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Drafting the PAC

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Which teams have produced the most pros in the Pac-12 era?

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Darnold or Rosen? Are the Browns cursed? Is Josh Allen tall?

With the 2018 NFL Draft around the corner, it feels like a good time to dig into the Pac-12 in the draft. I decided that the 7,000 mock drafts available online were just enough to saturate the market and I would have to go in a different direction. Instead, I looked backwards at which schools in the conference have sent the most players to the pro ranks.

I have always found the relationship between NFL success and college fandom interesting. Certainly, UW football fans would rather see their players do well on Sundays than not make it at all. That type of success brings positive attention to the program and raises its overall profile. It’s also better to have players going in early rounds of the draft because it means that your school has produced successful players.

On the other hand, high draft picks don’t necessarily mean collegiate success. Husky fans fondly look back to the 2015 draft, which included first rounders Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters, and Shaq Thompson, as well as Hau’oli Kikaha in the second. In spite of all that defensive talent, the team ranked 97th in total defense and failed to beat a Power 5 Conference opponent with a winning record.

While not every NFL team subscribes to the “best player available” philosophy in the draft, talent generally wins out. Since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 in 2011, the conference has produced 28 players selected in the first round of the draft. Of those 28, seven players were originally rated as five-star recruits and 21/28 were blue chip (four or five-star) recruits. Needless to say, those rates blow the blue chip rates for incoming classes out of the water.

These stats got me wondering just how closely NFL draft production tracked with college success over the same timeframe. I compiled a list of all 197 players that have been drafted out of the conference since the 2012 NFL draft that followed the 2011 season.

Top Schools in the Draft

Going into this study, I had the expectation that I’m sure most readers will share- that USC would dominate any category for NFL success in the conference. In a previous article, I noted that even in their down years, USC always had the most talented rosters in the conference by star ratings, so that talent would presumably carry over into the draft as well. Surprisingly, USC is not the conference king of draft picks.

While it’s close, Stanford comes in as the overall leader in NFL draft picks with 26. USC mirrors cross-town rival UCLA with 25 apiece. It’s not shocking that UCLA ranks in the top three due to the strong talent base in southern California. The more surprising fact is that the team has not had much success over a the last decade while they recruited well and produced lots of pro talent.

The Huskies rank near the middle of the pack with 16 draft picks. Considering how weak the team was coming into the decade, they had lots of ground to make up and have done a good job to close in on teams like Oregon and California. NFL teams drafted only five Huskies from 2012-2014 and the other 11 have made the draft in the last three years. Like Stanford, Utah stands out as a team that has quietly produced a large number of very good players without gaining a reputation as a pro factory.

The three schools at the bottom of the rankings do not come as a surprise. Colorado (9), Arizona (8), and Washington State (6) are the only schools with single-digit draft picks in that timeframe. As much as it pains me to admit it, Mike Leach has done an amazing job to build a competitive team with second-rate talent. If the slightly positive upward trend in their recruiting continues, they will not remain on the bottom of the list.

So Stanford edged out USC and UCLA for the most draft picks, but what about top-end talent? Which school produced the most first-rounders? The home of the true blue bloods with the optimal pedigree has to be USC, right?

Wrong again. Just like they did in overall draft picks, Stanford came out on top of the pile for first-rounders with six. Andrew Luck is the headliner of the group and one of two Pac-12 top overall picks in the last six years (Jared Goff was the other). Stanford also produced three first-round offensive linemen: David DeCastro, Andrus Peat, and Josh Garnett. Top-10 picks Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey joined that group in last year’s draft to put Stanford ahead of the pack. This group gives Stanford as many first-round picks as Washington State has produced total draft picks in the same period of time.

While the Huskies muddled in the middle of the conference in total draftees, they tied for second in first-round selections. In addition to the defensive trio I mentioned earlier, Desmond Trufant went to the Atlanta Falcons in 2013. John Ross completes the group as the only offensive player and the only top-10 pick. If you’re wondering, Jake Locker was drafted in 2011, following the last season before Utah and Colorado joined the conference.

USC and UCLA backed up their overall draft ranking with five first-rounders each. The highest USC pick was Matt Kalil in 2012 while UCLA’s only top-10 pick was Kalil’s NFL teammate Anthony Barr in 2014. Both went on to make the Pro Bowl.

