Every year we marvel after the NFL draft about how many prospects are plucked from the top college football programs around the nation.
We also look back and revere the late-round “steals” who are dug up in the latter stages of the very same draft.
We act surprised, for whatever reason, that a player from Marshall or Southern Mississippi or wherever could find success in the NFL after not being jumped on by teams in the early rounds of the draft.
Are small school prospects given a fair shot in the NFL draft?
The football world is an interesting one, that’s for sure. We give credit where it’s due but usually after the fact. It’s the process itself that fails us. It leads us to believe these small-school prospects aren’t as talented or capable of succeeding because they didn’t attend Notre Dame, USC, Alabama, Florida, or LSU et al.
Any number of factors can contribute to a player choosing a small school over the big boys. The truth is we don’t know why they ended up where they did.
The truth is these players are often just as talented as their big school counterparts. Eventually, talent rises to the top. But these players must go through a rockier road than their peers.
Is it fair? Is it ideal? Not really. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that, by design, give big school NFL prospects an advantage over those hailing from smaller programs.
First Off, What is the Current Situation?
Of the top 25 prospects in the 2013 NFL draft class—according to CBS Sports’ rankings—only two are from a non-major college football program (Central Michigan and BYU).
For our purposes, we’ll identify any school that does not participate in the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC, MWC or Big East as a non-major. Prospects from FCS schools, the real "small schools" face an even steeper climb than FBS players who don't belong to a school in one of those conferences.
So 23 of the top 25 prospects in 2013 are household names who played their college ball at recognizable schools. Got it.
Although, those two prospects who did make the list are ranked within the top four of that ranking—that’s still a pretty telling number.
Let’s look a little bit deeper.
Over the past 10 years, only 15 of the 320 first-round selections came from these non-major programs. Just one, Byron Leftwich from Marshall, was selected in the top 10.
There are some reasons for this disparity.
Strength of Opponents
Standout athletes at non-major programs are at an automatic disadvantage before the process even begins. They are thought to be playing against inferior competition in comparison to their peers, somewhat marginalizing their accomplishments.
This creates a perception that in order for one of these players to be capable of succeeding in the NFL, they must do something incredible. Such standouts are the 15 players mentioned earlier who have transcended into the first round of the draft.
This kind of thinking, though, leads teams to pass over eventual Pro Bowlers in favor of selecting a similar, safer, player from a major program.
More Eyes on the Prize
Perceptions aside, major program prospects have the advantage of added exposure working for them too.
Most major programs also have close associations with NFL scouting departments. They promote their players, make recommendations, and provide insight that wouldn’t be readily available otherwise.
The added bonus of increased television exposure shouldn’t be discounted, either. Scouts might not base their evaluations on this much, if at all, but the more buzz gained by a prospect through this route definitely doesn’t hurt a player’s chances of being noticed and scrutinized further.
Scratch Beneath the Surface
Another thing to consider when examining prospects from non-majors is that they will have undoubtedly improved after three or four years of college football. The same player who wasn’t offered a scholarship by Alabama may have worked hard in the gym and been coached up and developed into a very talented individual during the course of their career.
The best NFL scouting departments are the groups who go deep below the surface to scourge up talent and improve their rosters. Championships are won by finding players where others don’t find value or think to look.
Just remember to laugh the next time you hear about a miracle happening when a late-round, small-school prospect “shocks” us all and finds success in the NFL.
Mike is a league-wide NFL featured columnist and Breaking News Team writer with Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and continue the conversation: