Welcome to NFL Draft Week, also known as the Nick Saban Show.
The NFL Draft — and by extension, the Reese’s Senior Bowl and NFL Combine — is the only sporting event that combines the country’s love of college football and its obsession with the NFL. Nobody has done a better job of taking advantage of that confluence of fans than Saban.
Every year at this time, fans and analysts speculate about whether Alabama will break the all-time record for players selected in a single first round. That is true again this year.
The record number is six first-rounders by the Miami Hurricanes in 2004. Most of those six turned out to be very good NFL players, though not always successful off the field. The group included safety Sean Taylor, tight end Kellen Winslow, linebackers Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, offensive tackle Vernon Carey and nose tackle Vince Wilfork. All six went in the first 21 picks.
Last year, Alabama became the first team to have four players taken among the top 15 teams. But Tua Tagovailoa, Jedrick Wills, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy were not joined by any other Tiders even though Xavier McKinney, Trevon Diggs and Terrell Lewis were all considered first-round possibilities.
LSU actually came closer to tying the record when five Tigers were taken in the first round, including No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow.
Here we are approaching another NFL Draft and again asking if the Tide could match or surpass the record number.
Here’s how Alabama’s first-round candidates stack up.
Quarterback Mac Jones, cornerback Patrick Surtain and wide receivers Devonta Smith and Jalen Waddle are sure-thing first-rounders. Defensive lineman Christian Barmore is a likely first-rounder. Najee Harris is projected to be the first running back selection, which means he has a great chance to hear his name called in the first round. Center Landon Dickerson is on many first-round mock drafts. Even offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood and Deonte Brown have been mentioned as first-round possibilities.
There’s no way all nine of those players will go in the first round. But five is likely, with six as a legitimate possibility.
Regardless of the exact number, Alabama will again be in the spotlight when the draft gets underway April 29.
These numbers are not just a nice sidenote to the dynasty Saban has built in Tuscaloosa; more and more they are a primary reason for the continuation of the dynasty.
Every year Alabama recruits the best players in the country. The Tide ends up among the finalists for most of these recruits because of the team’s success, Saban’s effectiveness as a recruiter and the commitment the school has made to its state-of-the-art facilities and player support, academically and athletically.
Then comes the annual NFL Draft. Saban barely has to say a word for the country’s top recruits to get the message loud and clean: Sign with Alabama, win championships. Then sign for millions of dollars on draft night.
The raw statistics back up the narrative.
Alabama had no players selected in the 2008 NFL Draft, the year after Saban arrived. But then the floodgates opened. Starting in 2009, here is how many first-round picks have been from Alabama: 1, 2, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 4, 4, 3 and 4. That’s 33 first-round picks in 12 years since Saban took over in Tuscaloosa. The average is even higher if considering only the players recruited by Saban. Then the numbers go to 30 in 10 years.
For comparison, over the last 12 years LSU has had 17 first-round picks, Florida has had 15, Georgia has had 13 and Auburn has had six.
Blue-chip recruits recognize these numbers. There’s not a single player who signs with an SEC team without aspirations of playing in the NFL. They are bombarded every year with the message of which schools are making those dreams come true for their players.
The chicken or the egg argument is futile at this point. Does Alabama have more first-round draft picks because it recruits so well, or does it recruit so well because of its track record of sending players to the NFL? The answer is both.
My guess is Alabama will match the Miami record this year. Jones, Surtain, Smith and Waddle will all be gone within the first 15 picks. Barmore is ranked substantially higher than any other defensive tackle in a draft class that is weak at the position. He would make five. Harris or Dickerson would then be the record-tying sixth first-rounder for the Tide.
Whether that happens or not, expect another week of free advertising for the dynasty Saban has built.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on Sports Talk 99.5 and the free iHeart app.
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