Mel Kiper Jr. breaks down ‘mysterious’ 2021 NFL Draft, potential surprises

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. huddles with Post columnist Steve Serby ahead of Thursday’s start of the 2021 NFL Draft for some Q&A. Q: How big is the gap between Trevor Lawrence and Zach

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. huddles with Post columnist Steve Serby ahead of Thursday’s start of the 2021 NFL Draft for some Q&A.

Q: How big is the gap between Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson?

A: For me it’s substantial. I think Justin Fields is the second-best quarterback in this draft, Wilson’s the third. [Lawrence will] be my fourth highest-rated quarterback [all-time] … behind John Elway, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. … He’ll be more of Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning than he will be, you say, a Ryan Leaf. But there’s no guarantees in this business, there’s no locks in this business. Denver drafted Paxton Lynch [five] years ago, right? Kansas City tried to get Paxton Lynch. Had Kansas City been successful in drafting Paxton Lynch, they wouldn’t have drafted Patrick Mahomes. So they misevaluated Paxton Lynch, but they obviously evaluated Patrick Mahomes correctly. … A lot of good luck and good fortune goes into teams having great drafts.

Q: You’re on record saying the Jets should have stayed with Sam Darnold.

Q: If you put Sam Darnold in this draft, he’s the second-best quarterback. But they didn’t agree. He’s gone through the trials and tribulations of being a young quarterback, and he’s hopefully learned from all that.

Q: Why do you prefer Fields over Wilson?

A: I thought in 2019, [Fields] was spectacular. … He’s a winner, he’s got tremendous dual-threat ability, a 4.4 guy at 6-3, 225, and he has a great arm, and he’s a passionate kid about football. People say, “Well, he’s not the first one in and the last one out.” Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl here in Baltimore and wasn’t the first one in and the last one out. I think when you look at Zach Wilson, the undeniable arm talent, the great year he had — granted against inferior competition — the fact that Fields this year, against better competition, didn’t play as well as Zach Wilson did against subpar competition.

Mel Kiper Jr. analyzes the 2021 NFL Draft in interview with The Post.
Allen Kee / ESPN Images

Q: Do you expect Caleb Farley, Jaelan Phillips and Micah Parsons to slide?

A: I would expect Parsons between 9 and 17, Farley somewhere between 16 to 26, and Phillips, I would think, between 17 and probably 30.

Q: Who is one potential surprise first-rounder?

A: I think Dyami Brown, the wide receiver from North Carolina, could slide into the late first. Jayson Oweh, the outside linebacker who didn’t have a sack this year at Penn State, kind of played out of position as a down defensive end, could go in the first. There’s a remote chance … a quarterback like Davis Mills from Stanford could. Tyson Campbell, cornerback from Georgia, could go in the late first.

Q: Why would Mac Jones make sense for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan?

A: The kind of quarterback he prefers has to be super-accurate, which he is to all levels — short, medium and deep. You have to be incredibly, off-the-charts intelligent, and that’s what Mac Jones is. You have to be a competitive guy, a winner, which he was at Alabama.

Q: Where would Mac Jones fit should the 49ers pass on him?

A: I would say the Patriots would try to trade up to get him.

Q: Can Trey Lance become Josh Allen?

A: I think they’re different. Josh’s accuracy was questioned, so that’s true there. Josh had one of the highest grades I’ve ever given a quarterback. I can’t say he’s comparable to Allen.

Q: Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith?

A: That’s splitting hairs. I love ’em both.

Q: Who is the biggest quarterback bust you never expected?

A: Jimmy Clausen, probably. I didn’t see that coming. He just never panned out. Andre Ware was one of the quarterbacks I missed on, had one of the highest grades I’ve ever given a quarterback. I had a super-high grade on Ryan Leaf. He didn’t pan out.

Q: Other than Tom Brady, who is the biggest surprise?

A: Kurt Warner, probably, out of Northern Iowa. I think everybody had missed on Kurt.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Jets drafting Ken O’Brien over Dan Marino in 1983?

A: Put it this way: Teams have never yet figured out how to evaluate quarterbacks, nobody has.

Q: Did you have a first-round grade on O’Brien?

A: I did not have a first-round grade on him. Looking back, I thought he’d be a second-round pick.

Q: Blair Thomas as the second overall pick in 1990?

A: I remember Blair coming out had a high grade. That’s what started me on the ball rolling about running backs. I remember at some point in time it clicked in for me, I’ve been negative on taking running backs in the first round, I wouldn’t do it, and it started a long time ago. The recent history has proven you don’t need to. History tells us every year look at the playoff teams, and you don’t see first-round running backs with that team that they drafted.

