Photo: Al Bello (Getty)

If it seems like every NFL reporter or analyst does a mock draft or four, that’s because just about NFL reporter or analyst does a mock draft or four. If you’re wondering why so much pre-draft coverage is saturated with glorified guesswork, consider this: People really, really want to read mock drafts.

“People talk more about the draft than NFL games,” ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. told Sports Illustrated last year. “And for many people, how they talk about the draft is through mock drafts.”

But, like, why?

“Mock drafts represent hope,” Dane Brugler, a senior draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com who does several mock drafts each offseason, told me. “They are also the marriage of college football and the NFL and fans of each or both. If I’m an Ohio State fan, but not a NFL fan, I still care about mock drafts to see where the Buckeyes might end up. If I’m a Browns fan, but not a college fan, then I’m eager to see what college stars I may have heard of could fit with my team.”

OK, fine. But let’s unpack what the hell a mock draft is. Typically, it’s a prediction for what every team might do with its draft selection, with most of the emphasis zeroing in on the first round. Unless it’s an informed guess at what each team might do based on intel sourced from someone close enough to know. Unless it’s a stab at what teams should do. Unless it’s ... just some wild-ass shit plucked straight out of thin air:

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Anything goes! And therein lies the problem. A mock draft can be any one of these things, and most readers likely wouldn’t know the difference without being told so explicitly. Likewise, most readers probably wouldn’t care, either.

I know this because I’ve written mock drafts at my previous job, and I’ve seen the off-the-charts traffic numbers they generate. At my old shop, mock drafts produced such a bonanza of clicks that, beginning with the Senior Bowl in late January, our entire staff of NFL writers was assigned to produce one on a weekly rotation. Headlines had to begin with SEO-related terms like “NFL mock drafts,” and the more prominent players’ names that could be stuffed in there, the better—anything to goose those numbers. As the draft approached, we were publishing one mock per day. And that was hardly the end of it.

I covered the Jets, so I’d also spend much of pre-draft season aggregating the mock drafts done by any number of national reporters and analysts, specifically highlighting who they had going to the Jets. Sometimes, this work would begin as early as the previous fall. Each weekend leading up to the draft, a colleague and I would scrape the edges of the internet to round up who was mocking what for the Jets. And I haven’t yet mentioned the number of times we did what’s known as a seven-round mock, which involves mocking who the Jets might take for all seven rounds, an exercise that’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. In 2016, my last offseason on the beat, I did four of them.

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Yes, a lot of this seems to amount to little more than flinging poo against a wall. When doing my own mocks, I didn’t have the time to eat tape on hundreds of prospects. Nor did I trust my ability to gauge, say, how an offensive tackle prospect’s poor footwork might translate at the next level—a characteristic that requires a scout to ferret out whether or not the prospect was taught to correct it, which, in turn, would dictate whether it’s something the prospect might be able to improve upon. My mock method involved culling info from as many publicly available sources as possible. The object was to gain something approaching a consensus understanding of what teams needed and who the best players were. Even then, there could always be smoke and misdirection or flat-out bullshit flying around.

But getting it right isn’t even necessarily the point. An analysis of last year’s mock drafts found that the most accurate final mock out of those surveyed correctly picked 28 of the 32 players chosen in the first round, though not necessarily in the right order—it had just nine correct player-to-team predictions. If anything, getting it right is damn near impossible.

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As former USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who could get taken No. 1 overall tonight, recently told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio: “I haven’t looked at mock drafts. If I looked at those a lot I think I would drive myself insane.”

So what purpose does any of this serve for readers? Why are they so eager to gobble up all this guesstimating? Dan Hatman, a former scout with the Eagles, Jets, and Giants who now works as the director of scouting development for The Scouting Academy, said it’s all a function of fans’ intense interest to know as much as possible about what teams might do—and why. Any peek behind the curtain at the process that governs pre-draft decision-making is seen as useful. Mock drafts, written as easy-to-read listicles, represent a simple way to digest it all. They’re certainly more useful than the pointless post-draft grades that will start bouncing around the internet as soon as the draft is over.

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Say it’s a position where a team needs a starter, or for which a team doesn’t have a player under contract, or where there’s a player whose skill set might fit with what a new coach does. Mock drafts, when done without obvious farts into the wind like made-up trade scenarios, can at least provide fans a baseline for what to expect on draft night.

“If you’re a fan, if you don’t necessarily know the board, if you don’t know the players, if your team’s picking at [No.] 20, how else are you going to know what kind of players you might be getting?” Hatman told me. “Even if it’s not accurate in the pick itself, it starts to shed some light on areas of your team that other people have explored in depth.”

The pre-draft process goes well beyond what’s on tape, which is now so easily accessible, thanks to the internet, that seemingly anybody can become a draftnik. “I believe that mock drafts are popular for many of the same reasons that fantasy football has taken a life of its own,” said Rob Rang, another senior analyst at NFLDraftscout.com who works full-time as a high school teacher. “For one, anyone can do them and compete.”

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But what’s on tape doesn’t include the work teams are doing behind the scenes: interviews, medical evaluations, official visits, combine workouts, private workouts, pro day workouts. “[I]t’s art masquerading as science,” as Mina Kimes and Domonique Foxworth recently put it for ESPN The Magazine. All of this comes together as teams finish their evaluations just as the draft approaches. And then there’s all that murky background sleuthing scouts do to measure intangibles, which can lead to all sorts of internal disagreements, right up until a team is on the clock. As Danny Kelly recently wrote for The Ringer:

Unfortunately, both the It Factor and the Will To Win are fickle beasts. The search for the nuanced traits that separate future superstars from the busts often sends evaluators down rabbit holes trying to pinpoint exactly what kind of person is most likely to turn into a Hall of Famer. There’s no established consensus on what traits are needed.

Teams do pay attention to what the mockers are mocking. A few years ago, Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan told reporters that mock drafts “tend to get more accurate” as the draft nears, at least in terms of how teams might be stacking their boards. But some of the mocking can be too much for even some of the big-shot mockers.

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“Everybody thinks they’re a GM now, and they can’t wait to build their team, and this is the beginning of their new team,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I mean, I see guys doing seven-round mock drafts, which is mind-boggling. I see guys the day after this draft doing next year’s first round. I couldn’t even name you 32 players in next year’s draft. I don’t know how they do it.”