Alabama Coach Nick Saban has helped establish the greatest dynasty in modern college football, taking annual top-ranked recruiting classes and funneling them through a rigid, demanding culture that has produced five national championships over the past 10 seasons.
All of it has translated to NFL draft success unmatched by any other college program. In the last decade, NFL franchises have selected 77 players from the Crimson Tide, including 26 in the first round. This season, the Washington Redskins will start as many as six former Alabama players on defense alone.
In many ways, the school is a dream for those tasked with evaluating the pro potential of college stars. In others, it presents a unique challenge.
“[It’s] tough from an evaluation standpoint,” said Dane Brugler, an NFL draft analyst for the Athletic, “when you have so much talent on the field at one time.”
NFL draft experts who study game tape of Alabama players are charged with identifying which plays a player created on his own, which were set up by the elite talent around him and which came as a result of Saban’s system. Some players, such as defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Alabama’s top prospect and a projected top-five pick, transcend those questions with undeniable talent, but most undergo special scrutiny. Evaluators need to compare Alabama players to ones from programs that aren’t as stocked with talent, or might not have the same level of coaching.
“You have to be aware of the context when scouting but, especially with Alabama, you don’t want to give too much credit to the system,” said Matt Miller, the lead draft analyst at Bleacher Report. He paused. “But you have to be aware there is a system that is really well-executed, and it’s a very clean process to get these guys through there.” He paused again. “It is [difficult to parse].”
Alabama’s NFL-style defense yields more insight into how players will translate than most college schemes, but experts still vet the game tape hard because they worry the Crimson Tide’s reputation might lull them into a false sense of security.
Miller said when he scouts a player, he watches the reel of plays three times. First, he studies the player’s physical attributes through “body type and athleticism.” On the second viewing, he scrutinizes the player’s mental makeup through reads and reactions. For the third, he zeroes in on the big plays — sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions — to examine the player’s role in each. He values a player’s traits more than his college stats, but when studying Alabama players, he keeps in mind that Saban is an expert at using his players correctly in every situation.
“We think of the NFL as having the best coaches in the world, but the way these guys are used at Alabama just so perfectly fits what they’re good at,” Miller said.
Alabama’s reputation for talent development leaves its players with little room for error. NFL decision-makers assume they’ve been coached as well as they could’ve been, that they’re “maxed out,” so any fault in development lies with the player.
“A lot of times in scouting, there’s a lot of, for lack of a better word, there’s some arrogance … from NFL coaches and personnel, ‘Just give us the traits; we’ll get the best out of them,’ ” Brugler said. “But with Alabama, it’s a little different.”
Players such as Williams demand so much attention from the offense that scouts need to spend extra time evaluating those around him. Experts vary on Crimson Tide linebacker Mack Wilson — “really solid” to some, “stagnant” last season to others — but they all had more trouble scouting him they would the typical college linebacker. That’s because, according to CBS Sports NFL draft expert Chris Trapasso, Alabama’s massive defensive front typically swallowed up opposing offensive linemen, freeing Wilson to make plays.
Old questions about what Alabama players will look like outside the system have a new twist. While scouts typically want to see multiple years of production in college, Alabama is forcing them to accept less. The Crimson Tide had so much talent that Williams, arguably the best defender in the country this year, did not start before this season and, now that he’s gone, some experts suspect the next generation might be in and out just as quickly.
Some attribute the turnover to competitive recruiting, but several experts see it as Saban playing the long game. Years of grinding through games and physical practices used to mean Alabama players entered the NFL with a reputation for being worn down, Miller said, but now “that’s not as much the case.”
Barton Simmons, the national college recruiting expert for CBS Sports, said he believes Saban understands that less wear and tear in college can lead to longer pro careers, which makes his pitch to future recruits stronger.
“The NFL draft is Nick Saban’s No. 1 recruiting tool,” Simmons said.
But even when some of his players have logged less game action, NFL personnel trust Saban’s track record.
“As much as we talk about potential, about high upside in the draft, some teams want high floor,” Trapasso said. “They want someone who won’t bust out of the league.”
For all of its challenges, scouts enjoy watching Alabama games and the wealth of talent on the field. Miller said watching the Crimson Tide is “one of the most fun things I get to do,” and he jokes with family and friends that, when Alabama plays Georgia, LSU or Clemson on a Saturday night in the fall, he’ll watch the game 20 times in the next three years for all the players he’ll have to scout.
Recently, Miller was watching tape of Williams. Not because he had to — he was already convinced the defensive tackle is a future star — but because he appreciated the play. Then something else caught his eye. The sophomore linebacker in the middle of the field made a great tackle. Then the freshman cornerback on the outside broke up a long pass. For a few plays, he watched them instead. He understood that, soon enough, the future would be here.
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