On May 6, 2016, Anthony Walker Jr. was projected to be a first-rounder and the No. 18 overall pick by Rotoworld. Look-ahead mock drafts written one week after the past draft are worthless, but Walker was a third-team All-American. There was real hype. Then, as you’re no doubt aware, Walker declined somewhat in his junior year and his draft stock fell accordingly. Walker went in the fifth round to the Indianapolis Colts, a full 119 picks after Rotoworld’s prediction a year earlier.
Being selected in the NFL Draft at all is a massive accomplishment, don’t get me wrong. Walker has a real chance to succeed in Indianapolis, and he could still have a great career. However, the ugly fact is that Northwestern has not had a first-round pick in the NFL Draft since Luis Castillo in 2005. That means Pat Fitzgerald has never had a player selected in the first three rounds since taking over almost 11 years ago.
While this is an admittedly poor (but fun!) comparison, here are some non-FBS schools who have had a player selected in the first three rounds in the last three years alone: Northern Iowa, Villanova, Youngstown State, Charlotte, South Carolina State and Division III Hobart.
This is slightly unfair, of course (and not because Hobart went 9-2 last year). The years after the death of Randy Walker were completely barren on the field and that translated to the draft, which is by no means anyone’s fault. Long-term, Northwestern hasn’t exactly been a powerhouse of NFL talent in the past 25 years. However, you could usually count on one or two Northwestern players making it to the first three rounds of the draft along with some mid-level prospects during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The problem is that guys like Trai Essex (3rd round in 2005), Napoleon Harris (2nd round in 2002) and Castillo are outliers now.
As you can see by this graph, Northwestern players are going later and later in the draft over the past 20 years. The correlation isn’t very strong (r=0.08), but it’s certainly far from any improvement. It’s mostly influenced by the fact that Fitzgerald hasn’t been able to produce any of those three sub-100 dots on the bottom left. The sample size is far from significant, but there aren’t 2,000 Monte Carlo simulations of NFL Drafts, so it’s the best we have.
This is not a surprise. As the tradition goes, Northwestern, first and foremost, is an academically-focused institution based on a culture of long-term growth. Northwestern keeps it players for four years, and that hurts their draft stock. Northwestern can’t regularly recruit the kinds of players that make NFL scouts pay attention. It’s just how it goes. The standards are kept low. Northwestern has at least gotten fringe NFL players into the league over the past few years, which is an improvement over the blank stretch from 2007-2009.
But in 2017, I think this narrative is faltering for a few reasons. For one, Northwestern is now getting top athletes. Odenigbo and Walker were both top prospects at some point in their careers, and yet something happened on the way to draft day. Northwestern players such as Dan Vitale, Dean Lowry and Odenigbo always seem to impress in the combine. Anthony Walker Jr. was, again, a third-team All-American as a sophomore. Northwestern is not a school of four-year climbers like Austin Carr. Despite the academic restrictions, Fitzgerald and the recruiting staff are trying to and getting NFL-ready athletes. Yet somehow, they still don’t get taken in the first two days.
Some of this is the NFL’s fault. The NFL has become obsessed with youth due to the salary cap rules. This has hurt the quality of the NFL, but it’s also making the Northwestern expectation of a fourth year extremely costly in terms of draft value. The NFL, frankly, is also still not very good at evaluating talent. Trevor Siemian, a good NFL quarterback, should probably have been a first or second-round pick. Zach Strief (7th round, 2006) should’ve gone in the first or second rounds.
College football is also significantly better at finding and developing prospects since 1997. The competition pool to become a professional athlete is rapidly expanding. Northwestern, with its preordained drawbacks, may not be able to keep up.
On the other hand, the lack of player development at Northwestern has to be concerning. While Siemian was undervalued by the NFL, he was also clearly undercut by playing in Northwestern’s offense. If he played at a big school with a good offense like Bryce Petty at Baylor (a fourth-round pick in Siemian’s year), I doubt Siemian would have gone in the back end of the seventh, even though he’s much, much better than Bryce Petty (sorry, Jets fans).
This year, it’s a similar story. Odenigbo’s recruiting pedigree withered over four years. Maybe that was inevitable, maybe it wasn’t. Walker declined in his junior year. Maybe that was bad injury luck. Maybe having him add weight over the offseason was bad management. The much-bemoaned decline of Northwestern’s offensive line has shut off possible top recruits from that position group. There are excuses and explanations everywhere.
There are no good solutions, but we can always look where the grass is greener. Big Ten West rivals Wisconsin and Iowa repeatedly churn out players with solid draft pedigrees. So do Stanford and Notre Dame, schools with similar academic restrictions. Heck, even Illinois has one or two such players every year. Over the past decade, that just hasn’t happened at Northwestern. Maybe Northwestern’s gotten unlucky and maybe NFL teams are dumb, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Everyone agrees that with Fitzgerald receiving big money indefinitely, Northwestern needs to start consistently challenging for Big Ten titles. Everyone agrees that landing top-tier talents in recruiting is a necessity to reach this goal.
But to recruit top players in college football, the next level has to be part of the recruiting pitch. Northwestern needs more high-end recruits like Earnest Brown IV and Devin O’Rourke to continue its progress in the Big Ten. They, presumably, want to play in the NFL. Anyone with a four-star rating or above can conceive it as a legitimate possibility. But when Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern’s highest-rated recruit ever, goes in the seventh round of the NFL Draft, the NFL angle becomes really hard to justify in the process. Northwestern players have barely sniffed guaranteed money in the NFL Draft over the last decade.
This could definitely change in the next few years. Clayton Thorson could go in the first two days, whenever he decides to leave. Godwin Igwebuike has the skills and tape to draw the attention of NFL scouts. Guys like Tyler Lancaster, Montre Hartage and Joe Gaziano could flip the script. We haven’t seen it yet, though.
It’s not Pat Fitzgerald’s main job to prepare players for the NFL. Far from it—his job is to build the best college football team to represent Northwestern that he can. This plan is going reasonably well. But I think it’s fair to say that the program will truly reach Wisconsin-esque consistency and success if two things happen. One: it starts consistently recruiting NFL talent. Two, and this is just as important if not more important: it begins developing that talent to the point where Northwestern regularly has at least a player or two taken on the first couple nights of the draft.
Even at a school with a high academic pedigree, there’s no excuse for this negative trend to continue during the next stage of Fitzgerald’s tenure. Jim Phillips is pouring money into the program’s facilities and coaches, and now Fitzgerald and his staff need to start turning recruiting momentum into draft-night momentum.