Power Five vs Non-Power Five Conferences in the NFL Draft

With the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Eric Fisher became the first player since David Carr in 2002 to be drafted number one overall from a Non-Power Five conference team. Fisher joined Carr as the only two Non-Power Five players to be selected first overall this century. Prior to Carr, the last time players from Non-Power Five teams were drafted with the first selection was in the 1970s, one of whom was four-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Super Bowl MVP Terry Bradshaw.

While outliers like Bradshaw and Fisher (who has started in 90/94 games played) exist, the drafting of Fisher was a big step for the Mid-American Conference and Non-Power Five schools as a whole.

Power Five conferences are comprised of the ACC, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pac-12, and the SEC. The current structure of these conferences has been in place since 2014. However, I will use draft data dating back to 2008 for a larger sample size. The teams’ current conference will determine its draftees as a whole and Notre Dame will be counted as a Non-Power Five school.

Pro Bowl: Value Determination

While the conversation around Non-Power Five and Non-Division I (whom will be grouped together with Non-Power Five schools) athletes may be dominated by cliches such as “hard work ethic” and “a chip on their shoulder”, the numbers show that the strength of a draft class comes from Power Five schools. The graph above shows that Power Five teams dominate Non-Power Five teams in terms of NFL Pro Bowlers, with recent years being lower due to shorter time passed.

The NFL draft is about one thing: finding value at a discount. Since 2008, NFL teams have drafted 2,010 players from Power Five Conferences with 87% of those players being drafted in the first round. With the remaining 788 players coming from Non-Power Five schools, the question remains how much value a team can gain from the latter six rounds.

Over the last ten draft classes, there have been 273 Pro Bowlers drafted; 208 from Power Five conferences and 65 from Non-Power Five conferences. In the first round, Power Five Pro Bowlers outnumber Non-Power Five Pro Bowlers over 5:1 at 106-19. In the next two groupings of rounds (broken up by days of the draft), teams are able to find value amongst the Non-Power Five teams. In rounds two and three, Power Five Pro Bowlers drop 38% in draftees to 66 and down to 36 in rounds four through seven. However, Non-Power Five Pro Bowl draftees increase to 23 in rounds two and three and remain at 23 through the remaining four rounds.

A team’s core will often be comprised of Power Five players, but it comes with a price. First round picks automatically have the highest guaranteed pay, with a scale based on which number they were selected. The four-year guaranteed contract will significantly increase if the player meets or exceeds the expectations put forth by the team (along with a comparison of the position leaguewide). If a team can find the value in players selected in later rounds, be it Power Five or not, they are setting themselves up for a quicker improvement at a fraction of the price. Tyreek Hill, drafted 165th overall in 2016 out of the University of West Alabama, is still on his rookie deal with the Kansas City Chiefs at four years/$2,586,220 and made the Pro Bowl his first three years and finished top-seven in receiving yards the previous two years. Likewise, Antonio Brown of Central Michigan University was drafted in the sixth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, made seven Pro Bowls and became the highest paid receiver this offseason with the Oakland Raiders.

Positions by the Numbers

Every player is and should be scouted individually with caution and care; no two players are alike. Historical draft data can seemingly be meaningless. It cannot help a team decide which player to draft, but it can help them decide when to draft each position. As shown by the chart above (and hopefully this entire article), the amount of Pro Bowlers the Power Five conferences produce is unmatched. The only two quarterbacks from Non-Power Five conferences in the past ten years have been Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders and Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles. While only six quarterbacks are selected to Pro Bowls each season and this statistic does not take into account players drafted before 2008, there have still been 17 different quarterbacks from Power Five conferences selected to the Pro Bowl in the past ten years. If a team has a need for an offensive lineman, defensive lineman, or defensive back early, they should look to put them at the top of their draft board to be selected from Power Five schools early.

One comparison that stands out: running back. It is the closest match of all the positions. Running backs such as Matt Forte, Tarik Cohen, and David Johnson have all been selected to at least one Pro Bowl and all were Non-Power Five conference players selected after the first rounds of their respective draft classes. The running backs’ lifespan is typically shorter than other positions; the beating their bodies take can become overwhelming. While taking a running back in the first round and even top ten has proven its worth to teams such as the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys, and New York Football Giants, other teams such as the  Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals have proved that the value can be found in later rounds at a greatly reduced cost.

History is Value

It should come as shock to no one that over three-fourths of NFL players come from Power Five schools; historic programs and television exposure know no bound there. Players attend these universities with the knowledge that they will be able to compete for a national championship and the even greater knowledge that the eyes’ of NFL scouts will be locked in upon them.

The best scouts, however, will understand the value at the less historic, less exposed programs of the Non-Power Five teams. Any scout could tell that Julio Jones was an easy selection at sixth overall; a good scout understood the greatness of Antonio Brown at 195.

On April 25, commissioner Roger Goodell will take the stage for the first night of the 2019 NFL Draft. Fans will await with great anticipation as he calls out their teams’ latest selections and history will unfold itself before their eyes.

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