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Program Twilight, and the Talent Factor: The NFL Draft - A Look at 2020’s Numbers

The NFL Draft is over, and we’ve cobbled together some interesting numbers from the results. No, not the regular numbers, but the sideways numbers that give you an idea of why the Talent goes where it goes. One 3-Star draft pick and one UDFA is a tough act to sell. GO HOKIES!!!

Finding and developing talent above 3-Stars is critical
John Schneider - SB Nation

We have arrived at a critical juncture in the analysis, the fork in the road that must be taken, so to speak. We talked about all the things that feed into the equation, except for the answer to the equation, itself. The base additives (or subtractions) of Money and Prestige are multiplied or divided by the perceived NFL draft factor (maybe a bit of success thrown in, too) and that equals attractiveness for the best Talent to accumulate.

Well, Talent is also a major factor in both Money, Prestige, and to a certain extent future NFL Attractiveness. Remember, this is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Talent is a critical part of the entire picture. There is a starting point, or ignition or flameout point, though.

Before we explore those two transition points (aka the forks in the road), let’s take a look at some analytical facts from this draft, and an interesting study regarding the monetization of talent stars. The first reality of the NFL Draft is that the big money in in the first round, the moderate money is in the second, and the modest is in the third. After that the NFL Draft adds a little to the cache of the player, and maybe a few organizations will give 4th through 7th rounders a bit more of a break in camp, but for the most part those players are pretty much NFLPA rookie scale contracts. A bit of bragging rights over being drafted, I suppose. The raw total numbers are pretty obvious, high school rankings count for who gets drafted. They aren’t guarantees, but future pros are identified in high school and recruited to NFL Feeder programs.

It’s all about the Stars and the Conferences and Programs that Attract Them

If you look at the numbers (from 247 Sports), there are some interesting observations but they don’t tell you the whole picture, though. As is typical of most analytical pieces, the ratings are from whatever favorite service that the writer uses. I pulled a list together of the Rivals ratings (with a few 24/7 ratings sprinkled in because some players don’t show up in Rivals). The Draft list was compiled and sorted by combining the information from the NFL draft grids, and then painstakingly looked up on Rivals, one player at a time. This is what shook out:

Rivals 5-Star Rated Players: 16

Rivals 4-Star Rated Players: 74

Looking Sideways at the 2020 NFL Draft

We won’t go into the bulk of the three- and 2-Star players for now. Currently we aren’t as concerned as to where the 4-Stars were drafted (most were drafted in the big money rounds). This is about who gets the stars and how that effects the permanent Twilight afflicting so many programs in the NCAA. Seven of the 16 were picked in the first round. Of the 16 5-Star players all were from one or another Power 5 conference. The SEC netted half of those with 8. The BIG XII had no 5-Star players; but the ACC (via Clemson) had 2 as did the PAC-12. The B1G ended up with four 5-Star players selected.

Well, those are 5-Star players, they are rare as hens’ teeth, and almost none of them are going to head to a Group of 5 program. In fact, most won’t head to lower tier Power 5 schools. Kids with that kind of talent are definitely headed to the NFL, have already been identified as such, and steered in the direction of those sorts of feeder programs. We won’t say who is turning the wheel, just that it’s quite obvious that the phenomenon exists.

The butter for the bread of most programs are the 4-Star rated players. These are the kids with some coaching and a good program behind them will end up attracting serious next level attention with a good deal of them sticking to some pro roster or another. The first observation is that besides the Independent program players selected (meaning Notre Dame), at 5, the SEC swamped everyone. LSU walked off with the largest number of SEC Draft picks, but Alabama was right behind, and the usual list of programs followed.

Number of 4-Star High School Recruits Drafted by Conference

ACC - 5

B1G - 14


PAC-12 - 9

SEC - 32


AAC - 1

The 2020 NFL Draft had 74 picks going to players rating 4-Stars out of High School. That means that 90 5- and 4-Star players, total, of the 256 draft picks in 2020. The selected rounds vary somewhat, but the bulk of the 4- and 5-Star picks happened on Thursday and Friday Nights. That isn’t to say that some 3- and lower Star ratings didn’t get drafted early. Surprisingly there were eleven 3- and 2-Star players picked in the first round, but with the exception of one from the Mountain West, the entire 1st round of the 2020 NFL Draft went to the Power 5 conferences, and of those the usual list of programs led the way.

