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Notre Dame Football

Learning from the 1st Round of the NFL Draft

May 1, 2023

The first round of the NFL Draft ended with Michael Mayer still waiting for his name to be called. There are people who speculated that it had to do with his arms being short or him not testing well enough with his agility, but it’s more of a reflection of how the NFL values the position in the draft than Mayer’s ability or potential.

The Las Vegas Raiders eventually chose him early in the second round and told him they had him ranked 15th on their board. He might have been that high for other teams who passed on him as well, but team need and position value often take importance over that.

Only one tight end was drafted in the first round. There were two running backs, one linebacker, and no safeties or interior offensive line selected, which is partly a reflection of the prospects at those positions, but mostly about NFL franchises once again making it clear that the most valuable positions on the field are quarterback (three drafted), wide receiver (four), edge defenders (seven), defensive tackle (four), offensive tackle (five), and cornerback (four).

First round draft picks for college football programs matter. They matter for recruiting the next top prospect to join your program and they matter even more on the field. Just ask the back to back national champs.

That 2021 Georgia defense was historically loaded. It had seven players who ended up being first round draft picks.

Georgia added three more total first round picks to the five they had last year. The three teams who made the most recent College Football Playoff all had at least one first round selection on their roster. Ohio State tied Georgia with three, TCU had one, and Michigan had one.

Looking back at the first round picks this year, it’s instructive to examine it from a Notre Dame perspective.

Which players would they have liked a mulligan on in the evaluation process? Which players did they have a chance with in recruiting, but didn’t land? How many players were there that they never really had a chance with? How could they have done better with those key positions?

Let’s dive into it.

Mistakes were made by everyone

The first thing that has got to be done is get the players who weren’t valued enough by most top programs out of the way.

Edge Tyree Wilson, edge Luke Van Ness, cornerback Devon Witherspoon, tight end Dalton Kincaid, edge Will McDonald, linebacker Jack Campbell, defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, wide receiver Zay Flowers, cornerback Deonte Banks, and edge Felix Anudike-Uzomah all fit into the “Wish we could hop into the DeLorean and gun it 88” to go back in time and offer for many, many programs.

None of these players were blue-chip recruits and there are various reasons for it, some of which I mentioned in a 6 Thoughts piece back in March. Doing a deeper dive into how players like that can be identified better is something left for another day, though.

It’s important to separate those 10 guys and also note that everybody else who was selected was a 4 or 5-star recruit. That meant 21 of 31 were blue-chips.

Gems can sometimes be hidden, but in the grand scheme of things, stars matter.

Mistakes were made by Notre Dame

I don’t think it’s fair to list all of the players Notre Dame didn’t offer here. There’s reasons for that with each individual and it can be anything from academics, lack of interest, character concerns, or poor evaluations. To say Notre Dame blew it with so-and-so would be taking a general stance when more examination is required.

This is also a different staff than the one who recruited this group of players so I doubt it’s even worth it to look back on all of these players to see who couldn’t get into school or who they should have gone to go see during an evaluation period. The overall recruiting philosophy is different now than it was then.

With all of that being said, there are three players who were first round picks last night that Notre Dame could have used a do-over with. Maybe they wouldn’t have landed them, but I bet they wish they handled things differently. 

Number one is the first pick in the draft, Bryce Young.

He was on the radar for Notre Dame. He was at Irish Invasion before he had started a high school game. It was obvious he had the chance to be special when he was in 8th grade.

He was never offered by Notre Dame. Tommy Rees and Brian Kelly can’t say they were scared away by his size. The quarterback they took that cycle was Drew Pyne. They focused on him exclusively super early in the process.

Maybe Notre Dame wouldn’t have landed Young or even had much of a chance, but him showing up to Irish Invasion when he was so young indicated he was interested. They fumbled this one.

CJ Stroud was in that same class. He was a late-riser who went from a 3-star to one of the top quarterbacks that cycle. He won the Elite 11 MVP and at that time the schools he was focusing on were Cal and Baylor.

Would offering him have impacted Pyne’s recruitment? Probably. Would it have been worth it if they had a chance to land the eventual second pick in the draft? Definitely.

Ohio State didn’t offer until October and they had a quarterback committed for a long time in the class, but thought Stroud was too good to not pursue. They were right.

Jordan Addison is one of the more frustrating misses for Notre Dame because they did offer and did want him. They liked him more as a defensive back than receiver, though. If they had pushed at receiver for the future Biletnikoff winner, it could have been a different story with his commitment to Pitt.

He had an awesome senior year and eventually jumped up to elite status as a recruit.

Who they were in the mix for

It’s not a long list.

Offensive tackle Paris Johnson considered Notre Dame. I don’t know how realistic it was going to be for them to beat out his home state school for his signature, but they certainly tried and he did get on campus.

They were also in the mix for offensive tackle/guard Peter Skoronski and really did want him in their class.

They had cornerback Christian Gonzalez on an official visit, but it never got further than that. Notre Dame definitely thought highly of his talent.

Defensive tackle Mazi Smith visited multiple times and Mike Elston liked him as a prospect. He did get to coach him eventually at Michigan. I think Smith was trending away from Notre Dame as well as the class filling up with players at his position, but it was probably more of him not really feeling the fit at Notre Dame over anything else.

