Does School Size Really Matter in the NFL?
Now that the NFL Combine is over if you’re like me, you’re going to be inundated with information about how each player performed. You’re going to hear countless hours of talk about 40 times, bench press reps, shuttle times, yadda yadda yadda.
Along with all the talk about measurables, you’re also going to hear the tired old narrative about where these kids come from, and the level of competition they faced. You’re going to hear talking heads like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay babble on and on about how Prospect A has phenomenal tape “but he played at a small school.”
This talk is going to be heightened this year, with the prospect of two potential top-10 picks coming from small schools. QB Carson Wentz, hailing from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, has a real shot to be the first quarterback taken in May’s draft. Eastern Kentucky product (and former Ohio State player) Noah Spence, a pass-rushing defensive end, has been projected by several experts as joining Wentz in the top-10.
With the idea of 20% of the top end of the draft being represented by players from non-Power 5 schools, it begs the question “How much does school size, and level of competition, matter when evaluating a player?” To me, the answer to that question is “None whatsoever.”
Take a moment to go to NFL.com and check out the regular season leaders. When you look at almost every statistical category, you’ll find that at least one of the top 5 leaders is from a school outside of the traditional powerhouses. The only exceptions being Passing Yards and Tackles.
Doug Martin finished second in the league this season in rushing yards with 1,402 yards. Martin played his college ball at Boise State, who for the majority of his career played in the Western Athletic Conference (though Boise State would move up to the Mountain West Conference in Martin’s final season – still not Power 5, however).
Antonio Brown, arguably the best wide receiver in football right now, finished the season second in receiving yards with 1,834. Brown spent his collegiate career playing for the Central Michigan Chippewas out of the MAC. First and second in sacks this season were J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack. Watt began his career alongside Antonio Brown at Central Michigan (though he would go on to transfer to the University of Wisconsin), and Mack hails from the little-known University of Buffalo.
Though no small-school quarterbacks are in the top-5 in passing yardage, if you expand the results and look at the top 15, you find several. You’ll find guys from schools like Central Florida with Blake Bortles, Miami (no, not that one) with Ben Roethlisberger, Harvard with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Had he not broken his collarbone twice during the season, you also would have found Eastern Illinois represented with Tony Romo.
Small-school quarterbacks don’t only have statistical success, either. Since 2000, quarterbacks like Kurt Warner (University of Northern Iowa), Trent Dilfer (Fresno State), and Joe Flacco (Delaware) have all lead their teams to a victory on the ultimate stage, the Super Bowl. All three quarterbacks also won Super Bowl MVP.
Even when you explore the all-time greats of the NFL, you see small school talent everywhere you turn. Brett Favre, one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, hails from Southern Mississippi. Jerry Rice, unquestionably the best receiver in NFL history, from Mississippi Valley State. Walter Payton came to the NFL from Jackson State. Mel Blount and Dick Lane, two of the greatest defensive backs in history, from Southern and Western Nebraska Community College respectively.
Far too often scouts and fans alike get too wrapped up in the pedigree of a player. Where he came from, what sort of competition he faced. By focusing on that, a lot of very talented players get overlooked. When evaluating a kid’s potential at the next level, simply watch his tape and make your determination from that. If the player jumps off the tape at you, it doesn’t matter the competition it’s against. Skills are skills, period. Size does not matter.