North Carolina Football: An NFL Factory?


An exploration into how ACC teams have done at producing top NFL talent compared to how that talented was graded in high school.

You would be hard pressed to find a team in the ACC better than UNC at producing NFL Draft prospects than UNC since 2008. North Carolina has nurtured 30 draft picks and seven first round draft picks since that year.

Seven first round picks is better than Florida State and Miami can say over the same time span, and its way better than what Duke and NC State can claim. Since 2008, Duke has had two total draft picks, NC State has had 16 (no first rounders), and the Tar Heels have had 30.

Now, I’m not suggesting that North Carolina has suddenly become the NFL’s 33rd franchise. But former Tar Heels have enjoyed some success on the NFL’s Draft Day, and all that success shows the quality of North Carolina’s football program beyond just wins and losses.

Much of the success that the Heels had in the NFL draft was set up on the recruiting trail. Butch Davis’s recruiting magic translated into success on Draft Days in 2011 and 2012. Davis recruited some of the most talented players in the country in his tenure, and many of them went on to be drafted.

But how much of the success UNC has had in the NFL Draft over the last couple of years has been due to recruiting, and how much is from good coaching and a good program? Today I want to examine how ACC teams have fared in converting top tier high school talent into future draft picks in the National Football league.

Wake Forest not shown.

The graph above is a look at how the ACC’s draft picks have graded out in high school and where they have gone in the draft over the past two drafts. As you can see, most of the ACC’s draft picks fall between the 78 and 80 recruiting grade, grade according to a four star grade.

The lower you go on the y-axis, the higher the draft pick. For example, defensive back LaMarcus Joyner is the bubble the farthest to the right. He came out of high school with one of the highest grades in the nation, a 87, and was picked 41st overall in the draft this year.

Players in the upper and right most quadrant of the graph are considered “busts”. While are they are not busts at all, they were some of the most talented high school prospects but they were not drafted very high. On the other end of the spectrum, players on the left and bottom of the graph are considers outliers for being lightly rated coming out of high school while still being drafted highly.

There are a couple notable outliers on the graph. Seantrel Henderson (blue bubble, top right of graph) was rated the 8th best player in the Class of 2010, but fell all the way to the 237th pick of the 2014 Draft. SB Nation’s Kevin Trahan outlines his rise and fall from top high school prospect to afterthought in the draft.

On the bottom right, Jay Bromley of Syracuse stands out. He was lightly recruited out of high school and worked his way up to being a third round selection.

A closer look at some of the ACC’s top schools reveals a bit more. Here is a closer look at Miami and Florida State’s recruiting vs. draft results graph.

Florida State has had some success with guys like Kelvin Benjamin and Xavier Rhodes. But for every high draft pick, it seems like there is a flop to go along with it. Tevin Smith, Vince Williams and Everett Dawkins were blue chip recruits coming out of high school that were not picked very high in the NFL Draft for a variety of reasons. Pat O’Donnell stands out as an outlier because he is a punter who was lowly rated out of high school.

Before we go any further, lets examine some of the limitations of these graphs. This data only considers players that were drafted, so any top tier recruits that weren’t drafted aren’t shown in the data. Also, all this data stretches back only for the last two drafts, so its a very small snapshot of schools performances in turning top high school talent into top NFL talent.

Let’s zoom in on just UNC’s performance when looking at draft position vs. recruiting grade.

For a more in-depth chart, go here. The key on the link organizes the players by recruiting class.

UNC’s draft graph looks very good compared to some of the others in the ACC. Keep in mind that the axis scales vary between graph, but the Tar Heels have a good slope to the chart besides lineman Travis Bond. Ignoring Bond, UNC’s highest rated recruit was Eric Ebron, and he was also one of the highest drafted.

Bond sticks out like a sore thumb, and leads me to my next point about the reasons behind some of the data plots behind the graph. Unlike Seantrel Henderson, he never had any drug problems or attitude problems. Bond basically played in every game from his sophomore year on, so he never suffered an injury that kept NFL scouts away. He didn’t have a bad combine performance, either. He just dropped until the late rounds of the draft.

At the end of the day, what was the difference between Travis Bond being selected 214th in the 2013 draft, and Jonathan Cooper being selected 7th in that same draft? Cooper was a lower rated recruit by two points, Bond is four inches taller, Bond was a tackle coming out of high school, seen as a more prestigious position than Cooper’s guard position… what was the difference?

Trying to project how an 18 year old high school senior will do in college is a hard projection to make, and often its wrong.

That question of what was the difference comes up over and over again when looking at the 2010 ESPN-150 list of the top high schoolers in the nation and the first 150 picks in the NFL Draft. And while UNC has done a good job of churning out draft day prospects, like every school, there have been some misses. Jheranie Boyd was ranked 55th in the ESPN-150 list in 2009, but went undrafted after an underwhelming career at UNC.

All of this recruiting and drafting scouting, at the end of the day, is just an estimate. Trying to project how an 18 year old high school senior will do in college is a hard projection to make, and often its wrong. Other things can also derail the potential of a blue chip recruit. Schools like Florida State and Miami may pull in the best recruiting classes every year in the ACC, but that doesn’t mean they will be the best chance that recruit has to make it to the next level.

In the end, I believe the key to being a good draft factory school is recruiting well and recruiting the right types of people, surrounding them with more good people and giving the recruits every opportunity to succeed. UNC has been that school in the ACC the last couple years, giving young men like Sylvester Williams the opportunity to succeed on the football field in college and eventually in the NFL. They have developed top tier talent like Eric Ebron well, while also giving lower rated recruits like Tre Boston the chance to play in college and improve enough to eventually play in the NFL.