By Joe Landers
This isn’t the time of year that we get to see what schools produce the best NFL talent – that happens in the fall. What we do get to see during the off-season is what NFL organizations think of their talent sources. 256 players get drafted. An average of an additional 585 get a chance to make it as an undrafted free agent at a mini-camp or at training camp. Annually, 841 rookies get a chance to prove themselves in an NFL camp. Those 841 come from an average of 229 schools. 635 schools play NCAA football. Another 150+ play under the NAIA umbrella or are in the Canadian college system. 841 prospects from 229 schools.
NFL Talent Exists Beyond I-A
One would think that I-A would be replete with NFL talent. After all, 136 NFL campers came from only 9 I-A schools in 2015. Would it surprise you to find out that 2 of the 128 I-A schools didn’t have a single player in an NFL camp during the 2015 off-season? Most folks would guess if any I-A school would roll a gutterball, it would be a service academy – Air Force, Navy, or Army. In fact, all three sent one last year.
The two schools that didn’t send a single player to a camp via the Draft or undrafted free agency were: Tulsa and Georgia State. One I-AA school (Illinois State) sent more players to NFL camps (6) than 70 I-A schools. Another I-AA school, Bethune-Cookman, sent 5 to camps – that’s more than 56 I-A schools. One II-A school, CSU-Pueblo, sent more players to camps than 56 I-A schools and 123 I-AA schools – they also sent 5. D3 Wisconsin-Whitewater sent 2 – that’s more than 250 I-A, I-AA, and II-A schools. I-A is a great source and is the primary source, but the other divisions have a lot to offer as well.
Winning Does Not Equal NFL Talent
Most people think if a program is winning, they must have great talent. Clemson and Alabama seem to affirm that notion. They both tied for 2nd most campers and they’ve gone a collective 50-7 over the last two years. They each sent 16 players to NFL camps in 2015. If we assume winning means NFL-caliber talent, then how do we explain Auburn leading all college programs and sending 19 players sent to NFL camps in 2015? (5 drafted, 14 undrafted) Over the last two years, Auburn has gone 15-11 (58%). They’re 10th in the SEC in winning% and they somehow managed to pace the SEC and all 785+ programs playing college football with 19 NFL campers. How do we explain Baylor going 21-5 over the last two years (81% W% ranks 8th out of 128), but ranking 61st in players sent to camp with 5?
Georgia Southern’s 72% winning% is the best in the Sun Belt over the last two seasons and yet, they only had two players in camp (both undrafted) in 2015. Their 72% W% may have put them ahead of 106 other I-A schools, but 108 I-A schools sent more players to camp than Georgia Southern in 2015. In Conference USA, Florida Atlantic is 12th in winning% over the last two years (6-18, 25%), but no one in CUSA sent more players than FAU (6) to NFL camps in 2015. While no one in the Mountain West sent more players to NFL camps in 2015 than UNLV’s 6, UNLV finished last in the conference in Winning%. Mighty Miami has been absolutely pedestrian over the last two years at 14-12, but their talent is so well-regarded that they sent 13 players to camps in 2015 – tied for fourth in all of college football.
Perhaps the two most striking situations are Oregon State and Kansas. Oregon State has gone 7-17 over the last two years. Their 29% W% ranks 11th in the Pac-12. Kansas has gone 3-21 and their 13% W% puts them dead last in the Big-12. Shockingly, Oregon State tied for 1st in the Pac-12 by sending 11 players to NFL camps in 2015. Kansas also sent 11 to camps in 2015 – that ranked them 2nd in the Big-12. Laughingstock in-conference (even with I-AA opponents), but near the top in NFL-caliber talent.
While I don’t think it’s entirely true, the cases of Oregon State and Kansas both seem to indicate that having a winning program has zero to do with producing NFL-caliber talent. Along with good coaching, facility disparities, and massive recruiting advantages, talent is necessary to win in college. Nevertheless, it’s clear the NFL doesn’t necessarily feel that winning collegiate talent translates to NFL success.
The count of NFL campers is indicative of what NFL organizations think of college programs. What NFL orgs think of any college coaches’ talent is secondary to winning. Winning is what matters to college coaches, alumni fund-raising, and incoming recruits. Combine NFL perceptions and winning, look at the bottom of the list, and you get a sense of who’s really fallen on hard times. While Tulsa and Georgia State hold the only I-A distinction of having no NFL campers in 2015, at least their programs are on the upswing. At the bottom of this list, we see ten programs that have fallen on genuinely hard times.
