Tomorrow, at high noon, the 2003 NFL draft will begin.

Last year I wrote four columns about the draft. But after hearing one too many “Umm — who cares?” “How do you know anything about it, anyway?” and “Who are you, again?” from various Elis, I’ve decided to tone it down a little bit this time around. Since the YDN would not, alas, pay for me to go to the combine, my opinion is in any event about as valuable as, say, Cincinnati President Mike Brown’s. And we all know how the Bengals’ drafts turn out every year.

To tell you the truth, it’s probably a good thing they didn’t send me, because I don’t even own a stopwatch. Nor do I know what a good bench press is. But I don’t truly need that knowledge to enjoy the draft. Everything I need for tomorrow’s amateur athlete selection extravaganza will be provided for me by the most important player in every NFL Draft: Mel Kiper.

Last year I proclaimed his following to be a cult. This time around, I’m going for mainstream religion, with me as high priest.

The man is amazing. People say the NFL Draft is boring, that it merely consists of overly-optimistic analysts who blather on about nothing for six consecutive hours. But those people don’t spend enough time paying attention to ESPN’s Kiper. While Chris Berman spends half the show belting out his trademarked “Schwami” football phraseology (Does anyone else care that in addition to “New York Football Giants” he also says “New York Football Jets” even though there never were any other New York Jets?) Kiper is busy acutely breaking down each player’s strengths and weaknesses with commentary that is always dead on.

Let’s face it. The man knows more about college football players than your average American knows about his mother. He knows their college stats, their 40 times, their SAT scores, their girlfriend’s middle name, and their dog Buddy’s favorite trick. He knows who NFL teams are drafting before they draft them, what Chris Mortensen is going to say before he says it, and where you’re planning on scratching yourself before you scratch there. All while you sit on the couch eating cheez puffs, watching him work his magic.

How can one man know so much about a new set of NFL prospects each year?

I’ve figured it out.

It’s the hair.

That’s no ordinary head of hair Kiper struts around in, it’s a magical brain extension. And not only does it make him the smartest draft guru around, it’s stylish to boot. I have to agree with Tony Kornheiser, who constantly gushes over Kiper’s coif, it’s one luscious set of locks. In fact, I’d say it’s the best-looking brain extension ever crafted out of mousse.

Besides Kiper and his hair, there’s also the inherent optimism of the draft. All 32 clubs get a chance to revitalize their squad, to find that one guy who makes the difference between 2-14 and 7-9, or between 7-9 and 10-6, or between 10-6 and the Super Bowl.

Sure, it’s a crap shoot. Yes, you might end up with Trev Alberts or Tony Mandarich. But what if your team rolls lucky seven and lands the next Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, or LaDanian Tomlinson? That chance, that inherent hope for every team (even the Bengals!) makes the draft worth watching. Maybe not for six hours, but at least for your team’s pick.

So I’ve exhorted you to watch and extolled the virtues of Mel’s all-powerful hair. But where are my draft prognostications? Here’s a random guess for ya:

“With the first pick in the draft, the Cincinnati Bengals select: Carson Palmer, quarterback, USC.”

Now that he’s effectively under contract, even the Bengals can’t Bungle that pick. Who will come next? You’ll just have to watch and find out. I know I will.