By Chris Mahr
Three years ago, I would have predicted that former Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain — the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders following a national championship and Butkus Award-winning season as a junior in 2009 — would have been an NFL All-Pro by now.
McClain came into the league with the size (6-foot-4 and 259 pounds) and speed (4.68 in the 40-yard dash) befitting a standout linebacker. More important, he had the pedigree. In addition to those aforementioned awards and honors, he was a consensus 2009 First Team All-American, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time First Team All-SEC performer.
Yet here we are in 2013, and instead of preparing for an NFL mini-camp, McClain is retired and going back to school to earn his degree. His short-lived (for now) pro career was derailed by underperformance on the field and brushes with the law off of it (he’s been arrested three times in the past year-and-a-half).
While representing the extreme, McClain’s struggles with adapting to NFL life have been surprisingly commonplace among recent Crimson Tide first-round draft picks — surprising because college football’s modern-day dynasty has fancied itself as an NFL player factory ever since Nick Saban became its head coach.
We’ve watched OT and 2008 Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith endure a disconcerting pro day in 2009 followed by two lost seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. (He only recently started turning things around and was rewarded with a three-year, $18-million deal in April.) We’ve watched RB and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram struggle to produce in the pros despite ample opportunities from the New Orleans Saints to be their feature back.
CBs Kareem Jackson and Dre Kirkpatrick and DT Marcell Dareus and have endured growing pains of their own. Perhaps the only players that have stepped into the league and proven to be “NFL-ready” are WR Julio Jones and RB Trent Richardson (and the latter averaged just 3.6 YPC last fall). So much for being the NFL factory we have widely started regarding Alabama as.
This isn’t to say that any Crimson Tide player selected in the first round of the NFL draft is bound to disappoint. There’s hope yet for several of those aforementioned players as well as the likes of S Mark Barron, LB Don’t’a Hightower, CB Dee Milliner, G Chance Warmack and OT D.J. Fluker. But the shelf life for a typical NFL player is short enough that the inability of these players to produce more or less right away is a trend that can’t be ignored.
Where, exactly, in the transition from life in Tuscaloosa to life in the NFL do things go wrong for many of these former Crimson Tide stars? Here are a few possibilities.
No. 1: Lack of Saban-Like Discipline
As CEO-ish as the position of major college head football coach has become in recent years, there is still plenty of room to be a fire-and-brimstone, rule-by-fear authority figure. That’s how Nick Saban has tended to operate as a head coach; one of the reasons his NFL tenure with the Miami Dolphins was so short was because that coaching style didn’t mesh with how the league’s coaches are expected to operate.
The manner in which he has gotten his wealth of uber-recruits over the past six years to drink the Kool-Aid and sacrifice their personal stardom for the sake of the team has been staggering. As good as the Crimson Tide’s stars have been over that time, the whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts.
But what happens when the players step away from that team-first environment? What happens when they go from being one part of a big team to one employee of a big team and are left to their own devices? Sometimes, they’ve bought in to the Alabama way to such a great extent that they’re immediately lost the moment they step away from it.
No. 2: Unused to a Lack of Success
When you’re selected so high up in the first round of the NFL draft, as several Crimson Tide players have been in recent years, you’re more often than not heading to a team with personnel deficiencies. Whereas Alabama is a tightly-run ship, the less-than-stellar teams in the NFL are often a mess.
Imagine being a player who won national championships in college and earned a host of personal accolades following a high school career good enough to earn four- and five-star ratings for major recruiting services. Try going from the high of all that to the low of plying your trade with a team that is going nowhere fast.
That’s what happened to McClain, who was brought in to Oakland to shore up the defense yet instead was on the field when it affirmed its place as one of the worst units in the league. Was he immediately in over his head as a pro football player? Did he wilt at the first sign of adversity he had experienced as a football player in what must have been years?
While McClain’s fellow Crimson Tide first-round draft picks didn’t flame out as spectacularly as he did, they too might have been caught just as unprepared for adversity in the NFL.
No. 3: Better Team Players Than Star Players?
As previously mentioned, all of these former Alabama players once functioned as integral parts in a football force greater than their individual talents alone. What’s more, Saban and his coaching staff got them to work in perfect harmony with one another because he’s the best defensive mind in college football.
Maybe all those Alabama defensive players that have been selected in the NFL draft in recent years appeared much better in college because of the talent next to them and the way Saban used their talents instead of having the ability to excel at the next level. Take Terrence Cody, who dominated as a defensive tackle for the Crimson Tide but struggled mightily last year for the Baltimore Ravens.
If any or all of those 14 former first-round picks sans McClain improves over the next few seasons or contributes right away, in the case of the 2013 draft picks, this argument will be rendered harmlessly moot. For now, however, the rate of return on this bevy of high picks is not what one would expect from players who were so successful at the college level.
As far as NFL factories go, Alabama doesn’t appear to be any better than its counterparts across college football: There’s no guarantee that the players it produces are ready-made.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Top Photo Credit: Jason O. Watson/USA Today Sports