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How does Northwestern rate as a developmental program?

Have the Wildcats backed up Pat Fitzgerald's claim that they're the best developmental program in the country?

Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever Pat Fitzgerald discusses the big picture of the Northwestern football program, he always mentions his goal to be "the best player development staff in the country." Heck, he's even gone as far as to proclaim NU the best.

There's this theory Northwestern must have a great player development staff because the Wildcats are able to compete with teams that often get better recruits. I've also often heard that since Fitzgerald can get NU recruits to play with Ohio State, imagine what he could do with the Buckeyes' recruits.

That last line is a clear false equivalency (more on that later) but I decided to look, statistically, at the assertion that NU is indeed better than its peers at player development.

To do that, we have to decide what counts as development. The two most common indicators are 1) How good a coach is at turning recruits into wins, and 2) How many players that coach gets to the NFL. Let's take an in-depth look at each.

Developing for college

Determining which programs develop talent the best seems simple on paper: Figure out which teams win the most with the least amount of talent. However, it's a lot more nuanced than that.

First, we need to find out how much talent a team has on its roster in any given year compared to the other teams in the league. To do that, I averaged each team's Big Ten recruiting rank for the five years prior to the year in question, starting with Pat Fitzgerald's first season in 2006 and continuing through 2013. Then I compared that year's projected finish based on recruiting rankings to the team's actual finish in the standings.

There are still some problems with that analysis. The first is that teams' recruiting strengths might not be separated equally like their team rankings (so the best team in the rankings might recruit way better than the second-best team, but the fifth-best team might hold a slight edge over the sixth-best team). But I would rather acknowledge that variable and just keep it simple.

Luck is also a major factor. For example, NU was extraordinarily lucky in the middle of Fitz's tenure, and some of the Wildcats' improved ranking in the Big Ten could have been due more to luck than actual development. So to account for that, I also included each team's conference ranking with Football Outsiders' F/+ statistical model. Here's how the Big Ten checks out.

School/Metric 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Illinois
Recruiting 7 6 5 5 6 8 9 11
Place 11 2 8 9 5 11 12 11
F/+ 8 2 6 11 5 8 12 11
Indiana
Recruiting 11 11 11 11 11 12 12 12
Place 7 8 11 11 11 12 9 9
F/+ 11 11 11 10 9 12 9 8
Iowa
Recruiting 4 4 4 7 7 9 8 7
Place 8 6 5 2 4 6 10 4
F/+ 5 8 3 3 3 7 8 4
Michigan
Recruiting 1 1 2 2 2 2 2 2
Place 3 3 10 10 7 3 3 8
F/+ 2 3 9 8 6 2 5 5
Michigan State
Recruiting 5 7 7 6 4 5 5 4
Place 10 9 3 6 3 2 7 1
F/+ 9 5 4 6 4 3 2 1
Minnesota
Recruiting 9 9 9 8 7 7 7 9
Place 6 11 6 8 10 10 11 6
F/+ 6 9 10 9 10 11 11 7
Nebraska
Recruiting N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3 3
Place N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 5 2 5
F/+ N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 4 4 6
Northwestern
Recruiting 10 10 10 10 9 10 10 8
Place 9 10 4 4 8 8 5 10
F/+ 10 10 5 7 8 9 7 9
Ohio State
Recruiting 2 2 1 1 1 1 1 1
Place 1 1 2 1 1 8 1 2
F/+ 1 1 2 2 1 6 1 2
Penn State
Recruiting 3 3 3 3 3 4 4 5
Place 4 5 1 3 6 4 3 7
F/+ 4 4 1 1 7 5 6 10
Purdue
Recruiting 8 8 8 9 10 11 11 10
Place 5 7 9 7 9 7 7 12
F/+ 7 7 8 5 11 10 10 12
Wisconsin
Recruiting 6 5 5 4 5 5 6 6
Place 2 4 7 5 2 1 6 3
F/+ 3 6 7 4 2 1 3 3

It's important to note that it's really hard to compare teams at the top of the league and teams at the bottom of the league. For instance, NU finishing 9th in the league with the 10th best recruiting class doesn't mean the Wildcats are better at developing talent than an Ohio State team that had the best recruiting class and finished first in the conference.

