Draft Valley

May 1, 2023

I had two people reach out to ask me to frame what we saw over the weekend in the NFL Draft. I'm kinda sorta on vacation right now (I mean, I'm never really on vacation, just like I'll never really retire), but I have a couple hours tonight and I feel like writing about the draft. This isn't a one question mailbag, it's just... my thoughts on four Illini being selected in the draft.

I did have an actual question about this in a mailbag in early May last year. So maybe we should start there. That question after the 2022 draft ("does this mean Lovie wasn't terrible at recruiting?") led to a long discussion of how we had NFL players for a long time and then we suddenly didn't have any NFL players. Here's a snippet from that mailbag answer:

I never really wavered from one thing: the talent level on March 7, 2016 (when Lovie took over) was as low as I'd seen it. And I probably caught more heat for holding to that opinion than any other opinion in the last 13+ years. I remember an argument with someone regarding all of the 2016 players who made it in the NFL as undrafted free agents (Justin Hardee, James Crawford, etc) and that I was ignoring them (as "talent inherited by Lovie") in order to lower the bar for him even further. But I never really budged off my opinion (which really had nothing to do with Lovie). I've quoted these two stats so much that I don't even have to look them up:

From 2009 through 2013 (five drafts), 20 Illini players selected (4 per draft)
From 2014 through 2020 (seven drafts), 5 Illini players selected (0.71 per draft)

If we just use NFL draft picks, those seven seasons represent the largest talent valley since the 1970's. Having NFL players isn't the only way to measure that -- a roster including 55 legitimate Big Ten recruits and three NFL draft picks is better than a roster of 20 legitimate Big Ten recruits and seven NFL draft picks -- but it does give you a pretty good idea of where you stand talent-wise.

Now that we have three drafts post-2020, I can add a third line to that (and I did that one from memory and was wrong - it was actually 19 players from 2009 through 2013, not 20):

  • From 2009 through 2013 (five drafts), 19 Illini players selected (3.8 per draft)
  • From 2014 through 2020 (seven drafts), 5 Illini players selected (0.71 per draft)
  • From 2021 through 2023 (three drafts), 9 Illini players selected (3 per draft)

I guess I could make a bar chart here, but maybe a long line of numbers will work. Starting in 2009 and ending this year, here's the number of Illini players drafted each year:




0, 0, 3, 1, 0, 1, 0. It's just an unbelievable talent valley. Five players drafted in seven seasons. One of those players (Jihad Ward) was a juco guy and one (Clayton Fejedelem) was a walkon so if you look across seven seasons of high school recruiting classes you'll only find three NFL draft picks: Teddy Karras, Duwuane Smoot, and Nick Allegretti.

Later on in that article, I summed up the 2010's in one concise paragraph:

Through a series of unfortunate events (Zook recruiting 20 NFL draft picks in four classes followed by 1 NFL draft pick in his final three classes, Beckman getting investigated and then fired, Cubit being extended on Not Ideal Day effectively destroying the 2016 class, Lovie taking over in March instead of December), there was a talent deficit throughout the 2010's. You can see that in draft picks and you can see that in all-conference players and you can see that in wins. I feel even better now about what I said at training camp in 2017: the talent level has never dipped this low.

Everyone has a favorite punching bag from that paragraph. Ron Zook going 3-9 with the talent on the 2009 team broke us for a decade! Mike Thomas hired Tim Beckman and it broke the program! The decision to extend Bill Cubit as the interim coach destroyed the program! Lovie just wanted his son to have a job and didn't even try to recruit!

I don't care about any of those. The 2010's made me sad, not angry. I've made the same point on the internet for 14 years now: when my professional teams are bad I get angry; when my college teams are bad I get sad.

And I was sad for nearly an entire decade. When you live in that space, you don't care about scapegoats. You perform autopsies, not physicals. And every autopsy from 2012 through 2020 came down to the same exact cause of death: there's just not enough talent here. What very little iron ore we could find wasn't being forged into steel.

