Mel Kiper, Todd McShay transform NFL draft coverage

Nashville, TN - April 26, 2019: Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay on the set of NFL Draft Countdown ...

They banter and bicker, disagreeing about NFL draft prospects like ornery couples do dinner plans. But ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay insist that any perceived bad blood remains strictly on the set.

“We just do what we do,” Kiper says. “We’re friends and we move on.”

To the next date. The next debate.

The next NFL draft.

“The speculation, the buildup, the excitement that goes with the buildup really starts … as soon as the draft is over,” Kiper said. “To see everything on draft day come to fruition … it makes the process so enjoyable for people that cover it on a yearly basis.”

For the 39th consecutive year, Kiper will help anchor ESPN’s draft coverage. And for the 17th, he’ll be joined by McShay. The two have transformed the draft with their insights and analysis from a two-day football festival into a year-round phenomenon rife with talking points that intrigue even the most casual of fans.

The 2022 draft in Las Vegas begins Thursday and concludes Saturday. McShay will be broadcasting on site. Kiper announced last week that he’s not vaccinated for COVID-19 and will co-anchor remotely from his home studio in Maryland.

“I probably don’t take enough time to reflect on it because I never thought I would be where I’m at right now,” McShay said. “When a player gets drafted, this is the biggest moment of their life, probably, right? You’ve got to make sure that you present it properly and that you do it the right way.”

‘The Godfather’

They’ve been colleagues for 16 years now. Foils on television. Friends away from it. Yet McShay still speaks purposefully about Kiper with a humble sense of reverence. “He’s the Godfather,” McShay says. “He’s the one who started this whole industry.”

He swears Kiper has a photographic memory — a claim that a 20-minute conversation with Kiper would seem to support. He remembers everything. Like the defunct telephone numbers — “900 numbers” — he would call as a kid during the draft to learn of each selection. Or the call signals and hosts of the radio shows he would appear on to preview the draft.

“KMOX in St. Louis. Myron Cope in Pittsburgh. (Anita) Martini and (Mike) Edmonds in Houston. The local show, John Steadman, in Baltimore.” recalled Kiper, a Baltimore native who talks as quickly and confidently in casual conversation as he does on television.

He was just a teenager when he began obsessing over the draft, aggregating and analyzing statistics that he believed would help him predict future performance. At 16, he founded Mel Kiper Enterprises and began compiling scouting reports that he’d distribute to teachers, classmates, fans — and eventually NFL executives.

By 19, he’d solidified his status as draft guru who contributed to 25 radio shows per day, many of which thought their guest was upward of 40. He also befriended Ernie Accorsi, the assistant general manger of the Baltimore Colts, who’d offer him an opportunity to assist with scouting before the 1983 draft.

But with the franchise in flux before its eventual move to Indianapolis, Accorsi reneged and instructed Kiper in June of 1983 to “keep doing what you’re doing.” The following January, ESPN summoned Kiper to its Connecticut headquarters for an interview and peppered him with questions about the various NFL teams and their respective needs.

“Had Ernie brought me in, I would have never gotten my position with ESPN because I would have been working for the Colts,” said Kiper, 61. “Who knows what would have happened?”

The protege

For more than two decades, Kiper anchored the network’s draft coverage, supplying analysis all year to supplement college and pro football coverage. But he craved a companion who could equal his energy, passion and knowledge and privately pushed for ESPN to hire one.

In 2006, his wish came true when the network hired McShay, a former backup quarterback at the University of Richmond who stumbled into scouting while recovering from an injury. He obtained an internship with Gary Horton, a former NFL scout who sought to establish a “33rd scouting department,” Scouts Inc.

And he enjoyed it so much, he converted a closet inside his apartment into an office so he could sift unabated through game tape and compile scouting reports.

“There’s just something about watching 10 wide receivers and trying to figure out who does what the best and kind of ranking them,” McShay said. “We did stuff for the NFL. We did stuff for college. We did game prep, but it was always the draft for me.”

Scouts Inc. would partner with Sporting News, allowing McShay to write his first published draft reports. The first draft he covered was in 2000, when the New England Patriots selected Tom Brady in the sixth round. McShay says he gave Brady a third-round grade and called him “the most underrated quarterback in the class.”

“I also still had a third-round grade on him,” McShay said with a laugh, noting that he recently ribbed Kiper about it. “As much as I want to take it as a win, I was still off by several picks.”

McShay, too, wanted to work for a franchise and was offered an area scouting position by the Cleveland Browns. But ESPN purchased Scouts Inc. and subsequently tabbed McShay for television opposite Kiper.

“Kiper greenlighted it and we started that year, going back and forth,” McShay said. “I give him all the grief I could possibly give him, but without him saying it was all right for me to come on and do that and having absolutely no ego about it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

The tandem

They may argue a lot, but their differing opinions drive compelling discourse that ultimately benefits their viewers. Their relationship is rooted in mutual respect. They speaking glowingly about each other, praising their passion and work ethic.

“I know I better be ready, and he knows he better be ready, too,” says McShay, 45. “We kind of established that.”

The duo’s success has changed almost universally the way the NFL draft is covered, paving lucrative pathways for ESPN colleagues Matt Miller and Jordan Reid and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah — among others. It’s an obsession now for many the way it always was for Kiper.

“Just to see so many people actually earning a living doing something surrounding the draft when back in the day, they said, ‘Go get a real job,’ ” Kiper says. “To see what it’s become now on a lot of levels is very rewarding for me.”

Another year’s worth of work will be complete on Saturday, after all seven rounds conclude and all 262 draft picks are executed.

Then it’s on to 2023. After a few weeks or so of rest and recovery.

“I take a lot of pride in what I do because I’m fortunate enough for ESPN to have a lot of ears and eyes on me,” McShay said. “The fact that we get to sit there on the set with 100,000 people walking around Las Vegas to announce the NFL draft and how big it’s become, I’ll take a moment before and just be like, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m so damn lucky to be here.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.