Alabama is expected to have five players go in the first round of the Draft next week ▬ Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson and Courtney Upshaw. If the predictions prove true, the Crimson Tide will take second place in NFL draft history for first-rounders taken in the same Draft. Miami currently holds the record with six first-rounders in 2004. Alabama would also become tops in the SEC, after tying for the lead in 2011 with four first-rounders.
Jim McElwain, head coach at Colorado State University and former Bama offensive coordinator, is working to mold his football program into a successful pipeline to the NFL as well. And he is finally able to give insight into The Process under Nick Saban.
"The opportunity to play at the next level, that's everybody's dream. [T]here is a skill set there to get invited to the Combine, to get drafted into the National Football League, to be part of an NFL program. And that is a skill set we're looking to find as coaches as well."
Seems straightforward enough, no surprises there. We already knew Saban (and his coaching tree) evaluates high school recruits based on prototypical measurables position by position.
Ah, but then McElwain gives us the twist ▬ lower round guys that make it in the NFL are the real success.
“Our responsibility is to develop these guys for the rest of their lives by what we do academically, what we do spiritually, what we do psychologically. And if they desire a chance to play in the National Football League, it's our responsibility to put them in a system that's going to help them succeed. ... The guys at the top of the draft, it doesn't matter what system they were in. It's the back end, the later rounds, the (undrafted) free agents. Those guys might be the (best) measure of your developmental skills. Teams see them on film and see how what you do has a chance to translate to the NFL.”
McElwain says "the whole package" matters to him and to Saban. Well-rounded players will be more attractive to NFL teams, and a college degree will stand any player in good stead for the rest of his life.
The Process is working. The Tide leads the SEC in Academic Honor Roll placement and ranks fifth nationally in BCS academics. In addition to winning national championships on the collegiate level, each year brings more success on NFL draft day ▬ including more players drafted in the lower rounds. Players who otherwise might not have been drafted at all if it weren’t for their successful development at Bama.
- In 2008, zero Alabama players drafted, the first draft following Nick Saban’s inaugural season in Tuscaloosa. However, the Tide had four undrafted free agents who went on to play at least a couple of years in the NFL. DE Wallace Gilberry remains active.
- In 2009, four Alabama players drafted. All were drafted third round or higher with only one first-round pick in OT Andre Smith.
- In 2010, six Alabama players drafted, two in the first round, two in the second round, and two in the seventh round – DE Brandon Deaderick and DB Marquis Johnson. Deaderick found himself starting in the Super Bowl after only his second season.
- In 2011, five Alabama players drafted, four in the first round and QB Greg McElroy in the seventh round. Plus undrafted free agent LB Chavis Williams was picked up by the Ravens and re-signed for 2012.
In 2012, seventeen Alabama players have a realistic opportunity to be drafted or picked up as undrafted free agents ▬ the five predicted first-rounders, John Michael Boswell (FA), Josh Chapman (3-4 Rd), Nick Gentry (FA), Darius Hanks (FA), Jerrell Harris (FA), Phelon Jones (FA), Alfred McCullough (FA), Marquis Maze (7 Rd), DeQuan Menzie (4-5 Rd), Brad Smelley (6 Rd), William Vlachos (FA), and Alex Watkins (FA).
What McElwain is really saying about Saban’s system is that when an average player reaches the end of his eligibility, he is more likely to get a shot in the NFL because Alabama has equipped its athletes with the tools to succeed. Then he is more likely to capitalize on his opportunity in the NFL because he is able to put all that development into practice.
Of course, winning the NFL Draft with the most first-rounders certainly doesn’t detract from any program.