Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame in the NFL Draft under Brian Kelly

April 30, 2019
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Brian Kelly just went through his ninth NFL Draft as Notre Dame’s head coach. Six of his players were selected, tied for seventh among college football programs, and he’s had 39 of his former Fighting Irish players selected overall.

That’s a good number, but not an improvement from the previous nine drafts for Notre Dame.

Those years also saw the exact same number go off the board. Thinking of how frustrating it was for fans during that time, it’s kind of shocking to think that the total is even.

Kelly has won 81 games (.704 winning percentage) during his time in South Bend. He’s had two 12 win seasons and his teams have won 10 or more four times.

Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis combined for two 10 win seasons over that nine years and the program only won 61 games (.554 winning percentage).

It’s obvious Kelly has had more success on the field than the previous three coaches, which is why it’s puzzling to think that they’ve produced the exact same number of NFL draft picks. But the big difference between Kelly and his predecessors when it comes to developing talent is the number of players that his staff has helped become elite NFL prospects.

The nine years before Kelly saw only two Irish players selected in the first round of the draft. There have been nine under Kelly. The amount of players selected in the first three rounds (currently day one or day two picks in the draft) has gone up as well from 15 to 21.

I don’t think I need to do much to emphasize why more of those picks matter. The players who are taken then are difference makers and Kelly has developed more of them. Just look at the list of first rounders who have played for Kelly.

Michael Floyd. Harrison Smith. Tyler Eifert. Zack Martin. Ronnie Stanley. Will Fuller. Quenton Nelson. Mike McGlinchey. Jerry Tillery. Every single one of them was a player opposing coaches had to worry about going up against in one way or another.

Notre Dame needs more NFL talent on their roster every season if they’re going to take the next step of averaging double digit win seasons and winning a national title. There is no doubt Kelly has them closer to achieving that, though, mostly because he’s developed more elite players than before.

How does Notre Dame compare to other top programs?

At the top of the list for draft picks this year were Alabama (10) and Ohio State (9). That’s not surprising at all and it’s also not surprising that Nick Saban and Urban Meyer have set the bar when it comes to producing NFL Draft picks.

Over the last nine years Alabama has had 76 players selected by the NFL. 26 of them were first round picks.

26.

They have pretty much averaged three first round picks per year, which is ridiculous. Saban has had more first round picks than Kelly has had taken in the first three rounds. That’s the kind of juggernaut Kelly and everyone else is going up against.

Almost as impressive is Ohio State with 59 overall picks. 15 of them went in the first round and 37 (63%) of them were day one or day two selections. Meyer only losing nine games during his tenure in Columbus makes even more sense after learning of that.

Those two programs are a cut above everyone else. Clemson is a tier below them.

They tied Notre Dame this year with six players taken. Head coach Dabo Swinney has had 48 of his players selected over the last nine drafts. These numbers are clearly going to rise going forward with the way they’ve recruited. Three of the six players taken for them this year went in the first round and they’ve had 10 total and 23 in the the first three rounds.

One more first round pick than Notre Dame over that span might not seem like a lot, but the reason they have been a notch above the Irish on the field likely has a lot to do with them having a first round quarterback (Deshaun Watson) and 10 defensive linemen taken in the first three rounds. The Irish have not had a first round quarterback and have had only three defensive linemen taken in the first three rounds (only six D-linemen in total).

Clemson has a future first round quarterback on their roster and the defensive line talent is going to still be elite with the way they recruit the position. They aren’t going anywhere as national title contenders.

Oklahoma has had 47 players selected in the last nine drafts, but only 16 have gone off the board before round four. They’ve only had four first round picks as well.

Having two of those play quarterback and both of them the top pick in the draft is a big reason why they have made the College Football Playoff in three of the last four years. If they don’t have that, making the Playoff doesn’t happen. (And playing the Big 12 doesn’t hurt their win totals)

There is a talent gap that needs to be closed for Notre Dame to be on the same level as Alabama and Ohio State. The Clemson way might be the only way to close it, but it’s easier said than done with the quarterback position and accumulating and developing on the defensive line.

How does Notre Dame compare to their rivals?

The last decade was pretty ugly for Michigan, but Jim Harbaugh has turned things around for them in the talent department.

Michigan has 34 players taken over the last nine drafts with only five in the first round and 18 in the first three rounds. 21 of the 34 and four of the five first rounders have played for Harbaugh. Even if his teams have underachieved, he’s made them much better than they were before. Notre Dame has had 19 overall and five first rounders over that same timeframe so it’s fair to say Harbaugh has got them back to an even field with the Irish.

USC almost always finishes with higher ranked recruiting classes, yet they only had 42 players selected compared to 39 for ND. Seven went in the first round and they tied with 21 in the first three rounds.

From 2008-2016 (when the majority of the players selected signed to play college football), the Trojans signed 21 5-star recruits. Notre Dame signed nine.

USC might have brought in more recruited talent, but the difference in development has been huge for the Irish.

It’s almost eerie how Stanford has produced the same number of NFL draft picks as Notre Dame. They also have had 39 players taken with six going in the first round and 20 in the first three.

They are still developing NFL players under David Shaw so any narrative that Harbaugh did it all and Shaw rode the wave has proven to be a false one. However, they are 18-9 over the last two seasons and the Irish are 22-4. If Notre Dame beats them and has a better record this year, it’s likely a sign that the pendulum has swung towards the Irish in the rivalry.

Kelly’s NFL Draft record isn’t all that different than his record on the field at Notre Dame. It’s been good enough to be optimistic (more first round picks, the 12 win seasons), but not good enough to match the cream of the crop in college football.

Is it possible for him to get Notre Dame on an even field with those teams? Maybe it won’t be, but Clemson did it so there is at least a path that can they can attempt to follow to get there.

 
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