Player Development 2012: Grading the Journey from High-school Recruit to the NFL

Easy bump. -- Ross

College football is a simple game. It's not an easy game by any means, but it is simple and the formula for success is straightforward and well-known: (1) Bring in talent, (2) Develop that talent into football players, and (3) Win games with those football players. That may not be absolutely everything, but that is the gist of it, and it’s those three things that we pay our coaches the big bucks to do excellently.

In this article we are going to make things even simpler. We are going to focus on just one part of that formula: Player Development; Number (2); The ability of a coach to turn raw talent into football playing ability. What’s more, we are going to approach player development from the player’s perspective. We know, and the talent knows, what they can do for coach. Let's leave that aside for the moment and focus instead on the player's perspective: What can coach do for the talent? Where should a recruit go, and who should he play for, if he wants to maximize his development as a football player?

This article isn’t about recruiting, but it is part of what recruiting is about. Every prospect hears the happy talk from every interested recruiter about what that coach and that program will do for that player. But talk is cheap, and we can do better. We have a decade’s worth of data that we can use to measure the success that each program and coach has had at developing the talent that they attract, and we are going to use that data to put coach’s happy talk to the test. To be specific, we are going to match the outcome of the last decade of NFL drafts to the Rivals ratings of the incoming recruits of every BCS program from 2002 (when comprehensive rankings began) until 2009 (the last year for which most recruits have become draft eligible). Last year we used this same approach to look at the best (and worst) programs and conferences at developing recruits into NFL players, and had some interesting discussions on just what it all meant. This year we are going to reevaluate our programs and conferences with an additional year of data, and expand on last year's analysis by taking a look at the impact that geography and position have on player development.

This is Player Development 2012, where we provide the hard answers to the question of who’s doing the best, and worst, at turning talented recruits into football players that can play at the highest level of the game - the NFL.

Stars Matter, but the Program Matters Too

First off we have to get one thing straight: stars matter. The USCs and Ohio States of the world bring in higher rated recruiting classes and - on average - they win more as a result. What's more, the higher rated a recruit is, the more likely they are to excel as a football player. For instance, higher rated recruits are more likely to be drafted into the NFL, and when drafted they are drafted higher and stick with their NFL team with greater frequency. We can quantify the talent advantage that a higher rated recruit possesses by combining our two data sources: the Rivals recruiting database which ranks each BCS recruit every year going back to 2002, and the outcomes of the past decade of NFL drafts.

If we restrict our attention to BCS programs only, since the vast majority of NFL players come from BCS schools, the draft outcomes for each ranking of recruits from the 2002-2009 classes is as follows:

Percent Drafted
Average draft position
★★ 5.1% 143 (5th round)
★★★ 8.2% 124 (late 4th round)
★★★★ 17.0% 108 (early 4th round)
★★★★★ 37.0% 79 (3rd round)

Let there be no further doubt: Stars matter, and recruiting - Number (1) in the college football formula - is vitally important. Let's be honest, we already knew that - but what about Number (2)? The second thing that this table makes very clear is that while stars matter, no BCS recruit is a lock to develop into an NFL player, and the vast majority aren't even a good bet to do so. Even the elite of the elite, the 5 stars that are drooled over by fan bases across the country, have less than a coin-flip's chance of ever hearing their name called in the NFL draft. Some of that can be marked down to individual motivation, and some to the difficulty in evaluating 17 years old kids, but there is another factor in play as well: the quality of the coaching these players receive. Stars matter, but the program matters too...

We've calculated the fraction of each rank of recruits that are developed into draft picks by the average BCS program. We can use that to evaluate the success of individual programs (or conferences) at developing their recruits relative to this BCS average. The Development Ratio is a simple way to measure the effect of a program on player development: Take the number of recruits a program turned into draft picks and divide that by the number that an average BCS program would have produced from the same recruiting classes. For instance, let's say your team brought in 20 4-star recruits and 80 3-star recruits over this time period, and that 15 of them were drafted. The average BCS program, by the numbers above, would have had 10 of those recruits drafted. So our example program has a development ratio of 15/10 = 150%, and has increased it's players chances of making it to the NFL by 50%. Very good!

