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NFL development- recruiting by the numbers.

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Part of every coaches' pitch is going to be the NFL pipeline. So what does the data say? Who can produce NFL players? Some expected names are near the top... others surprisingly close to the bottom.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

With signing day fast approaching, there’s a lot of buzzing about which school is best for which kids. Utah fans are baffled when a skilled DT picks a school that isn’t Utah; with the staff’s recent track record of developing defensive linemen into contributing NFL players, it seems like a no brainer. No doubt other schools and their fans have similar perspectives on their targets.

Turning vague assertions of historical success into something quantifiable is challenging, but both the NFL and college have recently begun providing data that makes it possible. I’ve used this data to measure PAC 12 schools on a number of different developmental metrics that take into account the projected athletic ability of the prospect coming out of high school (using Rivals’ star ratings), the prospects’ eventual draft position or free agent signing, and the prospects’ ultimate performance in the NFL (using a metric called Weighted Career Average Value*).

Rivals only began keeping track of historical star ratings in 2002, so that’s where this analysis begins. That certainly covers up the glory days of programs that were historically relevant but have faded, but since ultimately we’re evaluating coaching staffs and school brand, the numbers from the last decade provide a more accurate picture of a school’s current trend than numbers over the last twenty or thirty years would. And anyway, it’s literally the only data we have available.

I used two different analytical methods to evaluate a school’s NFL development, each of which highlights to an extent different aspects of what makes a school a good place to go for an NFL dreamer. My NFL Career Success approach favors teams which produced players that dramatically exceeded the expectations set by Rivals when they gave them their stars. NFL Draft Rates favors teams that got their players drafted, regardless of whether they busted out or dominated the League. For many recruits, that first payday is the most important one, and it’s always worth considering that you may not be able to hold college coaches accountable for NFL success beyond the draft; it’s up to NFL coaches and the players themselves to create their ultimate success.

Leaving a Legacy- NFL Career Success

By sampling historical data for recruits with various star ratings, I created a typical profile for each star rating. It turns out that only five star recruits have much chance of being drafted; 50% of my sample was picked up in the draft. Players can also be signed as free agents, and those numbers are more even.

I used the same sample to create an expected WCAV performance in the NFL based on a recruit’s star ratings. These follow a similar pattern; five star recruits average about 22 WCAV points, four stars about half of that, and continue getting about half as productive with each star they lose.

I compared these projected WCAV scores against the actual career of each PAC 12 recruit that made it into the League by the year 2012.** This table highlights teams which either located ‘diamond in the rough’ low-star recruits who developed into physically dominant, high drafted players (Alex Smith was recruited at two stars) or players who have been highly successful despite inferior physical gifts. While I was at it, I threw BYU into the mix. Turns out they have been terrible at this stuff, which is fun.

Utah is tops when it comes to ratio, but part of that is because they haven’t put as many players into the league as other teams, which you would expect to drag the ratio down closer to average. Per recruit, Utah is still competitive, although they fall behind Cal, Oregon, and USC. The teams which have reputations as elite recruiters but haven’t been able to develop successful NFL talent very well, in terms of on-field performance, are UCLA , Washington, and the Arizona schools.

Getting Paid- NFL Draft Rates and Position

Another way of looking at recruit development success is to trust the evaluation of NFL teams. This has the advantage of being based solely on the recruit’s gifts and their development in college, but carries along with it some element of brand bias, which creates some statistical noise in terms of how good the players actually are. As a player evaluating school choice, this brand bias is a positive effect, so it’s worthwhile to measure it instead of trying to factor it out.

Using the draft rates I shared above, you can create an expected draft profile for each school over time, based on the number of recruits of each star rating they signed. Most PAC 12 schools significantly over-performed my sample; only Colorado and Washington State (and BYU) had less players drafted than expected based on their recruiting classes. Utah does solidly here, but doesn’t stand out the way they do in NFL career performance.

Overall-

When you combine these rankings and average them out, two schools with elite recruiting reputations- USC and Cal- stand out above the rest. Utah, Oregon, and Stanford round out the upper echelon in terms of NFL development, and then the numbers drop off significantly. UCLA and Washington both have excellent reputations for NFL development, but the numbers don’t back up that assertion. The Arizona schools also fall short of where their recruiting brand would suggest.

Utah isn’t better at this than elite recruiting schools, but they do stand out when compared to other PAC 12 schools with average recruiting profiles. When Utah coaches talk to recruits about how they help develop NFL talent, there is hard evidence to support it, not just hot air.