hour sports radio, and long before ESPN had gavel-to-gavel coverage of the event.
MORE: Team-by-team previews
Heck, in those days ESPN didn’t even PAY for the right to broadcast the draft. The NFL’s attitude seemed to be: “Hey, if you guys want to film guys writing down names on scraps of paper, have fun with that.”
There are two things I remember most about the ESPN broadcast. One is that ESPN kept playing the same commercial over and over and over again. There were not too many companies (as in none?) interested in advertising schlubs choosing college players and a commissioner or an underling stand behind a lectern and announce the names. The one commercial that ESPN did play again and again and again was for the football helmet phone.
Yes you too can have the same kind of football helmet phone that the teams themselves are using to communicate back to their cities.
"It's a real conversation piece!" the guy on the commercial said.
"It's a real conversation piece!" the guy on the commercial said.
"It's a real conversation piece!" the guy on the commercial said.
That commercial probably played 25 times just that year, maybe more. It got to the point where Robert and I, out of sheer boredom, were babbling, "It's a real conversation piece," at each other again and again while pointing at different things in the house. These days, ESPN makes the draft into a Michael Bay movie, it’s exciting, it’s, thrilling, cut to this guy, now that guy, show some highlights, give me some explosion sound effects, now cut to the other guy, cut to Bill Belichick, cut to the Harbaughs, cut to George Halas and Vince Lombardi on the Hereafter phone.
In 1983, ESPN still had no idea how to make an essentially action-free event without even the slightest hint of sports into something even remotely interesting. Mel Kiper was not even part of the coverage then. I'm sure that I'm wrong, but when I think of that first draft I saw, I think of Chris Berman hosting and a handful of other sort of random people just of talking.
This is how it went in my memory:
Berman: "Well, well, St. Louis takes Leonard Smith out of McNeese State. Interesting."
Random guy: "That is interesting, Chris. Lawrence Smith could make a big impact for Seattle."
Berman: "Leonard. Leonard Smith."
Random guy: "Yeah. He could definitely, you know, be very helpful as like a, well, my notes say he's defensive back so he should help Seattle's secondary."
Berman: "St. Louis' secondary."
Another random guy: "I expect him to start right away for St. Louis in the secondary, unless they feel like he need a little bit more seasoning. In which case I could definitely see him playing a part time role in the nickel or dime, unless he's really not ready to contribute in the NFL."
Berman: "OK, only another 13 minutes to kill. Let's take a break."
Commercial: "The helmet phone. It's a real conversation piece."
I'm sure it wasn't EXACTLY like that, but it sure felt that way. But then, there’s the second thing I remember. As you will recall, 1983 was the famous quarterback draft when John Elway went No. 1 and fellow Hall of Famer Jim Kelly was also drafted. The entire draft, my buddy Robert -- an overwhelming Jets fans -- had only one wish: For Dan Marino to make it to the Jets' pick at No. 24.
At first, he did not think there was even the slightest chance of that happening with the Jets having the 24th overall pick. But Marino started dropping and Robert started believing. Dallas had the 23rd pick and the Cowboys' quarterback was Danny White ... a 31-year-old who was pretty good but was mainly known for not being his predecessor, Roger Staubach. Robert felt sure Dallas would take Marino.
The Cowboys did not. They took a defensive end, Jim Jeffcoat, from Arizona State.
And Robert started to dance. He was chanting, "Mah-REE-no! Mah-REE-No!" as he danced happily around the room. The only times I’ve seen anyone quite that happy was in that cartoon where Daffy Duck happens upon the cave with all the jewels. Robert was delirious with joy, so were many of those fans on TV who were wearing the JETS jerseys that probably had fit a few seasons before.
And then, the commissioner, Pete Rozelle, went to make it official. He walked up the lectern and he said, "Jets take, with their first round selection, quarterback ..."
Rozelle looked up for an instant and paused for dramatic purposes. It seemed he wanted to take a mental picture of the scene right then. The fans went crazy. Robert went crazy. "Mah-REE-No!" Robert shouted again. I will always love Rozelle for pausing there.
"Ken O'Brien of California Davis."
Speaking of cartoons and game shows, when something bad happens you will hear that “Wah, wah, wah, wahhhhhhhhhhh,” sound effect. I heard it in that glorious moment. I have never seen anyone fall to the floor as fast as Robert did that day. He just fell to the floor and he stayed there like Michael Spinks after being knocked out by Mike Tyson.
