I put out my first draft guide in 1979. This year will be No. 35. That first guide was a full six years before the first NFL scouting combine. Back then, there were no online prospect guides and no recruiting rankings to track talent down to the high school level, and the draft looked something like this. For me, evaluating prospects was all about getting as much tape as I could find (there was no ESPN GamePlan), and making hundreds and hundreds of phone calls (no cellphones, either!) to coaches, scouts and front-office folks who would listen and to evaluators at every level. You couldn't watch a verified 40-yard dash time on live TV; instead, you had to triangulate and weed out truth from fiction. It wasn't easy.
Mel Kiper's all-time draft grades
But all this time, I've kept the same 10-point grading scale, so even as the athletes changed, we can compare today where players stood among their prospect peers over a generation.
So, some parameters for what you see below:
1. The ranking is based on the final draft grade before the draft, and it goes back to 1979, my first draft guide. It's clear to me now I graded a little easier when I was younger. I didn't have the point of reference I do today.
2. The grades do not reflect NFL performance. (You'll see.) I printed these grades and simply went back through every book. I have to live with the busts.
3. There are some ties on grades, so I had to break those ties without a great deal of science. But again, I didn't break ties based on NFL production.
Here are my top 10 all-time secondary prospects based on draft grades.
1. Ronnie Lott, USC (No. 8 pick, 1981)
He practically belongs on this list twice. During his time in the NFL, Lott became iconic as an enforcer from the safety position, which isn't a bad thing, but seemed to make people forget that Lott was a quick-twitch, technically sound ball-hawking All-American at cornerback for USC. And Lott didn't just convert to safety right away once the 49ers drafted him. No, he was a Pro Bowl cornerback in each of his first four seasons in the NFL, and didn't flip to free safety until 1985. He certainly justified the draft grade, and as much as he was a durable NFL player during 14 seasons, don't forget that he played 20 playoff games, the equivalent of another season-plus.