Why Was Kiper Only Guy On Balmer Bandwagon?

Current Seahawks defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer is a former first round pick (29th overall) taken by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2008 NFL Draft. During his first two seasons with the Niners, Balmer not only didn’t record a single sack, but failed to start a game.

Mel Kiper John Blake Kentwan Balmer

(Balmer in two NFL years: No sacks, no starts)

He also failed to show up for training camp this season, forcing the 49ers to trade him to the Seattle Seahawks in August for a sixth-round pick in order to realize any value for what might’ve been the worst first round pick of the 2008 draft.

Yesterday George Dohrmann of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had the sordid, first-person story of Josh Luchs, a former longtime NFL agent who admitted to Dohrmann that he paid current college players while recruiting them as clients.

In his commentary to Dohrmann about his unsavory deeds, Luchs cited NFL Agent Gary Wichard as having what some might consider undue influence over ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper as it pertained to the agent’s clients:

Gary also used his contacts in the media to help him recruit. In 2000, before a meeting with Stanford defensive lineman Willie Howard, Gary arranged for ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper to call. Gary and I were talking to Willie in Gary’s office when Gary’s phone rang, and he put it on speakerphone.

“Viper, how are you?” Gary said. That’s what he called Mel, Viper or Vipe. “Viper, I’m sitting here with the best defensive lineman in college football. Do you know who that is?”

“You must be with Willie Howard,” Mel said.

Gary used Mel like that all the time. In the agent business, people know Gary and Mel are close, and some people suspect that Mel ranks players more favorably if they are Gary’s clients.

Kiper has sinced denied showing Wichard clients any favoritism in his NFL Draft analysis over the years.

With that in mind, I thought I’d examine Kiper’s treatment of current Wichard client Balmer, who has been in the news recently not only because of his trade to Seattle, but thanks to alleged impropriety of his former position coach at North Carolina, John Blake.

Former UNC Assistant Blake was recently accused of being a “runner” for Wichard by recruiting current college players for the L.A.-area based NFL agent. Despite having resigned as a coach for the Tarheels, Blake’s bio remains on the official North Carolina football website.

Here’s an excerpt from that bio:

In three seasons at UNC, Blake has sent five defensive linemen to the NFL, including 2008 first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer. Blake earned rave reviews from NFL Draft analysts for his ability to develop Balmer into a first-round selection in just one year of coaching.

“Kentwan had a great senior year under the tutelage of John Blake, who I think is one of the best defensive line coaches at any level,” said ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.

Before the Niners took former UNC Tarheel Balmer in the 2008 NFL Draft, Tom Margeneau of the DAILY OKLAHOMAN wrote of Blake in a “Cheers and Jeers” column:

Cheers: To John Blake, who is drawing rave reviews from NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. for Blake’s work with defensive linemen, first Nebraska’s Adam Carriker, who went 13th overall to the Rams in the 2007 draft, and now North Carolina’s Kentwan Balmer, who has shot into first-round projections.

If you pore over Kiper’s mock drafts leading up to the NFL Draft in 2008, he ranked Balmer’s draft status well above where Balmer was projected by many other distinguished draft experts - including Mike Mayock of NFL Network, Todd McShay of ESPN and Scouts, Inc., Rick Gosselin of the DALLAS MORNING NEWS and Don Banks of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

Before the 2008 Senior Bowl and NFL combine, in his Jan. 22, 2008, mock draft, Kiper projected Balmer as a tenth overall selection going to the New Orleans Saints. On Feb. 20, the first day of the 2008 combine, Balmer was Kiper’s 12th selection in his first round projections.

To show the disparity between Kiper and other experts, in his first NFL mock draft on Jan. 22, 2008, Don Banks of SI didn’t project Balmer to be selected in the first round.

With his last projection, Banks later moved Balmer into the first round with the 25th pick, but Mayock in his final 2008 NFL mock draft didn’t include Balmer in the first round. Gosselin projected Balmer as the 29th overall pick (he nailed it) and McShay settled on the 24th slot.

Kiper eventually dropped Balmer in his final 2008 NFL mock draft to 24th overall.

So in less than four months, why did Kiper drop Balmer from 10th overall to 24th in his final analysis?

Was it Balmer’s 2008 combine workout? Pro day workout?

While he didn’t blow anyone away on those days, Balmer reportedly performed reasonably well in each instance.

More likely, Kiper saw that while he had Balmer at 10th overall early on, none of his colleagues agreed with him. In fact, it wasn’t even close. So despite Balmer essentially doing nothing wrong between January and draft day, he dropped 14 spots in Kiper’s first round.

Forgetting about Balmer’s virtual washout as a pro, Kiper obviously, wildly overrated Balmer from the beginning in his draft analysis. He later provided a correction to get his pick more in neighborhood of his fellow experts, but even then Kiper had Balmer ranked above where the aforementioned individual NFL draft analysts pegged the former UNC player. (Save McShay, who also had Balmer at 24.)

Does that mean that Wichard’s influence played a role in Kiper’s misguided analysis? Not necessarily, but in the wake of NFL agent Luchs’s revelation about the nature of Wichard and Kiper’s relationship, it makes for a curious coincidence.