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Why Michigan players are seen as legitimate NFL prospects despite inconsistent production

Michigan has done at least a few things right in preparing its players for the pros.

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It is no secret that the Michigan Wolverines have left some potential on the field in the last handful of years given the talent that has come through the building. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff have struggled at times to build critical spots on the roster. Despite this, they continue to send players to the NFL at a pace matched only by some of the elite programs in college football.

Michigan has sent 31 draft picks to the NFL since Harbaugh was hired ahead of the 2015 season. Many of them have managed to stick around and make plays for consistently-winning franchises.

We spoke to Senior Bowl director and NFL Draft analyst Jim Nagy last week (in a full podcast that can be found here) to address what front offices are looking for and how they weigh the debate between production vs. measurables.

For example, this is one of the biggest plot threads surrounding Michigan wideout Nico Collins. He has been tabbed by some as a potential day two draft pick despite inconsistent usage and statistics that do not quite measure up to some of his peers in this draft class.

“In college, it’s way more about the physical traits of a player than it is production,” Nagy said. “Production is reliant on so many other things. In a receiver, it is about the quarterback. It is about the (offensive) line’s ability to protect the quarterback. It is about the scheme. It is about coaching. There is such a thing as bad coaching. And I’m not talking about Michigan, but just in general. You look back at it, certain situations of players that have had better pro careers and college careers, and it’s because they just weren’t being used right at the college level. So it’s all of it.

“To me, it’s about potential. You want to see production, but there are a lot of guys in college that are products of the system. Like those guys that catch 100 balls in college that never catch one in the NFL. So I know it’s really easy to look at the stat sheet and say, ‘Oh, this guy’s going to be great.” But it’s a height, weight, speed league and it’s all about ceiling and upside and then the football character part of it. Guys are big, fast and strong, and they work hard. They’re tough and they’re competitive. Like they’re going to figure out a way to be a good pro player. So it’s way more about the physical potential of a player than it is about production.”

Harbaugh and Michigan have been accused of doing a less-than-ideal job of developing talent and putting it in positions to succeed on the field. However, Nagy does see a program that prepares its players for success at the highest levels of football. They have consistently impressed throughout the evaluation process.

“They are very mature guys. They’re grown-ups. And it’s not just because I’m a Michigan grad. All the guys in our office staff say the same thing,” Nagy said. “The Michigan guys, and the Notre Dame guys, have been off the charts in my three years (running the Senior Bowl). We’ve had some of Ann Arbor’s finest. We had seven Detroit-area players in the game this year that weren’t Michigan guys. But there are certain schools that when you get them down here, you realize the type of program they’re coming from.

“They’re responsive to texts (and) calls, easy to communicate with, on time for everything. And it just speaks to the program that they’ve built in Ann Arbor. And that’s why these guys have become good pros, because they hit the ground running. The NFL is very impatient. It used to be where you’d give a guy three or four years to kind of get his bearings and learn how to be a pro. You better come to the league knowing how to be a pro these days and these Michigan guys have all shown they can do that.”

More from our conversation with Nagy, including why running back Chris Evans might be set up to be a sleeper in this class, can be found from our podcast with Nagy from last week.

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