The ultimate judges of talent — the NFL scouts and general managers — have rendered the first of two major decisions on Pac-12 football.
Their conclusions track closely with what we witnessed on the field in 2021.
Three dozen Pac-12 players have been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine later this month in Indianapolis. That’s a bit more than 10% of the total number of draft-eligible prospects expected to be poked, prodded, interviewed, and put through a series of drills and workouts.
It’s also the same number of Combine participants the Pac-12 produced last year when the event was held virtually and continues a downward trend for the conference.
— Pac-12 participants by year:
In our estimation, four program are largely responsible for the decline: Stanford, USC, UCLA and Washington. Their recruiting and development have deteriorated significantly, especially with regard to the production of Combine-caliber linemen.
The quartet sent eight offensive and defensive linemen to Indianapolis each year from 2016-18.
This year, they combined to send just four.
The final verdict on Pac-12 talent will come via the NFL Draft in late April, but the Scouting Combine is typically a precursor to the event. There are about 250 players drafted each year but more than 300 invited to the week-long workouts.
Arizona State led the conference this year with eight Combine invitations, further evidence that the Sun Devils did a fine job acquiring talent but a mediocre job coaching talent.
They went 8-4 during the regular season, beat just one team with a winning record and lost to teams (Brigham Young, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State) that have just seven Combine participants between them.
In contrast, Utah has just two Combine invitees, linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, but bludgeoned a slew of opponents (ASU, Oregon, USC and USC) that produced many more Combine participants.
Combine Utah’s modest recruiting rankings in the 2017-20 window with the limited number of Combine invitations and it’s clear the Utes did a better job maximizing talent than any program in the conference.
— Pac-12 participants by school:
Eight: Arizona State
Five: UCLA and USC
Three: Washington State
One: Colorado, Oregon State and Stanford
Zero: Arizona and Cal
ASU isn’t the only team that failed to maximize talent. USC and Washington underperformed in every possible fashion during seasons derailed by coaching decisions and terminations.
The issues in Seattle and Los Angeles speak to the Pac-12’s broader challenge:
In order for the football product to thrive, the programs best-equipped for success (given their tradition, location, financial resources, facilities and recruiting prowess) must execute on their potential.
We’re referring to USC, Washington and Oregon.
When two of the three are staggering through 4-8 seasons — the worst for UW in 13 years; the worst for USC in 30 — the path to collective success narrows.
The list of 324 Scouting Combine participants reflects another crack in the Pac-12’s talent pipeline: No quarterbacks were invited.
— Pac-12 participants by position:
Running back: Four
Tight end: Four
Offensive line: Five
Defensive line: Four
Defensive back: 10
It was clear watching the product throughout the fall that quarterback play was at its lowest level in years. In fact, this is the first time since 2014 that the NFL issued no invitations to Pac-12 passers.
The problem wasn’t eligible candidates. Every team but Colorado started at least one quarterback in 2021 who was technically eligible for the NFL Draft (players must be out of high school for at least three years). But they either didn’t declare for the draft — they weren’t ready, in other words — or they simply weren’t invited.
Blame the situation on poor recruiting, bad development, misguided schemes, injuries, transfers, alignment of the sun and the moon, whatever. The specifics aren’t important. The level of play was poor. We saw it, and the NFL saw it.
Something else we all saw in 2021:
The further consolidation of NFL talent around the SEC, which had almost as many Combine invitees as the Big Ten and Pac-12 together.
— Participants by Power Five conference
Big Ten: 54
Big 12: 35
The raw number of participants doesn’t necessarily reflect the level of play given the varying number of teams in each conference. Comparing the 10-team Big 12 to the 14-team ACC, for example, skews the situation.
If we re-calculate the participants based on the number of teams per conference, the SEC still dominates, but the Pac-12’s position weakens.
— Participants by conference/per school
Big Ten: 3.9
Big 12: 3.5
Essentially, the list of Combine participants is a window on the Pac-12 shortcomings. It needs better quarterback play, it needs more elite linemen, and it needs the power programs to lead the way.
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