byu, college football, NFL, utah state, Utes

Which Utah University Produces the best NFL talent?

Nate and I are at lunch the other day and we are talking about college football (you need to know about Nate cause he is the one that gave me this post idea – he is a nice guy, a great guy, and a Michigan Fan – who I hear are some of the nicest fans in the world? TRUE???). Naturally the conversation goes from national to local. We talk about how the Cougars had a good year and that Zach Wilson (PFF currently has him #3 prospect) would likely be a top 5 pick (they should also have Brady Christensen drafted, currently PFF has him as the #8 overall prospect. Max Milne could get drafted as well PFF #47) . Anyway, Nate pops off says that BYU has produced better NFL talent than any other University in the state of Utah. This just… well, did not sit right with me… so I looked into it. And to be clear, we are talking about the the big three, BYU, Utah, and Utah State. Weber State and SUU have had a few players and there, but it’s not the same.

The categories scored are: Hall of Fame (HOF), Pro Bowlers, Starters, and the 2020 Players PFF grades. Each category will have a total possible score of five, with the first place team getting 5 points, second 3 points, and last 1 point. bonus point of 1.5 is given to the school that has seen recent success. Simple, right? The challenge is the subjectivity quality or better. I will do my best to be impartial, but will also use PFF grading for the 2020 season to remove all bias. Each program has a lot history, which may over benefit some (Utah State), thus the bonus point. Let’s get going.

Hall of Fame

Getting to the league is nearly impossible, but becoming a Hall of Famer is next level. There may be some former or current players on their way to the HOF, but really hard to say. Of all of the current or former players I think to be a sure shot is Bobby Wagner, from Utah State. We aren’t here for that debate, but we are here for the those who have made it.

  • Utah – 2 inductees; Mac Speedie, Larry Wilson
  • BYU – 1 inductee; Steve Young
  • Utah State – 1 inductee; Merlin Olsen

It’s great and all that Utah has 2 inductees, but one played in the 1940’s and you’ve likely never heard of Wilson (he is however listed as one of the 100 greatest players of all time). Sorry Utah, no soup for you. Moving to BYU and Utah State. Young and Olsen are all time greats. You could argue this one either way. Olsen was a consistent and dominate force; 14 pro bowls in 15 years is incredible and never missed a game. He is what Aaron Donald is, but for longer. He was part of the “Fearsome Foursome”. Oh, and he made the list of 100 greatest NFL players of all time at #27. It was also the 60’s…

Young is deity in some circles and was a 2x league MVP and Super Bowl MVP (I’ve watched SB XXIX and the 49ers crushed the Chargers). PFF (yes, I am all in on PFF right now) has his 1998 season as one of the best.Young had a short window where he was absolutely amazing and he is probably more well known than Olsen. What takes this over the line is being in the Super Bowl era.

Winner: BYU

BYU: +5; Utah State: +3; Utah: +1

Bonus Point: BYU +1.5, Young is the most recent inductee

Totals: BYU 6.5; Utah State 3; Utah 1

All Pro 1st Teamers

The All Pro list is given to the 22 best players in the league based on the position. Making this elite list has been around for decades and matters; players have incentives tied to making lists such as this. However, this section will make Cougar fans frown a bit, as they are in last place. Utah State has nice representation and will pick up 4.5 points here.

  • Utah: 8 (Larry Wilson, Bob Trumpy, Mac Speedie, Roy Jefferson, Jamal Anderson, Jordan Gross, Steve Smith, Eric Weddle)
  • Utah State: 5 (Cornell Green, Merlin Olsen, Rulon Jones, Al Smith, Bobby Wagner)
  • BYU: 4 (Steve Young, Vai Sikahema, Todd Christensen, Fred Warner)

Utah +5, Utah State +3, BYU +1

Bonus: Utah State. While Fred Warner made it for the first time, Bobby Wagner came into the league in 2012 and has been on the All Pro list 6x. The most of anyone on the list. This post could almost be turned into a love fest of Bobby Wagner. I will talk about him some more. When all is said and done in this post, he accounts for 3 total points on his own.

Totals: BYU 7.5; Utah State 7.5; Utah 6

Pro Bowlers

Between the three schools there have been 35 pro-bowlers since 1960 and it is a pretty even split with Utah a 13 players, while BYU & Utah State have 11 a piece. Even by breaking it down by decade, it is relatively even. Utah State held a narrow margin over Utah in the 60’s and 70’s only to see BYU flex their muscle in the 80’s. However, Utah flipped script in the 2000’s. The below charts show each player by their start year in the NFL and if at any point they were a pro-bowler. So take Merlin Olsen for example. He started in the league in 1962, he would fall in the 1960 decade and be counted just once. And yes, I get that in including 2020 in the 2010 period it isn’t congruent, but it shows the continuation of recent trends.

This shows the accumulative number of pro bowlers over time

Another interesting way is to look at players who went to the Pro Bowl (PB) more than once. The below table shows all time Pro Bowl selections (note that in looking at post 1979, all schools are tied at five players).

2x PB3x PB+4x PBTotal
Utah23510
Utah State5139
BYU3137
Utah holds a slight edge in players selected to multiple Pro Bowls

Winner – Utah, by a narrow margin. Both BYU and Utah have promising talent in the NFL and I would expect them to gather more pro bowlers.