Back to the original question - we know Ohio State produces more draft picks then Purdue, but is that just because of all those 5-stars they bring, or does Ohio State have a better development program as well? If I am a recruit with NFL aspirations, which schools will best help me fulfill that dream? And how much does it matter?

Rank School Recruits Drafted BCS Expectation Development Ratio
1 Iowa 28 14.7 189%
2 California 30 17.4 172%
3 USC 51 29.5 172%
4 Ohio St. 39 23.6 165%
5 Wake Forest 14 8.5 164%
6 Clemson 27 18.0 149%
7 Cincinnati 14 9.4 149%
8 Georgia 37 26.2 141%
9 Utah 17 12.1 140%
10 Virginia Tech 25 18.0 139%
11 Oklahoma 36 27.1 133%
12 Wisconsin 20 15.0 133%
13 Penn St. 24 18.5 130%
14 Texas 32 26.2 122%
15 North Carolina St. 20 16.7 119%
16 Pittsburgh 19 15.9 119%
17 Connecticut 12 10.2 117%
18 Nebraska 23 19.6 117%
19 LSU 34 29.1 116%
20 Stanford 15 13.1 114%
21 Florida 33 28.9 114%
22 Louisville 16 14.1 113%
23 Miami (FL) 29 26.0 111%
24 Notre Dame 23 20.8 110%
25 Oregon 21 19.0 110%
26 Alabama 27 25.0 107%
27 North Carolina 20 18.7 106%
28 South Carolina 24 23.2 103%
29 Michigan St. 17 16.7 101%
30 Arizona 18 17.7 101%
31 Michigan 24 24.0 100%
32 Illinois 17 17.1 99%
33 Arizona St. 17 17.2 98%
34 Purdue 14 14.4 97%
35 Georgia Tech 12 12.4 96%
36 Missouri 16 16.7 95%
37 Florida St. 27 28.2 95%
38 Syracuse 12 12.7 94%
39 Arkansas 18 20.1 89%
40 Rutgers 13 14.5 89%
41 Virginia 16 17.9 89%
42 Auburn 21 23.9 88%
43 Oregon St. 13 15.0 86%
44 Tennessee 23 26.6 86%
45 Vanderbilt 8 10.0 80%
46 Boston College 11 13.8 79%
47 Baylor 10 12.6 79%
48 Maryland 14 17.8 78%
49 West Virginia 12 15.4 77%
50 Texas A&M 15 20.1 74%
51 Kentucky 10 13.4 74%
52 Northwestern 7 9.8 71%
53 Indiana 7 10.3 67%
54 Oklahoma St. 12 18.3 65%
55 South Florida 9 13.8 65%
56 Colorado 11 17.2 63%
57 Mississippi 12 20.6 58%
58 Minnesota 8 13.8 57%
59 UCLA 11 19.3 56%
60 Texas Tech 9 16.2 55%
61 Mississippi St. 10 19.0 52%
62 Washington 8 16.1 49%
63 Washington St. 6 13.2 45%
64 Kansas 6 14.7 40%
65 Iowa St. 6 14.6 40%
66 Kansas St. 7 18.2 38%
67 Duke 0 11.2 0%

The program matters, and it matters a great deal. The choice of the right (or wrong) program can double a recruit's chances at the NFL, or it can halve them! And in the special case of Duke, bury them completely. The programs at the top - Iowa, Cal, USC and Ohio State - can back up their happy talk on the recruiting trail with a sparkling resume. Over the past decade these programs have developed their players at a level significantly above the average BCS program. They have taken their recruits and made more out of them than their initial abilities would have indicated, with the NFL factory of Iowa under Kirk Ferentz leading the way by nearly doubling the NFL chances of every recruit that takes their talents to Iowa City.