After going 2-10 and 1-11 in 2014, respectively, they both finished 2015 with 6-7 records. UMass, New Mexico State, and SMU aren’t so lucky. UMass has gone 3-9 in back-to-back seasons and had 1 camper in 2015. Their W% ranks them 10th in the MAC and their 1 camper ranks them dead last. New Mexico State has gone 3-9 and 2-10 (21%) with one camper in 2015. If it weren’t for Georgia State, NMSU would be dead last in campers and W% in the SunBelt. As is, they’re only dead last in W%. SMU looked like they were on the upswing with four straight bowl games from 2009-2012. Over the last two years, they’ve gone 3-21 and have the worst W% in the AAC. In 2015, SMU had one NFL camper. If it weren’t for Tulsa, SMU would be dead last in W% and campers. Florida International (1, 38%), Kent State (2, 22%), and Hawaii (2, 27%) have also had a rough go, but not quite as tough as UMass, NMSU, and SMU.
In the Power-5 conferences, hard times are relative. Colorado, Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Wake Forest all still produce NFL campers, but that’s about it these days. As good as much of the last 25 years have been for Colorado, times have been incredibly rough lately. CU’s 6-19 record over the last two years ranks last in the Pac-12. Their 2 campers in 2015 ties them for last place in the conference.
Vanderbilt had some competitive seasons up through 2013, but their 29% W% over the last two years and three 2015 campers puts them in last place in the SEC in both categories. Regarding Illinois, Lovie Smith was brought to Champaign for a reason. They may be four spots from the bottom in Big-10 W%, but the Illini were 2nd to last in campers in 2015. Wake Forest has gone 3-9 in back to back seasons for an ACC-worst 25% W%. Their 4 campers put them 2nd to last in the ACC. All four of these P5 programs have a steep climb back to prominence.
Not Doing Enough?
Auburn may be the most perplexing example of a program that appears as though they’re not optimizing their talent, but they’re not alone. A number of other programs produce an inordinate number of NFL campers relative to their Winning%. Texas, Penn State, Boston College, Rutgers, Maryland and Purdue are six big-name programs that meet the criteria for this category.
Texas’ 44% W% places them in the bottom third of the conference while their ten 2015 campers leaves them only trailing Oklahoma and Kansas. Penn State’s 54% W% ranks them 8th in the Big-10. Their nine 2015 campers ties them for 3rd with Michigan, trailing only Iowa and Ohio State. BC’s 40% W% ranks them 11th in the ACC. Their nine 2015 campers ranks them 5th in-conference. Rutgers’ 48% W% ranks them 10th in the Big10 while their nine 2015 campers ranks them 3rd in-conference. Maryland and Purdue’s eight 2015 campers rank have them tied for 6th in the Big-10. Their 40% and 21% W% rank them 12th and 14th in-conference.
Among non-P5 conferences, six more programs meet these same criteria: near the conference lead in 2015 campers, near the bottom in two-year Winning%. Central Florida (1st with 9 campers, 7th in CUSA W%), Central Michigan (1st MAC campers with 9, 6th in W%), Fresno State (2nd MtnWest campers, 9th W%), San Jose State (2nd MtnWest campers, 8th W%), Akron (2nd MAC campers, 7th W%), and Eastern Michigan (3rd MAC campers, 13th W%).
Discord. Inconsistency. NFL organizations clearly think these P5 schools have great talent. What’s seen on the field in the fall doesn’t correlate.
Five schools were in the top half of their conference in Winning%, but near the bottom in 2015 campers. Scheme? Luck? A sign of a coming flood of 2016 campers? North Carolina’s 3 2015 campers ranked them 14th in the ACC, but their 63% W% in the last two years ranks them 5th in-conference. Houston is 1st in CUSA two-year winning %, but they were 8th in 2015 campers. Wisconsin – 14th in 2015 campers, 3rd in two-year Big-10 W%. Middle Tennessee – 12th in CUSA 2015 campers, 4th in two-year W%. Temple and Arkansas State – 9th in AAC/CUSA 2015 campers, 3rd in W%. Ohio University – 12th in MAC 2015 campers, 5th in W%. Maybe for each of these seven, they’ll be near the top of their conferences in 2016 NFL campers. If not, it might indicate that their coaching staffs are merely exceeding expectations with subpar talent.
Talent is everywhere, but not everyone gets an invite to prove themselves. For roughly 10,000 college players a year, the only audition they get is on Saturdays. Odds are that no more than one NFL scout (if any) has Paine, Minot State, Allegheny, or Quincy on their campus tour schedule. If players from many II-A, III-A, and NAIA schools are going to get a shot, it’s going to be because someone within their program has connections, they transferred from a D1 school (where they were already on the radar), or they played lights out on Saturdays. Camp slots are rare commodities. We often hear the mantra that each prospect is graded and viewed as an individual. When there are stark contrasts between camp slots and winning%, we see evidence that school reputations do matter.