Utah: + 5; Utah State: +3; BYU: +1

Bonus: Utah +1.5; Utah has led the pack from 2000’s and on… I would be remised not to mention the two Pro Bowlers from Utah State and BYU schools in Bobby Wagner and Fred Warner respectively. These are both absolute studs. Wagner has an impressive resume and Warner looks to be on his way to being a dominate force in the NFL for years to come.

Totals: Utah 12.5; Utah State 10.5; BYU 8.5

Starters

The changes over time make sense given what we have seen with the HOF and Pro Bowls, but even just a general knowledge of where each of the programs have been and how they have changed. Utah has shown continued grow and provided consistency over the past two decades. Once again, 2020 helps Utah in the figures, but 2021 will be a big leap for BYU with two sure first round draft picks.

This isn’t to argue which starter is more impactful to their team. Being a starter in the NFL means something. It’s an absolutely cut throat and unforgiving league. Doesn’t matter if the player is on the Jets or the Bucs, it’s equal. Remember Joe Thomas, who languished on terrible Brown teams year after year? He was part of just 48 wins, but was a 10 x Pro Bowler and a 6x All-Pro.

Let’s look at multiple year starters. Since 1979, Utah has had 19 players who started in the league four times or more. BYU had 14 and Utah State had 10.

Winner = Utah. Each of these categories are tight and that should boost the confidence of any fan for these schools. But, again, Utah eclipses the competition.

Utah: + 5; BYU: +3; Utah State: +1

Bonus: Utah +1.5; Again, they have raced ahead in recent years. In the 2020 class they had two rookies start in Jaylon Johnson (Bears) and John Pensini (Lions).

Totals: Utah 19; Utah State 11.5; BYU 11.5

Current Players & PFF

There have been some nice stories this year: Alex Smith (The Washington Football Team) has been an inspiration to us all with his come back from a heinous injury. BYU has had nice representation in the playoffs with Dan Sorenson (Chiefs) and Sione Takitaki (Browns). The most impressive player from these schools is Bobby Wagner (Seahawks) from Utah State. He is a 5x 1st Team, 7x Pro Bowler, and an integral part of Seattle’s legion of boom winning a Super Bowl in the 2013-2014 season. Utah State will get the bonus points for this section.

But let’s get a feel for the quality of the current players in the league. In the 2020-2021 season there were 49 total players in the NFL; 21 of them being a starter at some point in there career. Here are the breakdowns by school:

  • Utah: 29 players / 10 starters / 1 Pro Bowler (Alex Smith)
  • BYU: 10 players / 7 starters / 2 Pro Bowlers (Ezekiel Ansah and Fred Warner)
  • Utah State: 10 players / 4 starters / 1 Pro Bowler (Bobby Wagner)

There is little doubt on who is winning on getting players to the NFL, but there is debate on which produces the best quality. You could argue that the ratio of starters to current players in the NFL is the right measure. BYU has 70% of their players as a current or former starter, and they have two players that are Pro Bowlers. This however doesn’t provide the full story. Anasah was a one time starter and Pro Bowler, but hasn’t played a meaningful role in 2020.

Another measure could be the longevity of these players. Utah State leads the pack at 5.5 years for their starters, BYU at 4 years, and Utah 3.6 (2.3 years without Alex Smith’s 15 years – he is not a bust. Johnny Manzel is a bust….). Counter to this thinking is Utah has a bunch of young talent in the league that is yet to be determined. Three of their rookies were starters this year.

In order to be objective I went to PFF to see where each of the current players rank in the respective position and overall grade. If you are not familiar with PFF and their grading system you can watch this video, but suffice it to say that PFF grades every single snap of every single player. Next time you watch a game on NBC and they do the starting player graphic of the defense or the offense on the first possession, look at the bottom of the names and you’ll see PFF’s rankings. They assess performance regardless of the traditional stat. Each play is given a score and the players score is a running total for the year; the grade is their complete body of work. The other advantage is that PFF has already provided a standardized scoring method.

PFF 2019 graphic comparing Wagner to Like Kuechly

For the 2020-2021 season, there were 23 rated players (again we are still just talking about BYU, Utah, and Utah State) this year meeting the min snap count to qualify. Below is the distribution of those grades as well as the plotted score per player.

Utah has 5 of the top 10 scores
Utah State holds the best average grade of 64, but only has Wager above a rating of 61

Utah has produced quantity and quality. They boast the highest PFF score (Garrett Bolles) of the group and have 6 of the 10 highest scores, with half of their players above the distribution center line. I should note that I have not included punter Mitch Wishnowsky. This would further bolster the scorecard of Utah as he is the #5 Punter per PFF and has a score of 76.3. I excluded him as his job is so specific and just a very different position.

Utah: + 5; BYU: +3; Utah State: +1

Bonus: Utah State +1.5

Totals: Utah 24; BYU 14.5; Utah State 14

In Conclusion

The narrative for each program aligns with the data: Utah State came out of the gates hard and has fallen on hard times, but have some really solid players in the league – can they replace them? BYU had a nice bump in the 80’s-90’s and have been consistent, they produce great defensive players – can they trend up rather than flat? And finally, Utah has had some nice moments, but has risen above the rest in recent years. I would expect continued success for Utah and steady production for BYU. Utah State has some question marks for their future.

1 thought on “Which Utah University Produces the best NFL talent?”

  1. Great post but pretty soft on your conclusion. Utah wins. But BYU should get more points for steve young. He’s still on TV! Still a force in the game. I’d credit at least 10 pts for that.

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