Four schools have only sent one player to the first round of the draft. The aforementioned Goff was Cal’s only first round selection, but he made it count as the top overall pick and a Pro Bowler in his second season as a pro. The Packers took Arizona State’s Demarious Randall 30th in the 2015 draft to allow the Sun Devils to sneak onto this list. Randall is the only unrated prospect from the Pac-12 to go in the first round in the the last six years. He is an interesting player because he played JuCo baseball for a year, then JuCo football for a year before getting to ASU. Deone Bucannon and Brandin Cooks save Washington State and Oregon State, respectively, from sharing ignominy with Arizona and Colorado.

First-round selections help us understand who produced the very top-end talent, but it’s an incomplete measure because so few players make it to that echelon. To measure overall draft contributions weighted by position, I scored the draft results using a simple formula. Each first-round pick counts for seven points, second-rounders for six, and all the way down to one point for a seventh-round pick. You’ll never guess which school came out on top of that ranking.

Okay, at this point, you probably could have guessed that it would be Stanford. With 124 draft points, they led all schools in overall draft contributions. USC put some distance between itself and UCLA for second. UW’s top-heavy drafts tied the Huskies with Oregon for fourth. Once again, rounding out the bottom of the rankings, Washington State and Arizona tied at the bottom with 21 total points. Seven single-season clases have outpaced the overall draft output for either of those schools.

Best Draft Classes

The draft point score tool gave me an easy way to rate individual classes. The aforementioned Huskies class with three first-rounders stood out as an outstanding group, but with only four total players selected, where would that rank against other elite groups?

Stanford has stood out throughout this study and there’s no reason to stop now. The Cardinal produced the top draft class in Pac-12 history in 2015 with six total players and 31 draft points. Andrus Peat was the only first rounder, but Jason Richards went in the second, and Alex Carter, Henry Anderson, and Ty Montgomery all went in the third. David Parry rounded out the group in the fifth round. Peat and Montgomery were the only offensive players on that list, and the lack of a productive QB left them with a pedestrian 8-5 record in spite of the high-end talent. While not on the same level, Stanford finished their 11-2, #7 ranked 2011 with Luck, DeCastro and second-rounders Coby Fleener and Jonathan Martin for 28 draft ponts.

The less anticipated standout was last year’s Utah draft class. First-rounder Garrett Bolles and second-rounder Marcus Williams led eight total players who combined for 30 draft points, a single point behind Stanford’s leading score. An astounding four Utes offensive linemen went in that draft. That team managed only a 5-4 record in conference play.

UW’s 2017 draft didn’t have the first-round heft of the 2015 draft, but it tied in overall points with 27. Ross went in the first round ahead of the ballyhooed secondary class of Kevin King, Budda Baker, and Sidney Jones. Although Elijah Qualls probably wished to go higher than the 6th round, it was enough to bring UW’s 2017 group even with the 2015 group.

The only school to match Utah’s eight drafted players in 2017 was UCLA in 2016. The Bruins only combined for 25 points in that group. Nonetheless, Kenny Clark and Myles Jack headlined as first- and second-rounders. They filled out the draft with three fifth-rounders and three seventh-rounders.

Conclusions

I mentioned in the introduction that there seems to be a curious relationship between team success and draft status. While you might expect to see the top teams send the most players to the NFL, that is not always the case. Stanford has been among the Pac-12 elite over the last decade, and that success has translated into a large number of players drafted to the NFL.

On the other hand, Oregon has been about as good as Stanford over that period of time, but they are squarely in the middle of the conference in NFL draft output. Part of the difference is Oregon’s style of play--the up-tempo, no-huddle offense is generally considered less “pro-style” than Stanford’s QB-under-center approach. Still, plenty of Oregon offensive players have gone to the NFL, both on the line and at skill positions.

One of the strangest phenomena is the fact that several of the best draft classes came from teams that finished in the middle of the standings that year. Stanford has had many great seasons and great players since 2011, but somehow the very best draft class came from a mediocre season. Likewise, the deep 2017 Utah draft class produced only a 5-4 record in the Pac-12 and a trip to the prestigious Foster Farms Bowl.

In the end, a lot goes into a successful college football season. Talent is a must, but the coaching staff has to develop that talent to play as a team and prepare them for individual opponents. Moreover, the elements that make a player a pro prospect are not always the same traits that translate into collegiate wins. It’s great to have alumni in the pros, but it is probably more of an entertaining frivolity than a material barometer of program success.