Were never going to sign with Notre Dame

Again, I want to reiterate that reasons vary for not being in the mix with some of these first round picks, but I think it is noteworthy to look at where all of those players are from.

Will Anderson (Georgia)

Bijan Robinson (Arizona)

Anthony Richardson (Florida)

Jalen Carter (Florida)

Nolan Smith (Georgia)

Darnell Wright (West Virginia)

Emmanuel Forbes (Mississippi)

Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia)

Broderick Jones (Georgia)

Anton Harrison (DC)

Bryan Bresee (Maryland)

Myles Murphy (Georgia)

Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Texas)

Quentin Johnston (Texas)

Wright and Robinson are the outliers, but just about everybody else were from areas where Notre Dame has not typically been able to land the top players from those states. It’s not that they have never been able to land them from Georgia, Florida, and Texas in the past, but it’s been infrequent.

For the most part, players from those states are sticking around the SEC.

I’m not sure if Notre Dame can ever flip that and go into those spots to consistently land the best players from those regions, but that’s the challenge they are facing.

Examining the positions

We can start with the wide receivers and three of four that went in round one were blue-chips. Flowers was the exception, but Smith-Njigba and Johnston were top-100 recruits. Smith-Njigba was the only 5-star.

Addison was a 3-star for a good portion of the process, but made a big jump as a senior to become a composite 4-star. I had him as a borderline Fab 50 level prospect.

Notre Dame receiver recruiting has improved with Chansi Stuckey and they have their own 5-star commit in Cam Williams‍. Everything is pointing in the right direction for them here.

Two of the four defensive tackles were 5-stars (Bresee and Carter) and Smith was a 4-star. Kancey was a low 3-star and was undersized (264). He never ended up with the NFL size they covet, but his twitch proved to be elite. It was a tremendous evaluation by Pitt defensive line coach Charlie Partridge.

Notre Dame tried to go the Aaron Donald/Sheldon Day route with players like Jayson Ademilola and Howard Cross. They are good players, but those players rarely become first round picks like Donald and Kancey.

Al Washington has done a good job landing blue-chip interior prospects who are bigger, but Notre Dame has not landed the 5-star types yet. Out of the five offensive tackles, three were in the ISD Fab 50 (Wright, Johnson, and Jones) and the other two were also 4-stars.

It’s pretty clear that programs have to recruit tackles that fit a certain profile, which is why landing the Fab 50 guys like Blake Fisher and the guys with massive frames like Joe Alt are important.

I don’t think anyone can harshly judge Joe Rudolph with his recruiting at this point and it doesn’t help that this cycle is one of the weakest years at the position in recent memory, but I don’t envision Notre Dame struggling to find potential first round tackles no matter who is recruiting the position.

The corner position is very interesting because there’s the diamond in the rough in Witherspoon, who only had one Power 5 offer and was focused on basketball for most of his high school career. Banks is another who slipped a bit under the radar, but looking back at him in high school, he had indicators from track and field and the size that suggested he could be great if developed.

Gonzalez was a 4-star, but the main thing that made him one was the athletic testing combined with his size. Forbes was a 4-star prospect as well who excelled in multiple sports. None of the four were top-100 recruits.

This is the position where being an elite athlete and hitting the thresholds for size and arm length is extremely important. Mike Mickens knows what he’s looking for at the position and I think we’ll see a cornerback selected in the first round from Notre Dame sometime in the near future and that hasn’t happened in over 30 years.

Finishing off with the first round edge defenders, it’s a mix of 5-star talent (Anderson, Murphy, and Smith) and the other four who were all 3-stars or lower.

Just look at the accomplishments from players like Wilson (District defensive MVP, second team all-state), Van Ness (first team all-state), Anudike-Uzomah (first team all-state), and McDonald (first team all-state, state champion in discus), and it’s pretty clear that these were bad evaluations all around.

Too many coaches failed to project how good these guys could be and recruiting services didn’t acknowledge their senior film enough to properly rank them. You learn from the evaluations you get wrong even more than ones you get right. These players are examples of how everyone wasn’t doing a good enough job evaluating edge rushers.

Notre Dame wants to land the Keon Keeley’s and Elijah Rushing’s. Those elite guys matter. Landing blue-chip talent is important and Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Isaiah Foskey are perfect examples of that for Notre Dame.

The projections matter with the ones who aren’t 5-stars too as we saw with four players in this NFL Draft. I really like what Washington did with identifying a late bloomer like Armel Mukam and flipping his commitment from Stanford in the most recent class. Getting in early on Bryce Young, another player who has shown tremendous physical growth, is another win in this current cycle. Some of the evaluations that Washington has made with some players who weren’t rated as elite prospects when Notre Dame offered have been impressive.

Notre Dame has some great players at some high value positions (Joe Alt, Blake Fisher, and Benjamin Morrison) on their roster right now. They obviously need more of them at all of these positions in order to produce more first round picks in the future.

I think their approach of evaluating and recruiting the higher value positions has improved with the current staff. It will be interesting to see how that translates into producing top NFL prospects in the next few years.

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