As it turned out, O'Brien turned out to be a decent NFL quarterback -- he started 110 games in his career, played in a couple of Pro Bowls, had a near-MVP season his second year. And, as it turned out, he was no Dan Marino.
Of course, I skipped school the next year for the draft too.
* * *
How did the pre-draft hype get SO big? It is big, huge, unprecedented in a way. I imagine many, many, many more words are written across the nation on the NFL Draft than the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Masters, Wimbledon, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup combined. After all, it's three uninterrupted months of NFL draft talk and conjecture, beginning more or less the day after the Super Bowl ends and riding straight to May 8 this year.
Nothing else -- NOTHING else -- gets a three-month buildup.
How did it get so big? Part of that answer is easy -- EVERYTHING with the NFL is big. Only the NFL could have a player draft that could overshadow the NBA and NHL playoffs. But there's something that goes beyond the NFL, something that might speak a bit about the time when we live: Maybe we are increasingly fascinated by possibility, and decreasingly fascinated by how things actually turn out.
Football fans often compare the NFL draft to Christmas morning, which is a pretty decent comparison. And in that light: All the mock drafts; all the predictions; all the talk about who the Jaguars might take, how the Vikings might trade up, where Johnny Manziel will actually end up ... these are Christmas Eve. The boxes are still wrapped. The surprise is still intact. The hope is still boundless.
Who knows? Your team just might get Dan Marino.
Wednesday was the last day of promise, the last day when anything could still happen. Once your team makes the first-round pick Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, the dreaming ends. And even if you are happy with the pick, there's no place to go. All that’s left are the post-draft report cards … and those just aren’t as much fun as the mock drafts.
Let's say that Houston takes Jadeveon Clowney. Everyone in Houston would be very excited, no question. They guy's talent is almost beyond belief. But what follows? Waiting. Nothing but waiting. Nobody knows if Clowney will be an NFL star. He might be a revolutionary player who changes the way the game is played. Or he might be Dan Wilkinson, who was the first pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1994 draft and was promptly called by the team strength coach “freakishly strong.”
Nobody will know about Clowney’s impact for months, years. It’s a slow and steady process with tiny gains and losses, and that’s not as much fun as the draft, which is just like ripping the wrapping paper off a present. Yes! We got Clowney! But as any kid will tell you, the joy of opening the present tends to trump the joy of PLAYING with that present. It’s one of those overpowering rules of childhood.
Point is, right now it looks like Houston will PROBABLY take Clowney, but maybe they won't. Maybe they will shock everyone and take Khalil Mack out of Buffalo. Maybe they will REALLY shock everyone and take Manziel. Wouldn't that just blow up Twitter? Maybe they'll trade the pick for a slew of draft picks. Maybe there will be an established star in the trade?
The point is: Maybe.
When the draft ends there is no more maybes. I think that's why so many people cannot get enough NFL draft. They will read every version of every mock draft. They will listen to every expert break it down -- and non-experts too. It's Christmas Eve. And it's just like when you are a kid -- getting the toys is great. But you sort of wish Christmas Eve would have lasted a bit longer.
* * *
Well, I have gone through about 100 different mock drafts on the Internet. There are thousands to choose from, of course. I tried to pick 100 that seemed based in at least some knowledge and timeliness (people who had Houston taking Earl Campbell, for instance, are not part of the survey).
Based on those, I have put together a "Mock Mock Draft." This is the mock draft consensus, best I could figure it
1. Houston: Javdeon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Most of the mockers have Houston taking Clowney or trading out of the pick. There are people who think it's still an open question -- including our own ProFootballTalk and Sports Illustrated great Peter King who thinks what he thinks (both predict Khalil Mack). I pick against PFT at my own peril, but the consensus is clearly that Clowney's absurd size and strength -- and that YouTube sensation hit -- make him simply too exciting to pass up.
2. St. Louis: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Seems to be about as unanimous a choice as Clowney. Robinson is said to be a rare talent in the line of Matt Kalil, Jake Long and Joe Thomas, who not only started right away but were essentially All-Pro quality players from their first snap. As a fan, it's not necessarily super fun when your team drafts an offensive lineman -- especially in a draft loaded with quarterbacks and wide receivers -- but my guess is that the top offensive linemen tend to become great players more often than any other position.
3. Jacksonville: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
Our first split -- experts seem divided whether Jacksonville will take Mack or Clemson’s speedy wide receiver Sammy Watkins. The mocks lean slightly toward Mack; Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley has coached defense all his life, and the Jaguars' rush defense last year was pretty atrocious.
