How Successful Are Small-School Prospects in the NFL?

Joe Flacco has been one of the most successful non-FBS prospects since 2000. Is he the norm?

Growing up, my mom was the one in my family that got me into sports, not my dad. My mom is still a huge Green Bay Packers fan, and almost every halftime in the winter finds us on the phone together discussing what the Pack have to do in the second half to win. My dad is tolerant and supportive of our obsession, but where he finds joy in the sports world is in laughing at the names of players.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix? Owamagbe Odighizuwa? Jared Abbrederis? He'd have a field day with those.

Some players that come into the NFL have such unknown names -- even to me -- that I’m reduced to making the same kind of cracks as my dad. Adrian Coxson of Stony Brook? That’s a double whammy: he’s a little-known undrafted free agent with an easily played-on name.

Yet, if we look a little more into his history, we’ll find out Coxson was a big-time high school prospect that got a scholarship to the Florida Gators. We need to understand more about these small-schoolers who may have a large impact on the National Football League. Let’s dig into the data behind these underappreciated college players: how successful are small-school NFL prospects?

The Family Portrait

First, let’s look at the broad scope of our small-school brood. For this study, I assembled the career NFL production of every offensive skill position player drafted from 2000 to 2014, including their draft class, draft slot, college, and draft pick value (per the Jimmy Johnson standard chart). The production for each of these players was measured by our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

I then parsed through this data and pulled out every player selected from a non-Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school. I included the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), Division II, Division III, and non-NCAA schools. Pretty much every school you know of is in the FBS, from the classic Midwestern B1G ground-pounders to even the minuscule Mid-American Conference.

What about the tiny schools with players that make the big time? The table below shows the head count, average draft value, and maximum draft value spent on small-schoolers since 2000 by each position. What do we find here?

PositionDraftedAvg. ValueMax. Value
Quarterback21100.5 (100th Overall)900 (18th Overall)
Running Back2041.6 (131st Overall)136 (91st Overall)
Wide Receiver5976.8 (109th Overall)800 (21st Overall)
Tight End2329.1 (156th Overall)136 (91st Overall)

Overall, we can see that the perception holds true: small-school prospects are drafted less frequently and lower in the draft order than their major conference counterparts. On average, small-schoolers don’t even tend to crack the top-100 of the draft, so to see former Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco drafted 18th Overall is actually pretty monumental. Even Baltimore Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore -- selected 91st Overall in 2014 -- made a little slice of history by going that high.

Yet, this says nothing of the schools themselves. There are some big-time prospect pool schools among the little guys in the college football world. Colorado State University, for instance, is the most prolific producer of prospects (say that five times fast) since 2000, with five players drafted -- including the aforementioned Gillmore and fellow tight end Joel Dreessen. The runners-up, with four players drafted each, are Abilene Christian University, Coastal Carolina, and Delaware.

Now that we’ve gotten acquainted with our little-known football relatives, let’s get back to the main question. How successful are small-school prospects in the NFL?

A Chip Off the Old Block

It’s important not only that we understand the broad trends of small-school players but also how their careers look on a position-by-position level. We want to know if the “lack of pedigree” is an appropriate perception for these players, or if that’s just a big-school scouting bias. I won’t list out the career Total NEP for these players; there’s a little too much fluctuation to find a solid arc because of small sample sizes. We can, however, look at the thresholds of production these players cross in their NFL careers and how that holds up compared to the general average.

The table below splits up each position again for small-school players and lists out a few categories in terms of NEP threshold production: career years, years at replacement level (R-Level), years at elite level (E-Level), and then R-Level percentage and E-Level percentage. I determined R-Level to be the 2014 production of a player at the relevant position who was good enough to be rosterable (i.e. the 32nd-best quarterback value, the 96th-best running back value, etc.). E-Level was determined to be the 2014 production of a top-five (top-10 for wide receivers) option at the relevant position. What do we see for these positions’ average career value?

Running Back3.
Wide Receiver2.
Tight End3.

When we looked at the career production of each position in a series of articles earlier this year, I drew up similar analyses and tables, only they were round-by-round for the entire NFL Draft. Here, on average for small-school players, we see production levels that match up at best with late round picks in the entire NFL Draft.

For small-school quarterbacks, not a single one -- including Flacco -- has had a top-five season at the position. That said, if you’re good enough to be drafted out of a non-FBS program as a quarterback, you’ll likely produce at replacement-level for greater than three-fourths of your career.

Running backs out of non-FBS programs typically have careers lasting almost four seasons in the league, but they only produce well enough to be rosterable for half of that. Wide receivers have the lowest career length average, at under three years, and exactly half of those years are passable for the NFL. Tight ends will last a while in the pros, but more often than not, they fail to live up to professional standards.

Dad Jokes Rhymes with Bad Jokes

What is our practical takeaway from this study?

When you see a player drafted out of a non-FBS program, don’t get your hopes up that he is a budding superstar, despite any of the hype that he may carry along with him. There’s a reason why these players either weren’t recruited by major programs, or transferred out of them; more often than not, it’s because they can’t cut it in the big time.

Across all positions, a small-school player’s average career lasts just three years, and just under two years of that are replacement-level worthy. The positive note to this? When you see a player from an FCS, D-II, or D-III school doing big things in the NFL, it should be that much more impressive to us.

Big names don’t mean everything, but they mean a lot when it comes to prospecting.