By the end of April’s draft, 10 prospects from Alabama had been plucked off the board, most from any school (Ohio State trailed in second with nine). This group of Crimson Tide rookies was led by Quinnen Williams to the Jets with the third pick, the first of three first-rounders to emerge from Nick Saban’s pro factory. Jonah Williams and Joshua Jacobs followed on Day 1.
Seven more Crimson Tide players (Irv Smith, Damien Harris, Christian Miller, Deionte Thompson, Ross Piersbacher, Mack Wilson and Isaiah Buggs) would land with pro teams before festivities wrapped in Nashville. What’s remarkable is that this was actually a “down” year for Saban in comparison to last spring.
If you stepped out for extra chips or drink during the 2018 draft, you were seemingly liable to miss another Tide player gone off the board. In total, Alabama set a record with 12 players selected, including four in the first round, tying a school record.
All three of those four-first-rounder years have come under Saban, all this decade (2018, 2017, 2012).
Though the Tuscaloosa program’s success feels inevitable, it’s only in the last decade that Alabama has truly taken flight as an NFL pollinizer. The same can be said for Saban himself.
Not that Saint Nick was a slouch at Michigan State or LSU before he found his groove at Alabama. It’s just that his success with the Spartans and Tigers felt normal, within the bounds of accepted reason. During 10 years combined at MSU and LSU, Saban helped put a respectable 39 players into the pro ranks, an average of just under four players a year.
Then, Saban went to the crossroads in the form of a two-year stint with the Dolphins. It was only after Saban returned to the college ranks in 2007 with Alabama that he truly began to put together a pipeline to the NFL. Even that took a beat. Alabama had no players drafted in 2008 -- none -- but it’s been a completely different story since.
Keep that combined number of drafted players from Michigan State and LSU in mind: 39 over the span of 10 years. Child’s play in comparison to Bama’s recent deluge. In a similar 10-year time span at Alabama (2009-2019), Saban’s assembly line has churned out 87 NFL picks, an average of almost nine a year.
The sheer numbers are impressive, made all the more so when put in context of Alabama’s pace pre-Saban. From 1936-2000, the Crimson Tide placed 30 players into the first round. That’s a span of 65 seasons. In just 12 seasons under Saban, Alabama has churned out 29 first-round selections.
This fevered burst of draft success directly correlates to Alabama’s unparalleled success in high school recruiting under Saban. While high four-star and five-star prospects are no locks for the NFL no matter how much promise they show in the prep ranks -- and one- and two-star prospects are not automatic lost causes -- he consistently works from a position of strength.
By Rivals standards, Alabama has landed the top recruiting class in the country in seven of the last 10 cycles. Only once in that space, in 2018, did Bama finish with a class ranked outside the top-five. That seventh-ranked wobble still saw them sign three five-star recruits and 13 four-star recruits.
That constantly refilling recruiting spring comes as something of a double-edged sword for Saban, though. Because Alabama has developed into such a hot jumping off point for the pros, Saban has had to make concerted efforts to get some of his kids to even consider returning after their initial draft-eligible year. When first-rounder to-be defensive tackle Raekwon Davis opted to return to school over the winter, it came as a surprise.
Saban stresses the need to take a measured, logical approach. He stresses this from the initial recruitment of players onward through their careers in Tuscaloosa. Explained Saban this spring, “I tell every recruit that I talk to, ‘The reason that you are going to college is to prepare yourself for the day you can’t play football. I think we have a lot of people way back in high school that look at college as a conduit to get to the NFL.”
Saban doesn’t have a flat policy of recommending players return to school -- as with most everything he does as a coach, there’s flexibility, here -- but told the media that he tries as best he can to advise his potential pro prospects to “be smart about the business decisions they make relative to the NFL.”
That’s not to say that Saban immediately casts questionable decision-makers out to the wilderness. He insists that even players who take unwarranted early jumps receive his full support, as he has all the incentive in the world for those players to be drafted.
It’s a delicate push-pull, between what players want, their own self-interests and the interests of the coach and program. Sometimes the tug of war can get a little awkward, as was the case with current Jaguars safety Ronnie Harrison. Harrison declared early last winter and was subsequently selected in the third round.
Saban used Harrison’s case -- without naming names -- to illustrate a point, saying that, “He’d be the first guy taken at his position this year, probably, and make $15-18 million more [if he had returned in 2018]” and noting that with the early entrant landing in the third round, “the agent makes out, the club makes out, and now they’ve got a guy that’s going to play for that kind of [third-round] money for three more years.”
Harrison proceeded to lash out on Twitter, writing that “Coaches get so Butt Hurt Now Days About a Kid Making a Decision to live out his dreams and Go Pro. Makes me think do you really care about the success of the kid or how well your program performs?”
And just to make sure everybody understood his reference, he included #Saban. Despite the sometime clash of conflicts, Saban insists that he is “100-percent NFL” and “100 percent guys have careers.”
Alabama, of course, is not the only program which deals with the awkward dance of ill-advised early declarations. That’s an everybody issue, and one that’s not going to fade. This spring, a record 144 undergraduates entered the draft. 49 of those players went undrafted altogether, including Crimson Tide CB Saivion Smith.
Smith, it should be noted, was the only Bama early entrant in the draft class to hit the UDFA draft pile. Every other prospect Alabama put out there made the NFL’s seven-round cut. Let’s touch on the UDFA draft pile for a moment, because Saban has some thoughts on it.
The increasing mass of declarations -- and the increasing mass of undrafted kids -- has led to talk that players should be allowed to return to school if they declare and go unloved by the NFL.
The poster child of this idea would be Buffalo Bulls QB Tyree Jackson. Jackson declared after looking for all intents and purposes like he was going to transfer. It was ultimately a poor decision. For all of his athletic talent, the NFL treadmill simply moves too fast for patient development. Another year in college, who knows.
Saban wants no part of a rubber band system that would allow kids to snap back to college if they choose poorly, though. When asked about the idea around the draft, he immediately brought up logistical issues, noting that “[y]ou could kiss spring practice goodbye. You wouldn’t know what kind of team … or who would be on your team for the next year. How would you know how many guys you could recruit if you don’t know how many guys are coming back to the team?”
For their success as an NFL assembly line, there is one last draft mountain which Saban has been unable to truly conquer -- that of the No. 1 pick. In fact, Alabama has not had a player drafted first overall since Harry Gilmore in 1948. Saban just missed this spring, when Quinnen Williams -- arguably the most talented player in the class -- went No. 3 to the Jets.
In an alternate universe, where Kliff Kingsbury and Steve Keim opt not to hit the eject button on Josh Rosen, Quinnen may well have served as that infinity stone in Saban’s gauntlet. While we don’t live in that universe, Saban might not have to wait too much longer, regardless, with star QB Tua Tagovailoa eligible to declare after the conclusion of his junior year in the fall.
Alabama has never had a quarterback drafted in the first round under Saban. That’s about to change. Tagovailoa may well end up his first No. 1 pick, too.