Heisman Finalists & Success in the NFL

The Heisman Trophy is perhaps the most well known trophy for individual performance in North American sports, awarded annually to the most outstanding player in college football since its inception in 1935.

Much attention is focused on the specific winner and their career in professional football, often underperforming with respect to the expectations set by their exceptional college careers. However, the finalist classes as a whole fail to get the recognition they deserve as a group despite being a collection of the top 10-11 most outstanding college football players each year.

Using the Approximate Value (AV) metric from profootballreference.com, we can quantify how successful a class of Heisman finalists went on to be in the National Football League. The data in this blog post includes all the Heisman finalist classes from 1959, which is the earliest class that has finalists that have recorded AV stats, to 2016, the latest class that doesn’t include any players still in college (McKenzie Milton, a finalist in 2017, is still busy living it up on campus). Each finalist class includes the top 10-11 players in terms of votes received throughout the voting process, and not just the players invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Starting off with the Top 10 Best Heisman Classes by Year, the Heisman finalist class that went on to have the best Average Career AV is the 2003 Heisman class. This finalist class includes the three franchise quarterbacks of the 2004 NFL Draft, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, as well as wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. With four potential NFL hall of famers in one finalist class, it’s no surprise that the class of 2003 tops the list.

Coming in just behind the class of 2003 is the class of 1982, which produced three NFL HOFers in quarterback Dan Marino and John Elway, and running back Eric Dickerson.

The 3rd best class in terms of Average Career AV is the class of 1997, which also included 3 NFL hall of fame players in defensive back Charles Woodson, quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Randy Moss.

On the flip side is the Top 10 Worst Heisman Classes by Year, led by the class of 2012 and Heisman winner/NFL bust Johnny Manziel. Of the ten players in the class, only two are still on a roster today, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and wide receiver Tavon Austin. Although Clowney may still have a solid number of seasons to go, it will do very little in helping bump up the class’s low Average Career AV of 14.7.

In terms of colleges, some schools are Heisman finalist factories, with “Blue Bloods” such as Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, USC and Michigan all producing 20 or more Heisman finalists over the 58 year period of 1959-2016.

Ohio State, USC and Miami(FL) produced the finalists with the highest Career AVs, with the three schools roughly around a sum of 900. This only includes a single instance of a player in a Heisman finalist class; for example 2 time winner and 3 time finalist Archie Griffin only had his Career AV counted once for the Sum of Career AV for Ohio State.

It is also interesting to see the breakdown of Heisman classes by individual player. Although it is pretty agreed upon that Heisman winners tend to underwhelm in the NFL, it is still surprising that of all the Heisman classes over 1959-2016, the Heisman winner went on to have the best Career AV only 6 of 58 seasons, or 10.34% of the time.

Heisman winners also went on to have the worst Career AV in their class just as frequent as they had their best, in only 6 of 58 seasons.

Compared to the Heisman winner, the runner-up only fared marginally better in the Career AV metric, leading their class 7 of 58 seasons, or 12.07% of the time.

It seems that neither the Heisman winner or Heisman runner-up had an advantage for Career AV over the last place finalist, which actually had the best Career AV in its class for 7 of 58 seasons.

Looking at the Heisman winner against the rest of their finalist class, the Heisman winner did tend to do better than their peers in terms of Average AV per Season, as they outperformed their classes 33 seasons and underperformed their classes in the remaining 25 seasons.

This holds up when looking at the generic Heisman winner and generic Heisman finalist. The winner played slightly longer with approximately .75 more seasons played, had a Career AV 8 points higher than the finalist, and also had an Average AV per Season 1.2 points higher than the finalist.

College football success is very hard to translate to the NFL, and the Heisman Trophy Trust recognizes the most outstanding player, not necessarily the most “pro-ready” player. It’s not the most likely to succeed award, which is why there can be such a disconnect between Heisman winners and their less acclaimed colleagues once they both make the NFL. It is important, however, that the other Heisman finalists outside of the winner get the recognition and spotlight they deserve for being one of the top players in college football, as these players often go on to do great things at the next level of competitive football.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s