Great coaching is an absolute requirement to be a great developer of talent, and the past decade certainly blessed our top teams with that: Kirk Ferentz, Jeff Tedford, Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel and Jim Grobe were (and are) some of the best in the business. But in addition to great coaching, you also need stability. This was touched on last year, but the stability factor really pops out to me this year. Every one of those top teams not only had a great coach, they also had one coaching staff that spanned the vast majority of the past decade (if not all of it). In comparison, take a look at some of the failing programs, especially those like Washington, UCLA and Texas A&M that have the resources and support to do better. Each one of those three failing programs has been through multiple coaching transitions during the past decade, and as a result many of their players switched between systems, changed conditioning programs, and perhaps were simply shunted aside as part of the changing preferences of the new regime, all of which caused their player development to suffer. On one hand, this offers hope for the future - the new coach can always argue that he shouldn't be penalized for his predecessors' failings. But happy talk is cheap, and the proven record of the programs at the top is (and should be!) a powerful argument on the recruiting trail.

That's our big list of programs, but how about the conferences? After all, if the Bleacher Report has taught us nothing else, it has at least proven that there is always room for one more ranked list:

Rank Conference Recruits Drafted BCS Expectation Development Ratio
1 Big Ten 228 197.4 115%
2 Pac 12 218 206.6 105%
3 ACC 214 207.1 103%
4 Big East 107 106.0 100%
5 SEC 257 265.7 96%
6 Big 12 149 184.4 80%
7 Non-BCS 170 430.6 39%

Just like last year, the Big Ten and the Big 12 are the two conferences that separate themselves from the rest of the BCS - in opposite directions. The B1G is the best at getting the most out of its players. Year after year the conference has taken its incoming talent, which lags every other conference save the Big East on a per-team basis, and developed it into NFL quality football players. Another strong draft performance this year kept the B1G comfortably in its catbird seat as the premier player development conference. Meanwhile the Big 12 slid even further back from its already poor position last year. This decrease was not due to Nebraska and Colorado, which were removed from the conference in this year's analysis, but was the consequence of another lackluster year at the draft for Big 12 players. There are too many teams in that conference where recruits seemingly go to die, and the Midwest recruits that the two conferences fight over each year should take heed: If you are dreaming of the NFL, think twice about picking the Big 12 over the Big Ten.

Location, Location, Location: The draw of warm weather and the privilege of choice

So far we have been evaluating each program and conference in a vacuum, without considering the specific circumstances of individual recruits. But there is more to choosing a college than that program's NFL pipeline status, and one of those biggest additional factors is location. Should you stay close to home and go to the in-state school, or is it better to strike out for newer, greener pastures? How about a big city versus a small college town? Hot muggy summers or snow in the winter (or neither, aka California)?

One inescapable reality that BCS recruits face is that where they are is not the same place as where the BCS scholarships are. Of course this is trivially true, only a small portion of our population grows up in college towns, but it is true on a macro level as well. The median location of a BCS recruit lies right in the heart of the South, near the town of Toney in northern Alabama. However, the median location of a BCS scholarship spot is around 200 miles north of that average recruit, right on the border between Dixie and the North in the space between the towns of Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky (view map).

There's no getting around it, the average BCS recruit has to head North, but not every recruit has to put up with colder winters if they aren't so inclined. With the blessing of talent, comes the privilege of choice:

Average Distance
Average Move N/S
Average Move E/W
★★ 299 miles 180 miles N 78 miles W
★★★ 255 miles 134 miles N 13 miles E
★★★★ 234 miles 50 miles N 25 miles E
★★★★★ 260 miles 39 miles S 72 miles E

The laws of supply and demand pull the average recruit North, but if you aren't average then you don't have to follow the rules that govern the masses. With every star comes more choice in the form of more scholarship offers, and when given that choice recruits vote with their feet for the warmer weather and milder winters of the southern climes. The trend East and West, while less pronounced, is also clear: When recruits have the choice, they prefer to move towards the population centers to the East rather than venture into "flyover country" in the great American middle. A sobering thought for Iowa fans, or fans of any Midwestern football program that sits both to the North and West of most recruits.

The talent might prefer to move towards the warmer weather and bigger cities, but is that a wise choice for their NFL aspirations? Are they trading their NFL opportunity for a couple of years in the sun and the city? We saw previously how the right (or wrong) program can substantially increase (or decrease) a recruit's chance at the NFL - how does the location of the school factor in? How does that biggest factor, the distance to school, affect the likelihood that a recruit successfully develops into an NFL caliber player?

