Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Mar 2007

Schools of Thought

Recently, teams in the NFL have become associated with an interest in the players of certain schools: New England went after players from LSU and, more recently, have decided that receivers from Florida are the bees' knees. Atlanta's taken a liking to Virginia Tech alums, while Detroit has opted for drafting players from Texas.

There are different reasons for why this occurs. Sometimes, a coach was previously the coach at a college, and brings his old players in -- Steve Spurrier famously attempted this with Washington in 2003 and 2004 -- with the theory being that they've already been in their particular system for years. Other times, a coach has ties to the coach or the system used at a particular college, and brings in players who have already spent years in the system; this was the reason why Bill Belichick brought in players from Louisiana State, who had played in a similar system under Nick Saban, Belichick's former assistant in Cleveland.

It leads to an interesting question: Can teams gain an advantage on the opposition by focusing on drafting players from a particular school, conference, or region? The Atlanta Braves employ a similar strategy, focusing specifically on prep players from the suburbs of Atlanta in the draft. This strategy has led to the acquisition of players like Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. Is the same true in the NFL? Let's take a look at four teams who focused on one particular college over a period of time and how those players from those teams turned out.

Los Angeles Rams, Ten players from UCLA, 1985-1993: This focus on UCLA is doubly ironic when you consider that the Rams' coach for most of this run was John Robinson, whose tenure with the Rams was preceded by seven years at, of all places, USC! St. Louis' picks from UCLA enjoyed better-than-average success: Tenth-rounder Duval Love spent twelve years in the NFL, fifth-rounder James Washington spent seven years in the league and was part of the Cowboys dynasty in the early-nineties, Flipper Anderson was the player that Alvin Harper was supposed to be, Darryl Henley was a competent linebacker, and Roman Phifer an excellent one. The only real disappointment amongst these picks was the one first-rounder the Rams used on a UCLA graduate, running back Gaston Green. Green left the Rams after three seasons, rushed for 1000 yards with the Broncos, and was out of football the year after.
Chicago Bears, Nine Players from Oklahoma, 1987-1992: Most of these picks were late-round flyers -- only one of them was higher than a fifth-rounder, second-rounder Dante Jones. Jones played several season for Chicago, but none of the other selections had any real career with the Bears.
Dallas Cowboys, Nine Players from Florida, 1983-1991: Another ironic one this; Jimmy Johnson, who made half of these picks, made his name at rival Miami. Tom Landry's side of these selections enjoyed varying levels of success: fourth-round TE Chris Faulkner didn't make the team, while third-round guard Jeff Zimmerman struggled with injuries and never panned out. Fellow third-round guard Crawford Ker was better, starting for several years. In Johnson's first draft, third-rounder Rhondy Weston wasn't good enough to make a 1-15 team. 1990, though, saw what may have been Johnson's best selection of his entire campaign in Dallas, selecting Emmitt Smith seventeenth overall. Godfrey Myles, chosen the year after in the third round, stuck around as a borderline starting linebacker and got out when the good times started to fade, finishing up in 1996.
Oakland Raiders, Nine Players from USC, 1971-1977: Oakland was averaging 10.7 wins off of a 14 game schedule over this time frame, so they were clearly doing something right. One of those things was drafting players from USC, almost all of whom played an important role on the team during this period. Fourth-rounder Clarence Davis stuck as a high-percentage scatback, the kind of player FO would have loved if it existed in the seventies. Skip Thorpe, taken in the seventh round, became a starting corner, while second rounder Charles Phillips went in as a big-play safety. Fellow second-rounder John Vella started at tackle and guard for most of the era, and even eighth-rounder Mike Rae stuck as a backup quarterback. The pick of the group, though, was when the twelfth round of the '77 draft rolled around and the Raiders grabbed linebacker Rod Martin. Martin would become a legend of the silver and black.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 08 Mar 2007