Want to Get Drafted in the NFL? Go to Kentucky, Not Alabama!

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In the 2012 NFL draft, the first round selections included multiple players from Alabama, USC, LSU and Notre Dame.  The Crimson Tide had 4 of the first 25 picks!  To hardcore college football fans, these first round draft results are expected since colleges like Alabama and USC are perennial members of the lists of top recruiting classes.

A statistical analysis of draft picks versus college recruiting rankings confirms this simple story.  A regression analysis of the number of picks selected from a given school versus the number of five-star, four-star, and three-star players in the school’s recruiting class reveals a significant positive relationship between the number of players drafted and the number of four and five-star recruits.  The relationship between three-star recruits and draft picks is insignificant.  Specifically, we found that every five-star player signed by a school translates to 0.33 draft picks, and every four-star player translates to approximately 0.09 draft picks.  If we examine only players selected in the first three rounds of the draft, then each five-star recruit produces 0.23 picks and each four-star recruit results in 0.05 picks.

While the preceding results provide evidence that fans should be happy about recruiting victories, the story from the high school recruit’s perspective is far more complex.  That each five-star player only results in 0.33 picks obviously suggests that there is a great deal of error in the rankings.  However, an additional explanation is that a player’s draft outcome may be adversely impacted by joining programs with many other highly rated recruits.

To explain the situation, we performed several additional analyses that examined the conversion rate of college recruits to drafted players.  For these analyses, the measure of interest was the number of NFL draft picks from a school divided by the total number of four and five-star recruits signed by the school.  We then modeled this conversion rate by the number of five, four and three-star players signed by the school.  In this analysis, we found a significant negative relationship between the number of four-star prospects and the draft conversion rate of high ranked prospects.  When we limited the draft picks to only round one or only day one (rounds 1-3), this negative relationship persisted.

To further illustrate this point, let’s examine two schools.  Over the last six NFL drafts, the University of Florida has brought in one hundred four and five-star recruits, and had “only” twenty-nine players drafted.  The average recruiting class rank for the Gators over this period was 6.1.  In contrast, the University of Pittsburgh brought in twenty-five four and five-star prospects but had seventeen draft picks.  Pitt’s average recruiting rank was 32.

The following chart shows the draft pick conversion rate for a variety of schools.  Interestingly, over the last six drafts, the most effective school at converting prospects to picks is the University of Kentucky.  Kentucky actually produced more draft picks than the number of four and five star prospects they recruited.  At the other extreme, Florida State only produced about 0.2 draft picks per elite recruit.

(*Elite = Five and Four Star Recruits)

We also extended the analysis to include other factors that could impact a school’s ability to produce draft worthy players.  Specifically, we examined the influence of the school’s investment in its football program, the team’s winning percentage, whether or not the school played in a major bowl, and each school’s conference affiliation.  Investment may matter because greater resources could translate to improved coaching or strength training programs.  While the latter three factors relate to the publicity players receive at various schools.  The only significant factor from these additional variables was school’s investment in the football program.

The bottom line seems to be that for players with a goal of playing in the NFL, program selection should not be based on the glamour provided by the big time programs such as Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, and USC.  Rather players should seek out opportunities at schools with substantial budgets but lower ranked recruiting classes.  In other words, it’s probably more important to increase your probability of getting on to the field early, rather than maximizing the number of times you play on a big national stage.

To further illustrate the preceding point, in 2009, Alabama had the top rated recruiting class with several four-star high school recruits.  A current examination of these recruits shows that several have left the team, others have red-shirted, and a few are projected as free agents or late-round picks.  One recruit is projected as an early-round pick.  These outcomes could be the result of over-recruiting and the lack of resources for top recruits.

Finally, using first round mock draft data for this year’s draft, we can determine the number of projected first round draft picks per five and four star recruits at a given school.  The chart below highlights some of the schools with projected first round picks this year.  It is interesting to note that schools such as Syracuse and Missouri do a better job with conversion of elite recruits than the football powerhouses of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

(*Elite = Five and Four Star Recruits)

By  Dr. Mike Lewis & Dr. Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013

Methodology for the study explained here.

12 thoughts to “Want to Get Drafted in the NFL? Go to Kentucky, Not Alabama!”

  1. Manish,

    Former Kentucky HC Joker Phillips is now the WR coach and recruiting coordinator for the Gators. Based on that, it is only a matter of time before the Gators elite recruit conversion rate shoots to #1.
    Although this is an analytics based site, I don’t have any data to back this up – I’m just going to need you to trust me on this one.

    Great stuff!