Q: Did you ever speak to former Colts GM Bill Tobin after the 1994 draft dispute with him over the drafting of Trev Alberts?

A: No, never talked to him before, never talked to him after. I remember he was coming out of the elevator into the lobby of the Senior Bowl, a hotel there, I don’t know if he saw me, I saw him. … The fact that Bill made that an issue on ESPN on national TV is the reason why to this day we’re still talking about it.

Q: Another memorable draft?

A: When [defensive tackle] Eric Swann came out of the minor league football ranks and became the sixth pick overall [Cardinals in 1991] to be able to cover him and let people know about what he was capable of doing.

Q: When did you start preparing for this year’s draft?

A: I start preparing for a draft three years before it happens. I watch high school football, I follow the high school rankings, so I’m aware of these kids when they’re in high school. I have a running dossier on a player long before he gets to that final year of eligibility.

Q: What are your thoughts on Dave Gettleman?

Dave Gettleman
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

A: Ernie [Accorsi]’s got a high opinion of Dave Gettleman. The jury’s still out on what’s gonna happen with the Giants, it’s a pivotal year. … Andrew Thomas has got to be the guy at left tackle. This offensive line holds the key to anything that Daniel Jones is gonna become. If he can’t be that guy, that’s gonna impact Daniel Jones and not allow Daniel Jones to have the kind of year they need him to have.

Q: Where did you have Andrew Thomas ranked last year?

A: Behind those guys [Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton, Tristan Wirfs]. He ended up rolling the dice on a guy that he had obviously a higher opinion of than I did. He was 14th overall on the Big Board.

Q: What were your reservations about Thomas?

A: Thomas had shown promise at Georgia. There was no question he deserved to be in the top 15, top 20 in the first round. There were some inconsistencies in terms of pass protection, some secondary moves, some inside moves gave him trouble, some of those quick defensive ends beat him on some inside moves.

Q: What did you think of Daniel Jones when he was drafted, and what do you think of him now?

A: I liked him when he was drafted, I like him. I think he’s been unfairly criticized. I think what happens in this business is if you didn’t like a kid, you criticize him. You see the glass half-full or the glass half-empty usually by how you rate the kid coming out. He’s got the mettle, I think he’s got the smarts, I think he has the accuracy, I think he’s learned a lot. I’ll say it right now: If Andrew Thomas isn’t a really good left tackle, then Daniel Jones will not have a great year. Will not have even a good year.

Q: Thoughts on the Giants’ free agency?

A: [Kenny] Golladay should be a consistent threat catching the football that Daniel hasn’t had … to me, it’s outside linebacker/pass rusher, draft another offensive lineman, and get another receiver.

Q: What if Waddle or Smith were there at 11?

A: They’re arguably two of the best four or five players in this draft. That line, from tackle to tackle’s gotta be a lot better than it was, or all these other pieces that they’re bringing in, [Saquon] Barkley coming back, won’t matter if Daniel Jones doesn’t have time to throw.

Q: Is 11 too rich for Alijah Vera-Tucker or Kwity Paye?

A: I think at 11, you gotta get a guy that’s ranked inside your top six, seven on the board. I don’t have Kwity Paye that high, I don’t think a lot of people have him that high. I would trade down if I were looking at that. Vera-Tucker would make sense at 11 if you have as high a grade on him as some do, and some have him in that 7, 8, 9 range on the big board. I would prefer though, I think if you look at who would be the best value pick, it would be Waddle or Smith.

Q: Both may not be.

A: If [Rashawn] Slater were there, that would be a guy you’d have to take.

Q: What about Parsons?

A: Parsons would be in the discussion. He’s a guy you move around, gives you some pass rush. If you saw a Parsons and a Kwity Paye, and Phillips is still gonna be on the board there, I don’t think trading down from 11 would be a bad thing.

Q: Thoughts on Joe Douglas?

