One metric of a program’s success seems to be how well its players do on Draft Day(-s), that time of year when the former non-profit known as the National Football League selects the athletes who will fill its ranks until the next season. Last year, for example, Florida State had eleven players drafted. But does a team’s record have any effect on its NFL draft success? For the Fighting Irish, the answer might be “maybe.”
As I dug into the data, and kudos to the NFL for its historical draft tracker thingamabob, I was surprised at how well Notre Dame fared through periods of poor performance on the field. For example, Notre Dame saw four players go in the 2008 draft, on the heels of a 3-9 season. This is where things get tough for an Arts and Letters major like yours truly: the draft occurs BEFORE the season, so that the 2006 draft took players who just completed the 2005 season. Make sense?
Another complexity is that the NFL draft hasn’t always had the same number of rounds as it does today (seven). For example, in 1936, Notre Dame’s Wayne Millner was selected by the Boston Redskins in the eighth round of a nine round draft. In 1990, Dean Brown went in the twelfth and final round to the Indianapolis Colts. In 2014, the Irish had two players, Bennett Jackson and T.J. Jones, taken in the sixth of seven rounds. Thus, you can certainly make the case that DaVaris Daniels would have gone somewhere between the eighth and twelfth rounds, had they been available to him, in 2015.
For what it’s worth, Notre Dame is second historically for the number of players (486) it has put into the NFL. USC is in first, with 493.
I went back to 1980 for this study. That was Dan Devine’s last year at the head of the program, and just a couple of seasons after the 1977 championship. In the 1980 draft, six Notre Dame players got drafted, one in the first round and two in the second.
The Faust years (1981-1984) saw some tough records, sure, but the NFL still had love for Notre Dame. Six players went in 1981 and 1983. Five went in 1984 and four went in 1985. Three were drafted in 1982.
The Holtz years (1986-1996) were, well, the Holtz years. Impressive records (12-0, 12-1, 10-1-1, 11-1) and a national championship (1988) were accompanied by some gaudy draft-day performances. The 1990 draft saw eight players go, though none were first-rounders. 1991 had ten players go, six of whom went in the first five rounds. 1992 saw eight players go. 1993 had nine players selected, four of whom went in the first round. 1994 had another ten drafted, with three in the first round and three in the third. 1996 was, however, an historically bad draft year, as only one player, Shawn Wooden, was drafted and then only in the sixth round.
Bob Davie (1997-2001) was an all-over-the-place coach insofar as draft performance goes. Four were drafted in 1997, one in 1998, seven in 1999, one in 2000, and seven in 2001. During these years, there does seem to be a correlation between record and the number of draftees as four went in the 1997 draft after going 8-3, while one went in 2000 after a crummy 5-7 season (1999).
Whatever larder Bob Davie left behind and whatever recruiting magic Tyrone Willingham was able to work during his time in South Bend (2002-2004) produced some very good classes for Notre Dame. In Ty’s first year, 2002, six players went and seven went in 2003, on the heels of a fine 10-3 season in 2002.
The 2004 draft saw a drop-off in the draft, down to four players, none of whom were first-rounders. This, on the heels of a 5-7 campaign, lends credence to an immediate connection between the record and the draft.
Charlie Weis (2005-2009) had two players go in his first draft year, which followed Ty’s final season record of 6-6. Weis’s best draft year was in 2007, when seven players rode his decided schematic advantage to NFL contracts. This, too, came the year after a great, 10-3, season. But to weigh against that correlation, four players went in the 2008 draft after going 3-9 on the field.
Brian Kelly (2010-present) has seen mixed success in the draft. Only one player went in 2011 and only one went last year. He had a solid run of classes, though, across 2012 (four), 2013 (six) and 2014 (eight). This year’s draft is shaping up to be another great one for the Irish, with four players featuring in the projected Top 100.
Maybe its that they’re so fresh in my memory, but Kelly’s draft classes seem to get the benefit of the doubt. What I mean is that his best draft, 2014, came off a 9-4 season in 2013 and the 2012 draft had four selections after back-to-back 8-5 seasons. What the league will make of 2015’s 10 wins remains to be seen.
The 2016 draft could be an historic one for the Irish.