Effect of Distance to College on Likelihood of Being Drafted

Stay home young man, stay home, the grass over there isn't quite as green as it looks. Every individual is different, but the trend here is clear - the farther a recruit travels to go to college, the less likely they are to develop into a player worthy of the NFL. This holds up across all star classes (although it is least significant amongst 5 stars) and the location effect is a substantial one: Staying local is a ~25% boon to a recruit's NFL prospects, while heading across the country carries a ~25% penalty. Just in case you forgot we were talking about kids here, this is your reminder. The support structures and familiarity that come from a home base are important, and not everyone is ready to leave it all behind at 18 years of age. All the talent in the world means little if you can't keep your life in order.

Position, Position, Position: Some stars are worth more than others, and some schools excel for certain types of players

We know that stars matter. We know that the recruiting services - while not perfect, and engaging in a tricky business of forecasting the lives of 17 years old - are getting it right in the aggregate. But what if we break things down a little more carefully, and go position by position? After all, should we really expect that picking out that pro-caliber QB will be equally difficult as picking out that pro-caliber lineman? There's an easy way to check, we can simply repeat our draft analysis for each position individually:

Fraction of recruits drafted - By position and stars
★★ 7% 4% 4% 3% 4% 4% 6% 6% 3% 5%
★★★ 9% 7% 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 8% 6% 8%
★★★★ 23% 14% 22% 16% 16% 15% 18% 14% 12% 17%
★★★★★ 100% 29% 32% 43% 33% 28% 39% 54% 31% 35%

The first thing that has to be said is that the recruiting services, Rivals at least, are getting it done across the board. At every position there is a steady increase in the likelihood of getting drafted as the star rating increases, and the percentage drafted is relatively consistent across positions when holding star rating constant as well. There are some differences: for example, a 5-star WR is a much better bet to develop into an NFL caliber player than is a 5-star OL, and the O-line in general seems to be a harder to evaluate than most other positions. The 100% hit rate on 5-star TEs pops out, but that is largely because Rivals only handed out the 5-star designation to 5 TEs from 2002-2009. The big differences between the positions isn't due to issues with the recruiting services, the big differences come at the program level where certain programs excel at developing different positions.

Penn State likes to call itself Linebacker U, USC brings to mind All-American QBs and explosive skill players, and Iowa and Wisconsin have developed national reputations as offensive line factories. But what is the reality? Do these programs live up to their reputations when it comes to developing players at the positions they are associated with? Last year we looked at the differences between the development at certain position groups between conferences, and this year we are going to do the same for individual programs. Unfortunately, our data set is not large enough to go position-by-position and get meaningful results, so we will be grouping players into three position groups: Ball-handlers (QB, RB, WR, ATH), Linemen (OL, TE, DT, DE) and the Defensive Back 7 (LB, DB). Let's give our hypothetical recruit an even more specific answer: What is the ultimate destination program for the position he plays? Who is doing the best job developing players like him on the football field?

Top Developers of Ball-handlers (QB, RB, WR, ATH)
Rank School Recruits Drafted BCS Expectation Development Ratio
1 California 12 5.4 220%
2 Ohio St. 11 5.9 186%
3 Louisville 8 4.3 184%
4 Michigan St. 9 5.6 161%
5 Clemson 8 5.0 159%
6 LSU 17 10.8 157%
7 USC 15 9.9 150%

Top Developers of Linemen (OL, TE, DT, DE)
Rank School Recruits Drafted BCS Expectation Development Ratio
1 Iowa 14 5.5 254%
2 Wisconsin 11 6.0 181%
3 USC 20 11.4 174%
4 Penn St. 13 7.7 169%
5 NC State 12 7.7 155%
6 Clemson 11 7.2 153%
7 California 10 6.5 153%

Top Developers of the Defensive Back 7 (LB, DB)
Rank School Recruits Drafted BCS Expectation Development Ratio
1 Ohio St. 18 8.4 213%
2 Iowa 9 4.4 203%
3 USC 15 8.1 185%
4 Texas 11 7.0 157%
5 Clemson 8 5.2 155%
6 Oklahoma 15 9.8 152%
7 California 7 5.0 139%