4. Cleveland: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Well, here's the one everyone will be waiting for ... again, some expect Cleveland to pass and take the safer choice of big-play receiver Sammy Watkins. But the Browns are at a crossroads. They have had a sitcom off-season, and Manziel is the highest-risk, highest-reward pick in the draft. The team that drafts Manziel will get more buzz of of this draft than any other. I think Cleveland needs the buzz and rolls the dice.
5. Oakland: Sammy Watkins, Clemson
He's an old-fashioned Raiders pick -- a blazing wide receiver who can break tackles and make big plays. If Jacksonville grabs Watkins, the feeling seems to be that the Raiders will take Mack. If Cleveland grabs Watkins, the feeling is that this could be Manziel’s landing spot.
6. Atlanta: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
Another accomplished football player in the Matthews NFL line ... with father Bruce, grandfather Clay Sr., uncle Clay Jr. and cousins Clay III and Casey before him. This is actually pretty strong consensus among mockers. It seems Atlanta, a team that likes building around solid players like Matthews, has had an eye on him for a while now.
7. Tampa Bay: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Explain to me again how Texas A&M didn't win the national championship ... or come close? The mocks are almost unanimous in saying the Aggies will have three picks in the Top 7 of the NFL Draft. Evans is 6-foot-5 and can jump; his ability to go up and get the ball played a huge role in the success of Manziel.
8. Minnesota: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The mockers are split right down the middle between Bortles and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The gut pushes me toward Bortles, though, because Matt Cassel started six games for the Vikings last year and also because Matt Cassel started six games for the Vikings last year.
9. Buffalo: Aaron Donald, T, Pittsburgh
Mockers have Buffalo choosing Michigan’s Taylor Lewan here -- Mel Kiper says Lewan would have rated higher than every tackle in the 2013 draft, and you might remember that the TOP TWO PICKS in last year's draft were tackles -- but that’s assuming Minnesota takes Donald. There will probably be a few trades to shake things up, and Donald could go earlier.
10. Detroit: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
We have now reached the point where the mockers are all over the place and there is almost no consensus. There is a slight trend toward cornerback -- several have the Lions choosing Dennard or Oklahoma State corner Justin Gilbert. The Lions' defense last year was in the top half of the NFL in fewest points allowed for the first time since -- get this -- 2000. So the Lions could either decide that the defense is on the right track and is not a need or that the defense is on the brink of being special with some adjustments. I’m guessing the second.
11. Tennessee: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Funny, there are some people who think Barr isn't even a first-round pick. He's a great athlete who, if he develops, could become a pass-rushing force. The Titans badly need that -- they really couldn't get to the quarterback. Again: High risk, high reward.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, T, Michigan
The Giants’ running game was atrocious in 2013 and quarterback Eli Manning got hit a lot. The Giants would be thrilled if Lewan dropped to them.
13. St. Louis: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
This draft is said to be very deep at wide receiver but the mockers seem to believe that St. Louis must come out of this draft with some more protection (thus the Robinson pick) and one or two potential game-breakers, so quarterback Sam Bradford will have a chance to succeed. In the mock drafts, the word most often used for Beckham is "explosive."
14. Chicago: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The Bears were the worst team against the run last year -- giving up an astonishing 5.3 yards per carry. But they weren't great against the pass either. With Jared Allen brought in to rush the passer, Dix is just the kind of versatile player who fits the news Bears. Dix is not a lights-out hitter but he is happy to get in there against the run and he's strong in pass coverage.
15. Pittsburgh: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
He's another player the mockers are divided on -- mostly because of injuries. PFT doesn't have him going in the first round. Neither does Mel Kiper. Others have him going BEFORE Pittsburgh. The Steelers defense looked decrepit at times last year and in Pittsburgh they always build around tough, versatile linebackers.
16. Dallas: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Martin apparently has impressed the scouts greatly this offseason and the Cowboys do need help on the offensive line.
17. Baltimore: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
It's always fun to see when the first tight end will go. Ebron is 6-foot-5, 250, but nobody seems too sure he can block anybody. What he CAN do is catch passes; some liken him as an athlete to soon-to-be Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. He could go as high as 10 or drop way back. In case you are wondering, Gonzalez went 13th in his draft.
18. New York Jets: Ken O'Brien, QB, UC-Davis
18. New York Jets: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
At this point, the mock drafts are so different that it is all but impossible to find any trend in them whatsoever. The Jets obviously need something to boost their passing game, which was the second-worst in the NFL last year. Cooks might be the fastest receiver in this draft and also he might be the most productive receiver coming out of college.
19. Miami: Cyrus Kouandijo, OT, Alabama
Well, one thing seems all but certain: Miami needs offensive linemen. Nothing was made clearer in 2013, not only because of the Jonathan Martin bullying saga, which led to all sorts of nastiness, but also because quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-leading 58 times.
20. Cardinals: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
He's a bit short, but mockers agree he is an impact player because of his speed and instincts. Arizona -- not unlike Seattle a couple of years ago -- is quietly building one of the better defensive teams in the league. The Cardinals were seventh in the NFL in points allowed last year and would like to build on that. There are a couple of mockers who go off the board and see the Cardinals going quarterback: Fresno State's Derek Carr.
21. Green Bay: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Actually, the consensus for the mocks is that the Packers will get C.J. Mosley here. But the consensus (as it was) of the mocks was also that Pittsburgh would get C.J. Mosley. And as mentioned, there are some who don't think C.J. Mosley gets drafted at all in the first round. The track is getting muddy. Pryor is a big hitter who seems to enjoy rushing in and hitting running backs.
22. Philadelphia: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
One real possibility is that there is a run on all of these promising receivers -- there are so many of them, but NFL teams see one or two or three go, panic creeps in and GMs start to think: "Man, if we don't move here we might not get one!" Lee, like all first round receivers, blends speed and jumping ability and big play possibilities. He did apparently drop too many passes in college.
23. Kansas City: Rashede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Actually, the mockers give NO real hint who the Chiefs will take here because everyone expects the Chiefs to take one of the top wide receivers -- Lee or Cooks or Beckham. But if they are all gone (as they are here) there's little to guide us. They could reach down for more of a reach receiver like Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin or Penn State's Allen Robinson. Adam Teicher, who has covered the Chiefs for a long time, predicts Hageman, a potentially dominant, potentially underachieving tackle who almost everyone else predicts will be taken later.
24. Cincinnati: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Bengals can be called many things. Impatient is not one of those things. Owner Mike Brown tends to wait things out and so while many in Cincinnati might be convinced that Andy Dalton just can't quite get the team to the next level, the Bengals won't draft a quarterback even with Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater on the board. Verrett is safer and seems to fit coach Marvin Lewis’ defensive mind; he’s small but plays big.
25. San Diego: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
This is a position of need for San Diego -- the Chargers gave up a lot of passing yards last year -- and if Fuller is on the board (or Verrett, for that matter) you can be pretty sure cornerback will be the choice.
26. Cleveland: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Well, this pick will complement the Browns first pick. If they take Manziel, as some of us are predicting, then the mockers say this is a good spot for someone like Roby or Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer. However, if the Browns take someone else at No. 4 -- say Sammy Watkins -- then this will probably be Fresno State's Derek Carr.
27. New Orleans: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Most seem to think the Saints will be looking for yet another weapon for quarterback Drew Brees. Auburn linebacker Dee Ford also has a few mentions here.
28. Carolina: Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
The mockers seem pretty sure that Carolina will go for an offensive lineman to help protect quarterback Cam Newton.
29. New England: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Nobody can predict the NFL draft. That's a given. And then, on the next level, NOBODY can predict what the Patriots are going to do. Jernigan seems to be one of those players who performed poorly at the combine and so either (A) he will fall drastically in the draft or (B) some team that doesn't care so much about the combine will see this as an opportunity. The Patriots like opportunities. Do the Patriots take a quarterback to groom while Tom Brady plays out his brilliant career? Best guess is no, but the Packers certainly had success with Aaron Rodgers … Brett Favre was 36 when they took Rodgers; Brady turns 37 in August.
30. San Francisco: Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana
The 49ers could go a lot of different ways – Missouri’s Kony Early is another name mentioned -- but Latimer’s a big receiver who would give the 49ers an added dimension.
31. Denver: Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
Just guessing now. From here on in, there will be two kinds of players taken: (1) Players with great talent and questions about their focus; (2) Players with great focus and questions about their talent. No one seems to question Nix's talent.
32. Seattle: Xavier Su'a Filo, G, UCLA
Seems to be the most solid player left on the board and for a team already overloaded with talent, solidness is a good direction.
Then all the talk will be about the quarterbacks still on the board for the second round.