On what was otherwise a normal Wednesday morning in the University of Alabama football program, a table at least 30 feet long was covered in boxes, awaiting a delivery driver. The boxes were stacked on top of one another in pairs and in at least two rows, sometimes three, leaving little to no space on the table.
The boxes were about to be sent to the dozens of former UA football players on NFL rosters. Such a gesture is no easy task at the rate UA has sent players there under coach Nick Saban.
Saban hopes his program is a platform for bigger things for his players in all aspects of life, whether professional football follows their Alabama careers or not.
“Well, I hope our program is preparing players to be more successful in life,” Saban said. “Whatever they may end up doing, they can become the kind of people here that make good choices and decisions about taking advantage of their gifts whatever they are. They get an education so they can have a career off the field if that’s what happens, and if they have opportunity to develop a career as a football player, they’re going to go about it the right way and do the right things and make the choices and decisions that’s going to help them take advantage of a gift.”
Yet, at a rate unmatched by the rest of college football, UA has been giving its players NFL opportunities.
In the Saban era, starting with the 2008 Draft, UA has produced more NFL Draft picks than any other school (87), and that includes zero picks in the 2008 Draft. Starting with 2009, Alabama has had seven players selected in all but two drafts, five in 2011 and four in 2009.
Alabama’s had 10 or more draftees in each of the last three drafts. For context: in that span, only one other team produced a 10-draftee class, when Michigan had 11 taken in 2017. The gap is significant even against the programs that are supposed to be UA’s championship competition: Alabama’s 10 draftees last year is as many as Notre Dame and LSU have had in the last two years, and more than the two-year total of teams including Michigan, Clemson, Oregon, Texas and Utah.
Compare Alabama’s 87 with the rest of college football, where LSU comes in second with 75.
Of course, part of that is recruiting at an elite level. Over the last two drafts, 30 of the 64 first-round picks — including all of last year’s top five — were top 250 prospects in their respective recruiting classes, according to the 247 Sports Composite. Alabama’s last four recruiting classes, containing 101 non-transfer enrollees, featured 74 top 250 prospects, thus 73.2 percent of UA’s enrollees being in that elite class.
But a program doesn’t reach the 61 active NFL players that Alabama currently claims without its players having some staying power in the league. Damion Square is still in the NFL after going undrafted in 2013; Kareem Jackson just turned in a 10-tackle game for the Denver Broncos early in his 10th NFL season.
Barrett Jones — an Alabama offensive lineman from 2009-2012 who had a three-year career in the NFL — sees how Alabama players transition to the NFL environment well.
“I think the program is really run a whole lot like an NFL program just from the responsibility aspect, players are held accountable,” Jones said. “The practices, certainly, there’s a lot of parallels there as far as the periods and the efficiency, the speed and the pace at which you’re supposed to do it.”
D.J. Fluker certainly made headlines in 2014 when he said he believed Alabama practices to be more difficult than NFL practices. But Jones ultimately got to be a part of four organizations — the then-St. Louis Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles — and he saw rookies struggle elsewhere, where his UA experience already had him up to speed.
“They struggle with the meetings, especially,” Jones said. “We put a big emphasis on meetings at Alabama, their importance. I think at a lot of other programs, it’s not really that way. How to watch film, how to be a pro and handle your business. That’s something that’s very commonly said at Alabama I don’t think it’s that way everywhere.
“There’s a lot of quizzing that’s going on, pop quizzes where you’re being asked a direct question. The intensity upon which you watch practice and you’re coached up on what you did during practice. It’s a lot of subtleties, but the intensity and the pace of the meetings is very high. It’s easier in the NFL in some ways because there’s so much more time, the meeting part, but the intensity is similar. At Alabama you’re trying to squeeze it into a smaller time frame.”
Jones’ best guess is other players came from cultures where players could get away with texting in meetings, even sleeping at times.
“If you did that at Alabama, I literally cannot imagine if someone fell asleep during the meeting, just the wrath that would be brought down upon them,” Jones said.
But Fluker had a point. The contents of a practice are likely to deviate from franchise to franchise, Jones believes there is a quality sharpened on UA’s practice fields that gives its players a head start on developing a productive practice mindset.
“I think Alabama, in itself, attracts a certain kind of player, in my opinion,” Jones said. “There are a lot of places that promise recruits things. Say, ‘hey, you’re going to come here be a starter, you’re going to be the man here if you come to this school.’ Alabama really doesn’t do that. They say, ‘Look, if you come here, you’re going to be challenged, you’re going to have an opportunity to go against the best and find out what you’re made of.’ To me, that attracts a certain kind of personality that’s able to succeed there.
“Competitive attitudes, that’s the kind of people that they like, and I do think that makes you a good pro. The reality is, if all you’re after is the money, once you get the money, then you don’t have a lot of motivation to continue to strive and get better. But if you’re really process oriented, like I think Coach Saban drills into you all the time, then it’s not really about the money. It’s about the process, so you’re still focusing on improving all the time.”
Alabama’s gaudy NFL Draft numbers are certainly influenced by the top-shelf talent the program consistently brings in, then quickly makes available for the NFL Draft in a few as three years. They show no signs of slowing down.
Matt Miller of Bleacher Report’s most recent mock draft had eight Alabama players going in the first round: Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses, Raekwon Davis, Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney. Dane Brugler of The Athletic had seven of them (minus Moses) in his top 60 in addition to Terrell Lewis, Jedrick Wills Jr. and DeVonta Smith.
However those players ultimately find their way into the NFL, Jones believes they will benefit from having played for as close to a NFL organization as one can find in the collegiate ranks.
“Honestly, I think the most important thing is just the responsibility aspect,” Jones said, “Coach Saban gets a lot of credit for the job he does as a football coach, but I think he does not get enough credit at the job he does of turning boys into men. He really does a great job of that. I think a lot of people come in there as irresponsible teenagers and they leave as players and men who will one day be better husbands and fathers and co-workers and employees because of what they learned there.
“I think that applies anywhere, but especially something as directly as it can apply to football because you learn accountability, you learn how to be accountable to a team. If you don’t learn that, then you’re not going to stay there and you’re not going to finish at Alabama, generally. So that’s why you see guys that finish there and have good careers, they obviously learned what accountability meant.”