KANSAS CITY, Mo. — NFL teams had their eyes on players from major conference schools over the first 31 picks of the 2023 NFL draft.
Thursday night marked the first time in the 21st century that no player from outside the traditional classification of a power conference was selected in the first round when the Chiefs capped off the night by taking Kansas City native and Kansas State DE Felix Anudike-Uzomah to a raucous ovation from the thousands of Chiefs fans in attendance.
Before this season, at least one player from a school outside of the ACC, the former Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and Notre Dame was picked in the first round every year since 2000. In that draft, the Chicago Bears took Brian Urlacher from New Mexico with the ninth pick before Marshall's Chad Pennington went nine picks later and Jackson State had two players selected.
A season ago, the Jets took Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner at No. 4 overall as the first of four players outside Power Five conferences selected in the first round. Two of those players — offensive linemen Trevor Penning and Cole Strange — played their college football at the second-tier FCS level.
In between those drafts, players like Ben Roethlisberger (Miami, Ohio), Derek Carr (Fresno State) and Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) have been taken early in drafts from smaller schools. NFL teams have routinely found top draft picks from schools that aren’t traditionally considered to be football powerhouses.
But not in 2023. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State each had three first-round selections. The Panthers’ selection of Alabama QB Bryce Young at No. 1 set an NFL draft record as Young gave Alabama a first-round pick in 15 consecutive drafts, while Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud went a pick behind him at No. 2 to the Houston Texans. This year, players representing 23 schools were taken over the first round. All 23 of those schools reside in Power Five conferences.
And not only did teams like players from Power Five schools on Thursday night, they liked players from successful Power Five schools. Only three of the schools that had players selected in the first round posted losing records in 2022.
Just take a look at the Philadelphia Eagles, who continued their trend of taking defenders from Georgia's national championship-winning 2021 defense. And considering how dominant that defense was, it’s probably not a bad strategy.
A year after taking DT Jordan Davis in the first round and LB Nakobe Dean in the third round, Philadelphia selected DT Jalen Carter with the No. 9 overall pick on Thursday night and snagged edge rusher Nolan Smith with the No. 30 pick after Smith somewhat surprisingly was still available when the Eagles made their second selection of the night.
Is 2023 an outlier or the start of a trend?
It’s easy to wonder if the 2023 NFL Fraft is the start of early-round domination by players at power programs given the recent changes in college athletics. Current transfer rules allow players to transfer without having to sit out a season and players can easily move to a bigger program after a breakout season at a small school. And bigger schools with deeper-pocketed fan bases have more ability to put together name, image and likeness deals for transfers and recruits now that players can make money off their own likenesses.
Plus, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are set to join the Big 12 ahead of the 2023 season and the Pac-12 could also expand. The number of Power Five programs will grow by at least four in the near future to 69 when you include Notre Dame, and could get bigger in the years to come.
But there are also reasons to believe that 2023’s total Power Five domination may simply be an outlier. The transfer total works both ways; it’s common to see a player move down from a Power Five school to a smaller school and become an NFL prospect. And just one of the players selected in the first round Thursday night — Utah TE Dalton Kincaid — transferred from a non-Power Five team during his college career.
The NIL argument also cuts the other way. Smaller schools can keep players and entice recruits by offering more immediate playing time and the chance to be a star vs. being just another guy at a bigger program. UTSA just signed the No. 57 recruiting class in the country largely because of its success over the past two seasons, and Boise State has produced five first-round picks since 2008.
And there also weren’t that many non-Power Five players considered to be first-round talents this year. Draft classes tend to go in cycles. Players like Tulane RB Tyjae Spears and SMU WR Rashee Rice look set to be good players in the NFL. But they always seemed likely to be picked on Friday instead of Thursday.
Because of those factors, there's no need to think that non-Power Five teams are going to continue to get shut out of the first round of the draft. While Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia look set to continue dominating college football and the first round of the draft, there should still be plenty of room for everyone else.