NFL Draft 2016

Which College Conference Produces the Best NFL Talent?

The NFL Draft: the consistent, inescapable exercise of trying to predict the future. Determining how college kids will react to becoming overnight millionaires and being thrust into foreign locker rooms with men a decade their senior who will probably haze and/or ostracize them for a month or two. The psychological part alone is enough to make it a crapshoot—forget everything else.

But, hard as it may be to accurately foresee who will excel at the next level, that of course won’t stop NFL teams—or us—from trying. The Vikings will continue to do their due diligence leading up to next month’s draft, but in the meantime, I like to look at trends when it comes to which players succeed and which don’t. Lately, it’s been the correlation with college conferences I’ve been focused on; mainly, how big is the difference between power five and mid-major conferences when it comes to developing top-tier NFL talent, and which conference produces the most “good” players?

So, behold, a limited and unscientific, but hopefully somewhat enlightening study. I looked at the first round of every NFL draft in a ten-year span, from 2004-2013, and noted every player that had made at least one Pro Bowl, and which college conference that player came from. A few notes on the process:

  • The most current year in the study is 2013, three years ago, to give the class ample time to develop and reach potential.
  • This study only includes the first round, for two reasons. One: while the entire draft is important, drafting a bust in the first round is a nightmare scenario, and looking at which conferences produce the best first rounders is one way to help avoid that. Two: I could examine 700 total rounds of the NFL Draft, but I occasionally like to step outside, eat, sleep, etc.
  • The schools are categorized in their CURRENT athletic conference to give an idea of which collection of universities is currently producing the best talent. There has been considerable conference realignment in the last decade, and some schools have changed affiliation. So for example, Miami (FL) will be considered an ACC school throughout the study, not Big East, which they were until 2005. Texas A&M will be considered SEC, and so on.
  • The single metric we’re looking at is players who have made a Pro Bowl. In the age of mass “no thank you’s” and endless alternates when it comes to filling our beloved NFL all-star game, making a Pro Bowl is in no way the final word on a player’s value. But it provides a simple, easy-to-categorize benchmark, and is a pretty good indication that the player wasn’t a total bust, at the very least.

NFL Pro Bowlers Produced (First Round)

 SECACCBig TenBig 12Pac-12


  • At first glance, it confirms my suspicion: the SEC’s self-indulgent chest beating is at least somewhat warranted. From 2004-2013, the Southeastern Conference produced more first round Pro Bowlers than any other conference. However, it’s close; the ACC has 29 to the SEC’s 32, or just a shade over 90% of the SEC total. So while the SEC is number one, it isn’t by a dominant margin.
  • It’s the SEC and the ACC, and everyone else. The next closest conference, the Big Ten, produced 20 Pro Bowlers in the ten-year span, nine fewer than the ACC. The Big 12 and Pac-12 are two and three data points behind the Big Ten, respectively. So we’re seeing two distinct tiers: SEC/ACC, and Big Ten/Big 12/Pac-12.
  • The SEC had an incredible collection of top-end talent in the 2011 draft, when it produced NINE first round Pro Bowlers, including the first seven picks of the draft. Pretty remarkable.
  • We see a pretty clear regional ramification here: the SEC and ACC schools are largely located in the southeastern part of the United States, a region often said to be rich in football talent. This analysis confirms it.

Of course, not all of these conferences have the same number of member schools, so results could be skewed toward larger conferences. Let’s look at the average Pro Bowlers per member school:

Average Pro Bowlers (First Round, 2004-2013)

 SECACCBig TenBig 12Pac-12
Pro Bowlers3229201817

Not a huge change, though we do see the SEC widen its lead slightly by nature of having 14 member schools to the ACC’s 15. Also, the Big 12—the smallest conference in the power five—moves ahead of the Big Ten and into third place. Thank you, Texas and Oklahoma.

What About the Mid-Majors?

 C-USAMountain WestMACAmericanSun BeltWAC

Yeah. Not much happening here. I’ll admit, while I knew there would be a disparity between the big and little guys, I had no idea it would be THIS big. No more than four first round Pro Bowlers produced in a ten year span, and only once has a mid-major produced more than one in a given year (two, and that was in 2004). It shows just how dominant the power five football conferences are when it comes to recruiting and developing talent.

Another interesting note is which conference we don’t see in any of these tables: the Big East. The once-proud conference dissolved completely in 2013, and reformed as a non-football league shortly thereafter. Obviously, then, we don’t see any NFL players coming from the schools that make up the current Big East Conference, but it serves as a glimpse of the toll conference realignment has taken, given this was once the home of Miami, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia, among others.


  • The SEC and ACC are head and shoulders above the rest of the country in producing first round Pro Bowlers.
  • The gap between the power five conferences and the mid-major conferences is huge. When drafting in the first round, big schools are still the best bet.
  • The best chance to get a future Pro Bowler in the first round is to draft a player from the southeastern part of the country.
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Sam Neumann

Sam Neumann is a freelance writer and lifelong Vikings apologist. He has seen his share of Vikings-related heartbreak, but believes we are united by the hope that one day that norse ship will come in. Sam is the author of three books, including the New York Times Bestseller Memoirs of a Gas Station. He lives in Denver, Colorado, and has had it with Broncos fans. You can follow him on twitter @NeumSamN.

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  1. The problem with totals and averages as statistics is what you noted in your article: high (or low) ‘outliers’ messing things up — hence the SECs 2011 year vaulting them to the top. If you sub their average in for that year you arrive at something closer to long run realities. Of course that’s still pretty decent.

  2. Another stat which may be interesting to look is the percentage of players taken from each conference that end up pro-bowlers. I.e. which conference has the most busts and the most average players. Sheer number could just be a result of so many SEC players being taken in the first round

  3. This study is fun to surmise on a football website but it really doesn’t show anything worthwhile nor enlightening.

    A team that does well (W/L record, playoffs and ultimately championships) over a period time is not really even indicative of drafting ability.

    Yes the first thing that must be done is to pick the player, but really if you think about it a nearly every player ever drafted had some qualities that justified their selection, yes one can argue about what pick or round or whatever, but still doesn’t take away the fact that the selected player has some ability to play in the NFL.

    How often is it said that a drafted player has business whatsoever to be given an opportunity in the NFL. Again you can argue about what pick or round. Example would Christian Ponder. Of course you can say he was picked to high but not many people siad that he showed nothing to warrant an opportunity in the NFL. There are sooooooo many factors that are involved with a player having success in the NFL and where the were selected or what college/conference they played for/in has ZERO bearing on that success.

    So picking a player while important, only to get him on your team, does NOT show that a NFL team is good at drafting nor does it show that such and such conference produce the best NFL talent or even pro bowlers.

    The PAC 12 produces 15 eventual pro bowlers drafted between 2010-2014 has zero bearing on how Myles Jack will perform

    Again I understand that this is a football site so things like this will be discussed and can be fun and interesting and that totally fine.

    I just think that a better article that has the opportunity, if done right, to be loads more informative and enlightening would be one with a title like,

    “Which NFL teams are the best at developing their players”

    That is an article the could be a worthwhile read.

    Let’s go Sam you can do it! 🙂