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Draft Central | 2023

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2023 Draft is Another "Football in Texas" Example


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For decades, the obvious and somewhat commonsense answer as to why the state of Texas produces the best football talent in the country year in and year out is because it's simply bigger. Sure, the state motto may be "Friendship" (or teyshas, a Caddo Native-American word meaning friends or allies), but if there was a state cliché, it's undoubtedly "Everything is bigger in Texas."

There's just one minor issue: California has roughly nine million more people than Texas, and Florida and New York aren't light years away in third and fourth, respectively.

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Let's take it a step further. If Texas were broken into four regions, which it is for high school football playoff purposes, would each region alone rank among the top eight nationally, along with California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania in terms of producing collegiate and professional talent?

"I wouldn't disagree with that," said Dane Brugler, a national NFL writer at The Athletic who covers the draft. "Houston produces some of the best talent in the country every year, obviously Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio has come on as of late, and there's a ton of talent in East Texas that has become a pipeline for college coaches. Every inch of the state rivals the rest of the country."

Historically speaking, the numbers are mind-boggling. Players from Texas led the way in NFL draft picks in 2020 with 33 and again last year with 32. There's a legitimate chance this April will make that three of the last four years with a plethora of talent expected to be selected early and often.

The Lone Star State has also produced the most players in NFL history at 2,628, including the most active last year with 219. Additional superlatives include the most members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame with 36, Zach Thomas being the latest selected this past February, which is more than 10 percent of those with busts in Canton. In fact, Texas has produced more Pro Football Hall of Famers than for Hall of Fames in the other three major sports combined.

"To borrow a phrase from the SEC, it matters more in Texas," Brugler said. "It starts at a young age. Kids are on fields at 4, 5 years old. Friday nights. They are raised to learn football matters. There are a lot of high school football programs in Texas run better than college football programs, in terms of facilities, coaching staffs and budgets.

"Recruiting starts with the state of Texas. Every college coach knows to check Texas first. It's not just Texas schools or conferences either. Ohio State has recruited so much talent from there the last few years. One of the top players in this year's draft (defensive back Christian Gonzalez) is from Texas and played at Oregon."

Brugler comes from a football hotbed himself, growing up in Ohio and then attending the University of Mount Union, which has won 13 NCAA Division III championships over the years and produced numerous NFL players, including wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who graduated with Brugler in 2008 and later led the league in receptions while with Washington.

After graduating, Brugler moved to Texas, his first full-time job coming with the Frisco Roughriders, a minor-league affiliate of baseball's Texas Rangers, while he continued his passion for scouting football. He immediately realized the football and barbecue were better in the South, but he also noticed some similarities between his home state and his new residence.

"In North Texas at least, where I was living, there are no beaches, no mountain ranges. It's the same in Ohio," he said. "What we do have is football. That's the escape. There's really nothing else to do."

There is also a religious kind of aspect to Texas high school football. In most towns, especially the smaller ones, likely as many people, if not more, attend Friday night games as Sunday services.

In December of 2003, ABC News wrote a fascinating article entitled, "In Texas, High School Football Is King." Versions of this story have been done before, for decades really, prior to and since this one. What makes this particular piece so interesting is the insight from then-Burnet High School head coach Bob Shipley, who took his team to back-to-back 3A state title games. His quarterback, Stephen McGee, and wide receiver/son Jordan Shipley both went on to the NFL, the former as a fourth-round draft pick of the Cowboys in 2009.

Bob Shipley, who later was an assistant coach at the University of Texas, where his son was an All-American, talked about the impact the game had on not only himself but the community.

"If you grow up in Texas as a kid like I did, it's preached in your household around the table from the time you know what's going on," he said. "It's ingrained in our kids. When people read the obituary column of the local paper to see if a season-ticket holder has passed away, you know you're talking about serious football."

McGee was also quoted in the story, saying, "We really don't have a whole bunch of incredible football players. We have a bunch of guys that love the game and that work hard. That are willing to sacrifice their summers and their springs to go out there in 100-degree heat and play football, and love doing it."

Simple as that when growing up in Texas – football is a way of life, much like family and religion. And, of course, barbecue.

Few have experienced the highs of Texas football as much as quarterback Vince Young, who after leading his Houston high school team, Madison, to the 5A semifinals, then led the Longhorns to the national championship in one of the more thrilling collegiate games ever played, defeating favored USC, 41-38. Young rushed for three scores in the victory, including the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.

In an article he wrote in 2006 for the former blog The Cauldron, Young summed up the mindset of the Texas gridiron.

"The thing that people need to understand when it comes to football in Texas is that the sport is really all about family," he wrote. "It seems weird to say that when you've got a game where people are trying to take each other's heads off, but it's true.