That's why it's better to look at this in tiers — how did teams do against teams in their tier, and did they develop talent enough to play up a tier?

The Wildcats have held their own against the teams in the lower tier, and a majority of the time, they do just about what they're supposed to do or a little bit better. For all but the last season, NU had lower-tier talent, and three times out of seven, it was able to jump to the middle tier, which is actually pretty solid. Not mind-blowing, but solid.

The Wildcats have held their own against the teams in the lower tier, and a majority of the time, they do just about what they're supposed to do or a little bit better.

Generally, this is what NU has shown it can do with low-tier talent: It's a team that typically won't play below its talent level, and the coaches will develop talent well enough to jump up a tier every few seasons, but never well enough to turn a low-tier talent team into a high-tier performer. That may be the expectation from some fans, but it's pretty unreasonable.

What will be interesting to see is what NU does with its players now that it's starting to get mid-tier talent. Will the Wildcats consistently do what they should with their players — generally finish in the middle tier — or will they be able to play up a tier and compete for championships every once in awhile?

Jumping from the low tier to the middle tier is much tougher than jumping from the middle tier to the upper tier. Iowa and Wisconsin have both proven it can be done on occasion — the latter more consistently — but for it to happen, the Wildcats are probably going to need a bit more of a talent boost, because right now, it would take a more exceptional jump than what Iowa and Wisconsin have done — kind of like the 2008 NU season, but even more impressive.

Developing for the NFL

While fans of a program like Northwestern that doesn't send a lot of players to the NFL would probably say developing players for college success is more important — those are the only games that count, of course — developing players for the NFL is an important recruiting tool.

People like to rag on recruiting rankings, but they've proven time and again to be a good predictor of team success and of NFL potential. This analysis from SB Nation recruiting guru Bud Elliott before the 2014 NFL Draft makes that clear.

Four- and five-star recruits were 995 percent more likely to be drafted in the first round than their lesser-ranked counterparts.

Here's the breakdown of the draft:

Total recruits in 2010 2014 first-rounders Total 2014 draftees
Five-star 27 (0.6%) 4(12.5%) 16 (6.3%)
Four-star 395 (8.8%) 13 (40.6%) 77 (20%)
Three-star 1644 (36.5%) 12 (37.5%) 92 (35.9%)
Two-star/unrated 2434 (54.1%) 3 (9.3%) 71 (27.7%)

For those who don't like percentages, here are some more intuitive breakdowns based on the numbers from the entire 2014 draft:

  • A five-star recruit had a three-in-five chance of getting drafted (16 of 27).
  • A four-star had a one-in-five chance (77 of 395).
  • A three-star had a one-in-18 chance (92 of 1,644).
  • A two-star/unrated recruit had a one-in-34 chance (71 of 2,434).

To see how Northwestern stacks up against the rest of the country, I looked at NU's recruiting rankings from 2005 — those players would have been redshirt sophomore under Fitzgerald, so it's safe to say he had a major hand in developing them — up to the last group of NU players to exhaust their eligibility (some in the class of 2010).

2-stars 3-stars 4-stars
Total 63 50 1
Drafted 3 2 0
Draft % 5% 4% 0%

Here's a breakdown in line with Bud's:

  • A two-star had a 1-in-21 chance of getting drafted (slightly better than the national average)
  • A three-star had a 1-in-25 chance of getting drafted (slightly worse than the national average)
  • The jury is still out on better-than-three-star recruits

This doesn't mean that NU is bad at developing talent, but the Wildcats certainly aren't great at it, and they're far behind a team like Iowa, which can claim to be a true NFL developmental program. Simply, NU is an average developmental program when it comes to getting players to the NFL.

Simply, NU is an average developmental program when it comes to getting players to the NFL.

It will be interesting to see how NU does at developing the four-star recruits that are entering the program. It's one thing to tell two-stars that you can get them to the NFL at a good rate — even though, as we see, that's not entirely true at NU — but it's another thing to say "we got two-star Drake Dunsmore to the NFL, so imagine what we can do with you, Ifeadi Odenigbo." It's a false equivalency, and we really have no idea what Fitzgerald and his staff can do with top talent.

Can they get the most out of these new elite prospects, both collegiately and in terms of the NFL? It's tough to tell now, but that will be an important development to watch in the program over the next few years.