LOS ANGELES — Ten men gathered in the war room to run through NFL draft scenarios, what-ifs and trade possibilities. The conversation soon turned to the subject of Johnny Manziel, the former first-round bust who is attempting an NFL comeback, and the seasoned scouts and draft enthusiasts around the table wondered how he compared with Baker Mayfield and the other top quarterbacks in this year’s draft class.
“Johnny Manziel was a better football player to me than Mayfield,” someone said.
“They’re totally different,” offered another. “I think Mayfield’s better in the pocket. Johnny’s more athletic.”
“This is getting way in the weeds,” Daniel Jeremiah piped in, “but to me Manziel is in the developmental category, which puts him with Josh Allen. Whereas Mayfield is less of a developmental guy. He can play in a normal structure.”
This draft discussion happens every day, but it takes place away from any NFL team’s headquarters. It is show prep that includes Jeremiah, a former college quarterback turned former NFL scout turned current TV draft analyst, and an NFL Network crew that churns through draft-related topics for an hour every weeknight on a show called “Path to the Draft,” plus an additional hour every Tuesday on another program called “Mock Draft Live.”
The network’s lively war room amounts to just a small window into the all-consuming, round-the-clock, unending frenzy that the NFL draft has become.
Jeremiah, 40, is part of a new generation of analysts in what was essentially a one-man media monopoly until relatively recently. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. endured years of mockery for his interest in a niche event that’s essentially a series of roster transactions. Today it’s second only to the NFL playoffs on the football calendar in terms of fan interest and media coverage.
The draft is spread over three days and will be held in a football stadium in front of 30,000 fans. Its opening night will be broadcast live on three major networks this year — with Fox joining ESPN and NFL Network — and will be preceded by hundreds of hours of TV updates and a nonstop stream of Twitter analysis, YouTube clips and speculation from a growing class of self-appointed experts armed primarily with an Internet connection and varying degrees of football smarts. It’s a cottage industry that suddenly features a handful of skyscrapers and no shortage of folks trying to get into the neighborhood.
“All the sarcasm and the ridicule and the negativity about the draft and about who covers it back in the day . . . you don’t hear any of that anymore,” Kiper said. “That’s kind of satisfying. Nobody is getting criticized anymore. There’s none of the commentary that’s negative about, ‘Why do people do this? Who would care about that? They’re wasting their time doing this,’ and all that garbage.”
Sites for sore eyes
Barely a decade ago, the draft was presided over primarily by three knowledgeable kingpins: Kiper and Todd McShay from ESPN and the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock.
There are now dozens of podcasts, websites and social media accounts dedicated to the draft, several others dedicated to aggregating them, and several more focused on critiquing them. In addition to mainstream media and traditional football outlets, fans can type in seemingly interchangeable words and come up with a mock draft, among them: NFLDraftScout.com, DraftSite.com, MyNFLDraft.com, DraftBlaster.com, NFLDraftExpress.com, DraftKing.com, NFLMocks.com. You get the idea.
There is even a website, WalterFootball.com, that houses a database of more than 300 mock drafts from a variety of gurus, experts and bar stool general managers. For the most part, the authors aren’t former players or scouts.
“It’s not just seasonal, like it used to be,” said Phil Savage, a longtime NFL personnel executive who is now the executive director of the Senior Bowl. “Mel Kiper blazed the trail and you’ve seen a lot of people follow. I would say there’s certain media members you’re going to listen to a bit more — that you can trust — and Daniel is right near the top of that.”
Savage is the one who gave Jeremiah his first scouting job 16 years ago. Back then, scouts had to travel around and lay eyes on a prospect. They carried cases of Betamax tapes, then DVDs and later external hard drives. Nowadays, information is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Virtually every player has highlights available on YouTube, their vital measurements and football stats all readily available.
“I know it can frustrate some people — ‘Oh, these people don’t know what they’re talking about.’ But I think it’s great,” Jeremiah said. “The more interest there is in this event, the better it is for all of us.”
Jeremiah starts most days early, leaving his home in Murrieta, Calif., by 4 a.m. to beat traffic. He records podcasts and writes for NFL.com, but the draft-specific television programming offers his biggest platform, and his entire year builds to the few weeks in March and April when draft interest peaks.
On a recent morning, after the war-room production meeting and a quick bite, Jeremiah walked into the smaller of the network’s two studios to rehearse and prerecord a couple of segments.
“Deej, what’d you do for lunch?” a cameraman asked.
“Little turkey sandwich,” Jeremiah explained. “I give it a C-minus.”
He can’t help himself. Jeremiah assigns grades to everything. It’s what he learned at his first scouting job with the Baltimore Ravens.
Jeremiah played quarterback in college, first at Northeastern Louisiana and then Appalachian State. He knew early on that the NFL draft wasn’t in the cards for him as a player, but he was invited to work for ESPN as a production assistant on draft coverage while he was still in college. Jeremiah’s father is the nationally renowned pastor David Jeremiah, who’d befriended ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen.
“I answered his phone calls,” Jeremiah recalled, “all the GMs calling him while he was on the air. I was enamored.”
After college, ESPN kept Jeremiah around as a low-level crew member for its “Sunday Night Football” telecasts. In the press box at one game, he found himself chatting with a scout for Baltimore. A seed was planted, and before long Jeremiah was talking to Savage, then the Ravens’ personnel executive.
“It never even crossed my mind before that,” he said.
Jeremiah scouted for the Ravens for four years, rising quickly up the ranks before moving on to the Cleveland Browns, with whom Savage had taken a job as general manager. After a 10-6 season in 2007, the Browns finished 4-12 in 2008 and the whole staff was shown the door.