A: I thought last year he drafted well. This year, picking at 2, Zach Wilson’s gotta be great. We’re gonna be judging this pick against the other quarterbacks, we’re also gonna be judging this against how Sam Darnold does in Carolina. Then you come back at 23, they can get a really good corner, they could get a pass rusher, taking a receiver, and they have the early [second-] round pick at 34. They have all the draft picks necessary this year to be able to make a significant leap up in terms of wins and get to where Buffalo is. If they hit on Wilson — and let’s face it, I don’t know if Wilson’s gonna start opening week, I think they gotta get a quarterback in there to be a bridge to Wilson, I don’t think they want to put him out there right away. If they want to throw him to the wolves right away, they better have the talent around him do it, that to me would be a little risky, but teams are doing that these days. They’re just putting them out there, let them learn on the job. Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning told me that’s the best way to learn. The whole Joe Douglas Era with the Jets will be defined by Zach Wilson.

Q: What was it like for you as a Baltimore guy when the Colts left in 1984?

A: You were stung by that. To see Memorial Stadium, and have all the memories of what went on there as a kid growing up with the Colts, and being in training camp and having the memories of all those great Colt players, Johnny Unitas … Think about it: Had John Elway not been traded by the owner Robert Irsay, I contend that the Baltimore Colts would have never left Baltimore. I think there would have been tremendous interest in that football team, the crowd support would have been there. Ernie [Accorsi, then Colts GM, who had a job waiting for Kiper] would not have traded John Elway, and Ernie was ready to get John Elway signed. So had that happened, I don’t think the Colts would have ever left town, I would have been working for the Colts, for Ernie Accorsi, and I would have never been at ESPN. Indianapolis would have never had the Colts, and John Elway would have been a Baltimore Colt, not a Denver Bronco. The Baltimore Colt fans like myself were left thinking we were never [going to] see another NFL game. Keep in mind, the Washington Redskins and [owner] Jack Kent Cooke didn’t want a team in Baltimore. They were telling us in Baltimore “become Redskin fans or Philadelphia Eagle fans,” which we were never gonna be.

Q: What did you think of Drew Brees as a second-rounder in 2001?

A: He would have been 25th player on the board.

Q: Tom Brady?

A: Brady I had a late fourth-, early fifth-round grade on him. He had the worst vertical [24] and the worst 40 time [5.28] of any quarterback I had written up in my history.

Q: Mark Sanchez as the fifth pick in 2009?

A: Some people liked Sanchez over [Matthew] Stafford, I was a big Stafford guy. I had him going No. 1 in the draft when he was in high school.

Q: Ereck Flowers as the ninth pick in 2015?

A: I was not high on Flowers coming out. I didn’t think he had the ability to bend. When you draft a kid to be a tackle, he’s gotta be able to handle quick guys, handle secondary moves, he struggled in that area.

Q: Eli Apple as the 10th pick in 2016?

A: Eli Apple was a little inconsistent for me, I had him as the 28th overall player on the Big Board. When we say reach, we’re basing it off of our ratings. That’s where Andrew Thomas would have been a reach based on my ratings.

Q: What are your thoughts on colleague Todd McShay?

A: Great guy. I didn’t want to be the final word, I didn’t want to be the only draft analyst there, somebody that wasn’t a former player, and he’s been phenomenal to work with.

Q: Who is one player in NFL history you wish you could have written a report on?

A: Great question. … Willie Brown, Emmitt Thomas, great corners.

Q: Al Davis?

A: Just win, baby. The ultimate competitor, that knew football inside and out. Just a Raider through and through. That’s one of my favorite all-time uniforms is the Raiders.

Q: Chris Berman?

A: Made the draft fun. Made the draft entertaining. Always kept me laughing. I think I lost my voice more for laughing during the breaks with him than I did anything else.

Q: Ozzie Newsome?

A: Rare to see a Hall of Fame player become a Hall of Fame GM. And a great man … has done something that I don’t think’ll ever be done again.

Q: Pete Rozelle?

A: Understanding what TV and all the things that went into the NFL and things like that. One of the great commissioners in any sport.

Q: Jimmy Johnson’s 1989 Herschel Walker trade?

A: Great move, to be able to pick up what he did for Herschel Walker. You have to make the move, which was a bold move, and then you have to make those points count when you’re giving up a heckuva player.

Q: Do you still have the letters George Young and Don Shula would write to you?

A: Oh yeah. George Young used to handwrite letters to me when I sent the report out to him every year, a loooong note. Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Gil Brandt did back in the day, all the head coaches, GMs. Ernie Accorsi would write me. When I sent them the report I would always ask for their opinions and any suggestions that they had that could improve the report, and they would always write back, a pretty good amount of ’em did.

Q: Who gave you the best advice?

A: Ernie thought there was a great market for the reports that I was doing. In his words, “The fans will crave that type of information.”

Q: Four dinner guests?

A: Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Earl Weaver and Johnny Carson.

