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NFL draft is a recruiting flex for Nick Saban and Alabama's absurd talent wealth

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Nick Saban appeared to be holding a cup of coffee — even though it was after 4 p.m. — when he stepped behind a University of Alabama podium on Feb. 1, 2017.

It was National Signing Day and Saban was about to discuss a group of recruits that would prove to be among the greatest of all time — part of two national titles teams (and a 51-4 record) the past four seasons.

Eleven of them were selected in the past three NFL drafts, including a whopping eight in the first round and six in the top 15. And that’s just so far. As many as six more could be redshirt-senior starters for the 2022 Crimson Tide that is, again, expected to be a national title contender.

It’s an astounding recruiting haul, so astounding that Saban almost looked happy that day. Almost.

“How’s everybody?” Saban asked, although he didn’t really wait for an answer from the assorted media. “Good. Good to see everybody. We’re obviously very excited about the 14 players who signed with us today to join the 12 players who are already early enrolled here. I think this is a class that we are very pleased with and proud of.”

Alabama head football coach Nick Saban leads his team back onto the field for the second half against Arkansas at Bryant–Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S. October 14, 2017. Picture taken October 14, 2017.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The NFL draft might as well be a recruiting tool for Nick Saban, pictured in 2017, and his Alabama juggernaut. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Watching Saban four years later it’s hard to know if he truly knew what he had. The man is not prone to emotion, especially emotion over what hasn’t actually occurred yet. "Rat poison," he likes to call it. He almost immediately focused on the negative.

“I think, in this class, we hit every spot but one,” Saban said. “We wanted to recruit one corner, maybe two. It didn’t happen that way for us.”

The next year he’d land Patrick Surtain II, so don’t shed any tears.

“We feel like we got a couple of really good safeties,” Saban said. “Got four really good linebackers, we’ve got three really good down guys on defense, you know, some offensive linemen, four that are good, some really good, skilled wide receivers, couple tight ends, couple good running backs, couple good quarterbacks, couple good specialists.”

That’s one way to describe the group.

Those “really good, skilled” wide receivers?

They include Devonta Smith (2020 Heisman Trophy winner and 2021 first-round selection by Philadelphia), Jerry Jeudy (2020 first-round pick by Denver) and Henry Ruggs II (2020 first round pick by Las Vegas).

The “couple good” quarterbacks?

Tua Tagovailoa (2020 first-round pick by Miami) and Mac Jones (2021 first-round pick by New England).

How about the “some” offensive linemen?

Alex Leatherwood, 2021 first-round pick to Las Vegas and Jedrick Wills, 2020 first-round pick to Cleveland.

“Alex Leatherwood has a lot of potential,” Saban said. “Jedrick Wills, we thought was one of the best guys at the position in the entire country.”

Correct and correct.

The class was ranked No. 1 in the country by every service that compiles such a thing, but Saban greeted that distinction like he just took a bite of a raw onion.

“I don't know how we are rated,” Saban said. “I didn’t know where these guys are rated or how many stars they have.”

Well, they had a lot of stars. Seven of them from the 2017 class were 5-star recruits by Rivals.com, which doled out 34 such distinctions that year. In NFL terms, it’s like having seven first-round picks in one year.

“I know everyone likes to go out there and look at all these rankings and ratings and all of that,” Saban said. “It's just like I tell players in the draft, ‘It’s not where you get drafted. It's what you do with your career and how you develop your career.’ This is not how you got rated out of high school, it’s about being committed to doing all of the things that we're going to do here to be successful as a person, as a student and a player.”

He added, “Recruiting, player evaluation, is not an exact science.”

No, it isn’t. It sure was close though for the Tide. A few transferred, mainly in search of playing time. And not all of them will make the NFL, but a lot of them will, including defensive end Isaiah Buggs (Pittsburgh) and defensive back Xavier McKinney (New York Giants).

Even the team’s long snapper, Thomas Fletcher, got drafted on Saturday by Carolina despite the fact long snappers rarely get drafted.

On Signing Day, Saban wasn’t much for doling out individual praise. When asked about his receivers, he said Ruggs and Smith were “very explosive guys. Very fast, very explosive.” Jeudy didn’t even merit a mention.

Tagovailoa and Jones, meanwhile, entered a program where Jalen Hurts (currently the starter in Philadelphia) was entrenched as the starter. As such, Saban didn’t mention either recruit by name. He noted that, “I think it's very important to develop depth at this position.”

“Depth” is one way to call two Heisman finalists who won national championship games.

About the closest Saban got to excited was when discussing Najee Harris, the running back out of Antioch, California, who was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 1 player in the country. On Thursday, he was taken 24th overall by Pittsburgh.

Not even he could undersell Najee.

“A very good all-around player,” Saban said. “One of the best players in the country according to a lot of people’s evaluation. He's got great size. He’s got great speed. He’s very fluid and smooth athletically. He’s very complete. He has very good hands; good route runner. Has special production as a player.”

The news conference took 20 minutes and much of it focused on questions about how football has changed, his philosophy to in-state recruiting and his thoughts on what makes his old pal, Bill Belichick, a great coach (it was Super Bowl week).

Overall Saban said he was pleased with the class and hoped he could keep recruiting good players to Tuscaloosa.

“Hopefully these guys will be able to contribute to the success of the program,” Saban said. “ ... So we can continue to have success and future guys will recognize those successes and want to be a part of the program.”

In February, he signed the No. 1 recruiting class ... again.

“As I always talk about,” he said this February, “we’re not really interested in ratings or rankings or anything like that … ”

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