“Honestly, the way it was all sort of setting up after the 2007 season, I felt like he was on a really fast track,” Savage said. “If I hadn’t have gotten released at the end of that year and we had a bit more time, I think Daniel would’ve easily been a GM candidate over these last few years.”
Jeremiah was still paid by the Browns for another 18 months, so he didn’t need to race to another NFL team. After consulting Mortensen, he jumped on social media, writing “Twitter scout” in his bio. He was ready to finally scratch that media itch.
In the lead-up to the 2010 NFL draft, Jeremiah found himself opposite Skip Bayless on the set of “First Take” on ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., campus. The first topic the two were asked to debate: Should the Rams take Sam Bradford or Tim Tebow with the first overall pick?
“He was all-in on Tebow,” Jeremiah recalled with a chuckle. “I said it makes sense if they want to take Tebow — he’d do a nice job blocking for Steven Jackson.”
With an NFL lockout looming, ESPN, which had been using Jeremiah for some remote on-air hits to discuss draft prospects, didn’t have a job to offer him. So Jeremiah went back into scouting, hired in 2010 by Howie Roseman, the Philadelphia Eagles’ general manager. The job already felt different than when he started eight years earlier.
“My favorite part of scouting was watching players,” he said. “But the whole profession has drifted away from that.”
He estimates that when he broke into the NFL, 70 percent of the job involved evaluating talent and 30 percent was doing background research on players. “It’s totally flipped,” he says. “Scouts spend so much time working as some sort of private investigator . . . . I think scouts have been marginalized to a great degree. They’re information-gatherers now.”
He figured that jumping back to media likely meant abandoning any hopes of running an NFL franchise. But he also knew a career analyzing prospects on television could be lucrative, might offer a better work-life balance and would enable him to share his opinions with a wider audience — not just a handful of team executives.
“For a long time, I was kind of thinking about getting in the league,” said ESPN’s McShay, 41, once a walk-on quarterback at the University of Richmond. “My friends in the league were like, ‘Don’t be crazy, man. You got a great gig. I was gone for 120 of the last 150 days, I haven’t seen my wife in two months, she’s mad at me, I never see my kids.’ ”
After two seasons with the Eagles, Jeremiah says he passed on an offer from ESPN and joined the league’s media arm, which had identified the draft as a major growth area. That was nearly six years ago, and as NFL.com and the NFL Network have ramped up their draft coverage, Jeremiah has seen his role increase. This year will mark the second straight draft for Jeremiah on the network’s main desk for the opening night, which puts him in the spotlight for one of the league’s marquee events.
Top (50) of the charts
Jeremiah has a clean-cut look, hair sculpted for the camera and not a hint of stubble. On a recent day, he wore a gray suit with a vest but no tie. He tends to move briskly across NFL Network’s campus, his schedule usually packed with TV, his “Move the Sticks” podcast, meetings or outside media interviews.
The job of talking about draft prospects on television leaves few work hours for actually studying them, which is why Jeremiah’s player evaluation is done almost entirely in the evenings or on weekends in front of a computer or tablet, accessing the same video NFL teams use. His goal was to finish 380 players by early April.
As an NFL scout, he was largely responsible for a region of the country and had to cast his net over everyone, including guys who might be free agent options.
“You’re watching more bad players than good players,” he said. “With this job, I’m focusing just on the guys who are draftable.”
He can often tell quickly whether a player is a real prospect, and he values the same qualities today as he did in his former life. For quarterbacks, he likes accuracy more than arm strength, he wants his interior offensive linemen to serve as an anchor more than he needs them to be athletic, and linebackers must be strong both against the run and in pass coverage.
Jeremiah attends a handful of regular season college games and a half-dozen bowl games each year. Then he’ll make the rounds to the NFL scouting combine and postseason all-star games. That includes the Senior Bowl, which can be a socializing job fair of sorts, but Jeremiah makes a point of grabbing Chik-fil-A each night and retiring to his room to watch practice footage.
“I don’t drink, don’t smoke, I’m happily married. There’s nothing for me. I’m there to see football players,” he says.
While all this information will be churned into bite-sized nuggets after each selection in the draft, it’s also essential for the weeks of pre-draft content, especially his prospect rankings and his mock drafts — the scorecards that are treated like gold by networks and like junk food for draft enthusiasts, and offer a projection of which players will go to which teams on draft night.
“Mock drafts are the big thing for everybody else. It’s not the big thing for me,” Jeremiah said. “My big thing is my top-50 list. How I rank my players is what I put the most pride into. That’s the job of any scout. I will defend my top-50 list. I won’t put a lot of energy into defending my mock draft. The mock draft is based on what I’m hearing. The top-50 list is based on what I’m seeing.”
As an NFL scout, if he missed on a player, only a handful of colleagues knew. While a bad draft projection might not carry the same consequences now that he’s a TV analyst, his work is open for public scrutiny. “You can’t hide. I’ve been in plenty of rooms where we’ve been way off on players,” he says, “but nobody ever knew.”
“That transparency holds you accountable to the masses,” explains Bucky Brooks, Jeremiah’s colleague at NFL Network.
Brooks served as a scout for Seattle and Carolina following his five-year NFL playing career, and he expects to see others follow the path from scouting jobs to media outlets. “The vehicle is there now,” he said. “The appetite is there for knowing what the scout sees.”
Jeremiah has no regrets about making the leap. After this year’s draft, he plans to take a couple of weeks off in May before diving back into tape. It’ll be time to turn his focus to the 2019 class. After all, talking about the NFL draft is a year-round job.
Read more of The Post’s ‘Road to the NFL’ series: