GAINESVILLE — Mel Kiper was the undisputed king of televised NFL draft evaluation when the fledgling NFL Network went looking for a challenger.
The search landed on a hard-working real estate agent who had a short NFL career and moonlighted as a broadcaster.
Mike Mayock wasn't sure he wanted the job.
"No offense, but I don't want to be the college guy for the NFL Network," Mayock said he told Howard Katz, now the NFL's senior vice president for broadcasting. "It doesn't sound like job security. He said, 'Trust me on this one. There's one guy out there that does it, Mel Kiper. We don't know how to do it. You can do it whatever way you want. Go figure it out.' I had no clue."
And as the NFL Network, which launched in 2003, has grown, Mayock, 56, has joined Kiper, Todd McShay and others in feeding fans' thirst for draft information and evaluation.
Mayock is respected for the depth of his knowledge and his reputation as a well-connected evaluator, always looking for more tape to review.
He turned some heads last week, moving Oregon's Marcus Mariota to the top of his quarterback list, ahead of FSU's Jameis Winston, the Bucs' likely pick at No. 1 overall.
"Mike was a guy with excellent athletic ability, coupled with a grinder's mentality," says Charles Davis, his on-air colleague on the NFL Network. "We like to separate everybody into categories. That guy's a superior athlete, that guy's a grinder. You can be both, and Mike is. That grinder's mentality has served him well."
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Tuesday was a long day for Mayock, who left his Pennsylvania home at 4:30 a.m. with hopes of getting to the Gators' weight room by 8:45 as heights and weights are taken. He goes to about 15 such pro days a year, including FSU's in Tallahassee with Winston a week earlier.
Mayock, wearing a blue NFL Network polo and shorts, watches four hours of drills and measurements and tapes a 90 second standup in the end zone at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, talking not only about potential top-five pick Dante Fowler, a defensive end from Lakewood, but about five Gators offensive linemen who may or may not be drafted.
He remembers when he was the only media member at a pro day; now as the demand for draft insight grows, there's usually a semicircle of reporters just asking him about prospects. On a conference call with the media in February, he answered questions for 2 hours, 45 minutes; he'll do another one in two weeks.
"I'm blown away," he says of the ever-increasing interest in draft coverage. "Three networks were televising Jameis Winston the other day. It was nuts. The insatiable need for information is mind-boggling to me."
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There are 256 players in the modern seven-round draft, and it's not surprising that Mayock would care about No. 256 and beyond. As a safety out of Boston College, he went in the 10th round of the 1981 draft to the Steelers — No. 265 overall — getting four hits that day for BC's baseball team.
His path back to the draft and its spotlight wasn't the traditional one. Mayock never played for the Steelers, and managed only nine games with the Giants in 1982-83 before knee injuries ended his career.
The son of a high school coach — his father, Michael Sr., was a captain on Villanova's team in 1954, and his son Mike, 24, also played for the Wildcats — he said everyone expected him to go into coaching. "I rebelled," he said, interviewing for stockbroker jobs, ultimately choosing commercial real estate, which he stayed in for 18 years, even as he moonlighted in broadcasting.
He remembers covering a CFL game in Toronto on a Thursday night, and being in the office in Philadelphia at 7:30 a.m. to show a 50,000-square-foot property. He covered high schools, then Princeton and Rutgers for New Jersey Network, then bigger outlets such as CBS Sports and ESPN, all while keeping a day job.
"A couple years in a row, I did 30-50 football games, and the only way you can do that is if you're doing college, CFL and Arena," he said. "Every bad college game ESPN had, every low-level CFL and Arena game, it seemed like I was on it. The cool thing was, as opposed to superstars that get thrown in the booth Day 1, you talk about bare bones. I did a thousand standups live. I had to interview mascots. Go up and interview the quarterback's mom in the stands. I knew I had to do whatever it took because I wasn't a big name. You get used to working hard."
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As a draft analyst, Mayock must be both scout and reporter, building enough insights of his own to share in exchange for what NFL teams really think, so his opinions aren't just his, but framed in the context of the league's evaluations.
"I'm a tape-based guy," said Mayock, who played for Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel with the Giants and works Notre Dame games for NBC in the fall. "But once you get past 150 guys or so, I'm using a lot of my buddies around the league that trust me. I talked to three offensive line coaches last week. 'Who are interior guys who are late-draftable I need to be aware of?' And if some names come up that I wasn't familiar with, I have to get on that and add them to the list. I talk to receivers guys and all the sudden there are four guys I haven't even heard of that ran 4.3s at their pro days."
Mayock said he has to focus his attention on the top 100 players — the first three rounds of the draft. But he spent a week in St. Petersburg for the East-West Shrine Game, where most of the 100-plus players will be late-round picks or undrafted free agents.
"It's a tremendous amount of research, a tremendous amount of watching tape and talking to contacts around the league," Davis said. "That comes from being able to get the trust of people. Mike doesn't come from the pure scouting world. We're the outsiders. He's gained the trust of the entire league by what he's done over the years."
"Mike is so good as a draft analyst because he is a grinder," Belichick said. "He goes to a lot of workouts, watches a lot of film and he is dedicated to it. His playing experience also helps him."
Draft experts face constant criticism, their predraft rankings compared not only to the draft itself, but players' actual success after years in the NFL. Mayock has missed on QBs in recent years, rating Blaine Gabbert above Cam Newton in 2011, making Johnny Manziel his top quarterback last year, with Teddy Bridgewater much lower in his estimation. Most GMs are judged on one or two first-round picks; experts like Mayock and Kiper must have opinions on 32.
Mayock's stature has grown through the years, and he is recognized among the top draft analysts. But while many use Twitter following as a measuring stick — Kiper has 560,000 —Mayock isn't interested.
"I don't know if I'm smart not doing it. I get a lot of pressure to do it," said Mayock, acknowledging it might be required with his next contract. "People think I could have a big following. In my heart, I like to keep the football as pure as possible. It may sound hokey, but that's how I feel about it."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. Follow @GregAuman.