Sportscaster Daniel Jeremiah is a new breed of data-powered pundit
TV sports pundits tend to focus on the predictions they get right, while sweeping past blunders under the rug.
But when I asked NFL draft expert and football analyst Daniel “DJ” Jeremiah his best call in a recent draft, he answered, “I’ll tell you my biggest mistake: Russell Wilson.”
Wilson, star quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, threw two touchdowns and over 200 passing yards to win Super Bowl XLVIII last season. But Wilson almost never wore a Seahawks jersey in the first place.
“In 2012, I was a scout for the Philadelphia Eagles and really wanted the team to draft Russell at the top of the second round,” said Jeremiah between takes at NFL Network’s headquarters in Los Angeles. “I gathered and analyzed all of his data. His numbers showed that he could be great, but there weren’t any other 5’ 10” QBs in the NFL.”
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are both in the 6’ 5” range, and that height was considered the gold standard for NFL quarterbacks. “I dropped my recommendation for Russell down to a lower pick, and the Seahawks grabbed him in the third round [and seventy-fifth overall selection],” remembered Jeremiah.
The rest is history. And, as a life-long Seahawks fan, I made sure to thank Jeremiah on behalf of the city of Seattle.
I’ll tell you my biggest mistake: Russell Wilson.
But Jeremiah, who keeps meticulous digital records of all of his evaluations, always goes back to his notes and studies his mistakes. “We all get it wrong sometimes and in the case of Russell Wilson,” he said, “I learned that if you have the conviction about a player and the research to back it up, you shouldn’t get talked out of it just because it goes against the common practice of the day.”
During my interviews with Jeremiah, at NFL Network headquarters and on a sweltering day in his hometown of Murrieta, California, he asked me nearly as many questions as I asked him. He struck me as genuinely interested in learning about my life, family and career – as if he were about to write a profile on me, not vice versa.
“He’s so inquisitive, and doesn’t take any shortcuts on learning about players and who they really are,” said Jeremiah’s mentor, ESPN commentator Chris “Mort” Mortensen. “He understands how to bring together his passion as a student of the game with the technology to organize and share ever more information to an ever-larger NFL audience.”
As a married father of four, Jeremiah maintains a head-spinning schedule that includes recording his Move the Sticks podcast, giving up to six radio interviews per day, writing columns for NFL.com, broadcasting for NFL Network, evaluating players at NFL and college games, as well as maintaining a healthy social media presence (Sport Illustrated listed him as one of the sports world’s 100 most essential and influential people to follow on Twitter). With his Surface Pro 3 in tow, Jeremiah is the face of a new generation of multimedia sportscasters, sitting squarely at the intersection of All-American football fanatic and spreadsheet-wielding number cruncher.
Jeremiah grew up just outside of San Diego, California, as the youngest son of David Jeremiah, a nationally known evangelical pastor.
“My dad is very intellectually curious,” said Jeremiah. “He’s written some 30 books and reads up to five or six books per week. He taught me that the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn on top of that.”
Jeremiah is the face of a new generation of multimedia sportscasters, sitting squarely at the intersection of All-American football fanatic and spreadsheet-wielding number cruncher.
Jeremiah attended school from kindergarten up through 12th grade on the same campus as his father’s ministry. It was all just a couple of miles from the Jeremiah family home.
The campus was his playground. He even had a key to the gym. “I’d finish elementary school and walk to the football field,” he reminisced. “I was the ball boy for my brother’s high school team and I started studying how football worked.”
Jeremiah’s father was also the chaplain for the NBA’s San Diego Clippers (prior to the team’s relocation to Los Angeles in 1984). When other professional sports teams came through San Diego, they often requested David Jeremiah to conduct prayer services known as “sports chapels” before games.
It was through this connection that Daniel Jeremiah attended a few team lunches with the Dallas Cowboys. “The Cowboys hold their pre-season in California,” Jeremiah said. “I got to meet some of the players and became a huge fan of the team.”
During those years, the Cowboys were what Jeremiah referred to as “dead-dog average.” He became obsessed with ways to improve the team, and focused on player transactions. He pored over the player magazines, wrote out the Cowboys lineup on paper, and pondered which college players would be the best fit for his beloved team.
Then, over a three-year period, the Cowboys drafted Michael Irvin (1988), Troy Aikman (1989) and Emmitt Smith (1990) and transformed themselves into a dynasty that won three Super Bowls. “To this day, I see the draft as all about starting fresh,” he said. “It’s about the hope that this year, they’ll pick the player who comes in and turns it all around.”
As the Cowboys’ redemption cemented his ongoing fascination with the draft, Jeremiah continued to mature as a player on the field. He played high school quarterback, becoming the “All-Time Leading Passer” in San Diego County. In college, he played quarterback for a season at Northeast Louisiana and the next three seasons at Appalachian State University, where he majored in Broadcast Management Marketing.
