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Big 12's decline in 2014 NFL Draft a few years in the making

The waiting, as Tom Petty tells us, is the hardest part. During the 2014 NFL Draft, Big 12 schools were doing plenty of that.

Once one of the top feeder conferences for NFL teams, the league seemed to hit rock bottom last week, when just 17 players from the conference were drafted. The Mountain West, for comparison's sake, was just one behind with 16.

» Conference-by-conference breakdown of 2014 draft


Texas failed to have a player drafted for the first time since 1937, and only two Big 12 alums made it into the first round. It didn't take long for Kansas State and Baylor to take to Twitter with infographics proclaiming they were the Big 12 standard-bearers when it came to the NFL draft. Perhaps most shocking of all, the league's co-defensive player of the year (and an All-American to boot) failed to hear his name called among the 256 picks.

If it seems like strange times in the middle of the country, it is.

One doesn't have to look back that far to see that the Big 12 produced eight first-rounders as recently as 2011 and had four of the first six picks in the 2010 draft. From those highs, however, it has been a quick fall. 2014 made it three years in a row the conference has produced fewer draft picks than the one before it, and the record low for the Big 12 has been set in two of the past three drafts.

Why did this happen to a "power" conference? There are a number of factors.

» Part of the reason can be traced back to college football's realignment craze. Just three seasons removed from the league, former members Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M produced 11 draft picks this year. It's hard not to discount the loss of those schools -- the now 10-member league has 170 fewer scholarship players after all -- but it's only part of the equation.

» The past three Big 12 champions have failed to translate winning a title with a bundle of draft picks. Oklahoma State won the league in 2011 but have produced just five picks from then to now. Kansas State, the 2012 champ, has had just four players taken in the past two drafts, and 2013 champ Baylor is at least looking to reverse the trend with five players taken this year.

» Normally, the Big 12's two biggest powers -- Oklahoma and Texas -- help prop up the rest of the league when it comes to the draft. This year they did no such thing. The failure of the Longhorns is well chronicled, given the top five recruiting classes they strung together over the years, but the Sooners' presence is just as notable. Both schools should revert to normal over the coming years, but the amount of top recruits who have failed to pan out from the 2009-2011 classes is remarkable.

"We are very fortunate to have players drafted in the NFL, some universities in Texas aren't so fortunate," LSU coach Les Miles joked Wednesday.

» There was a lot made about underclassmen entering the 2014 NFL Draft (a record 98 of them), but tellingly, just three came from the Big 12, and one of those three went undrafted. While coaches might not like it, the number of underclassmen declaring for the draft is usually a good indicator of talent on the roster. There are a number of factors that go into each decision for redshirt sophomores or juniors, but only three underclassmen from a power conference is a staggeringly small number. USC, for example, has been hit with scholarship restrictions the past several recruiting classes but still managed to have five players declare (three of whom went undrafted).

» In addition to quantity being an issue for the Big 12, NFL scouts just didn't seem to respect the quality either. The case of Jackson Jeffcoat, the co-defensive player of the year, going undrafted says plenty. Looking up and down the All-Big 12 team as voted on by coaches, it was hard not to notice 10 of them didn't get drafted despite being eligible. There were more underclassmen on the 2012 list, but there's a similar picture being painted.

» One constant refrain from the league's proponents was that the Big 12 was "young." According to Phil Steele, only two schools -- Kansas and Iowa State -- crack the top 25 schools in terms of returning starters. Only five programs are in the top 50 heading into 2014, and of those, only Oklahoma is projected to be in the preseason top 25.

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» The biggest drop-off by position for the Big 12 has been in the trenches as coaches look to deal with offenses that are increasingly based on the spread. From 2004-2008, an average of 5.8 defensive linemen were drafted out of the Big 12; that number dropped to 2.4 from 2009-2014. Perhaps not surprisingly, cornerback was the most popular position in the 2014 draft for the Big 12. There were no defensive linemen taken.

» Texas high schools, long the talent source for Big 12 programs (and before then, the SWC and Big 8), have increasingly sent their most talented players to other conferences. Of the top 10 recruits in the state to sign with a school in 2014, according to Rivals.com, six went to either the SEC, Pac-12 or SEC. In 2010, Texas alone signed six of the top 10 recruits in the state.

» We couldn't end this without mentioning coaching. Yes, there's a reason why Mack Brown is no longer the coach in Austin and Charlie Strong (who produced three first-rounders this year) is. But overall the league has seen quite a bit of turnover. All told, six of the schools changed coaches in the past five years, and the assistant movement has been just as great. Thanks in part to new TV deals, SEC and Pac-12 schools in particular have been able to offer greater salaries to lure assistants away.

The 2015 NFL Draft should offer modest improvement for the Big 12. Some early mock drafts have as many as four conference players in the first round, and Oklahoma was already named Sporting News' preseason No. 1 team. In control at a marquee program now, Strong knows how to develop talent and should reverse the Longhorns' fortunes on the field and in the draft over the coming years.

It shouldn't be too long before NFL scouts will once again flock to the conference's schools like they once did with regularity. Talent usually comes in waves, and the Big 12 just happens to be at low tide in 2014.

Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer.

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