In the ever-ongoing quest to determine which schools is the best in Utah (BYU, Utah, Utah), I dive down into the depths of getting to the NFL. BUT before we dive down… it should be noted that BYU and Utah State will be the only schools to have alumni in the Super Bowl; both players are on the Chiefs. BYU’s “Dirty Dan” Daniel Sorenson will be starting at safety and Darwin Thompson from Utah State will likely be hanging out on the sideline.
Now it honestly doesn’t matter how the player gets to the league. Getting on the roster of an NFL team is big accomplishment, but… what really matters is what happens on the field. There a plenty of stories out there of players who have gone un-drafted and make a sizable impact (e.g., Warren Moon, Antonio Gates, Kurt Warner, James Harrison, etc.). Alternatively, there are drafted players who are busts (e.g., JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, etc.). That being said, what college football player doesn’t want to get drafted (the ones that can’t?)? With it carries a promise of a life changed ($ or CTE).
Getting drafted shows the expectations of the player, his upside, the level of competition, and the investment in vetting that player and upside. Getting drafted costs money, especially those players on the high end. In a 2019 ESPN article, it was estimated a sports agency may spend $56K to +$200K for a player to get drafted. Now, an agency isn’t going to do that for a player that isn’t worthy of the risk. While the agency plans to gamble on a slew of prospects, an NFL team may spend well over $100K to vet just one top QB prospect. On my own conservative estimate, a scouting team would cost an NFL team over $1M in just salary alone. Regardless of the potential pick in the draft, an NFL team puts some amount of money and time in their draft picks.
Zach Wilson, the 2020 starting QB for BYU, is projected to go early in the first round of the NFL draft per PFF. This is his dream come true, but also extremely high praise for him and BYU. He would be a that type of player an agency would want to court and prepare. an NFL team would likely spend a considerable amount of money to vet him. While Wilson has his entire life investigated and flies around the country for pre-draft work outs, the BYU coaching staff is undoubtedly using his story to pitch potential signees. Alternatively, Utah State can use the stories of previous drafted players in Jordan Love or Bobby Wagner. Ultimately, the question for many of the top players being recruited is, “Can you get me to the NFL?”.
Now, it would be a lie to say that going to BYU, Utah, or Utah State provides the best path to the NFL. I understand it is all circumstantial. A player has to weigh all of the option. That fact is not lost on me. But, if we are looking at this from purely a numbers perspective, a player who hopes to go to the NFL should select another school and conference. The Pac-12, Mountain West, and Independence do not provide the best odds.
Per the NCAA’s website, the SEC accounted for 23% of the 2019 active NFL roster spots while the Big 10 and ACC accounted for 32%; combined those three conferences accounted for 56% of roster spots. The Power 5 collectively accounts for 77%. Here is the percentage of players from the Pac-12, Mountain West, and Independent conference respectively:
- Pac-12 = 13%
- Mountain West = 4%
- Independent = 2%
There are two sides to these numbers, or I can hear the arguments to support or explain the numbers.
- Playing in “respected” and “bigger” conferences provides a player more exposure, thus leading to a higher chance of being drafted — spoiler alert, the numbers we go through below support this understanding
- Counter to that, would be that per capita the Mountain West and Independent conferences are holding their own and develop NFL talent all the same — not true
While each college team is allowed 125 roster spots, they only have 85 scholarship players. I will use that number of 85 for comparison purposes to assess the various conferences. Take the Pac-12, who had 189 total players on NFL rosters, but for every 10 scholarship players in the conference, two would be on a roster. This is the third best and the roster spots per 10 players reads to me like an efficiency score. Note, that this doesn’t account for being drafted or not, just total players. So, for every 20 players in the Mountain West or Independent two will be drafted.
I show this to provide context of the broader landscape. While each school may pound their chest and claim glory, they are a small player in the ecosystem. To me, this provides further perspective to enjoy the good times, to cherish the players who are recognized and have great careers. These schools aren’t blue blood names. Big time recruits go to bigger schools more often. Not telling you anything you don’t already know. But look, it isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the reality. Each school should take pride in developing and sending talent to the NFL.
To further provide a sobering tale, we go to the draft results since the dawn of time!
Going in the first round for our schools is rare, since 1979 only 8% of draft picks have been in round 1. Round 2 to 3 have been a nice sweet spot for each school, with each finding 26 to 30% of drafted players landing in these rounds. However, the majority of the time, approx. ~49%, will be in round five and higher. The numbers are not surprising to me nor anyone who is close to these programs. There has been a noticeable improvement since 1980 for drafted players as less players have been drafted in the 6th round or higher. Rising tide lifts all boats.
Now, let’s get more college specific. Since 2000, Utah has had 54 players drafted, which is more than BYU and Utah State combined (BYU 21 + Utah State 17 = 38). Since 2010, Utah has had 36 players drafted. I have already detailed this in a previous post about players in the NFL. Utah is drowning the other schools in NFL talent and this recent ascent can be attributed to two factors: (1) Kyle Whittingham and (2) joining the Pac-12.
My tip of the cap to each of these schools on getting guys to the NFL. No matter the avenue the schools are doing a reputable job. However, the pipeline for Utah in recent years has primarily been the draft. Since 2000 of the total 83 players that made an NFL roster only 29 have been un-drafted. BYU on the other hand had 32 of their 53 go un-drafted during that same time frame. Wrapping up is Utah State that had 23 of 40 players go un-drafted during this same period.
In these final charts we see a closer story. Utah edges out BYU by just eight players in total and was all made up in the last decade. That being said, no other college say decade over decade growth like BYU in from the 70’s and 80’s; these were triple digit growth years.
I find these results promising for each program. They will continue to develop and provide NFL talent, but Utah should edge out the other two programs for the foreseeable future. Per 247sports, Utah has had a top 45 recruiting class since 2015. BYU has had just one class in the top 50 during that same time period.