DECIPHERING THE NFL's draft hooey requires a player profiler with a past life as the shovel man behind elephants at a circus. Decoding draft-day politics begs for a personnel junkie with a background as a special assistant to the governor of New York.
Who is this perfect hybrid of hokum detection? Meet Drew Boylhart: He knows from crap. And in applying this skill set to his job as an expert contributor to TheHuddleReport.com, Boylhart says he heard from at least four teams before last weekend's draft. They reached out to him as an online Lucy at the 5-cent advice booth, asking for his blunt assessment of college talent observed through a different lens.
"I've been a single dad," Boylhart, 56, explains. "That's something different I bring to the process. I did diapers. I made the formula. In that existence you don't just think two years ahead, you think two hours ahead. When I see guys on tape, I look at what they're doing right now—in the moment."
He doesn't see LSU's Glenn Dorsey, who slipped to the Chiefs with the fifth overall pick, as a defensive daredevil; he sees a sloppy tackler. He doesn't buy the Ravens nabbing Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco's whip-snap arm with the 18th selection as a bold move but calls it another instance in which Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome "seems to fall in love with strong-armed quarterbacks and looks for nothing else." The player Boylhart liked best was Virginia defensive end Chris Long because "he never stops trying to improve."
Boylhart's player critiques read like eHarmony profiles: He doesn't connect with combine times but values the geometry of a cornerback's taking the correct angle on a tackle; he is seduced less by the minutiae of technique than by the nuance of attitude. A turnoff? When a receiver quits on a pass route. "Drives me crazy," he says.
This devotion to game film noir—every player is a mystery—raged during his days in Gov. George Pataki's administration, from 1997 through 2006. His working life had begun earlier, at 14, cleaning up for a circus in Windham, N.Y. "My girlfriend's parents were circus people," he says with a laugh. He went on to own kennels as a businessman, which drove him to seek solitude. He would turn off the phones, hit the lights and watch taped college games at 3 a.m. "I wanted to free my mind, feel like a human being again," he says. "I know how pathetic it is. Yet I enjoyed being pathetic."
He's not alone. The pathetic fan was the underpinning of yet another NFL boondoggle. It is a credit to the cult of the NFL that a draft-day game of duck-duck-goose has been transformed into a spectacle on the scale of the Detroit auto show: Players are all but showcased on turntables, like muscle cars and dragsters. The camera time—and skyrocketing costs of top picks—has opened the way to a cottage industry of Internet scrutiny. When Robby Esch launched TheHuddleReport.com in 2001, he recalls, he got 100,000 hits a month. Last week he reported 1.9 million hits for April heading into draft weekend.
Some visitors are surprising. "When one owner contacts me," says Boylhart, who wouldn't disclose the name of the big shot, "he wants to know why I see what I see. Or maybe he just wants to say, 'Drew, you don't know what you're talking about.'"
Two NFL personnel chiefs declined to publicly discuss whether they receive draft tips from Internet sources, but as Jeff Diamond, a former executive for the Vikings and the Titans, says, "You've got the old-school G.M.'s who probably scoff at something like that, but there are some who, out of curiosity, want to check it out.... When you're giving $20 [million] or $30 million guarantees to those first half-dozen picks, you don't want to be wrong."
A bust is a pox on a team's payroll for years. But the NFL's angst is shared by the Mel Kiper disciples on the Web who were also on the spot during NFL draft weekend. Who mocked best?
"I'm hyperventilating," Boylhart said after the first round last Saturday night. He was in hour 12 of marathon viewing. At 8 a.m. he had flipped on his 27-inch TV for the predraft countdown. He had cooked a pork roast for sandwiches and stocked his fridge with Gatorade. For a brief energy release he mowed his yard at noon. "I had to wait until my neighbors were awake," he jokes. "I know, pathetic."
When asked for an assessment of the draft on Sunday, Boylhart said, "I'm very surprised—and annoyed—at the number of small-college players picked ahead of good talent from larger schools. It's almost as if scouts are saying, 'I can find this sleeper pick' and trying to make a name for themselves. Such b.s."
Yes, but b.s. awareness has served Boylhart well. It's all a crapshoot.
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Some teams reached out to Drew Boylhart for his blunt assessment of college talent. He doesn't see LSU's Glenn Dorsey as a defensive daredevil; he sees a sloppy tackler.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER