Oh, sure, they have lied to him. Of course they have. The scouts, the coaches, the front-office guys all talk to Kiper, and yet they all profess a simple code, articulated here by Accorsi: When speaking of the draft, "you don't ever, ever share what you're really thinking." In the beginning, when Mel was just a kid, he was shocked by the intrigue surrounding the draft, the paranoia, the disinformation he encountered in his quest for information. Today he says, "I love disinformation. I love it when someone tries to lie to me. Because I see right through it." Today he says he protects himself with his own code: Never trust anyone who lies to you: never screw anyone who tells you the truth. Today he says that when he evaluates a player, "it's nobody's opinion but my own."
Can Kiper evaluate talent? Around the league that is the big question. If you gave him a pair of binoculars and sent him out on the road, could he survive as an NFL scout? Some people, among them Accorsi, think he could. A lot of others don't. They call him "a listener." They say he's got ears but no eyes. "You chart his picks, and you know exactly where he gets his information," says Lide Huggins, director of football operations for the Denver Broncos. "I got a Far Side calendar, so I can laugh on days when Kiper doesn't have something in the newspaper."
How good is Kiper? Well, he didn't like 1986 first-rounder Anthony Bell of Michigan State, who had a journeyman career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Nor did he like 1988 first-rounders Ted Gregory of Syracuse or Eric Kumerow of Ohio State, and the Hopped (with the New Oilcans Saints and Miami Dolphins, respectively). In 1990 he didn't like No. 1 pick Jeff George of Illinois—still doesn't like him, in fact, because the current Colt starter is "not my prototype quarterback"—and he loved Houston's Andre Ware, who finished last season as the third-string quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He alerted the Senior Bowl to Towson State's Dave Meggett in 1989, and at the behest of agent Dick Bell he talked up Eric Swann, the giant tackle from the sandlot leagues of Massachusetts who became the sixth pick in last year's draft. Meggett has become the spark plug of the New York Giants, and the jury is still out on Swann, who has been nagged by injuries since joining the Cardinals. In 1988 Kiper didn't like Chris Spielman of Ohio State, and the Detroit Lion linebacker has played in three Pro Bowls. Kiper didn't like Virginia's Jeff Lageman, either (or, rather, didn't like the Jets' choosing Lageman with the 14th pick in the 1989 draft), and Lageman, who led the Jets in sacks last season, will never forget hearing the fans screaming during his rookie year that he was a "wasted pick."
This year Kiper has been highly critical of Skrepenak, a consensus All-America, and Skrepenak has said, "I just wonder, Why is Mel Kiper picking on me? Does he really have it in for me that bad?"
Skrepenak is not the only one trying to divine Kiper's motives. Two years ago Kiper projected Florida's Emmitt Smith as an early first-round pick; when Smith dropped out of the top 10, Kiper opined on ESPN that Smith's stock was falling because his agents. Richard Howell and Pat Dye Jr., had a reputation for scorched-earth negotiations. Howell and Dye were shocked; right on cable TV, Kiper was killing them. Players read his ratings obsessively, and for him to say that a player was sliding because of his agents, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars because of them—well, he was killing them. Sure, they had negotiated tough for one of their clients, Auburn receiver Lawyer Tillman, the year before. Sure, they had played hardball. They just wished they hadn't played hardball with Ernie Accorsi and the Cleveland Browns.
"I like him."
This is how the buzz begins at the Senior Bowl. Kiper and the rest of the ESPN broadcast crew are having lunch with Eric Tillman, the Senior Bowl's executive director. They talk about how players have looked at practice during the week, and when the word is that a kid has looked good, someone says, inevitably, "Oh, I like him." This is a cue for the conversation to lurch into draftspeak, for someone else to say that the kid really helped himself this week, and although he's a 'tweener who would be a reach by a team drafting for need, he could now he an the bubble Ion he first round come draft day. But should the kid last until the third or fourth round, he'll be a plummeting pick, and though no one will doubt his athleticism, everybody will raise questions about his character.
Anyway, the kid everybody seems to like Senior Bowl week is Eddie Blake, a 320-pound offensive lineman from Auburn. In fact, over lunch Tillman intones a solemn recommendation: "Eddie Blake put on the finest performance I've ever seen in a Senior Bowl practice."
Kiper nods, scribbles something on a pad and looks at Tillman. "So he may have solidified a spot in the first round?" he asks.
"I think he may be one of the first 15 picks," says Tillman.