Q: Favorite movies?

A: “Bull Durham” and “A Few Good Men.”

Q: Favorite actor?

A: Sylvester Stallone.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Jaclyn Smith.

Q: Favorite singer?

A: Toby Keith.

Q: Favorite entertainer?

A: Johnny Carson.

Q: Favorite TV show?

A: “Dallas.” [Wife] Kim got me DVDs for every episode of “Dallas” for a birthday present three years ago. I watch it 9 o’clock every Friday night, that’s when it used to be on. She got me the DVDs of a lot of Johnny Carson’s shows, so 11:30 every night I watch Johnny Carson, Monday through Friday. That’s when “The Tonight Show” came on, 11:30.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Crabcakes.

Q: When did your love of pumpkin pie begin?

A: Mid ’80s, late ’80s, pumpkin pie became with the fat-free whipped cream, a staple of my breakfast I guess.

Q: You still have it every morning?

A: They’re not always readily available, when they are available at the local grocery store, I do get them.

Q: How long have you been taking the cheese off your pizza?

A: Probably I’ve been doing that since the late ’80s.

Q: Your wife Kim still cuts your hair?

A: Yes, she does. My cousin was coming till the COVID to do it, and then Kim started cutting it again. My hair was pretty long back in the day, and Kim was the one that wanted it cut.

Q: You’ve never written a check and you’ve never used an ATM card. How do you get by?

A: I just ask Kim for cash whenever I need it, and I don’t need to write checks, and I have a credit card and that’s it, no debit cards. I always tell people if they ever wanted any money, I’d love to give it to ’em, I wouldn’t know how to get any of that money.

Q: What is it like being Mel Kiper Jr. today?

A: (Laugh) It’s a lot of fun. … “Why don’t you get a real job? Why would people want to watch that? Why would ESPN want to televise that? Why are you putting out books? Nobody cares about the draft.” How many times did we hear that back in the ’70s and ’80s? To fight through all that negativity, and still have resolve that you believe in what you’re doing and to see where it is right now — every time I turn the computer on, you’ve got a million mock drafts, a million draft sites, a million articles about the draft. This was not the way it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Q: How proud would your father have been of your career?

A: When he passed away in 1989, he had seen what I was doing at ESPN, he had seen the reports really take off. … That’s the unfortunate part of the whole thing. The horrible part of this: He wasn’t here to see that whole ride through, but he saw enough of it at least to see where it was going and where it was headed.

Q: Why is your wife Kim at the top of your board?

A: Without Kim, I wouldn’t exist, the business wouldn’t exist. … Without Kim steering me always in the right direction, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. She runs everything here. When we got married in 1989, the late, great Beano Cook said, “The Over/Under on your marriage is a year-and-a-half, and the smart money’s on the Under.” We’ve worked together every day for 32 years. We were in Houston, and Jerry Glanville said, “Oh, my God, why would this girl want to be married to this guy?”

Q: What do you hope your viewers say about Mel Kiper Jr.?

A: I have great respect and admiration for the fans. They have a right to an opinion and I defend myself and fans all the time. I never really worried about what anybody said or wrote. I’m oblivious to internet stuff, I’m oblivious to the Twitter chatter. As long as you’re enthusiastic doing what you’re doing and you work hard at what you’re doing, you’re gonna have hits and misses, every team does, why in the world wouldn’t I? This is certainly not an exact science, and you gotta be humble with it. That’s why you can’t worry about that kind of thing. We’ve seen that in the NFL time and time again. . .I can give you a ton of names of people that were great in one place but not great in another place. . .that’s why this thing is so entertaining, that’s why millions of people watch it, because it’s so unpredictable and nobody, no matter how much tape they watch, no matter how much film study, how much football knowledge you have, how many people you talk to at the school they came from, how many medical reports you have, how many Pro Days you go to, there’s no guarantee that the guy you draft is gonna be great.

Q: What has been the key to Mel Kiper Jr.’s longevity?

A: I think being enthusiastic about what I do. I’ve never lost the enthusiasm for what I do.

Q: How much drama and intrigue do you expect in this draft?

A: I think it’s the most mysterious draft ever. I said it was gonna be that way in August. We had all opt-outs, guys not playing, guys playing some, guys being affected by all the disruption and all the COVID tests and all that. I think it’s the most intriguing draft ever, the most fascinating draft ever, the most interesting draft ever. . .. In the 43 years I’ve been doing it, I would say all those words apply.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Steve Serby

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