With a disrupted college season ahead, NFL franchises face an uncertain draft process. With less (or no) 2020 season tape to analyse, individual performances from 2019 will be more important than ever. Some franchises will miss with their Day One pick, and others will find a diamond in the rough on Day Three. Teams will play it safe, and choose their rookies conservatively. A key aspect to success will be relying on college programs with a history of providing the NFL with talent. The NFL Top 100 players of 2020 was released last week. Could that help?
Although by no means the be all and end all of evaluating talent, it had me thinking. What if we could use the NFL Top 100 list to predict which schools are the best places to pick up rookies in the NFL Draft? These players are selected by the people that know them best – their fellow pros. Some great players, like Carson Wentz, DeMarcus Lawrence and Matthew Judon missed out. However, all the league greats are in there. What if we can look at their schools to find the next crop of elite talent?
Here’s how this works. We assign points per position – for example, Louisville gets 100 points because their former QB Lamar Jackson sits at #1 overall. Wisconsin receives 99 points for #2 overall Russell Wilson, and so on. It ends with Nebraska receiving one point for #100 Lavonte David.
At the end of this process, we can see which college programs have most alumni in the Top 100, but also which schools provide the most value. Notre Dame has 5 alumni in the Top 100, and their points can be used to calculate an average amongst them.
In the interests of fairness, only schools with 2 or more players in the Top 100 can be considered in terms of the value they provide. That means that Utah State (who have 88 points thanks to Bobby Wagner alone) cannot claim to be a better place to pick talent than Mississippi State, whose 5 graduates average 35.8 points between them.
The “Big Three”
It will not come as a surprise to see that three of the most dominant teams in the college game dominate the NFL Top 100 for 2020. They are Alabama (7), Ohio State (6) and LSU (6). Collectively, they make up 19% of the NFL Top 100.
NFL franchises already cherry pick talent from these schools on Day One of the NFL Draft. 5 of the first 10 picks in the 2020 NFL Draft were from the “Big Three”, as we will now call them. In fact, 10/32 first round picks (31%) were from the Big Three. In a world before COVID-19 chaos, NFL teams were already relying on just three schools to produce the next generation of elite talent. Don’t expect that to change next year.
Of the Big Three, Ohio State provides the best value, averaging 61 points across their NFL Top 100 alumni. Of these, 4 are defensive players, and 3 play on the defensive line. Most consider Shaun Wade to be the premium talent on the Buckeyes’ defense, but this analysis suggests that NFL franchises might be better off picking a lineman. This might come as a shock to many. Quarterback Justin Fields is destined to be a top 5 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and offensive lineman Wyatt Davis is highly touted by talent evaluators. Wide receiver Chris Olave can expect to command a Round 2 pick.
However, based on the evidence from the NFL Top 100, Tyreke Smith is the safe bet for teams needing a defensive lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft. He has seen his time severely limited in Ohio. However, with Nick Bosa and then Chase Young ahead of him on the depth chart, you can see why his opportunities have been limited until now.
The Crimson Tide are more heavily weighted on offense, with 5 of their 7 NFL Top 100 talents on that side of the ball. Of the 5 offensive players, three are running backs. Power back Derrick Henry brings in 90 points. Mark Ingram II has enjoyed a successful career in the NFL, and Josh Jacobs had an impressive rookie year with the Raiders. Therefore, franchises seeking fresh blood in the backfield need to look no further than Najee Harris. Harris lacks the elite speed that many NFL GMs crave, but he has the intoxicating blend of power and finesse that could flourish in the NFL. If a franchise wants a healthy return on its draft capital, Najee Harris is the guy to get.
Louisiana State has long been referred to as “DBU”, and this is reflected in the NFL Top 100 for 2020. Of their six players, 3 are defensive backs. Tyrann Mathieu enjoyed a Superbowl win in 2019. Jamal Adams and Minkah Fitzpatrick are two of the most exciting safety talents in the NFL today. The Tigers were purged of talent across the roster in the 2020 NFL Draft. Grant Delpit was the first LSU defensive back off the board, selected in Round 2 by the Cleveland Browns. In 2021, the player most likely to provide value is safety JaCoby Stevens. Stevens is the next in a long line of DBU graduates, and he had 92 tackles, 5 sacks and 3 interceptions in 2019. Stevens might not be the first safety on most draft boards, but you can’t go wrong with an LSU safety.
During the process of ranking college programs, some less obvious schools stood out amongst the Big Three.
For example, 3 of the 5 Notre Dame graduates in the NFL Top 100 were offensive linemen. The entire O line is returning for the Fighting Irish in 2020, should their season go ahead. Of those five, Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg looks a good bet to make it in the NFL. At 6’6” and over 300 lbs, he has the measurables to make it in the league.
Of the 5 Mississippi State alumni in the NFL Top 100 for 2020, four are defenders. Linebacker Erroll Thompson could be the next Bulldog to explode on the pro stage. Thompson is likely touted to be a Day Two pick. He could have entered the Draft last year, but chose to return to school. He led the team with 84 total tackles last season, and the Bulldogs were delighted to see him return for his senior year.
The Clemson Tigers had three alumni in the NFL Top 100 in 2020. DeAndre Hopkins, Deshaun Watson and Grady Jarrett averaged 60.6 points between them. This score was the third highest total behind Ohio State (61) and Stanford (61.3 – thank you, Christian McCaffrey). If anything, Jarrett drags the average down significantly alongside Hopkins (93 points) and Watson (81). NFL franchises will be wise to take the elite talent from the Clemson roster, and that of course points to one player. No, not Trevor Lawrence. I’m talking about Travis Etienne. Ok, maybe I’m talking about Lawrence AND Etienne. Both are destined to succeed in the NFL. Wouldn’t it be great if an NFL franchise with two first round picks could snag them as a pair? Take note, Jacksonville and New York.
A word on QBs
Unfortunately, there’s no clear science when it comes to the quarterback position. There were 13 QBs in the NFL Top 100 for 2020. Not one college appears more than once on this list. As with every year, GMs will have to take a shot on the player they trust most with the keys to the franchise. One notable absentee from the NFL Top 100 this year was Eagles QB Carson Wentz. An exciting if unpredictable pick could be his fellow North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. However, with FCS schedules up in the air for now, Lance may decide to go back to school for his senior year.
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