Where Does NFL Talent Come From?
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If there is anything all NFL players have in common, it is that they are part of an exclusive group of men that have reached the highest level of professional football.
Millions of people worldwide are playing football, but a number smaller than 2,000 will decide the events of the 2013 season.
Where does this elite talent come from?
We just experienced another draft, which is a grueling process of studying film on hundreds of prospects from hundreds of colleges. Before that, these players were part of the many thousands of high schools that play football.
Some players take a short path to the NFL.
Running back Lamar Miller was born in Miami, Florida. He went to Miami Killian High School. He then attended the University of Miami in Florida. Finally, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins in the 2012 draft.
Other players are not as fortunate (or willing) to stay in one place.
Punter Ben Graham was born in Geelong, Australia. He attended Deakin University in Australia, but played Australian rules football. He was a standout player in the Australian Football League. It was not until 2005 that he made his NFL debut as a punter at the ripe age of 31.
Since everyone likes a good origin story, let’s dive into the data on where NFL talent comes from.
Some liberties were taken to acquire all of this data. Since current rosters are loaded (roughly 90 players per team) with many players that will not make the final cut, we wanted to look at a sample of players that actually played in the NFL.
Roster data from the 2012 season was compiled from Pro-Football-Reference for each team. This includes only players that played in at least one game last season.
A total of 1,947 players were studied.
This group was then further analyzed by roster data from NFL.com. Some differences exist in where the player was born. In some cases, Wikipedia was also used. Noting where the player went to high school would have been good to have, but we are sticking with place of birth here.
For colleges, players attending multiple schools only had their most recent school counted.
In determining the conference and level of college football, we used the 2012 NCAA distinctions in every single case. Teams are obviously experiencing a lot of conference movement, but to not lose sanity over the research this method had to be implemented.
This means that someone like Reggie Wayne technically played in the Big East at Miami, but he gets counted as an ACC player since that’s where the Hurricanes play now.
So is the college breakdown a perfect reflection? No, but it still provides a good picture.
Drafted vs. Undrafted Players
You likely have noticed teams sign a healthy amount of undrafted free agents immediately following the draft each April. These hopefuls will compete for a roster spot this summer, but the chances of making it that far are slim.
But how slim? We can give a good estimate from this data.
Of the 1,947 players, 1,374 (70.6 percent) were an NFL draft pick. That means roughly three out of every 10 players in the NFL were in fact undrafted, so there is hope.
There may not be many standout stories like Tony Romo or Arian Foster, but undrafted players continue to be a necessary part of the team-building strategy.
Where Were They Born?
Where a person was born is not necessarily indicative of where they will live, such as Robert Griffin III being born in Okinawa, Japan. He is the only active NFL player born in Japan, but has lived his life in Washington, New Orleans and Texas.
No one will be surprised to learn most players were born in the United States (97.12 percent), but the breakdown still produced some interesting results:
Most of the births in foreign countries were more about the family’s circumstances at the time rather than any ethnic ties to the country. Though you have to imagine many Raiders fans were cracking Polish jokes after kicker Sebastian Janikowski was drafted in the first round in 2000, only to find out he was in fact born in Poland before moving to the States.
Several of the international players are kickers. Scotland has produced Graham Gano and Lawrence Tynes. We mentioned Ben Graham before, but Saverio Rocca was another Australian-born punter. You can say Graham paved the way for him as Rocca made his NFL debut in 2007 at age 33.
Germany is the top international country with 11 players. Nine of them have been drafted since 2008. New England’s Sebastian Vollmer, a true German, has been the best player. He was also the highest-drafted (58th overall in 2009) until the Colts took Bjoern Werner with the 24th pick in this year’s draft.
Of the 56 international-born players, Osi Umenyiora has been the most impressive in the NFL. He was actually born in London, England and is Nigerian. He lived in Nigeria until the family moved to Auburn, Alabama. He lists his location as “Global” on his Twitter account.
Now let’s focus on the 1,891 players born in the United States.
You might expect most players come from California and Texas, because that’s usually how this country’s population beaks down.
That is true. They are the top two states, though let’s do a comparison by percentage of 2012 NFL players in each state to percentage of U.S. population by state in 2010.
The percentages for total 2010 U.S. population come from Wikipedia. This is sorted by descending U.S. Rank, but you can see the direct comparison to where they rank in the NFL along with the exact number of players and percentages:
In addition to the 50 states, the U.S. claims the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), the Virgin Islands and American Samoa as its territory.
The correlation coefficient between the two sets of percentages is 0.92, so there is a strong relationship at work.
California may be king with 258 NFL players, but long live the south. No state has a higher differential of NFL players compared to the expected population than Florida (3.77 percent). No state sees a bigger drop than New York (3.33 percent), which truly is the melting pot of America.
Football just works better in the south, which we know from the dominance in college football, but more on that later. States like Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi all see a healthy surplus of NFL players.
Four states (New Hampshire, Rhode Island, North Dakota and Vermont) have no NFL players.
