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The NFL Factory In Ann Arbor Is Just Getting Started

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Coach Harbaugh’s professional approach is doing wonders for Michigan’s players.

University of Michigan v University of Central Florida Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

We all know the story: a veteran team, with heavy losses to the NFL, a terrific draft day and then an influx of youth at the starting positions. That story applies to Michigan this year, Ohio State last year, and Alabama every year.

But will Michigan be able to pull off the feat repeatedly - posting impressive numbers in almost every draft going forward? And how big could Michigan’s haul be in next year’s draft? Bigger than you might think.

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Quarterback recruiting, and what it says about developing for the NFL

It was surprising news that Michigan was in the hunt for 2 quarterbacks in the 2018 class, and it made everybody squint at the depth chart wondering why Harbaugh was pursuing two in a year with relatively few scholarships open. But as with everything Harbaugh does, it quickly made sense.

In a way, the quarterback battle can simplified down to two what-ifs - either Brandon Peters wins the race, or Speight beats him out. If Speight is good enough to win, he’ll be able to dominate the Big Ten and be a strong candidate to jump to the NFL next season. If Peters wins the starting spot, Speight could end up as a graduate transfer instead.

Either way, with Speight, O’Korn, and Malzone steadily wrapping up their Michigan careers, the depth chart pretty soon will be Peters, McCaffrey, and ... some more young studs. And Peters could jump ship to the NFL as soon as 2019 - hence the need for a lot more talent.

This accelerated progression through the depth chart is something we’ll come to expect more, I think. The window for guys to prove themselves is smaller than it was, and the cases where guys will jump to the NFL will steadily rise. After all, you’re talking about mixing talent, ambition, and competition into a small space and then applying pressure. This will lead to some great seasons and almost as many off-season question marks.

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It’s not just the superstars, though. In interviews and scouting reports, it’s been clear what kind of effect Harbaugh’s had on Michigan’s gritty, underrated players. Even if a guy is less than a phenomenal athlete - think De’Veon Smith, for example - he’ll readily admit that building up one’s chances with preparation and hard work is the name of the game.

“Honestly, I don’t think any other school out here has it easier than us right now because we’ve been through it all and I don’t think (other players) have as far as I know.

A lot of people out here aren’t as prepared as any Michigan football player out here. Coach Harbaugh got us right for sure. This is mentally draining and Coach Harbaugh has put us through the hardest thing ever, a four-hour practice. If you can do a four-hour practice, you can do anything. You can withstand any of this we’re going through. It’s like a walk in the park.”

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Amara Darboh echoed that statement.

“It got us prepared to play at the next level. (Harbaugh’s) competitive nature, he instilled that in us in every situation. You have to do your job or else we’re going to find someone else that’s going to do it better. That’s what the NFL is like, you have to do your job.”

And Chesson: “It’s been a blessing, really… One thing I’ll say about Coach, just as iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man. When he says that, it really gets you to think what competition does.”

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Every collegiate football player goes to college with aspirations of playing professionally. Very few see their aspirations through to fruition, but Michigan is enhancing the opportunity for all players to take that next step. This begins at the top with Harbaugh.

As we all know, Harbaugh wanted to install a more professional, serious approach and began by hiring the correct staff beneath him. When he lost Ty Wheatley to the Jacksonville Jaguars, he poached a coach from the NFL in return by nabbing Pep Hamilton. When Greg Jackson left for the Dallas Cowboys, he added Brian Smith, who had been with the Eagles.

Essentially, when Michigan has an opening, Jim Harbaugh is as likely to fill it from the NFL as he is from college. That’s unique.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A staff with NFL experience understands what it takes to excel at the next level and can more effectively prepare every student-athlete for the physical, psychological, and emotional demands of professional football. Harbaugh readily admits he prepares his players in as much of an NFL style as the college rules will allow, and he’s flushed his program with NFL-experienced coaches, sons of former NFL players, and even recruited Carlo Kemp, the nephew of Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.

Basically, he’s got a program full of young pros, being taught by NFL-minded old pros. This is a good recipe for overshooting estimates on how many draft picks Michigan will create in any given year, and it doesn’t just take elite athletes - it takes overachievers and hard workers, too.

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Of course, more draft picks down the road also means more production and more wins while they’re still playing in Ann Arbor. So, how many players will Michigan send to the NFL in next year’s draft? Well, let’s see:

Of those, Mason Cole, Khalid Hill, Mike McCray, and Mo Hurst are almost certain draft picks, which is half of the scholarship players on that list. The 2017 season could be enough for Ty Isaac, Henry Poggi, Patrick Kugler, and Mike Wroblewski to step up their game, as well.

This one is a little more interesting. I think it’s fair to expect around three of the nine guys on that list to jump to the NFL after next year. Maybe more, maybe less. This would give Michigan another 7 draft picks in 2018, and maybe as many as 10 or 12. Not bad for a team of young guns, isn’t it?

Then again, get used to it - big draft days are going to be norm around Ann Arbor for many years to come.

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