USC does indeed show up as a top developer of the offensive skill players, but did you have Cal and Ohio State leading your list? Maybe Cal, Tedford is known as a QB guru and Cal has certainly sent running backs to the league as well, but I imagine few would have guessed that Ohio State under Tressel was one of the premier developers of talented skill players. Conforming more closely to expectations is the linemen category where Iowa and Wisconsin lead the field. Iowa's performance in particularly is rather remarkable, Captain Kirk and company have sent 2 and a half linemen into the draft for every 1 the average BCS program would have produced, a stunning 254% development ratio. If you are a linemen offered by Iowa, can you afford to say no? And in the defensive back 7 it can be no surprise that we we see Ohio State and USC in the top 3, each of these programs has done more to earn the title of Linebacker U in recent years than has Penn State, but Iowa as number 2 may surprise even some Iowa fans. As a fan, it's a little too easy to get used to, but it is not normal to see a progression of 2- and 3-star recruits develop into All-Big Ten players in the secondary like we've seen at Iowa. You wonder why keeping Phil Parker was such a priority for Coach Ferentz? Wonder no longer, he's been doing a great job for some time now.

Before we move on, let's also note that the great development schools - Iowa, Cal, USC and Ohio State - are not just specialists in one area. Each of these schools is topping the charts in at least two of the three position groups. It starts at the top. A great head coach can put together a program and a coaching staff that will serve the needs of all the players on the football team, not just those in the positions he is most familiar with. And let's also pause and give Clemson a moment in the sun. Yes, that's right, Clemson, is one of the top 7 developer of talent in all three of the position groups here. I don't claim to understand it (I don't know much about Clemson) but hats off to the Tigers, there has been something right going on over there in Death Valley.

At the end of this article I think it's time to take a step back and think about what we've learned. We've seen that programs, conferences, school location and a player's position all influence the journey of high-school recruits to the NFL. But it's easy to make too much of all this as well. I'm reminded of the recent decision by Des Moines recruit Jake Campos to attend Missouri rather than home-state Iowa (he clearly didn't get my page). And if we think that getting to the NFL is the only thing that matters then his decision seems crazy: Iowa is the best player development school in the country (check), by attending Iowa Mr. Campos would stay closer to home (double check), and Iowa particularly excels at developing players at Mr. Campos' position of offensive line (triple check!). But we can't forget the second lesson from all of this: High school recruits are probably not going to play in the NFL. The NFL is a dream, and one that is certainly achievable by some BCS-level recruits, but it cannot be counted on. It's completely appropriate for NFL aspirations, if a recruit has them, to play a role in choosing a college, but they shouldn't be the only thing. Even in college football, the most monetized and publicized amateur sport in the country, the student half of the student-athlete is the part that will matter most to the vast majority who play this game.

Methods: Rivals star rankings were used to rank recruits. Recruits from the 2002-2009 recruting classes were matched against draft results from 2004-present to determine draft status. 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes were not included as most of those recruits are still ineligible to be drafted. The expected number of draft picks for a program was calculated by multiplying the number of 2/3/4/5 star recruits for that program by the BCS average number of draftees per 2/3/4/5 star recruit. The Development Ratio is then simply the actual number of their recruits drafted, divided by this expected number. Statistically significant differences between the Development Ratios of individual programs or conferences and the BCS average are denoted by bolding and/or highlighting in red. Note that only drafted recruits are included in this analysis, so walkons or certain other players who joined the team in an irregular manner are not counted. Recruit locations were determined by geocoding the city/state pairs associated with each recruit in the Rivals database via the USC WebGIS Services. Conference affiliations and BCS membership were assigned as per the 2011 season. This means that Nebraska is in the Big Ten, Utah and Colorado are in the Pac 12, Texas A&M and Missouri are in the Big 12 and Colorado are in the Big 12, West Virginia is in the Big East, and TCU is not part of the BCS.

A version of this article is to appear in the forthcoming book, Sports for Dorks College Football Volume II, edited by Mike Leach and Ferhat Guven.

Unless otherwise expressly indicated by BHGP editors, this FanPost is strictly the viewpoint of the author and is not endorsed by BHGP in any way.

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