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.