As players paraded up to the stage at this week's NFL draft, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell rattled off the same schools that fans have grown accustomed to hearing every year – Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and the like.
These power programs bring in the best talent from the high school ranks ever year, so it makes sense that they're sending the most players to the big leagues. However, if you're an elite recruit with hopes of making it to the NFL, a new study from Emory University suggests you should pass on the bluebloods.
According to the Emory research, lower-profile programs such as Oregon State and Kentucky send an outsized number of players to the NFL relative to the number of four- and five-star recruits on their rosters. Put another way: "A player’s draft outcome may be adversely impacted by joining programs with many other highly rated recruits."
The researchers added that the only other statistically significant variable for producing draft picks is spending. As such, they concluded that weak sisters of the elite conferences – schools like Washington State and Indiana and Kansas – offer the best path to the NFL for an elite recruit.
My one concern about the methodology of this study is that it doesn’t directly measure the conversion rate of four- and five-stars into draft picks. The sheer number of draft picks provides a proxy, but it is subject to skewing by lower-ranked players. For example, say a team has three four-star recruits on its roster and the rest consist of three-star players. If one of the four-star players and two three-star players get drafted, it indicates a conversation rate of 1.0. The impact of the lower-ranked recruits therefore inflates the conversion rate of highly ranked players. Meanwhile, a team of nothing but four-star recruits would need every single player to make the NFL to reach that conversion rate.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s say the study is valid. What could be going on? A few possible explanations:
You have a better chance to play immediately.
Coaches like Will Muschamp and Les Miles can lay on their rap with recruits about the opportunity to compete right away for playing time, but that doesn’t make it true. In an open competition, talented veterans will have the upper hand over similarly talented youngsters 95 percent of the time. At Florida, talented freshmen will find themselves more likely to have those talented upperclassmen in front of them.
At Connecticut or Baylor, a four- or five-star guy probably steps in right off the bat.
You're not "NFL-ized" yet.
The perennial national championship contenders generally run their teams like mini-NFL programs. That goes for the stuff your average fan doesn't think about – strength and conditioning, nutrition, technology, etc.
That may lead to peak performance in college, but it also means you're closer to a finished product when all is said and done. A prospect who hasn't had that same training might have more room to grow, i.e. that dreaded "upside."
You get more individual attention.
Nick Saban can’t roll out of bed in the morning at his Tuscaloosa home without accidentally stepping on a five-star recruit. The Alabama campus is crawling with them. If one guy doesn’t develop into a contributor, he knows that he has plenty more studs to turn to and more on the way.
When Iowa State snags a four-star player, on the other hand, Paul Rhoads knows those kinds of opportunities don’t come along often for his program. Better not squander them.
For Saban and his staff, the best play is stockpiling talent and mass-producing. For the ISU coaches, they need to take advantage of individual standouts.
You have to do more.
Imagine that you’re a Vanderbilt cornerback taking on Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Your counterpart at Georgia has a top-notch defensive line pestering the quarterback play after play. Meanwhile, you’re lucky if your front seven can force even a throwaway at some point in the game.
When you have less margin for error, you simply have to perform that much better to be successful. The discipline and work required to reach a high level of performance under those conditions likely translate into the kinds of skill sets that NFL scouts want.