The numbers don’t lie, and looking at past drafts for the past decade don’t change all that much. The NFL drafts from the Power 5, and it mostly drafts from a few schools in Power 5 Conferences. Of course, there were some interesting selections from surprise places, but that just proves the general rule. A player’s best bet for getting drafted into the NFL is to play for an SEC, B1G, or PAC-12 football team. The other two Power 5 conferences are minor players in the draft pick mix. The ACC is currently heavily overrepresented by Clemson. The BIG XII has a scattering with bigger drafts by Oklahoma and TCU this season.

How Does this Draft Information Effect the Twilight?

With the example of this year’s NFL Draft behind us, where does that put the Twilight programs? Well, it depends on how things were leveraged in their recruiting plans. Remember the bulk of teams in the Twilight live and breathe the 3-Star players. Those players also make up the bulk of the draft. Leveraging that reality is where a team can drive a little closer to the dawn, instead of staring at the glow.

The problem is that finding that better level talent, and then getting them to go to your program when their chances of getting drafted are much smaller or pushed into the Saturday rounds where everyone knows that absolutely nothing much is guaranteed. Getting that sort of interest requires some fancy, expensive, and patient recruiting chops. Okay, ‘fancy’ and ‘patient’ are all forms of ‘expensive’. Bill Dooley’s staff pulled every lever recruiting Bruce Smith. Frank Beamer’s stock in trade was going to the players in Tidewater and Southside to convince them that Tech was up and coming, and they could be a part of something special. They could play ball, and if they did well that would attract the next level attention. They’d be on the field playing instead of riding the pine behind two or three other 3- or 4-Star recruits in a big-name program. It’s not a new pitch, but it has to catch, and then do it repeatedly over time. In that time the program has to do something that most folks are loathed to consider. The program does, have to win, yes, but above all it must make money.

Talent Feeds the Money that’s Needed to Bag the Talent

Money is the key to igniting the feedback loop. Just take a look at the results of this study published in the Dallas Morning News.

Wonder of wonders programs make big money off of high school stars, and lose money on lower level players. Of course, it takes money to run a first-rate football program that attracts the talent that brings in the big money… and so on.

This is a big reason why a collegiate fan base cannot “punish its way to success”. Withdrawing funds and monetary support from a struggling program to protest the disappointing performances on the field and over time is completely counterproductive. No money means poor facilities which are difficult sales. No money means a less than optimal coaching situation. (We’ll talk about that when we deal with how the program finds its way out of the twilight.) No money means inadequate staffing for scouting and recruiting. Not enough money means choosing between all of those things that make a program click, and often those choices result in exactly what most programs deal with; perpetual program twilight.

Finding the Magic Mix (Using Tech as an Example)

The prior article was all about Tech, and the pulses of Talent that came in to the program and contributed to the magic decade and a half (1995 to 2010). How do we find that ‘magic’ again, that reignites the talent and winning cycle that we saw over a decade ago? First, I’d like to admit that if I had the answers I’d be stewing over the recruiting and scouting people at Jamerson, not writing about it. A whole lot of people want to place the Beamer Era at the feet and left arm of Michael Vick. That would be interesting, and partially true, but only partially. Vick didn’t take the field until five years after Frank Beamer found the magic formula. Mike Vick might not have even come to Blacksburg if 1994-1998 hadn’t happened.

It takes some serious skill, excellent salesmanship, and a product to sell. It also takes something that they used to call “The Luck of the Irish”. That certain glint in the eye and the hint of something special even when there isn’t much there at the moment. The reality is that most football programs just don’t have the personnel and personality to overcome the cloud of dull that envelopes most field houses. Virginia Tech does have some lasting reputation that mitigates that dullness. It won’t last long, however. The big problem remains that the program is not bringing in enough money to recruit that magic player that reignites the imaginations of the fans, and opens the wallets of the people that pay (the media).

Virginia Tech is a program hovering in the Twilight. We have some new talent being infused into the mix, the coaching staff is from the Midwest and they aren’t afraid to head back to that part of the country to improve their exposure to that critical 4-Star talent pool. The question remains, though. Will we have enough of the 4-Stars to goose the 3-Stars into winning enough to attract more 4-Star and maybe some 5-Star talent?

We know that 2020 and 2021 are going to be critical. Does that pilot light have enough energy to light the rocket?

We’ll see.