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More pros, fewer woes: How Northwestern can better sustain NFL Draft success

For as successful as the Wildcats have been in producing NFL players, the inconsistency has been telling.

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As the clock struck 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, the third day of the 2023 NFL Draft kept up its hastened pace, with the sixth round having just begun. Though the seven-hour finale can drag on, few people with purple hearts felt fatigued.

After Evan Hull was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts with the 176th overall pick, Northwestern had successfully produced four new pros: Peter Skoronski (No. 11 pick), Adetomiwa Adebawore (110), Cameron Mitchell (142) and Hull, marking the first time the program had accomplished that feat since 1985. For context, the NFL Draft had 12 rounds 38 years ago.

On top of having four Wildcats picked within the first five rounds, NU had three players — Andrew Clair, Donny Navarro III and Taishan Holmes — receive invitations to minicamps across the league. While not an entirely rare feat, the invites still underscore players that, at least, intrigue teams.

Collectively, the 2023 NFL Draft was an overwhelmingly positive one for Northwestern as a program, even with the slide of Adebawore. It marked the second time in three seasons that the ‘Cats had established a first-round pick, and a top-13 one at that. Not many programs — even the truly elite ones — can claim that. Only six programs (Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, LSU, Oregon and Florida) belong in that group with Northwestern.

However, while watching the festivities of this year’s draft, it was hard not to flash back a year ago, in which Pat Fitzgerald’s team produced zero selections. In fact, the Wildcats were the lone Big Ten program to have no players hear their names called from Las Vegas.

A year earlier, 2021 was much like 2023, with Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome II comprising 6.25% of the first-round picks in a loaded class. But, 2020 maintained a similar rhythm, with zero Northwestern players being drafted.

To have seven athletes selected in the draft in three seasons, not to mention create even more NFL players that signed as undrafted free agents, is a clear indication of an ability to develop players for the next level. Yet, to be shut out in two of the past four drafts is also somewhat alarming.

Fitzgerald and his staff have largely done well regarding recruiting, especially in light of academic hurdles that render Northwestern a bit of a unicorn in the modern college football landscape. While attracting few five-stars, the team has consistently drawn interest from four-star recruits on nearly an annual basis, landing multiple across the 247 Sports and Rivals platforms.

According to data compiled by The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman, David Ubben and Mitch Light, NU has recruited only eight four-stars since 2009, with half of them being drafted. That figure is the best in the Big Ten, albeit in a (very) small sample size.

It should come as little surprise to learn that the vast majority of Northwestern recruits are three-star players: in fact, they comprised 95.9% of recruits committing to Evanston since 2009. What’s disconcerting, though, is that just eight of those 186 three-stars ended up being drafted, at a rate of 4.3%, seventh-worst across the Power Five.

Overall, Wasserman and Ubben calculated that NU has yielded a 6.2% draft rate in that span, which is third-worst in the conference and ahead of only Purdue and Indiana. The tandem refers to the concept — of team success but few picks — as “one of the most shocking revelations from the data.”

Let’s start with the growth of top-flight recruits. While a 50% NFL rate is impressive on the surface, that figure can be misleading considering recent examples.

In 2018, Devin O’Rourke came to Evanston as a four-star prospect across both platforms, not to mention a top-300 player nationally, per 247. However, O’Rourke played only 36 snaps in his first two seasons, not becoming a full-time starter along the Wildcats’ defensive line until 2022. O’Rourke has not received any NFL interest thus far, with his playing days plausibly over.

In 2021, the ‘Cats landed four-stars in Caleb Tiernan, Mac Uihlein, Jordan Mosley and Anthony Tyus. Combined, the four saw only 140 snaps in their true first seasons. Following 2021, Mosley transferred to Mississippi State. Only Tiernan has emerged as a solidified starter along the team’s offensive line, with Uihlein and Tyus competing for spots.

In 2022, NU brought in Anto Saka and Reggie Fleurima. While Fleurima battled injury, Saka did not see the field at all, per Pro Football Focus.

The common theme from these three crops of four-stars could not be more clear: Northwestern is not allowing its young stars a chance to see the field right away.

Yes, there is value in learning a college football system and getting acclimated to the next level, but Fitzgerald’s desire to lean on older players is not only harming NU’s overall talent level — it’s also hindering the development of potential pros. Plus, having won only four games in the last two seasons, it’s not as if one could argue that the team’s roster was not problematic.

Regarding three-stars, the ‘Cats created three true success stories this year alone, boosting the play of Adebawore, Hull and Mitchell, none of whom were highly touted out of high school. At the same time, the program’s inability to consistently catalyze similar leaps for other talented players is jarring. That appears to be a coaching issue — not one of raw skill, with a good portion of athletes garnering interest from successful programs, if not being one of the top at their positions in their respective state.

Projecting 12 months from now, the Wildcats’ NFL Draft rollercoaster appears headed for another trough, mirroring the pattern that has manifested itself. The team’s best draft prospects for 2024 are likely CB Rod Heard II, OL Josh Priebe and S Coco Azema, but the latter two have long injury histories.

How, then, can Northwestern escape from this purgatory, making itself a legitimate hotbed of NFL talent? First, allow dynamos to play from the get-go, even if it upends prior systems or seasons. Beyond that, home in on maximizing player strengths, allowing athletes to shine in roles that fit them best from a scheme and personnel standpoint — even if not previously considered or not based on seniority.

To reiterate, having seven of your players’ names called in just three NFL Drafts is a rather remarkable accomplishment, especially for a program as unique as Northwestern. But, if Fitzgerald wants to augment the team’s low draft rate — and get even more euphoric hugs on draft night — tweaks such as the ones outlined have to be in order.