With dogged reporting fueled by nonstop fretting, a legendary SI writer nailed eight of the first 10 picks
PAUL ZIMMERMAN fretted every time he submitted a mock draft for publication. The legendary SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer, famed as much for his bluntness as he was for his piercing insights into the technical aspects of football, loved deciphering the moves of each NFL team, which they typically cloaked in secrecy and subterfuge. Zimmerman would spend months sleuthing to put together the most comprehensive preview in the industry, a gorgeous mosaic pieced together from hundreds of phone calls.
Yet the fear of being wrong haunted Dr. Z, who claimed he was one of the first to do a mock draft while with the New York Post in 1971. Being misled or flat-out lied to by a scout or suit he had trusted would send him into a rage. And that doesn't even include all of the other reasons a pick might change at the last minute, such as in 2000 when Zimmerman was putting the finishing touches on a mock of the first round that was so accurate it would be referenced in a eulogy at his funeral in November, 2018. (Zimmerman died at 86, 10 years after suffering a series of debilitating strokes.)
Heading into that draft, Dr. Z correctly diagnosed that the Redskins were going to select Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington with the No. 2 pick and Alabama tackle Chris Samuels at No. 3. (The team had both thanks to a pair of trades.) But Zimmerman almost got that order wrong, through no fault of his own. Vinny Cerrato, the team's former head of personnel, says now that he was tinkering with the idea of picking Samuels second and Arrington third.
The reason? "LaVar's agent was kind of being a jerk," Cerrato says. "So we were going to take Chris ahead of him just to make LaVar easier to sign."
Cerrato didn't go through with the plan. Editors at SI, who were used to Zimmerman's day-after rants about mendacious GMs and bum sources, were spared an epic tirade.
Dr. Z's 2000 mock draft appeared deep in the April 17 issue. He got eight of the first 10 selections correct, missing the fifth spot, where he predicted that the Broncos would trade to move up to select Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington. Instead, the Ravens kept the choice and took Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis at No. 5. (Zimmerman had him going 10th to Baltimore, who instead took Florida receiver Travis Taylor.)
Zimmerman also had the Giants snagging Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne at 11, the 49ers taking Ohio State cornerback Ahmed Plummer at 24, and the Vikings choosing Boston College defensive tackle Chris Hovan at 25. In all, Dr. Z had 11 "direct hits" (the pick, the team and the player) out of 32 first-round choices.
For perspective, ESPN's Todd McShay, rated one of the most accurate mock drafters in 2018, had five direct hits in the first round (all in the top 10), not including the No. 1 pick. "It's beyond pretty good, it's phenomenal," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper says of Dr. Z's 2000 masterpiece. "You'll do a mock and people will say 'Oh, yeah, what an idiot, he only had six direct hits in the first round.' There's nothing wrong about five or six!"
A look back at the top of the 2000 draft provides a window into both the depth of Zimmerman's connections and the respect he had cultivated around the league. Says Rick Gosselin, a longtime mock-maker for The Dallas Morning News, "Dr. Z was the guy people looked to for years. You know Paul had the best sources."
Cerrato came of age in a 49ers organization that used to tack up mock drafts in their war room and update them constantly, a process that made in-house celebrities out of the forecasters. He says that longtime assistant coach Ray Rhodes, who would later head the Packers and Eagles, was so attached to Kiper's projections that colleagues called him Mel Rhodes.
Now when mock drafts can be updated repeatedly and instantly online, stats and clips can be had with a click, and GMs can be texted or emailed, the notion of posting mocks on a wall or making endless calls from a Rolodex seems woefully outdated. There's even a sub-industry today of rating sites that track the accuracy of prognosticators. Cerrato hosts a radio show in Baltimore, and he recently had a guest on from CBS who had just completed his 28th mock draft for the 2019 season. That's twenty-eight.
In Zimmerman's day, he had one shot to prove both the depth of his sources and the reliability of his b.s. detector. "He started talking about it in January," says Andrew Perloff, one of Dr. Z's editors at SI. "He just loved playing amateur detective."