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An inside look at what's behind mock-draft mania
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/19/2009 12:05 AM

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Nolan Nawrocki would have loved to file his tax return by April 15, but there was no chance of that happening.

The Elmhurst resident, who filed for an extension late Wednesday night, has been overwhelmed with work.

His job? Trying to provide the world's greatest NFL mock draft list. Seriously.

As Pro Football Weekly's point man for draft coverage - the former University of Illinois walk-on has contacts within all 32 organizations and an endless video library at his disposal - Nawrocki doesn't have time for anything else in April until commissioner Roger Goodell steps up to the microphone to announce the first overall pick.

"It's 15- to-20-hour days," Nawrocki said. "It's phone work. It's tape work. It's constant.

"If you had told me 10 years ago a mock draft would occupy a full month of my time, I'd say, 'You're crazy.' But it's big business."

How big? If you point your browser to hailredskins.com, you'll discover mock drafts have become one of America's biggest growth industries. Even the biggest NFL fan might recoil in not-so-mock horror at the number of experts who seem to know how the first round will play out on Saturday, April 25. Everyone short of Barack Obama has their opinion online. As of Friday night, hailredskins.com offered links to 228 mock drafts.

Besides consummate insiders like Nawrocki, who's out there playing Mel Kiper Jr. 2.0?

'A dream job'

Meet Scott Wright, 29, one of the 1,500 citizens of Sandstone, Minn., which can be found two hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Wright, owner and operator of draftcountdown.com, is one of the few draftniks who does mocks for a living.

"I've got a dream job," Wright said.

He created it in 1997, when he started his Web site as a way to practice writing for his anticipated career as a journalist. But upon graduation from St. Cloud State in 2003, he realized he had enough of a following to make this his life.

Using a mix of his own observations, his own tape study and a fistful of connections, Wright built his empire into the nation's most popular independent draft site. On Tuesday, he had 60,089 unique users who clicked on 385,000 pages (everything's free on his site). On Wednesday, he held a 90-minute chat that attracted 683 draft nuts. On Thursday, he hosted his weekly podcast, now among the top 100 sports podcasts.

"It's not like I'm a millionaire, but I'm able to do this as a full-time job," Wright said. "I never imagined this would be a job I could make a living at."

East Coast tapeheads

Pennsylvania's Matt Alkire has a full-time job that has nothing to do with the NFL. North Carolina's Tommy Lawlor does, too.

They break even on their no-frills draft site (scoutsnotebook.com), spending about 75 hours per week breaking down tape of prospective pros.

Lawlor, 37, learned his craft from an NFL scout while Alkire comes from a family of ex-players and coaches.

"Some people have their weird hobbies," Alkire said. "Friends say, 'You watched 30 hours of tape this week?' "

Clearly, their detailed scouting reports are more of a passion than a hobby. They don't really enjoy putting together the mock drafts, but that's what people like to see. They even watch tape on Div. II, Div. III and NAIA guys just to make sure nobody gets overlooked - and don't have much use for the NFL Combine's results.

"We don't look at 40 times or height and weight," Alkire said. "We're looking for your hips and quickness and explosiveness. The proof is in the film."

From afar and snark

Then there are the mock draft sites that should be considered as entertainment only.

Steve Pelonero, one of the founders of the sports humor site Tirico Suave, has a buddy from his native New Jersey who has circulated his mock draft among their circle of friends for nearly a decade.

Pelonero thought it'd be fun to add the mock draft to his site's content, so he and his buddy (Brandon Pergola) team up to write a nugget on each player.

Here's a snippet that explains why they believe Denver will take Ohio State running back Beanie Wells with the No. 18 pick the Broncos received from the Bears in the Jay Cutler trade: "By my last count, 36 of Denver's 53 allotted roster spots were filled by a running back. Problem is, they're all (bleepy)."

Then there's the "more is more" philosophy at Fantasy Football Toolbox. Maryland resident Ben Standig, a 38-year-old finance guy, is one of five part-time writers who each do their own mock draft for the site (fftoolbox.com).

"I've been doing my own mock drafts since I was old enough to know what a mock draft was," Standig said. "I try to read as much as I can, watch as many games as I can."

With so many mock draft sites out there, how do you know which one to spend your "free" work time scouring? As you might expect, there's a mock draft site that measures mock-draft performance.

The Huddle Report tracks predictors' abilities to project the Top 100 picks in the draft. Over the last three years, the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin leads the pack by predicting an average of 86.7 players picked in the Top 100.

Nawrocki's Pro Football Weekly is No. 3 with Wright's Draft Countdown No. 4 and Scouts Notebook at No. 6.

Nawrocki, while not bemoaning his status, believes he might be shortchanged since he doesn't provide his last mock until draft day. That's because he doesn't stop pumping his sources until the wee hours Saturday morning.

"I've been in the office until 6 a.m. the day of the draft," Nawrocki said. "It's a 50-hour nonstop run at the end."

As crazy as that sounds, it's probably not enough to feed the ever-increasing mock-draft monster.