2013 NFL Draft Preview: Talent, No Matter the Conference

by Mike Watts
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Scott Cawley :: Flickr

Scouts can see through conference affiliation to find future Pro Bowlers in the first round selections.

WFUV Sports will provide live coverage from historic Radio City Music Hall for the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft featuring draftee interviews, live updates from Jets and Giants camp, analysis from local and national writers across the country and pick by pick analysis.  Each day this week, we will provide an in depth look at the draft, from the fan experience to local draft previews. Check in each day for a new prespective, and be sure to tune in live to One on One's NFL Friday: NFL Draft Edition on Thursday, April 25, 2013.  Today, Mike Watts tries to find the correlation between first round selections, their level of collegiate competition, and their likelihood of reaching the probowl.

Scouts have plenty of ways to judge talent.  There are countless drills to try and judge athleticism off the field and various ways to judge intelligence in the classroom.  Pundits say that game film doesn’t lie, but with the widening gap between conferences it’s tough to tell how to judge players’ pro potential.  It’s up to coaching staffs and general managers to make choices about prospects. With first round picks being such a valuable commodity, the importance of a pick can make or break the future of a franchise and its management.  So how successful are scouts in deciphering the talent level of players coming out of various conferences?

For the sake of finding out which conference has been most successful in placing talent in the NFL, I looked back at the past few drafts.  Since 2006, there have been 223 first round selections (the Patriots lost a first rounder as a sanction for the “spy gate” scandal) and 68 of those players have been voted into the Pro Bowl.  The Pro Bowl is just one objective way to decide whether or not a player has been greatly successful in their time in the league.  Success isn’t solely defined by a Pro Bowl appearance and it’s too early for many players in these draft classes to reach their full potential, but it’s one way to make early judgments.

Not all conferences are created equal.  There’s no better proof of that than the SEC.  It’s hard to argue that the Southeastern Conference isn’t the best college football conference in the country right now.  The last six BCS National Championships were won by SEC schools.  A conference known for producing hard hitting defensive players and speedy offense players, plenty of players were SEC stars before playing on Sundays.  Of the four conferences that have placed more than 30 players in the first round of the NFL draft in the past six seasons, the SEC has the highest number of first rounders who end up in a Probowl (as defined by making at least one Pro Bowl) by producing 15 Pro Bowlers among 55 selections.  The Pac12, Big 12, Big East and the ACC provide a better success rate, though, with all three conferences moving more than 30% of their first round selections into the Probowl.

Automatic Bid conferences, the six big conferences, have had a fairly good success rate in the past six years.  The SEC, Big 12, Big 10, ACC, Big East and Pac 12 have had 204 athletes placed in the first round of the draft in that span.  Of the 204 players drafted in the first round from the six big conferences, 62 have made a Pro Bowl, good for 30.39% (full statistics can be seen below).

The success of other conferences was impressive as well.  Various conferences have had first round picks from their ranks the past six years.  Seven non-Automatic Bid conferences have been represented in the first round, and from those conferences a staggering 31.58% of players selected (6 of 19) have made the Pro Bowl the past seven seasons.  In the least publicized conferences, scouts have been able to select a great percentage of Pro Bowl players, albeit in a small sample size.

So the question that fans are asking is: between combines, pro days, the games we watched in college, wonderlic tests and private workouts, how can a front office make the right first round choice? There are numerous factors involved, but I go back to the earlier statement that “film doesn’t lie”.  As coaches pour over film, certain aspects of game tape are ignored while others items are viewed dozens of times.

The SEC plays a little bit faster than other conferences, but the ability to catch a ball over the middle doesn’t change for a wide receiver no matter who he plays.  Offensive lineman must prove that they can handle all kinds of attacks from the defensive front, no matter the opponent.  Does a cornerback read the quarterback and can he work well in a zone coverage scheme?  How about the linebacker’s instincts on running plays? Does a running back hold on to the ball after a big hit or read his blocks well (does he run a man or zone running scheme)? Some parts of the game don’t change, no matter the conference affiliation. A good scout can see some of the important aspects of a first round prospect.

Scouts have figured out how to balance the value of game actions against various levels of collegiate competition with the forty yard dash and the knowledge shown off the field.  All of these factors are playing into an impressive success rate for first rounders and the scouts that are commissioned to find them.

Mike Watts covers the MLS (Red Bulls), NHL (Rangers) and NFL (NFL Friday) for WFUV Sports.

WFUV Sports 2013 NFL Draft Coverage:
Monday: Mack Rosenberg shared the NFL Draft Experience as a reporter and a fan.
Today: Mike Watts studies the effect conferences have on draft stock, and how players fare when they start playing.
Tomorrow: Nick Logerfo previews a collegiate player in the upcoming draft.
Thursday: Kenny Ducey explores the draft needs of the Giants and Jets.
Thursday Night: Draft night. Listen live here.

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