"It starts at a young age with Pop Warner and continues through middle and high school. Players of all ages and skill levels aren't just members of their teams; they are part of a larger community, where everyone is invested in the culture of the game. Parents take care of other parents' kids. Older players look out for and guide younger players. Coaches, teachers and entire neighborhoods rally around the sport, and not just because those who play it are talented athletes, but because they are people."

This upcoming draft is no exception to the state's dominance of producing next-level talent. In a mock draft posted in early March, Brugler had Gonzalez – who before landing at Oregon played in The Colony, a suburb within Dallas-Fort Worth – going sixth overall to the Detroit Lions. Just two picks later, edge rusher Tyree Wilson was projected. He played at Texas Tech and grew up in Henderson before playing at West Rusk High School in New London.

Next up was one of the more interesting players in this year's draft: Texas running back Bijan Robinson, who as the saying goes, wasn't born in the Lone Star State but got here as quickly as he could, having signed with the Longhorns after an All-State career in Arizona. For the first 60, maybe even 65 years of the draft, which started in 1936, running backs dominated the early rounds, many times the No. 1 overall pick.

Those days are long behind us, with Ezekiel Elliott going fourth overall in 2016 the exception rather than the norm. Several recent drafts haven't had a running back even selected in the first round.

"I totally understood the Zeke pick," Brugler said. "He fit the scheme perfectly, and he fit the window of being that last piece to win a Super Bowl. Then Tony Romo was hurt in the preseason, and they never played together.

"Every situation is different. The Steelers taking Najee Harris in the first round in 2021, that made sense. Ben Roethlisberger was hurting and toward the end of his career. Overall, though, it's a pass-first league. Running is still important, but the game is mostly through the air."

In an early version of his mock, Brugler had Robinson at No. 14 to the Eagles, but more than any player on the board, Robinson's mock projections are all over the place, from top-10 to the bottom of the first.

Which brings us to perhaps the most complicated and misunderstood aspect of the draft – teams insisting they are selecting the best player on their board. Yet, outside of an abnormality like Pro Bowl wideout Cee Dee Lamb inexplicably dropping in 2020 to No. 17 before the Cowboys took him, clubs seem to mostly draft for a roster need.

Which makes sense. No one is saying otherwise. Kansas City would look absurd drafting a quarterback in the first round this April. It's just that almost every personnel director and general manager in the league insist they are taking the top player on their board.

So what gives?

"It's important to understand that teams' draft boards don't have 500 player names on it, maybe 150 or so," Brugler said. "Each team has its own personal draft board. Some maybe have a handful of names for the first round. The boards are built with needs in mind. Football is a game of attrition; not every pick is for right now. It could be for three or four years down the road."

That is exactly how Cowboys Hall of Famers Gil Brandt and Tom Landry drafted for decades when they were the class of the league. Their goal for draft picks, even those selected in the first few rounds, was watch and learn as a rookie, contribute and show improvement in the second season and start the third. If they weren't ready by then, they were more times than not sent elsewhere pretty quickly.

With that in mind, one position Dallas is expected to pursue in the draft is quarterback, team owner and general manager Jerry Jones even stating so on multiple occasions. Sure, Dak Prescott is firmly entrenched behind center for the foreseeable future, but the Green Bay Packers made a killing for years by almost always drafting a quarterback despite having Brett Favre as their starter, developing him and then dealing him for higher picks.

Between 2001-16, the Cowboys almost miraculously only drafted one quarterback with the intention of him playing the position, that being McGee in 2009. Signing Romo as an undrafted free agent allowed them that luxury. Since taking Prescott in the fourth round in 2016, that philosophy has changed, the club grabbing Mike White in the fifth round in 2018 and Ben DiNucci two years after that in the seventh.

As to who and when they may select a signal-caller this April, the top four should be off the board within the top-10 picks, if not earlier, in C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis. After that, though, there's a significant drop off, Brugler saying the next quarterback, likely Tennessee's Hendon Hooker, could fall out of the top 100, although a Day Two selection would not surprise him.

After that, around the time Dallas will likely be looking to take a quarterback, some of the potential picks are Purdue's Aidan O'Connell, Houston's Clayton Tune and TCU's Max Duggan.

For the average fan who doesn't break down film for a living like Brugler, it's hard to fathom how the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting, who improbably led the Horned Frogs to the national championship game, is a likely third-day pick, meaning the later rounds. He accounted for 41 total touchdowns as a senior and possesses NFL size at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, especially in this day and age when quarterbacks are smaller than ever.

"Max is a developmental prospect, but I do love his toughness," Brugler said. "Scouts are looking for traits over production. Production matters but not over certain traits. Numbers really mean nothing; you are betting on the talent.

"Quarterback is an intangible position, how a guy is wired, their makeup."

If nothing else, Duggan has history on his side, having played collegiately in the football capital of the country. The game is a way of life in Texas, after all, much like family and religion. And, of course, barbecue.

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