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The Big 12 and the NFL draft

Why did the Big 12 produce so few players for the 2017 NFL Draft?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Patrick Mahomes Press Conference Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a great paradox that one of the more passing oriented leagues in the nation should be doing so poorly at producing prospects for another passing oriented league.

The Big 12 has been slipping in the NFL draft for a few years now and the 2017 results are simply an exclamation point on something that’s been happening in the league for much of this decade. For many pundits, this is simply a consequence of the Big 12’s style of play, but this take doesn’t make a great deal of sense in light of something like the Ohio State Buckeyes seeing high draft rates every year despite relying heavily on the option. Nor in light of the NFL’s increasing emphasis on the spread passing game.

There are ways in which the spread offenses in the Big 12 don’t fully prepare players for the NFL, just as there are ways in which every other college offense doesn’t prepare players for the NFL. The orientation around throwing the ball around is probably not one of the bigger issues confronting the league.

There are several other points of context wrapped up in this issue that are not all getting enough attention in explaining this result.

The 2017 results

The Big 12 had 14 players selected in this draft, mostly in the later rounds.

One obvious and noteworthy aspect of the B12’s showing in the draft is that if they produced anything it was offensive skill players. Half of the players selected were offensive skill players while guys like DEs Jordan Willis and Josh Carraway, CB Rasul Douglas, and LBs Jordan Evans and Elijah Lee were all appealing largely for their ability to cover in space or rush the passer.

A league where players have to learn to play matchup zone or man coverage and rush the passer to see the field should be (and is) a good place to find players that can adjust to the NFL’s ability to threaten every part of the field with precise passing.

Where the Big 12 had a real dearth of talent was at QB, the secondary, and especially along the lines. That the league where games are determined out wide should lack top prospects in the trenches is not shocking.

An issue of recruiting range

SB Nation’s own Alex Kirshner already noted that the Big 12 recruiting rankings over the last several years have slipped, making their lack of bluechip NFL prospects an expected outcome rather than a shock.

This definitely gets at part of the issue, and you’ll notice that of the two recruiting heavyweights in the conference Oklahoma and Texas, Oklahoma had a reasonably solid draft with four players selected while Texas continued its deep survey of the proverbial wilderness that Tom Herman was just hired to lead them out of.

Kirshner pointed out a particularly interesting and damning stat, that the AAC had 15 players drafted to the Big 12’s 14. Now by recruiting class rankings the AAC should be well behind the Big 12, but it has to be noted that A) The AAC has 12 teams while the Big 12 has 10 and B) The AAC has a much larger and better recruiting turf to glean from than does the Big 12.

The Big 12 relies VERY heavily on Texas for its supply of players. Of the 39.5 million people who live in Big 12 states, 27.8 million live in Texas (about 70%) and 12.7 million live in either the Dallas-Ft. Worth or Houston metroplexes (30% of the population).

At this point “the little 10” would be a more apt moniker for the league than “the Big 12,” and it should be no surprise that the league isn’t punching at the same weight as other leagues in terms of recruiting. Here’s the last five years of recruiting in the Big 12 at a glance, courtesy of 247 composite rankings.

From this view the whole issue has to be examined as largely just a “Texas problem.” The Longhorns have snatched up many of the top prospects in the state of Texas this decade, though perhaps not the share they would have taken had they been winning, but then failed to develop those prospects to a level that would draw interest from the NFL (hence the lack of winning in Austin).

The rest of the league (save for Oklahoma, which incidentally hasn’t failed to put players in the NFL in this decade) is doing reasonably well from year to year at finding NFL-caliber talents from amidst the pool of players that are available for non blue-chip programs to sign.

Also noteworthy, there were four Texans drafted in the first round in 2017 and one played for Texas A&M (Myles Garrett), another Stanford (Solomon Thomas), another for LSU (Jamal Adams), and then there was Patrick Mahomes from Texas Tech. The former three were all top rated recruits that chose to go to bluechip programs outside of the Big 12. Mahomes is indicative of a big factor in why the Big 12 plays the style that it does. You don’t need as large a population base to produce lots of good skill players, particularly if the main state is a factory for guys developed to play in the spread.

