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Is Iowa better than Alabama at creating NFL Draft picks?

An interesting study from the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics suggests convention wisdom on what schools are best for producing NFL Draft choices may not be accurate.

Apparently, if this ACL doesn't explode, it has a decent chance to play in the NFL.
Apparently, if this ACL doesn't explode, it has a decent chance to play in the NFL.
Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

A quick jaunt over to the Rivals' recruiting rankings might make a casual fan wonder if the apocalypse is nigh. The number one ranked recruiting class is....Kentucky?? In FOOTBALL? Whats next? Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria?

Now what if I told you that Kentucky might actually be better at producing NFL draft picks than Alabama, Florida State, Michigan or Florida? Seems crazy right? Our friends at the Emory Sports Marketing Analystics Blog are arguing just that.

The thinking is that a high school recruit with a 4 or 5 star recruiting ranking might conceivably have the talent to become an NFL Draft pick. Emory then looked at which schools were most efficient at converting top prospects into NFL Draft picks, not what schools have produced the most draft picks period.

Specifically, we found that every five-star player signed by a school translates to 0.33 draft picks, and every four-star player translates to approximately 0.09 draft picks. If we examine only players selected in the first three rounds of the draft, then each five-star recruit produces 0.23 picks and each four-star recruit results in 0.05 picks.

That feels a little low, doesn't it, especially after we all watch highlight tapes of the next 5 star recruit, where every elite talent looks like Bo Jackson, systemically abusing legions of kids who will absolutely be going pro in something other than sports.

Three Big Ten teams cracked the top 15 at conversion rate, and I promise they aren't the three you're thinking of. Wisconsin was #3 on the charts, Iowa checked in at #4 (yes, that Iowa), and Purdue registered at #8. Kentucky of all schools was #1, with a conversion rate of 1.75, meaning they're actually producing more draft picks than signing 4-5 star talent. The Wildcats have both an exceptionally low bust rate and have been good at converting less heralded recruits into NFL caliber picks.The top 15 was mostly a collection of less-than-blueblooded programs, although Stanford, Virginia Tech, Arkansas and Louisville made the cut.

The worst 15 programs also had some surprising names. Two Big Ten teams made the worst list, with Minnesota as the second worst, and Michigan at #7 (important to note: Ohio State's data was not available). The Worst List was much more of a collection of College Football's Who's Who, with Texas, Notre Dame, Florida State and Florida all making appearances, but the worst school was actually Washington State. Poor Cougars.

So what does this mean? Both lists seems to have a pretty eclectic lists of schools. Emory explains:

While the preceding results provide evidence that fans should be happy about recruiting victories, the story from the high school recruit’s perspective is far more complex. That each five-star player only results in 0.33 picks obviously suggests that there is a great deal of error in the rankings. However, an additional explanation is that a player’s draft outcome may be adversely impacted by joining programs with many other highly rated recruits.

On the surface, this makes some sense. A 5-star running back joining a backfield full of other 4 and 5-star running backs may see limited playing time due to some bad luck and very stiff competition, possibly damaging his NFL stock. A team that is stacked at multiple positions may also provide fewer statistical opportunities for success as well. If you have a stud QB, a great TE, and 3 great WRs, even if you have an awesome running back, will you need to give that guy 35 carries?

Of course, this is a more complication question than just looking at the chart. The data isn't adjusted by position group, and it isn't hard to believe that some coaching staffs or particular systems may be better at producing NFL caliber talent than others (going back to our running back example...statistics be damned, you better be outside of AIRBHG smiting distance from Iowa at all times). The 0.33 five-star per draft pick rating also shows that really highly rated players can get hurt, or situations outside of football (grades, off the field issues, work ethic, etc) can play into a player not reaching their NFL potential. And sure, recruiting rankings aren't perfect. We all know that.

Emory suggests that a recruit purely interested in maximizing his potential should seek out a major conference school with a bigger budget, but without a ton of highly ranked recruits surrounding him, thus maximizing his chances of getting on the field early and often "on a major stage".

If this line of reasoning is accurate, it would also mean, ironically enough, that Kentucky's ability to convert elite prospects to NFL draft picks will almost certainly dramatically DECREASE as they continue to pick up high level recruits. The more high level recruits you sign, the harder it is to keep everybody happy.

If you (as a fan or a potential recruit) only care about winning games, or perhaps are more focused on your education, then this data doesn't mean a whole lot. If your goal is to win an NCAA title, the best way to do that remains getting as many of the best players as possible. If you're just interested in maximizing your chances at an NFL paycheck though, Emory may be on to something when it comes to exploiting this marketplace inefficiency (unless said recruit is interested in Ohio which case, the best advice is always, go to Ohio State. Numbers are for nerds, unless we like what they say).

If nothing else, this gives Iowa and Purdue another recruiting pitch to use. Lord knows they could use all the help they can get.