  2. Nice stuff! How come the rates on the y-axis are above 1? I presume the numerator is not conditioned on elite recruits? Do you get the same result if you condition the numerator on elite recruits?

  3. Rich,

    And now Mark Stoops form DC at Florida St. is the HC at Kentucky. So will all the 4* recruits he’s signed/signing now turn into NFL busts? Is it really all on Joker Phillips?

    BTW, Joker is a great recruiter, and a great coordinator. However, the same can be said about Mark Stoops. I think it’s the way UK runs their program, not the coach. Still think they pump guys into the league this year, and going forward. Larry Warford was a 3* recruit who will probably go in the 2nd-3rd round this weekend. UK (not Joker) does a great job of developing talent and getting the most out of their guys. They did it when Rich Brooks was here and will continue to do so.


  4. Doesn’t your analysis stem solely from the fact that teams on the left of your chart (UK, Org St, Ill, Stan) sign much fewer 4* and 5* recruits? It seems intuitive that the powerhouse recruiters (right side of chart) will sign a majority of elite talent. and in a class of 25, a high percentage will be 4-5* kids. If only 22 of 100 or so on a roster can play, you’re just saying that recruits should only go to a school where they will see playing time.

    The percentages are higher for Kentucky because any draft picks from the program will look outstanding considering the fact that 4* and 5* kids rarely signed there under Joker Phillips. Randall Cobb alone probably skews your data, so you might be running into a sample size problem with lower-end programs.

  5. The first chart implies the elite recruits come from the 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 recruiting classes. Is that true? If so, greatly hurts the study and results since the 2011 and 2012 elite recruits can’t go to the NFL yet.

    1. Ron, Thanks for the comment. The first chart should read that the study looks at the 2007-2012 NFL Drafts.

  6. Your chart suggests that Syracuse is unmatched for converting elite recruits into first-round choices. But that conclusion is based on a sample so tiny (32 projected irst round draft choices) that nothing can be deduced from it–except that Syracuse and West Virginia each have two players who are projected to go in the first round.

    For Alabama to tie with Syracuse by your metric, almost half of the 32 first-round picks would have to be Tide players. The Tide would to produce more first round draft choices than they have graduating starters!

  7. Yeah,
    The Randall Cobb effect. Two Start Recruit, 2nd Rd Pick, Big Time NFL Player
    Wesley Woodyard. 3 Start Recruit, NFL FA, Starting LB for Denver Broncos
    Jacob Tamme, 2 to 3 Star Recruit, Starting TE for Denver Broncos

  8. If you are measuring how schools do at turning “elite” recruits into draft picks, why do you include “non-elite” recruits in your analysis. In that scenario, a school with one “elite” recruit, who has two “non-elite” recruits drafted would always rank highly. If you are performing the analysis in this manner, you would always expect schools with less “elite” recruits to perform better if they have any players drafted. Accordingly, you are not measuring what you say that you are measuring. A program can’t measure 1.75:1 for turning elite recruits into draft picks. It can only measure 1:1.

    Looking at Kentucky’s “elite” recruits, they have had 11 from 2004-2009 (Rivals). Of those, only one was drafted (.11), in the third round (Corey Peters).

    Looking at Alabama’s “elite” recruits over the same time period, there were 67 “elite” recruits (62 if you remove those with eligibility remaining), with what will be at least 18 total draft picks by the end of the weekend, the rate is .27, or .29 (removing those with eligibility remaining.)

    Just examining these numbers, it appears that your advice is flawed.

  9. Correction:

    Alabama had 68 “elite” recruits between 2004-2009 according to rivals and at least 19 will be drafted. That leads to a ratio of .28 or .30 if you don’t include those with eligibility remaining.

    As for your last table, according to Rivals

    Missouri has had 17 “elite” recruits from 2004-2009. Three either have or will be drafted in the first round. .18.
    Syracuse has had 8 “elite” recruits from 2004-2009. None have or will be drafted in the first round.
    Alabama has had 68 “elite” recruits from 2004-2009 (63 if you don’t include those with eligibility remaining.) 12 have been or will be drafted in the first round by the end of the weekend. .18 or .19 depending on how you calculate it.

    It seems as if the last table was put in to be misleading.

  10. Rich – while I like your thinking, unfortunately Joker never got through a full recruiting cycle as he was only the coach for 3 seasons. With this year being the first year his recruits are eligible for the draft. Those statistics are the work of Rich Brooks at the helm – which happens to be similar to his success at Oregon.

    I am a UK and Joker fan, but he just is not a great head coach. Don’t get me wrong, he did a good bit of the recruiting of those players, but Brooks took them the extra mile.

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