The NFL Draft begins with all of its pomp and circumstance on Thursday night, and confession: I am a draft nerd and enjoy reading second level evaluations disseminated by the prolific “mock draft” industry. Like many, I hope to see my chosen team bolster their roster. In an ideal world, my team will draft players I am familiar with and have been rooting for during their college career.
In recent years I have been disappointed with the Big 12 presence in the draft. It isn’t difficult to find articles discussing the lack of NFL talent playing in the conference. The SEC is lauded for its prolific infusion of talent while the Big 12 is panned.
This year, the NFL Combine invited 330 players to participate. Of those, only 19 participants were invited from the ten Big 12 schools. That is a surprisingly low number for a Power 5 conference.
I believe the Big 12 is a better conference than it is given credit for. I don’t believe the conference is overlooked, per se, but it is in danger of being so.
A large part of the perception is, perhaps wrongly, pegged to how many NFL players the conference produces. The dwindling number of Big 12 players regarded as NFL prospects is a handicap in recruiting which is the lifeblood of building a solid top to bottom conference.
SEC schools get to tout their individual numbers, but of equal importance is the fact that the conference puts more than 50 players a year in to the NFL. This adds to the panache of the chant –“S-E-C.”
The Big 12 will not challenge the SEC in the near future unless the NFL begins to play a style of football more in line with the Big 12 style of play. A noteworthy point that I believe will gradually become the case. At present, however, the SEC plays NFL type football and therefore produces players that are adept at the appropriate skill sets.
The Big 12, as a whole, plays a style of football that does not easily translate to the NFL game. Evidence is gathered at the quarterback position and the struggle that Big 12 quarterbacks have had transitioning to NFL offenses (Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, Bryce Petty, and even Sam Bradford). The challenge for Big 12 teams is to develop talent with more NFL type skill sets through adjusting their scheme or recruiting more dominant athletes that must be evaluated. The latter is the more likely path.
So, where does the conference stand with regard to NFL talent and can it improve in the near future?
How do they stack up?
In the last 5 years, the Big 12 has had the following number of players drafted:
(does not include undrafted free agents that sign post draft)
2012 – 25
2013 – 22
2014 – 17
2015 – 26
2016 – 26
Oklahoma leads all Big 12 teams with 28 draftees over that span. Second is Baylor with 19 followed by West Virginia with 17. Surprisingly, Texas has only produced 12 draftees during this period. Also, Oklahoma State has only produced 7 draftees even though they have been a contender in the conference for the entire period.
Based on 2016 NFL rosters, the Big 12 ranked sixth in players occupying roster spots with 134 (includes drafted and undrafted players). The other Power 5 conferences occupy spaces 1-4 (the SEC leads with 315) and fifth is FCS as a whole with 146. I find that to be a startling number. The Big 12 will have fewer players due to the fact that there are four less schools in the conference than each of their Power 5 brethren, but one would think that the Big 12 would produce more talent than the FCS level.
The 2017 draft should see between 20 and 25 Big 12 players drafted. This is consistent with the last five years. Prospect lists for 2018 include only 15-20 players, however, additional prospects will emerge to bring the conference to roughly the same level.
The target for the Big 12 should be to produce between 28 and 35 NFL draftees each year. The 2016 draft had 51 players taken from the SEC and 47 from the Big 10. The Big 12’s 26 tied the ACC and was only 6 behind the Pac 12. If the Big 12 is able to develop enough talent to move to a consistent 30 to 35 players, then the conference profile will become far more attractive to high level recruits.
Will the Big 12 produce more NFL players?
A contributing factor in attracting the eye of NFL scouts is the success of high round talent at high-profile positions. Quarterbacks, running backs, and dominant defenses create opportunities for the overall talent to be evaluated and for production to be given an upgrade.
The flameout’s of Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden as first round picks creates a league wide stigma. However, the conference may have the most talent it has ever had at the quarterback position in 2017.
Defense has not been a major priority at most institutions, but I believe that has changed, or is changing. West Virginia and Kansas State will field stout units with a track record of success. Oklahoma regressed last year, but played better at the end of the season. The switch to the 4-3 will benefit them this year. TCU has a defensive mastermind as a head coach and I do not expect last year’s inconsistency to persist. Finally, Texas has significant talent on the defensive side of the ball and if they can correct the lapses in the defensive backfield, they will be much improved.
A resurgence in defensive football in the face of brilliant offenses will certainly cause the NFL to take notice.
Overall, I believe the future of the conference’s ability to increase its NFL pipeline to be bright.
- There are five current QBs with NFL potential — Mason Rudolph, Baker Mayfield, Shane Buechele, Will Grier, and Jacob Park. If any of these signal callers can make the transition and become starters in the NFL, the opportunity to recruit and develop additional talented QB’s will increase.
- Tom Herman will develop and recruit NFL talent back to Texas. It is a bit of a leap to anoint Herman as the savior at Texas, but I believe his style of play and the athletes he targeted at Houston to be compatible with NFL standards. Texas should be producing draftees in numbers consistent with Oklahoma and I believe they will in the near future.
- Matt Campbell will produce NFL players at Iowa State (4 draftees in the last 5 years). Next year, Iowa State will have at least two draftable players in Allen Lazard and tackle Jake Campos. His upgrades in recruiting and his staff’s reputation as developers of offensive lineman will raise the Cyclones from a non-contributor to one or two a year. There are 2 definite and 3 additional prospects in this year’s draft pool from his days at Toledo.
- Matt Rhule is bringing an NFL style approach to Baylor. After a brief setback, I expect Baylor to continue to attract solid talent and Rhule to develop that talent and maintain Baylor’s ability to provide 3 to 6 draftees per year. His Temple team will produce 3 to 5 draftees this year including a likely top 15 player.
- Oklahoma State (only 7 draftees in the last 5 years) is stocked with NFL potential at the skill positions. I expect that trend to continue. Over the next few years Oklahoma State should produce 3 to 4 draftees and some high picks in the process.
- 8 of the 10 teams in the conference have defensive backs that have NFL potential.
- Top Big 12 talent will share the big stage against the Pac 12, ACC, and Big 10 early in 2017. Reputations are built in these games and they provide film for scouts against other highly regarded prospects. A solid showing for the conference will result in more players being given prospect status.
Based on the above, I expect the Big 12 to increase its NFL talent pool significantly in the next few years. High profile success from the top talent will bolster recruiting and we should see a corresponding jump in the rankings.
If Iowa State adds a draftee or 2, Oklahoma State begins producing 3 to 5 prospects per year, Baylor maintains its current pace of 3 to 6 per year, and Texas returns to producing 4 to 6 per year, then the Big 12 will easily attain the desired 30 to 35 draftees per year.
The collective goal of the Big 12 should be to win national championships. The league is ultra competitive and the elements are in place to raise the level of competitiveness to a level that competes with the other Power 5 conferences. There are many factors that go in to raising the reputation of the conference, but a sure way to do so is to move its top players on to successful NFL careers.
2018 and beyond should begin a resurgence in the number of NFL prospects produced by the Big 12. The infusion of developmental coaches, new systems, and increased talent throughout the league will allow us to continue to cheer for our favorite players on Sundays…and Thursdays….and Mondays.