For a college football program, the NFL Draft is what you make it.
If you look at it one way, the draft is simply a departure ceremony, albeit one with some very nice multimillion-dollar parting gifts for a fortunate few. Players who turn pro can’t do a thing on the field to help the alma mater win another game. Depending on the level of the program those stars are departing, they can leave an aching void. At the highest level, there is usually enough talent to replace the departed and move on.
That’s not the point of view that most programs take, though. A prominent draft presence, both in a single class and over a span of multiple years, is perhaps the most powerful part of a program’s recruiting portfolio. That doesn’t mean draft success (and subsequent pro success) is the only tool in a recruiting toolbox. There are other components — academics, geography, personal relationships.
But let’s be honest here. Elite prospects want to play in the NFL after their college career, three years or four, is over. They want to follow a proven path of success. For an obvious example, look at Alabama’s recent run of gifted young wide receivers. Does a Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs want to be the next Julio Jones or Amari Cooper? Of course. Are next year’s top prospects likely to pay special attention to the program that has had the most first-round draft choices (by a substantial margin) over the past four years? Of course. Alabama is smart to use that fact, just as Michigan would be wise to market its achievement in having the most total draftees in 2017 with 11, just edging out Alabama’s 10.
This is ultimately a PR battle, though. The Crimson Tide’s rivals, detractors and those who seek clickbait aren’t simply going to sit back and concede the fact Alabama is annually producing top draft class after top draft class. Part of it is the inevitable thicket of “expectation confusion” that surrounds Nick Saban’s team. That is just another symptom of the silly idea that any season in which Alabama doesn’t finish as the national champion (or, in its most extreme version, the undefeated national champion) is somehow “underachievement.” The corollary notion is the Crimson Tide has so many great players, any year in which it doesn’t produce five of the top 10 picks is “a disappointment.”
One national talk-radio host (Colin Cowherd) even advocates the debunked notion that NFL teams shy away from Alabama players who, Cowherd contends, are overused in Tuscaloosa and have limited upside. If that were true, why would four teams use their first-round pick on Alabama players? Why wouldn’t you avoid them altogether? And is the same logic true for other schools? USC recruits well every year, yet had far less players drafted than Alabama, both in the first round and overall. That must mean NFL players think USC players are burnouts that should be avoided, right? I mean, shouldn’t the same logic apply? How about for Florida State? Oregon? NFL front offices must really be wary of those teams, right?
Of course not. It’s an argument that makes no sense. The draft status of a particular individual depends on myriad factors, ranging from a team’s needs to the individual personality of each player. Alabama has had some players whose NFL careers have fizzled, like Dee Milliner and Trent Richardson. They’ve also had plenty of success stories: Julio, Amari, Dont’a Hightower and more.
Here’s the fact: Twenty-seven different NFL franchises have picked Alabama players since Saban became the head coach. Nine Alabama players were chosen in the first three rounds this weekend. And there is no way to fit those numbers into a narrative where teams are “shying away” at all.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.