CollegeAwards = Success?

By Mike Fink
Jun. 19, 2020

This past season, the LSU Tigers had one of the greatest seasons in modern College Football history. Aside from going 15-0, three of the Tigers players brought in individual awards, most notably, Joe Burrow winning the Heisman. There’s a reputation around the bronze award that it’s cursed, that the player that wins the award is doomed to have a bad NFL career. Is that the case? What about the other awards, are they also cursed? Let’s look at each notable College Football award and it’s winners from the past 20 years. Some awards are more likely to produce Pro-Bowlers while others are likely to produce NFL busts. It should be noted that some of the players that have won awards in recent years can’t be part of the evaluation since they were just drafted or still in college and have yet to play a down in the NFL.

Heisman Trophy: 9 Pro-Bowlers out of the previous 20 (45%)

Notable Pro-Bowlers: Cam Newton, Derrick Henry, Lamar Jackson

Notable Draft Busts: Ron Dayne, Matt Leinart, Johnny Manziel

The Heisman is the most prestigious award in College Football, given to the most outstanding player of the College Football season. The Heisman has given us Hall of Famers and players who didn’t even join the NFL. Many of the recent winners have been quarterbacks and any NFL scout will tell you that there is no exact science to evaluating quarterbacks. Regardless, the Heisman has given us a surprising number of Pro-Bowlers despite its reputation for having a curse, just compare it to some of the other awards in the game.

Chuck Bednarik: 11 Pro-Bowlers out of the previous 20 (55%)

Notable Pro-Bowlers: Ndamukong Suh, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Aaron Donald

Notable Draft Busts: Dan Connor, Scooby Wright

The best defensive player in college can be seen as one of the biggest indicators that the player will succeed in the NFL. Most of the past 20 winners have made the Pro Bowl and some have been the best defensive players in the NFL. The players that aren’t Pro-Bowlers weren’t drafted high and didn’t have high expectations but most of the Bednarik award winners can be counted on to make an immediate impact for the NFL team that drafts them (there’s hope for the team that drafted Chase Young).

The best wide receiver in college is very unlikely to succeed in the NFL. The ones that do succeed are some of the greatest the game has seen but there are more than enough players on this list that have failed to live up to their draft expectations. One of the possible causes of this drop-off can be linked to the different defenses that are run in the college game compared to the Pro game (zone vs man, safeties that bite on a read option vs safeties that don’t). Either way, the award for the best receiver doesn't seem likely to translate to NFL success.

Fred Biletnikoff: 5 Pro-Bowlers out of the previous 20 (25%), note that Jerry Jeudy and Jamarr Chase have yet to play in the NFL.

Notable Pro-Bowlers: Larry Fitzgerald, Clavin Johnson, Amari Cooper

Notable Draft Busts: Charles Rogers, Justin Blackmon, Corey Coleman

The best wide receiver in college is very unlikely to succeed in the NFL. The ones that do succeed are some of the greatest the game has seen but there are more than enough players on this list that have failed to live up to their draft expectations. One of the possible causes of this drop-off can be linked to the different defenses that are run in the college game compared to the Pro game (zone vs man, safeties that bite on a read option vs safeties that don’t). Either way, the award for the best receiver doesn't seem likely to translate to NFL success.

Jim Thorpe: 8 Pro-Bowler out of the previous 20 (40%)

Notable Pro-Bowlers: Malcolm Jenkins, Eric Berry, Patrick Peterson, Minkah Fitzpatrick

Notable Draft Busts: Jamar Fletcher, Antione Cason, Darqueze Dennard

The award for the best defensive back has had some overlap with the successful Bednarik award winners and some of the players have become key pieces for their respective NFL defenses. A few of the defensive backs benefitted from a great defensive system that made them stand out in college but not in the Pros (Gerod Holliman had 14 interceptions the year he won the award and never played a down in the NFL). In the end, this award can be placed in the middle in terms of award success, not a crazy number in either direction.

Dick Butkus: 11 Pro Bowlers out of the previous 20 (55%)

Notable Pro-Bowlers: Patrick Willis, Von Miller, Luke Keuchly

Notable Draft Busts: Aaron Curry, Reuben Foster

This might be the most successful translating award in College Football. There isn’t such a major learning curve for linebackers as they transition from college to the Pros, so many of the linebackers that were great in college became great in the NFL. The Butkus award not only has given us Pro-Bowlers but many of these players are destined for Canton to go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, aside from the three players mentioned above (CJ Mosley, Erik Kendricks and Jaylon Smith have also won the award in recent years).

Doak Walker: 6 Pro-Bowlers out of the previous 20 (30%)

Notable Pro-Bowlers: LaDanian Tomlinson, Melvin Gordon, Derrick Henry

Notable Draft Busts: Chris Perry, Trent Richardson, Montee Ball

This comes as a surprise since the running back position is historically an easy transition from college to the Pros. However, like wide receivers, the award seems to disguise some of the players that are playing well in a system that favors them but when they reach the Pros, we see the drop-off. Trent Richardson looked like the best running back in College Football but we see how his supporting cast at Alabama made him look better than he actually was (and he was exposed in the NFL for that reason).

John Mackey: 7 Pro-Bowlers out of the previous 19 (37.5%)

Notable Pro-Bowlers: Dallas Clark, Heath Miller, Mark Andrews

Notable Draft Busts: Chase Coffman, Nick O’Leary

This award has only been around since 2000, so time will tell if the John Mackey award is producing Pro-Bowl talent at a better or worse rate than the other awards. The Tight End position has one of the toughest learning curves from the college game to the Pro game and very rarely are great tight ends drafted early since they are incredibly difficult to evaluate, so 7 of the last 19 to make a Pro Bowl is all the more impressive when considering the ability to evaluate them. While the best current tight ends in the NFL never won the Mackey award (unlike other positional awards), Dallas Clack was one of the best tight ends of his era and Heath Miller is a borderline Hall of Famer.

John Outland: 8 Pro-Bowlers out of the previous 20 (40%)

Notable Pro-Bowlers: Joe Thomas, Aaron Donald, Brandon Scherff

Notable Draft Busts: Robert Gallery, Gabe Carimi, Josh Garnett

The Outland is given to the best player in the trenches. We can see not only a 40% chance of landing a Pro-Bowler but also a likely chance that the interior lineman can dominate in the league for the next decade. Think of some of the names that won the Outland, Joe Thomas, Aaron Donald, these guys are destined to the Hall of Fame. If you draft an Outland trophy winner, not only are they more likely to make the Pro Bowl over many of the awards but they can also become some of the best in the NFL.

We see that while the Heisman might be considered cursed, it actually has a higher success rate then most of the awards given at the end of each college football season (using Pro Bowls as a fair metric here). The awards that seem to translate the best into NFL success are the Chuck Bednarik award (best defensive player) and the Dick Butkus award (best linebacker) while the awards that seem to indicate little about if a player will be successful in the NFL are the Fred Biletnikoff award (best wide receiver) and the Doak Walker award (best running back). Can this determine if Jerry Jeudy or Jamarr Chase will be draft busts? Probably not. But can we react differently to each award knowing the success rate of each? Certainly.