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Notre Dame and the NFL Skill Position Talent Gap

Written by Patrick Byrne

I'm a college football guy. I'll watch any game, any time. Notre Dame is of course my favorite team to watch, but I can get pretty excited about a late night San Diego State vs. Nevada match up in Reno as well. The NFL is not particularly a close second to me; however, I do watch as much as possible so I can keep track of how Notre Dame players are doing in the league. I heard recently that Notre Dame can't control how their players will perform in the NFL. True, but if you start with better players and develop them properly, the chances of them not only making it, but doing well will obviously increase. It's also important to show that you have players at all positions within the NFL, because this helps you attract more talent at those positions in future. Do you honestly think Tom Brady hasn't helped Michigan attract talent at the quarterback position?

Now, the big question is: Can Notre Dame help you get to the NFL? The answer is of course - but the bigger question is which type of player is Notre Dame churning out year after year that's not only making it to the NFL, but thriving as one of the best players in the league? Let's do a deeper dive into that very question. Before we begin, I won't be listing every single player for each position group, just those who have significantly contributed to their team this past season. For instance, Romeo Okwara and Matthias Farley wouldn't be considered "major" contributors (just check out their stats) so I've opted to exclude them. I'm splitting the players I have listed into two categories:

Top Tier - Kids wear a jersey of that player to the game, household name, etc.

Additional Starters/Contributors - Not a star but a good to potentially great player

Among knowledgeable football fans, Notre Dame is known as either O-Line U or Tight End U, both of which would make sense given the number of players in these positions at the NFL level who have graduated from the school. A quick view of the top-tier talent proves that Notre Dame is developing players at a pretty consistent rate.

Photo Courtesy: Associated Press

O-Line Top Tier

Ronnie Stanley

Zack Martin

Quenton Nelson

Additional Starters/Contributors

Aaron Banks

Liam Eichenberg

Mike McGlinchey

Sam Mustipher

Robert Hainsey

Alex Bars

Tight End Top Tier

Cole Kmet

Additional Starters/Contributors

Kyle Rudolph

Durham Smythe

Tommy Tremble

Brock Wright

I can make an argument that Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin are already in the Hall of Fame based on the careers they've had. Quenton Nelson is harder to figure out as his production slipped quite a bit this year, but he was also injured so it will be interesting to see how he comes back from that. The other guys listed are either consistent starters, have started or have at least played in their careers up to this point. Cole Kmet had a productive third year in the league (544 yards/7 TDs) so it's safe to assume he's the next great Notre Dame tight end (until Michael Mayer is drafted, then all bets are off). Rudolph was very productive, but is on his way out while the others had "nice seasons" but not star quality to this point. Having 9 offensive lineman and 5 active tight ends (with a 6th on the way) is pretty impressive, and speaks to the culture the Irish have built.

More than once, Marcus Freeman has said he wants Notre Dame to be an offensive and defensive line driven program. We've established there is a healthy stable of offensive lineman playing in the NFL that once wore the gold helmet, but what about defensive lineman? How are we doing on this side of the ball? Let's take a look:

D-Line Top Tier


D-Line Starters/Contributors

Kurt Hinish

Khalid Kareem

Isaac Rochell

Jerry Tillery

All of these guys have played with at least one other member of this position group (Tillery) being a former starter before getting traded; however, none of them have established themselves as a force within the league (think Aaron Donald). It appears most will be solid contributors on their teams, but it's doubtful any of them will have the same type of impact the offensive lineman or tight ends will have. Strides in recruiting have definitely been made and the defensive line is absolutely better than it was pre-Brian Kelly, but the talent acquired has only been good enough to win at a non-new years six bowl/playoff game level. More work needs to be done to get Notre Dame over the hump if Freeman's vision of dominating both lines of scrimmage is to come to fruition.

Okay, you may ask, how many wide receivers are making an impact? What about running backs? Let's take a look:

Photo Courtesy: Associated Press

Wide Receivers Top Tier


Wide Receivers Starters/Contributors

Chase Claypool

Ben Skowronek

Equanimeous St. Brown

Running Backs Top Tier


Running Backs Starters/Contributors

Kyren Williams

Wide receiver recruiting has been a major sore spot for Irish fans over the years. There have been flashes with both Golden Tate and Michael Floyd having success in the league, but there haven't been any other receivers who have made a major impact up to this point. Claypool had a pretty productive couple of seasons, and was then traded from the Steelers to a brutal Bears team, so we'll have to wait and see if he can build on that success. Skowronek was a surprise for the Rams this year, but I think that was more out of necessity and injuries. I expect he'll pan out to be a "good receiver" in the future. St. Brown also had a respectable season with the Bears, but I don't foresee him breaking out to be a superstar in future. All in all it's a nice group of receivers, but outside of maybe Claypool, none of them are game changers. As for the running backs, Williams was hurt for a majority of the year so it's hard to get a pulse on how good he may be. The kid has always had heart and he doesn't go down easy. My guess is he has a Ryan Grant like career, which would be pretty darn good.

What about the rest of the defense? How does Notre Dame fare here?

Safety/Linebacker/Corner Top Tier

Harrison Smith

Safety/Linebacker/Corner Starters/Contributors

Kyle Hamilton

Alohi Gilman

Julian Love

Nick McCloud

Jaylon Smith

Drue Tranquill

There are definitely bright spots in this group, especially at safety with Harrison Smith (a sure fire hall of famer), Kyle Hamilton having a nice rookie year, and Alohi Gilman being a solid contributor on a Chargers playoff team. Julian Love and Nick McCloud both start (or have started) in the Giants secondary while Jaylon Smith and Drue Tranquill also started for their teams and contributed heavily throughout the year. All things considered, I'd say this is a pretty impressive group and would be the second most successful among former Irish players, to both the offensive line and tight end groups.

Even though I had a disclaimer at the beginning of this article that I'd only include contributors to their team this past season, the QB position is one that must be mentioned. The quarterback with the most wins in Notre Dame history sits on the bench for the Eagles as a 3rd string QB, while Gardner Minshew (the guy in front of him), a former East Carolina and Washington State QB, has seen game action this year. I'm definitely not an Ian Book hater, I appreciate him as a college quarterback and especially all he did at Notre Dame; however, I don't see him starting or doing much of anything in the NFL. As someone who grew up watching the tail end of Joe Theismann's career and the heyday of the Montana era, this is both telling and quite depressing. Here's hoping he can pull a Steve Beuerlein and have a nice 3-4 year run somewhere.

Photo Courtesy: Associated Press

To sum it up, in looking at who's excelling within the NFL, there are 4 areas where Notre Dame has to improve their talent in order to not only make a run at the playoffs, but actually win a game and attempt to advance:

  • Defensive Line

  • Running Back

  • Quarterback

  • Wide Receiver

None of these should come as a shock to you, and I'm definitely not saying anything someone else hasn't regurgitated in the past. I do think it helps to see the position groups that are actually making a contribution in the NFL and where the disparity lies. If I look at the list of players in the league and who's actually making waves, I tend to think Notre Dame looks more like Iowa than it does Georgia or Alabama, which makes a lot of sense and explains the blowouts that have taken place in the past. Having said that, the gaps are closing in certain areas and are much brighter in others than fans may think. O Line and Tight End U are alive and well, we simply need to add skill players while producing more game changers along the defensive line.

In other words, the most highly sought after position groups that are most likely to get poached with huge NIL deals.

Easy, right?


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