The NFL is obviously dependent on the collegiate talent pipeline as its universal lifeblood, but over the years, it has become increasingly dependent on college football as a source of intellectual property as well.
Practice limitations at the professional level hamper the amount of time coaches have to spend with their draft picks, which leads them to wisely investigate what the players did well in college and adopt elements of said playbooks into the scheme in order to increase comfortability and expedite the learning process. From there, whatever is successful from that adoption gets adopted elsewhere and the warm, sous-vide bath of ideas continues to percolate on a low heat season after season.
This can be a good thing. A lot of the great creative breakthroughs in the NFL recently have come from the adaptation of college film, from Navy’s blocking scheme in Baltimore with the Ravens to the Matt Canada jet sweeping that made its way to the Rams during their Super Bowl run. The trouble is when all the good players tend to come from the same places, and the adoption of ideas becomes less of a noble, exploratory mission and more of a strip-mining expedition where the bottom of the barrel has been scraped clean.
We’re not there yet, even as Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Ohio State and LSU continue to swallow up vast swaths of land. Having a pair of great quarterbacks come from North Dakota State has done more for the NFL’s entertainment value than we’ll ever fully realize given that elements of their very creative playbook were baked into the professional game. And thankfully may never be again now that the NCAA will be forced to pay its players (and, prior to that, relaxed its transfer rules). See if you can stick with us for a second while we make the case for players earning a living in college and a better NFL because of it.
The interesting component of a paid workforce in college football is that it may actually spread out the talent pool as opposed to consolidating it as some have suggested. Every university has its own deep-pocketed alumni with nothing better to aspire to at an old age than to be a less drunk and destructive but equally freewheeling Buddy Garrity type. And now there’s nothing stopping them from creating a “sponsorship opportunity” with their old alma mater bent on luring the state’s Mr. Football away from a traditional powerhouse and into a situation where he can play close to home at a smaller school.
People around the NFL orbit are wondering if this is what might happen. Players might opt to stay home because their marketability is infinitely better. A legendary high school quarterback at a New Jersey school, for example, will be more financially successful if he plays close to home at Rutgers instead of humping down to Alabama in order to be the third guy on the depth chart where no one knows or cares who he is. The days of a Mac Jones-type lurking five-deep on the Crimson Tide’s roster may be over.
The good news is that those players will be everywhere, playing in different systems bent on accentuating what they do best. Because there are four times the number of Division I college programs, there are four times the amount of coaches, ideas, personnel strengths and weaknesses and schemes. All of this is a breeding ground for the various quirks that make a truly dominant NFL offense beautiful to watch.
In this world, we have a draft that’s far more unpredictable. We have coaches who can’t win simply because they’re closer to Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Kirby Smart, therefore getting the best information on each school’s deep pile of draft-eligible prospects year after year. We have players who emerge with more film and experience. We have programs that are financially incentivized to maximize the potential of a young athlete instead of callously cutting them loose when they don’t fit the bill after a few practices.
Does this sound high-minded and utopian? Sure. Will the cold reality of our society’s evil business practices rear its head and cancel this thing before it gets fun? You bet. But even a handful of top players getting lured away from Alabama and LSU hoping to make money elsewhere takes the spotlight onto their respective schools of choice. And by doing that, they’re forcing the minds that control what an NFL offense or defense looks like to expand their horizon.
It’s difficult to overstate how often this happens. A coach might stumble upon a back from a mid-Atlantic afterthought college and see a wrinkle in their blocking scheme that spurs the creative breakthrough he’s been searching for to unlock his own system. Film is infinitely available, but unless a coach has a reason to sit down and lock in on, say, 2018 Wake Forest film (which is awesome and wild, by the way) he’s probably going to direct his precious few hours of free time elsewhere.
So, he watches a little more Alabama tape instead because it’s more practical. Chances are, the guard he needs in the draft is coming from there, or a school Alabama played. And he sees the same thing offensively he’s seen for the last few years, none the wiser because of it.
More NFL Coverage: