Of course, most of these programs were the traditional powers like USC, Oklahoma, Miami, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State, Texas, LSU and a few others that dominated the college game with their blue-chip players. These programs housed some of the top high school recruits around the country, as evidenced by their consistently high rankings on National Signing Day, and their coaches simply found ways to cultivate their talents. Thus, I wasn't surprised that most of the players we discussed in pre-draft meetings were typically the four- and five-star recruits that we heard about on the national level.
However, I was always amazed at the number of unheralded programs that churned out NFL-ready players despite lacking national recognition or exposure. In my area (West Region) during the 2000s, Fresno State was one of the schools that had a formula for developing players that were ready to excel at the next level. Led by former NFL assistant Pat Hill, the Bulldogs produced a number of hard-nosed, blue-collar players that carved out successful stints in the NFL. From David Carr and Logan Mankins to Richard Marshall, Bernard Berrian and James Sanders, the Bulldogs consistently delivered prospects that would make the roster and help improve the fortunes of the franchise.
With those experiences shaping my opinion on the importance of talent acquisition (recruiting) and player development (coaching) in building a program that wins at a high level and produces NFL-caliber talent, I thought I would take a look around the country and identify the top 25 programs to watch for future NFL players.
While this list is heavily weighted toward teams with a bevy of 2015 prospects, I paid close attention to the 2016 and 2017 classes as well to determine the overall depth and talent of the program. In addition, I also gave bonus points to teams with potential franchise quarterbacks on their roster.
In a perfect world, this list would emulate a top 25 poll. But it isn't; so much more goes into where teams end up being ranked in polls, like coaching, schedules ... and a little luck. This list is strictly a talent ranking, teams that have the most heading into the 2014 season.
Here are the teams I have ranked 1-5 (click on tabs above for previous rankings):
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Players to watch: S Landon Collins, WR Christion Jones, RB T.J. Yeldon, RB Derrick Henry, TE O.J. Howard, DL A'Shawn Robinson
The outlook: There's a reason why a legion of five-star recruits keep making the trek to Tuscaloosa when Nick Saban makes the call. The four-time national champion has made Alabama the premier football program in college football and produced 16 first-round picks during his tenure with the Crimson Tide. Despite killing it on the recruiting trail with a ridiculous streak of top-10 recruiting classes, Saban has churned out quality players due to an impressive player development program that capably prepares blue-chip players for the rigors of the pro game. Additionally, he has built a competitive environment at Alabama that mimics the urgency and intensity that is found in NFL locker rooms. With Crimson Tide players fully prepared for the pro game by a former NFL head coach, there is a reason why NFL executives are clamoring over Alabama players on draft day.
Newcomer in the spotlight: CB Tony Brown. Brown could be the best cornerback prospect Saban has coached during his time at Alabama. Brown is an athletic cover corner with a high football IQ and ultra-competitive personality.
2. Florida State Seminoles
Players to watch: QB Jameis Winston, DE Mario Edwards, Jr., TE Nick O'Leary, CB P.J. Williams, OT Cameron Erving, CB Ronald Darby, WR Rashad Greene, G Tre Jackson, RB Karlos Williams, CB Jalen Ramsey
The outlook: Jimbo Fisher brought the Seminoles back to prominence by burning up the recruiting trail to land a host of blue-chip players on both sides of the ball. The diligent work has certainly paid off for Fisher with the Seminoles capturing a national title and being perfectly positioned for a repeat this fall. Additionally, the Seminoles had one of their star players capture the Heisman Trophy and watched seven players drafted by NFL teams in the spring. Although the NFL pipeline has always been stocked in Tallahassee, the infusion of blue-chip talent will draw more scouts to practice in search of future game changers at the next level.
Newcomer in the spotlight: WR Ermon Lane. After losing Kelvin Benjamin to the draft, the Seminoles needed a big-bodied playmaker capable of dominating in the red zone. Lane is an athletic pass catcher with a knack for putting the ball in the paint.
3. Oregon Ducks
Players to watch: QB Marcus Mariota, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, RB Byron Marshall, C Hroniss Grasu, OT Tyler Johnstone, RB Thomas Tyner
The outlook: The brilliance of the Ducks' innovative schemes routinely overshadows the talent that dominates the turf at Autzen Stadium, but NFL executives certainly appreciate the athleticism that dots the roster. The Ducks have produced 18 NFL draft picks over the past five seasons, including a pair of 2013 first-round picks (Dion Jordan and Kyle Long). That number is certain to grow over the next few seasons with Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and a handful of young players poised to make the jump to the next level. If Mark Helfrich continues to push the right buttons on the recruiting trail, the Ducks' lofty ranking on this list should continue for the foreseeable future.
Newcomer in the spotlight: RB Royce Freeman. The Ducks are big believers in a running back-by-committee system, so expect Freeman to be a significant contributor as a first-year player. He is an explosive runner with a nice blend of strength, speed and power that makes him a nice fit in the Ducks' zone-based scheme.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Players to watch: DE Shilique Calhoun, CB Trae Waynes, RB Jeremy Langford, S Kurtis Drummond, QB Connor Cook
The outlook: Mark Dantonio loves to play up the underdog role with the Spartans, but a close look at the roster reveals a team loaded with NFL-caliber talent. What's remarkable about Michigan State's ascension to the top has been its ability to develop lightly regarded recruiting classes into powerhouse squads in the Big Ten. Dantonio has routinely churned out solid pros since his arrival, and he has a nice set of underclassmen already garnering significant attention from NFL scouts. If Shilique Calhoun and Connor Cook build upon their solid 2013 campaigns, they could be the next blue-chip selections to make the move from East Lansing to the pros.
Newcomer in the spotlight: DT Malik McDowell. The Spartans quietly put out quality defensive linemen that carve out successful stints in the pro ranks. McDowell certainly has the physical tools and athleticism to become a key contributor down the road.
5. LSU Tigers
Players to watch: OT La'el Collins, CB Tre'Davious White, CB Rashard Robinson, QB Brandon Harris, QB Anthony Jennings
The outlook: It's not a secret that NFL scouts absolutely love plucking premier talent from Baton Rouge. Over the past five seasons, the Tigers have produced 35 NFL draft picks, which ranks only behind Alabama during that span. That success is directly attributed to Les Miles' ability to secure the top talent within the state, while also pulling in a handful of blue-chippers from surrounding areas. As a result, the Tigers are one of the deepest teams in college football, allowing them to withstand the steady stream of underclassmen departures each spring. While the 2015 draft class might be a little light on talent, the arrival of an ultra-talented freshman class will keep scouts coming back to the Bayou to check out Miles' troops.
Newcomer in the spotlight: RB Leonard Fournette. The highly touted running back has already been described as a "pro-ready" playmaker by veteran evaluators. Fournette should step into the starting lineup and give the Tigers a workhorse runner with home-run potential.