Samoan players are nothing new in the NFL, but four come from the island known as American Samoa, which is U.S. territory. It is adjacent to Samoa, which is not under U.S. control. The only player from Samoa is Ropati Pitoitua. The top player right now from American Samoa is San Francisco’s Mike Iupati.
It all just goes to show you can be born anywhere and still make it to the NFL.
Where Did They Go to College?
These 1,947 players combined to attend 256 different colleges, which again only counts one school (the most recent) per player.
A total of 16 schools had at least 25 players. Here is that list of the most attended colleges, and we have a tie at the top:
No real surprises here. Just seven players did not go to a college in the United States. Ben Graham went to Deakin in Australia and the only player not to go to college at all was the aforementioned Aussie punter Sav Rocca.
These five players attended a college in Canada: Akiem Hicks (Regina), Cory Greenwood (Concordia), Israel Idonije (Manitoba), Jon Ryan (Regina) and Vaughn Martin (Western Ontario).
Idonije was born in Nigeria (Africa) before moving to Canada, so his journey to the NFL is probably the longest of any active player. He has spent the last nine seasons with the Chicago Bears.
As for college conferences, these players combined to play in 48 different ones. Please remember we are basing this on 2012 conference alignments.
If you have heard of all of these conferences before, consider yourself the world’s most extreme college football fan.
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) flexes its big muscles once again, leading the way with 329 players (16.9 percent). That percentage will likely continue to grow as the 2013 draft just had a conference record 63 players taken from the SEC.
The SEC, ACC, Pacific 12, Big Ten and Big 12 are the five “power conferences” in college football. Here they account for 1,220 players, or 62.7 percent of the full sample.
Obviously the elite talent in NCAA football is going to be scooped up by the best schools, but many successful players still find their way to the NFL through a school with a lesser reputation.
The following breaks down the number of players by level of college football, which is also based on 2012 structure:
There is the Football Bowl Subdivision, known as FBS (formerly Division I-A). Those are the big boys, which is obvious by the fact they make up 86.9 percent of the 2012 NFL.
The lesser teams play in the Football Championship Subdivision, known as FCS (formerly Division I-AA). This includes conferences like the Big Sky, Big South, Ivy League and Patriot League.
Wrapping up NCAA schools, you have very small programs in Division II and Division III.
Just nine 2012 players have made it from Division III, but the Washington Redskins have two of the best in London Fletcher (John Carroll) and Pierre Garcon (Mount Union). Garcon’s Mount Union Purple Raiders have dominated Division III, winning 11 championships since 1993. Jacksonville receiver Cecil Shorts is also a product of Mount Union.
The other six Division III players include: Andy Studebaker (Wheaton), Fred Jackson (Coe), Jason Trusnik (Ohio Northern), Jerrell Freeman (Mary-Hardin Baylor), Kyle Miller (Mount Union) and Michael Preston (Heidelberg).
The Canadian schools play in what is known as Canadian Interuniversity Sport. The only other group is the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). These are the only four players that went to such schools: Armond Smith (Union College), Damon Harrison (William Penn), Tanner Purdum (Baker) and Tramaine Brock (Bellhaven).
You should know by now which two players did not have a college conference. If not, well crikey, mate.
Conclusion: A More Global Game Is Coming
This was just a (long) snapshot of 2012 NFL rosters, but moving forward you can expect the game to become more global. Not only will more players be born outside of the United States, but they will be natives to their countries.
We have seen the globalization of the NBA with many European players and a Chinese superstar with rare talent like Yao Ming. Some day the top quarterback prospect in the draft might be from China.
Sure, get your Timmy Chang jokes in now, but this is where the game is headed.
Football was not always the most popular sport in America, but current and future generations will grow up in a world where it is, which makes access to playing it easier, and not just for kids in America.
You can see the NFL’s efforts to bring a game to London every year and to potentially place a franchise overseas. Globalization is crucial to maximizing profits, but there is a real growing interest in the game in other countries. Today’s technology makes the NFL that much more accessible to those not living in America.
There was already a sign of this in the 2013 draft with a player like Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah going as the No. 5 pick to Detroit. Ansah was born in Ghana, did not watch football as a kid and did not even play the game until three years ago. Yet here he is as a top five pick. If he flops, then that may deter some teams in the future, but if he’s a success it will just fuel more selections like this one.
Carolina rookie Star Lotulelei was born in Tonga. The aforementioned Bjoern Werner is another German-drafted player. Menelik Watson, the second-round offensive tackle taken by the Raiders, comes from Manchester, England.
The trends will continue with more foreign players and more underclassmen being drafted high. Teams are not going to shy away from any potential talent. If they think a guy can play, his background is not going to slow down the process of finding greatness.
About the only thing left to check for these days is Rolando McClain-type baggage off the field.
There will always be a ton of people playing football, but only a select few will make it to the NFL. Once there, things can go many different ways, but just getting there is an unbelievable accomplishment when you break it down.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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