The NFL draft is that special time of the year when fans who may not follow college football spend months feverishly speculating, arguing and fretting about one all-important question: Which college football player will my team select in the first round? But recently, this question has become even more specific: Which former Alabama player will my team select in the first round?
In case you’re currently living on the moon, Alabama rules college football. Since he took the reins of the Crimson Tide in 2007, Nick Saban has led the team to six national titles and an almost obnoxious 170-23 record.1 Saban’s players have dominated the top of the draft, too. Since 2008, the draft after Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa, 33 Alabama players have been selected in the first round, which is 12 more than the team with the second most (Ohio State) and roughly 8 percent of the total number taken.
This has been trending upward. Fifteen Bama players have been taken in the first round in the past four years, with no fewer than three in any one year. And now, fresh off another national title in January, Alabama can make history. On Thursday, it’s possible that as many as eight Alabama players will hear their names called by Roger Goodell. Even if it’s fewer than that, Alabama has a good shot to tie or break the record set by Miami in 2004, when the Hurricanes had six players go in the first round — led by the late Sean Taylor, who was taken fifth overall by Washington.2
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Mocking drafts is far from an exact science, but the wisdom of the masses can offer some insight. The website NFL Mock Draft Database, which aggregates more than 1,000 mock drafts from a wide range of outlets, currently has six Alabama players among the top 32 of its consensus big board. Grinding the Mocks, another site that uses crowdsourcing and data science to predict the draft, has six as well. Four of these Bama players are virtual locks to go Thursday: quarterback Mac Jones,3 cornerback Patrick Surtain II and wideouts Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. Running back Najee Harris and defensive tackle Christian Barmore appear in the back half of the first round on both aggregators’ sites. Two more players, offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson, are just outside the top 32 on both sites and could easily find their way into the first round.
Record-breaking or not, the draft show will feature a whole lot of Alabama highlights and clip reels, even more than usual. But the bigger question remains: Do Saban players usually work out on the next level? To test this question, we can use Approximate Value (AV), a metric from Pro-Football-Reference.com that attempts to put a single number on an NFL player’s production regardless of position (akin to baseball’s wins above replacement). It’s almost impossible to compare the production of, say, a strong safety to that of a quarterback, so AV is not perfect by any means, but it can give us a rough idea of how well players perform.
Looking at the NFL production of first-round picks in the Saban era, Alabama is among the top football factories in the country. Of the 20 schools that have sent at least seven players to the first round since 2008, Alabama ranks seventh in AV per first-round pick per year in the league. The Crimson Tide’s production ranks ahead of fellow blue blood programs like Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and USC but behind SEC West rival LSU.
Bama’s first-rounders have delivered as pros
Schools with at least seven total selections in the NFL draft’s first round since 2008, by Approximate Value (AV) per draftee per years in the league
|School||Picks||Avg. AV/year||Best Player||AV/year|
|Texas A&M||9||7.62||Von Miller||13.33|
|Notre Dame||9||7.55||Quenton Nelson||15.00|
|Florida St.||11||5.86||Jalen Ramsey||12.60|
|Ohio St.||21||5.69||Chase Young||14.00|
|North Carolina||8||5.03||Mitchell Trubisky||8.75|
Alabama’s former wide receivers have been a big boost to its overall resume: Julio Jones (11.9 AV per year) and Calvin Ridley (8.3) of the Atlanta Falcons and Amari Cooper (8.5) of the Dallas Cowboys are among the top seven Bama products in this time frame.4 Last year’s first-round Alabama receivers — Jerry Jeudy (6 AV) of the Broncos and Henry Ruggs III (4) of the Raiders — had relatively quiet, if not disappointing, starts to their careers. But there’s time for them to turn things around, and the track record of receivers from their school is in their favor, as it is for Waddle and the Heisman Trophy-winning Smith.
Wisconsin’s place atop this list is perhaps a bit surprising considering it doesn’t even include Russell Wilson, who was taken by the Seahawks in the third round in 2012. But the Badgers benefit from being the NFL’s most reliable source of brute force in the trenches. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk of the Saints has averaged 13.8 AV per year over his four seasons, while the Watt brothers — T.J. and J.J. — are both having stellar defensive careers, at 12.5 and 11.7 AV per year respectively.
Missouri has the worst track record in this sample, thanks in large part to Blaine Gabbert’s inherent Blaine Gabbertness (2 AV per year), but there are no Missouri players projected for the first round this year, so teams shouldn’t worry. And the Tigers have had only half the opportunities to generate high-profile busts as the team closest to them at the bottom: Among the 16 former Florida Gators taken in the first round, only four have averaged at least 6 AV per year.5 The Gator busts, meanwhile, have been numerous — the most high-profile among them being former Denver Broncos’ bad decision turned New York Mets minor league outfielder Tim Tebow.
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There’s no denying that Alabama has also had its fair share of busts. Perhaps the most notable was running back Trent Richardson, who was taken third overall, ran for only 2,032 yards in just three seasons in the league and almost single-handedly taught teams not to take running backs third overall. The prize for biggest Alabama letdown, though, goes to cornerback Dee Milliner, who was taken ninth overall in the hopes that he would become a shutdown corner for years — with a draft projection and player profile that’s very similar to Surtain’s. Milliner accrued just 6 AV over 21 games in three injury-riddled seasons
Expectations are high for the Bama players waiting to hear their names today, and they’ll all face some degree of pressure to make good on their first-round promise. Waddle and Smith will hope to live up to the stellar careers of Jones, Ridley and Cooper; Surtain will be working to avoid Milliner’s fate. But there’s good news for Surtain, at least: Unlike Milliner, he won’t be taken by the Jets.
Neil Paine contributed research.