Where Do The Best College Football Players Come From?

**Beware: lots of pretty maps and not-so-pretty statistics ahead**

Back in the home stretch of recruiting season, SI.com recruiting guru Andy Staples wrote a fascinating article on where elite (i.e. NFL) defensive linemen come from, finding that a startling number of them hail from the South. Staples went on to explore factors like evolutionary theory and obesity rates as possible explanations for this phenomenon, but I remained fascinated by just how strikingly South-heavy his map was.

This made me curious: Is this just a defensive line thing, or do all of college football's elite players predominantly come from the South? So I set out to do just what Staples did, only for every offensive position. Here's what I found: Every offensive player in the NFL, mapped by high school, grouped by college conference. (You can zoom in and out, click on the conference tags at the bottom to sort by conference, and click on each pin to get info for individual players.)

View Hometowns of NFL offensive players in a full screen map

Looks quite a bit different from Andy's and a bit overwhelming, right? Well, I'll break it down a little bit and try to make some sense of it after the jump.

The first thing that struck me was the geographical difference by position. Here, for example, is the map for QBs:

View Hometowns of NFL Quarterbacks in a full screen map

Now, when we look at wide receivers, boom - the South (and especially Florida; ESSSS-EEEEE-CEEEE SPEEEEEED, etc.) suddenly shows up:

View Hometowns of NFL Wide Receivers in a full screen map

And with offensive linemen, the Upper Midwest jumps off the map:

View Hometowns of NFL Offensive Linemen in a full screen map

You can explore some of this further with maps for running backs and wide receivers and tight ends together.

If we take a deeper look at the numbers behind some of these maps, we can see some interesting trends when it comes to where our elite football players tend to come from. Like Staples, I organized the country into regions. Mine are a little different from his, hewing more closely to college conference lines*. Here they are:

South (SEC): Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee (19.1% of the population)
West (Pac-10): Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington (17.6% of the population)
Plains (Big 12): Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas (14.4% of the population)
Midwest (Big Ten): Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin (22% of the population)
East (ACC/Big East): Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia (22.5% of the population)
West (Non-Pac-10): Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming (4.5% of the population)

*I used current conference alignments as opposed to future ones (e.g. Nebraska in the Big 12) because that's the conference in which these players went to school.

So here's the breakdown of players by region:

All offensive players:
South: 26%
Midwest: 19.7%
Plains: 18%
West: 17.7%
East: 14.9%
West (non-Pac-10): 3.7%

Quarterbacks:
West: 29.2%
Midwest: 25.5%
South: 18.9%
Plains: 17.9%
East: 8.5%
West (non-Pac-10): 0%

Running backs:
South: 31.1%
East: 20.8%
Plains: 15.8%
Midwest: 14.8%
West: 13.7%
West (non-Pac-10): 3.8%

Wide receivers:
South: 30.9%
West: 18.8%
Plains: 17.9%
Midwest: 15.7%
East: 14.8%
West (non-Pac-10): 1.8%

Tight ends:
Midwest: 25.8%
West: 19.4%
Plains: 18.5%
South: 16.9%
East: 16.1%
West (non-Pac-10): 3.2%

Offensive line:
South: 25.5%
Midwest: 21.1%
Plains: 18.9%
West: 14.9%
East: 13.4%
West (non-Pac-10): 6.2%

A few quick notes on this set of stats:

- The stereotypes seem to hold true: The South produces an outsized share of running backs and wide receivers (again, SPEEEEEEEEEEED); Big Ten country specializes in tight ends, quarterbacks, and, to a lesser extent, offensive linemen; and the Pacific Coast is a hotbed for pro quarterbacks (even 30 years after Walsh, it's still easy to connect the dots between the West Coast Offense and the NFL).

- All those misfit western states without a BCS-conference school actually produce more than their share of offensive linemen. Huh.

- The East Coast is huge for running backs, but not much else.

- The Big 12 states produce a little bit of everything - nothing more than 18.9% or less than 15.8%.

Once we break things down to the state level, we see yet another layer of the picture. Here are the top five states for producing elite offensive talent:

California - 13.8%
Texas - 12%
Florida - 8.1%
Ohio - 5.3%
Louisiana - 4.4%
...
Nebraska - 0.5%

Not much of a surprise there. But California and Texas should be producing the most pro players - after all, they have the most people. When we compare the number of the players produced to the state's population, we get a better picture of how much of a true high school football hotbed each state is. Here's each state's production of offensive NFL players, compared with their overall population; in short, the higher the number, the higher proportion of elite players your state pumps out. Positive numbers mean you're above average; negative means you're below. (States with less than 1% of the nation's population weren't included, since the numbers are just too small to calculate well.)

Louisiana 193%
Mississippi 90%
Texas 50%
Alabama 40%
Ohio 39%
Florida 35%
Oklahoma 33%
New Jersey 21%
Iowa 20%
Tennessee 19%
California 15%
Virginia 15%
Colorado 13%
Minnesota 12%
South Carolina 7%
Georgia 6%
Connecticut 0%
Pennsylvania -2%
Michigan -15%
Arizona -18%
Indiana -29%
Missouri -30%
North Carolina -32%
Oregon -34%
Illinois -40%
Maryland -42%
Wisconsin -44%
Washington -50%
Kentucky -57%
Massachusetts -68%
New York -70%

Some final observations:

Though the results aren't nearly as extreme as Staples' defensive lineman counts, the South clearly comes out ahead here (except for Kentucky - crazy bouncyball fans), while the Northeast comes out the worst (with the interesting exception of New Jersey).

But there's not enough here to say that any region has anything approaching a monopoly on elite high school talent. For the Huskers, the much-discussed trade from Texas recruiting to Ohio recruiting doesn't look as disastrous as it's often made out to be, particularly if the program can keep a toe in both areas. I'm still perplexed and fascinated by the difference in where offensive and defensive linemen are raised (D-line overwhelmingly in the South; O-line all over the place, but with a big Midwest/rural West contingent); anyone with more sociological chops than I is welcome to tackle that one.

I thought I'd tack on a few methodological notes to the end, to answer some questions:

- As for why I'm measuring NFL players instead of, say, college starters, it's for the same reason as Staples: It's the best proxy for high-quality players that provides a decent sample size. I know some pro players weren't good in college (or didn't play at all), but I think it's a good quick-and-dirty measurement.

- I measured what school players last played at, in the case of transfers. As for conferences, I went with the conference they were in when they left - so Matt Hasselbeck's Boston College is Big East, and Matt Ryan's is ACC.

- I used NFL bios along with Google/Wikipedia to find players' high schools, and I mapped the location of their high school, not their hometown. I didn't count finishing schools like Hargrave Military Academy.

- I counted all players on NFL active rosters and injured reserves as of whenever in February I got to that team. I didn't count practice-squadders or their offseason equivalent, reserve/future contracts.

- I used BatchGeo to create the maps and SPSS to calculate the regional/state statistics. I've got tons of data available for crosstabs by conference, school, position, NFL team, etc., so if there's some stat you want to see, let me know in the comments.

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