The fact that the Big 12 often loses some of the better players on its own turf to bigger, out of state programs leads us to our next contextual point...

A lack of blue blood resources

The big question looming over the whole debate of whether the Big 12 has a draft problem is how many players the league would have had drafted if we added back in Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas A&M then subtracted the draftees from TCU and West Virginia?

The answer is 22. That would still lag behind the Big 10 (35) and the other power five programs but it’d put the AAC safely in the rearview mirror. Combine that with a no longer inept Texas and you’re getting back in the conversation amongst the stronger conferences nationally.

Nebraska and Missouri only had one player drafted each but Texas A&M and Colorado combined to put nine players in the NFL. The Aggies recruited well within the state of Texas this decade while Colorado finally tasted the fruit of recruiting California (and they’re now working their way back into Texas as well).

Most of the Big 12 suffers from the fact that they not only have to recruit players from the backyards of other big programs, but that they can’t match the resources of programs. While the AAC is trying to steal a couple of local kids away from pillagers from places like Nebraska or Colorado, a school like Kansas is trying to go into AAC turf and beat out both the local program AND the other out of state powers.

While the other power five conferences have expanded the Big 12 has gone the opposite direction, so it’s little wonder that the number of NFL draft prospects playing in the league is decreased.

A stylistic issue?

Common knocks on the spread offenses in the Big 12 are that they don’t teach NFL progressions to the QBs, the receivers don’t learn the route tree the same way, linemen don’t learn to work out of a three point stance (hand in the dirt), and consequently the defenses don’t feature big, physical run-stoppers.

There are big differences between how Big 12 QBs attack the field and some differences in how receivers run routes, but these problems are pretty universal across college football. Even many of the “pro-style” offenses in college ball are hardly preparing their QBs for the overload of information and reads they’ll be asked to sort through at the next level.

The Big 12’s struggle to field top DL is more of an issue of a small recruiting base than the style of the league, imo, and the fact that it has to find athletes on defense that can cover ground is probably beneficial in producing NFL prospects like Jordan Evans who was a converted safety.

The issue with linemen is a real one, but again one that other leagues’ players have to overcome.

The correction year

Finally, it would be dumb to examine the Big 12’s issue of weak drafting without noting that there’s a veritable dam waiting to burst and flood the 2018 draft class with NFL prospects from the league.

Starting at Oklahoma, the Sooners were able to retain top CB Jordan Thomas for his senior year as well as SS Steven Parker from their secondary. Additionally they’ll have pass-rushing OLB Obo Okoronkwo, massive LT Orlando Brown, flex TE Mark Andrews, and perhaps QB Baker Mayfield as possible submissions to the NFL.

Texas’ loaded 2015 recruiting class is entering year three in 2017 and will have CBs Holton Hill, Davante Davis, and Kris Boyd as potential draft selections along with LB Malik Jefferson, and LT Connor Williams (likely first rounder), as eligible prospects.

At Oklahoma State the star QB/WR tandem of Mason Rudolph and James Washington returned for their senior seasons and were joined by big Cal LT Aaron Cochran. At West Virginia QB Will Grier will be looking to put on an audition for the NFL along with DBs Kyzir White and Dravon Askew-Henry. TCU has a new generation of defenders that will be draft eligible with S Nick Orr highlighting the bunch, Iowa State is featuring big athletes in WR Allen Lazard and S Kamari Cotton-Moya. Even Kansas has DE Dorance Armstrong, back from a 10-sack season in 2016 and playing his third year in Lawrence.

It’s not hard to see the Big 12 boosting their number of drafted players by 150% or more in 2018 and getting a lot of that represented in the early rounds. Most of the best players from 2016 in the Big 12 are back for an encore in 2017. The league has problems with population size, resources, and the condition of their top program, but a measured look at the state of the league says some of the uproar is a tad overblown.