Which means that the 2 (in 2021), and then the 3 (in 2022), and then the 4 (this past weekend) makes me so incredibly happy. It's confirmation that the tide is rising. There's a lot that goes into creating an NFL draft pick (recruit the talent, develop the talent, showcase the talent in a successful scheme), and that 2 and then that 3 and then that 4 means we're on our way to doing that again. And when I look at the current roster, I feel good about the 2024 draft as well.

You don't know this, but we just jumped forward eight hours. I had written something to close out this article but I didn't feel good about it. After a nice sleep in the cool mountain air, I know what I want to say here.

I hate the lack of shame these days. Especially with the social media managers at power five schools. Gone are the days when "ignore the big picture, focus on a specific moment" would be embarrassing. You can be losing a basketball game by 28 and the social media people will plow right through with "rim-rattling dunk from James!" tweets. We've lost all sense of "when winning get loud, when losing speak softly, when getting blown out, shut up."

This was very evident last night when I was scrolling through Big Ten draft twitter and seeing the tweets from Indiana. 13 of the 14 Big Ten teams had at least one player drafted; Indiana had zero. So Indiana's social media people decided to disguise their UDFA signings as best they could so that people scrolling through Twitter might think that they had draft picks as well. They even included a #ProIU hashtag unironically.

A few examples so you know what I'm talking about. We tweeted the draft picks of Spoon, Quan, Syd, and Chase with great fanfare (as we should). And then when we announced undrafted free agent signings, we'd put "free agent" on the graphic (as everyone should).

Indiana wanted to make it look like they had draft picks as well. So they'd tweet things like "CHIEEEEFS" and "#ProIU" without any note that these were free agent signings, not draft picks.

"It is us, fellow NFL-player-havers Indiana football, here to celebrate our NFL players alongside all of our Big Ten brethren." (All of those players will be released mid-August. No one has a single ounce of shame anymore.)

Our two and then our three and then our four means that I don't have to pretend like Indiana fans have to pretend. That's what made me so happy this weekend. We had four players drafted. We have a player listed at #11 in a first round mock draft for next year. We have a freshman All American (Gabe Jacas) who will likely play three years and then declare for the draft. And we have nobody-knows-he's-a-draft-pick-yet players like Isaiah Adams ready to burst on the scene.

We went through a deep, deep valley in the 2010's. Over seven seasons, we developed only three players from high school iron ore to NFL Draft steel. That tide has now turned. Yes, that's thanks to the recruiting of the former staff, but the initial returns on this staff's recruiting (Gabe Jacas, Isaiah Adams, Matt Bailey) are strong. We should be in a position to put 2-3-4 players in the draft each year. It feels like the days of 1-0-1-0 are behind us.

Is everything 100% fixed? Of course not. I just mentioned Indiana... well, what happened to Indiana after they went 8-5 in 2019 and 6-2 in 2020? They lost all of the talent they had accumulated, their star OC is now Washington's head coach (winning games there with the QB he won with at Indiana), and 8-5, 6-2 became 2-10, 4-8. Mining operations have to keep producing more and more raw material. You can't take a single year off.

So there's still work to do. My point here is that a weekend like this - players who struggled under the former staff all becoming draft picks under this staff - turns my frown upside down. We don't have to fake it like Indiana. We had the #5 overall pick, we had players taken in the first, second, and third round, and the potential Big Ten Defensive Player Of The Year still has one more year in Champaign.

Draft Valley? That's behind us. I'm focused on the top of the mountain.


IlliniJoe81 on May 1, 2023 @ 09:39 AM

Good article.

IlliniBobLoblaw on May 1, 2023 @ 01:15 PM

I'd rather have no drafts picks and a win against Indiana last year ;-)

Norcal Illini on May 1, 2023 @ 01:46 PM

You have to wonder how many of those 4 drafted and 7 UDFAs would be in the same position under Lovie. My guess is that, even if they had been drafted, they wouldn't have been that high. And most of the UDFAs would be looking at their next profession outside of sports.

wetscheid on May 1, 2023 @ 11:03 PM

Robert thanks for doing this article while on vacation. I needed it! Go Illini!

STLINI on May 3, 2023 @ 09:05 AM

Good stuff!

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