Ranking the top NFL talent developers 

March, 10, 2011

I had an interesting conversation last week at the combine with an NFL scout about which schools do the best job at developing players. The scout first said that the Miami Hurricanes, Auburn Tigers, USC Trojans and a few others always crank out big-time talent, adding that there's often below-the-radar guys at these schools that end up emerging as very good NFL players (he cited Jay Ratliff, Sam Shields and Matt Cassel as examples).

When I mentioned that those schools often recruit prospects that are among the most coveted, the conversation shifted to programs that seem to get more out of guys who come into the program as lower-rated recruits. Obviously, this kind of thing is really anecdotal because recruiting rankings are so subjective, but through an NFL prism, not just college records, we're looking at which programs are best at developing NFL draft talent out of unheralded recruits. For the purposes of this list, I avoided programs that consistently have top-20 recruiting classes, or as the scout said, usually "get the pick of the litter."

1. TCU Horned Frogs

Gary Patterson has created a BCS title contender in Fort Worth thanks to shrewd evaluations and great coaching, and in doing so he's turned projects into standouts. The list of Patterson's unheralded past recruits that blossomed into stars on the 13-0 Rose Bowl champs is jaw-dropping: linebacker Tank Carder (a two-star recruit), All-America safety Tejay Johnson (three-star), running back Ed Wesley (two-star) and linebacker Tanner Brock (three-star).

Patterson's 18-man 2006 class, where the rest of the nucleus of the 2010 squad came from, has to be one of the most underrated recruiting hauls of the past decade. Andy Dalton was a three-star quarterback who had split time as a high school junior and didn't have much recruiting interest until TCU offered him two weeks before signing day. Dalton was listed as ESPN's 82nd-best quarterback in the class, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon was a three-star recruit, as was defensive lineman Wayne Daniels; All-Americans Jerry Hughes (a defensive end) was a two-star who left as a first-round pick last year, while center Jake Kirkpatrick also arrived as a two-star, along with Marshall Newhouse (a fifth-round draft pick in 2010) and wide receiver Jimmy Young. Sixth-round running back Aaron Brown also was a two-star, and fellow sixth-rounder Stephen Hodge, an OLB/DB, was a three-star.

Prior to that group, Patterson struck gold in other two-star finds: Jason Phillips was listed as a two-star quarterback recruit who went on to become the only defensive player in Mountain West history to be a first- or second-team all-conference selection in four consecutive seasons; Tommy Blake was a two-star "athlete" who made All-American; and Chase Ortiz was a two-star linebacker who became a two-time all-MWC defensive end. Want to know how to elevate a program? Patterson continues to show us how it's done.