By Mary Cunningham

We at are as guilty as anyone in our slavish attention to mock NFL drafts.

We have published links to at least 50 of these wild-ass guesses in the past three months.

The reason:

Popularity in the NFL draft — which takes place for real tonight — is growing faster than anyone would have imagined back in the 1980s when commissioner Pete Rozelle allowed ESPN permission to televise it.

Last year’s draft average viewership of the first round was 12.4 million, a record. And in the days before the event, it seems as if every sports outlet publishes one or more mock drafts, team-by-team predictions of how the first round will go.

Despite all the brainpower devoted to projecting picks, the truth is that no one can possibly know what is going on inside all 32 NFL teams. As a result, the rate of success of mock drafts is low. Last year, of 115 evaluated by Huddle Report, none had more than eight picks going to the right team in the first round.

Robby Esch, the owner of Huddle Report, which has rated mock drafts since 2002, said that if anything, predictions were getting less accurate. Because of changes to the rookie salary cap and option years, he said, teams have become more willing to make trades, which in turn throws off many mock drafts. In particular, there is a hunger for low-first-round picks, because players taken then are eligible for a fifth-year option. That makes the second half of the first round tough to forecast.

Huddle Report’s top-rated drafter of the last five years has been Jason Boris, who writes a mock draft for The Times News of Lehighton, Pa. Boris says his method is to read everything he can about top prospects, narrow his list to 35 or so players, then “like a jigsaw puzzle, match them to the teams I feel they would be the strongest fit with.”

Bryan Perez of First Round Grade, who ranked first in last year’s Huddle Report ranking, said he relied mostly on watching college football, rather than inside information from teams. “The reality is that you can’t believe half of the information that comes out this time of year anyway,” he said.

But Esch says that having good sources with the teams was the key for — in his opinion — the most successful mock drafter year after year, Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News. Sadly for draft watchers, Gosselin no longer makes a mock draft.

“I talk with people from different teams,” Charles Davis, an NFL Network analyst, said, “but they will likely only talk to me in general terms. Some will guide me a bit more than others, but none will flat out give me their picks.”

He acknowledged the difficulty of the process: “If you do a mock draft, prepare to be mocked.”

Quarterback Jameis Winston of Florida State is expected to go No. 1 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but after that, prognosticators start to diverge. At No. 2, there are those who think the Tennessee Titans will take quarterback Marcus Mariota of Oregon and those who opt for defensive tackle Leonard Williams of USC.

It gets more chaotic. The Detroit Free Press looked at 23 mock drafts and found they had 12 different players going to the Lions at No. 18.

Guessing draft picks is not merely an academic exercise for fans. Esch says NFL front offices have told him they pay attention to the prevailing wisdom and have even asked him for early peeks at his second-round mock draft.

Yes, though most mock drafts stop at pick 32, there are draft-watchers who are so committed that they mock out Rounds 2 and 3, or even all seven. ( currently projects that the last man taken this year will be Mario Alford, a wide receiver from West Virginia.)

The guesswork will end Thursday night, and fans will find out for sure who will join the rosters of their teams.

But even when a player goes exactly to the team that was expected, it does not mean he will play as well as anticipated. Of the last 10 overall No. 1 picks, only two won offensive or defensive rookie of the year, and almost half of those who did win those awards were not drafted in the top 10.

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