Nick Saban didn’t need to coach in the NFL to leave his mark on the league.
Even though he was on three different NFL staffs over the course of eight years, Nick Saban never needed to coach in the league to make an indelible impact on it.
Saban spent two years as the then-Houston Oilers defensive backs coach in the very late 1980s. After a one-year run leading the Toledo Rockets, Saban went back to the NFL to join Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns staff as a defensive coordinator. After a successful four-year run in Cleveland, Saban returned to college to lead the Big Ten’s Michigan State Spartans from 1995-1999.
Five years after arriving in East Lansing, Saban left for the SEC where he led the LSU Tigers to their second national title. After five seasons in Baton Rouge, the NFL was calling once again. Saban finally became an NFL head coach with the Miami Dolphins. It was a rough two-year run and it led to Saban returning to the SEC a second time, arriving at Alabama in 2007 where he has won six national titles.
So even if he coached in the NFL for eight seasons, Saban will always be remembered for his quarter-century as a college head coach at four stops. In his 25-plus years as a college head coach, an absurd amount of his former players have been drafted, many of whom went in the first round and several had Pro Bowl careers.
Let’s take a look at the impact Saban has had on the NFL Draft.
Nick Saban’s NFL Draft history: First-rounders, Pro Bowlers and quarterbacks
To put numbers on all this, we are only going to count NFL Drafts that have followed a season in which Saban was a college head coach. They are players he inherited at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama he did not recruit, but did get drafted under him. Conversely, there are players he recruited to Michigan State and LSU who got drafted after he left those universities. There are also players who he recruited or coached who may have left his program and found success elsewhere.
Dating back to his time at Michigan State, Saban has had 135 of his former players drafted. 38 of them were first-round picks, 20 of them have made Pro Bowls as of the 2020 NFL season. Seven of the 135 picks were quarterbacks. While most of these draft picks have come in his 14 seasons at Alabama, it is important to know Saban elevated the talent he had at Michigan State and LSU.
In his five years at Michigan State, the Spartans had 17 players drafted from 1996 to 2000. Five of those players became Pro Bowlers, including Muhsin Muhammad, Derrick Mason and Julian Peterson. Three of his players were first-round picks, including Peterson and Plaxico Burress. Tony Banks was the lone quarterback of the Spartans to be drafted in the Saban era in East Lansing.
When it comes to the five drafts coinciding with the Saban era in Baton Rouge, LSU had 22 players taken. While only two were first-round picks in Michael Clayton and Marcus Spears, three of his quarterbacks were drafted in Josh Booty, Rohan Davey and Matt Mauck. Unfortunately, none of the players drafted out of LSU associated with the Saban era ever made it to a single Pro Bowl.
So if we are looking at Saban’s first two runs at major college programs, he had 39 players drafted over the course of 10 seasons. Five were Pro Bowlers and five of them went in the first round. He also had four different quarterbacks drafted during that decade-long span. However, we had no idea what was to come once he started building his dynasty at traditional power Alabama.
Admittedly, Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa was rough. They barely achieved bowl eligibility and no player was drafted. But from 2009 on, Saban has had at least four of his players drafted and one of them go in the first round. His first first-round pick associated with Alabama was offensive tackle Andre Smith in 2009. He saw his first three Alabama Pro Bowlers go in the 2011 NFL Draft.
In the last 12 NFL Drafts, Alabama has had 96 players selected, with 33 of them going in the first round. 15 of these players have earned at least one Pro Bowl nod and three of these 96 players were quarterbacks. Jalen Hurts is not included among these signal-callers because he spent his final college season with Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma Sooners. He would have made four if he stayed.
Of the 15 players to earn a Pro Bowl after leaving Saban’s Alabama program, the best of the bunch are Julio Jones, Derrick Henry, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Mark Ingram Jr. and Marlon Humphrey. Even though the bust potential is very strong with former Alabama players under Saban, these guys have been among the best players in football since going pro. More guys will be joining them.
If we want to project what can happen in the 2021 NFL Draft, five Alabama standouts will be going in the first round: Mac Jones, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Patrick Surtain II and Christian Barmore. Other players will be drafted very high as well, including Landon Dickerson, Dylan Moses and Alex Leatherwood. At least nine Alabama players have been drafted each year since 2017.
So if we want to speculate what Saban’s NFL Draft history will become once he retires and joins a major network as a college football analyst, we are looking at him having over 200 players drafted, well over 50 guys going in the first round, probably over 25 making Pro Bowls, close to 10 of these players being quarterbacks and around four of them making it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Julio Jones may be the only lock for Canton enshrinement of the 135 Saban players drafted to date, but Henry needs about another two years of elite play to make his case and Fitzpatrick is off to a fantastic start in his budding career as a defensive back. With Mac Jones getting drafted this year and Bryce Young to soon follow in a few years, Saban can absolutely develop quarterbacks.
If Saban’s track record tells us anything, it is if you have better players, you are going to win more.
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