On the game’s biggest stage, during the final 60 minutes of the NFL’s season on Super Bowl LI, three former University of Alabama players performed starring roles in front of the football-watching world. Courtney Upshaw sacked Tom Brady. Julio Jones made two acrobatic catches among his four receptions for 87 yards. Dont’a Hightower made the game-changing play when he strip-sacked Matt Ryan to jump start the Patriots’ comeback.
Last season also saw six former Crimson Tide players make the Pro Bowl, the most of any program in the country. Jones, Amari Cooper, Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins represented UA. The next-closest program, Florida, had three Pro Bowlers.
Former UA Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2016 and averaged among the league leaders in yards per carry.
Yet as the 2017 NFL Draft approaches, there remains a nagging doubt about Alabama players and a perception that they turn out to be busts in the pro league. The Tuscaloosa News decided to look into the metrics to examine if that perception is valid or an overblown fallacy.
Why does the perception exist?
This is a difficult thing to trace back to its roots. It likely began when former UA Butkus Award-winning middle linebacker Rolando McClain flamed out in Oakland. The truth is it likely could have had its genesis in former Outland Trophy-winning left tackle Andre Smith starting just five games in his first two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Both were top-10 selections in their respective draft classes: Smith at No. 6 overall in 2009 and McClain at No. 8 in 2010.
A year later, Ingram played in just 10 games for New Orleans and started only four after being selected in the later stages of the 2011 first round. Fair or not, there exists an expectation for Heisman Trophy winners. Through no fault of his own – he really wasn’t given a chance as the Saints’ full-time running back until 2014 – Ingram added to the perception of Alabama players not panning out at the next level.
Three players drafted in the first round in the Nick Saban era are completely out of the league: McClain, Trent Richardson and Dee Milliner.
McClain was cut by the Raiders, then retired, then un-retired, was picked up by Dallas and then was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. It’s possible that McClain will get another attempt at a career comeback, but it remains a longshot.
Richardson was drafted No. 3 overall in 2012 by the Cleveland Browns, an unusually high spot for a running back since the game began to devalue the position. He was traded in the middle of his second season to the Indianapolis Colts before eventually being released a year later. Richardson signed with a couple of different teams since then but has never made a roster. He’s struggled with his conditioning, according to multiple NFL scouts, and a recent charge of domestic violence has kept his name in the media for all the wrong reasons.
Milliner is out of the league strictly because his body broke down. He was drafted with the ninth pick by the New York Jets and started 14 games in three-year NFL career. After various injuries, Milliner, just 25 years old, is retired from pro football.
Are Alabama players injury prone?
The injury conundrum of Alabama players – or perhaps more aptly stated as the injury perception – remains high on NFL scouts’ worries about drafting Crimson Tide players.
Take this year’s draft class for instance. One of the game’s most decorated defensive players in program history, Jonathan Allen, should be a lock to be selected as a top-10 pick judging by scouts’ evaluations of him. However, reports of multiple surgeries during his time at Alabama and mild arthritis in his shoulders have some scouts worried.
Reuben Foster had offseason surgery to repair a rotator cuff. Scouts have expressed concern about his long-term viability as well.
In previous draft classes, Cyrus Kouandjio’s physical revealed him to have arthritis and chronic swelling and pain in his knee. Those results caused him to drop in the draft.
The Tuscaloosa News talked to three NFL scouts who all confirmed that injury history is a topic that comes up when scouting UA players. One particular scout said his NFL team hasn’t drafted an Alabama player because of those concerns.
For all of those reasons and likely more, there is a stigma attached to Alabama players at this time of year. Will they underperform? Are they used up before they get to the NFL?
The numbers say those perceptions aren’t true.
Perception versus reality
An examination of every NFL first-round draft pick since 2009 (the first year a Saban-era Alabama player was drafted) reveals that UA players perform at a higher level in multiple categories than the average first-round NFL draft pick.
Since 2009, UA has had 18 players drafted in the first round. Seven of those selections have been to a Pro Bowl (this does not include a player being a replacement selection) for a 38.9 percent success rate in that metric.
Fifteen of the 18 have become full-time starters for a success rate of 83.3 percent (this total does not include the players who are out of the league but were at one point full-time starters during their careers).
Three of those 18 (16.7 percent) are out of the league.
By contrast, the rest of the first-rounders since 2009 produced the following:
- 64 of 237 (27 percent) were voted to the Pro Bowl.
- 158 of 237 (66.7) have become full-time starters for their teams.
- 24 of 237 (10.1) percent are out of the league.
The numbers simply don’t back up the perception that Alabama players don’t flourish in the NFL at the same rate as others drafted in the first round.
So what’s the deal?
The Tuscaloosa News asked NFL personnel and draft experts their opinions on the subject. The consensus was that two things continue to feed this perception even when reality doesn’t.
First, Alabama players are closer to their ceilings than some other players because of how they were coached and developed.
“My advice to scouts when they come into Alabama is you better make sure that your coaches and your development program is as good or better than what the guys are going through in Tuscaloosa,” Phil Savage said.
Savage has worked essentially his entire adult life in scouting and personnel, including a four-year stint as general manager with the Cleveland Browns. He currently serves as the executive director of the Senior Bowl and as Alabama’s color commentator for radio broadcasts.
“In other words, is a defensive back ever going to be coached better than he is at Alabama under Nick Saban? I say maybe not,” Savage said. “So if that’s the case, if this is the zenith of this player’s potential, then you have to forecast that to the next level.
“What I’m saying is that NFL scouts absolutely have to take into consideration over a three- or four- or five-year period, ‘Hey, is the Alabama player closer to his potential or his ceiling than say a guy from a smaller school who may have a lot of ability but hasn’t been developed yet? He hasn’t had the training, the nutrition, the ability to go the weight room in first-class facilities.’ That’s always the rub in scouting. How much room is there for him to grow?
“I think Alabama prepares their players as well as if not better than anybody in the country. Because the guys that make it, and hey everybody has guys that don’t make it, but the ones that do make it seem to be the real leaders and the stars of their team when you look at Julio Jones and Dont’a Hightower and players of that caliber.”
The second reason this perception exists is directly related to how long Alabama’s season typically goes. UA has been in the College Football Playoff field all three years since the current format has been adapted, and has been in the national title conversation at the end of the season in all but two of Saban’s 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa.
Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout for the Ourlads’ NFL Scouting Service, said Alabama players’ injuries that are revealed during draft time are directly related to the length of the Crimson Tide’s season.
“Jonathan Allen said that the (Alabama) practices are tougher than the games,” Shonka said. “So the guys have been through the mill, and they’re very good football players, but some of the guys are beat up pretty good.
“They’ve got to have time to heal, and because Alabama is usually in a national championship game those guys don’t have as much time to recover as other guys who aren’t in that.”
Shonka defined a bust from an NFL personnel perspective as a player who has been drafted in the first round who has not been able to start during the first three years of his career.
“If you’re not a starter or you only play six games a year in the first part of your contract, I’d say you’re a bust,” he said
Given that Alabama had a higher rate of its players earn full-time starter status than the rest of the first-round selections since 2009, Alabama produces “busts” at a lower rate.
The first round of the 2017 NFL Draft is Thursday night. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper predicts five Alabama players will be chosen in the first round, more than any other program in the country.
Will those five players be busts or productive players? Perception has it that they’ll not live up to expectations. The metrics say otherwise.