Heading into his final year of college, Jeremiah married his best friend’s older sister, Merae, and they were pregnant with their first child some six months later. The soon-to-graduate, soon-to-be-a-father was not sure of his next steps.
It was during a visit home to San Diego to attend the 1999 Super Bowl that he met ESPN’s Mortensen. “We hit it off, and he invited me to go with him for a one-on-one interview with [NFL Hall of Fame defensive end] Reggie White,” Jeremiah said. “It was so intriguing and I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do with my life.’”
Mortensen remembered, “Tons of young guys ask me how they can get a job with ESPN, but I was struck by Daniel’s combination of work ethic, humility and a razor-sharp eye for football.”
“I knew it would require years of hard work to break into sportscasting,” reflected Jeremiah, “But, once I met Mort, I knew it was possible.”
After a series of entry-level jobs with NFL teams, Jeremiah became a talent scout for the Baltimore Ravens. He logged 20-hour work days and up to 110 nights a year on the road visiting colleges and assessing players. Sometimes he would visit three universities per day and then drive straight home to his family in San Diego – from away as far as Salt Lake City.
After four years with Baltimore, Jeremiah worked for two years as a national scout for the Cleveland Browns. He spent a year doing freelance commentary for ESPN and getting his Twitter presence off the ground, and then scouted for two more years for the Philadelphia Eagles. This combined experience made him a bona fide black belt of the NFL draft.
Through his earlier ESPN work, blogging about fantasy football picks and building a substantial Twitter following, Jeremiah got the attention of NFL Network. They came knocking with a full-time position writing for their site and doing TV commentary around the draft.
“One of the main things I’d learned as a scout was player analytics,” he explained. “At Baltimore, we used an ‘STI Index,’ which stands for ‘speed, toughness and instincts.’”
“I still use a version of this index to evaluate players,” Jeremiah said, showing me a spreadsheet with his top 50 choices for the 2014 draft. “Each STI category is graded on a scale of 3 to 7. Three is poor, 4 is below average, 5 is average, 6 is above average and 7 is outstanding. You only want to consider players who score at least a 6 across the board, meaning they are an 18 or higher on the STI Index.”
When I asked how he arrives at those scores, he answered, “You can test speed, but toughness and instincts are based on judgment. I have to talk to coaches and trainers and assemble notes based on positional importance, off-field issues, injury concerns, how they play through pain and more.”
Many draft-worthy players end up with the same scores of an 18 or so. In some years, Jeremiah will have up to 60 players with the same grade vying for 50 slots. He said, “In those cases, I need to sequence them [ranked in order from top draft choice to last draft choice] based on smaller, subtle details. It’s a massive undertaking to collect and organize all of that. Excel is my lifesaver.”
“There’s the easier way to do it for TV: Just call guys around the league, get their opinion and adopt it as your own,” he said, turning serious. “But to be really good, you still have to grind it. You have to watch all of the tape. Do all of the analysis. Every opinion I give is based on my work.”
He pointed at the sequence spreadsheet for 2014 draft again. “For each of the players here, I did a full four games or more of work up. For some of the quarterbacks, I watched tape on ten of their games. And I watched one to two games on another hundred guys who didn’t make the list, but I wanted to be prepared in case I needed to discuss them on TV,” he smiled.
“I have to manage a large amount of data and be able to move quickly around crowded games, locker rooms and on and off of planes,” he explained. “We’ve come a long way from having to lug a Betamax player and a suitcase full of tapes on the road. Now I just download and watch all of the player footage on my Surface. And I log the notes about STI, height, weight and more on the same screen in Excel.”
Merae and the kids (now 13, 10, 8 and 7 years old) like to joke about Jeremiah’s love for technology. “My wife challenged me to go back through my Twitter feed and find the last day I didn’t post anything,” he laughed. “I was scrolling back a long, long time. There’s just so much cool football information out there.”
Each year the NFL audience continues to grow. As the game moves from a seasonal sport to a year-round passion, the draft has evolved into a major off-season attraction. It was even re-scheduled last year to give media more time to debate and discuss prospects.
Jeremiah’s stock has risen along with that of the draft. He’s excited about the growing audience on his Move the Sticks podcast and his participation on a new 6.5-hour-long “NFL GameDay Live” TV show on NFL Network that follows the day’s biggest football highlights in real time.
"I've learned the hard way that now I have to be more guarded with my time when I run into a fantasy football fan on the street or on a long flight," Jeremiah laughed. "But, otherwise, it's truly a dream come true. I've been able to create a career where I get to live, eat and breathe my passion for football."Originally published on 11/17/2014 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft