Column | Pitt is a top-tier NFL pipeline

By Brian Sherry, Sports Editor

When most fans think of top-tier NFL pipelines, they typically focus on the usual suspects — Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU, to name a few. Schools like Pitt are rarely included in that conversation.

But I think it’s time for that to change. Looking at Pitt’s history in the NFL — all the draft picks, awards and Hall of Fame selections the program has boasted throughout the years — it’s clear that Pitt is an elite producer of NFL talent and deserves recognition as such.

Just this year, Pitt boasted six players drafted, which ranked fifth in all of college football. This means Pitt had more players selected than most major blue bloods, including Oklahoma, Texas and Notre Dame. 

Pitt also had one first-round selection with defensive lineman Calijah Kancey, who was selected by Tampa Bay with the 19th pick. This is Pitt’s second straight year with a first-round draft selection, as Steelers’ quarterback Kenny Pickett was selected 20th in 2022. 

To put this in perspective, Nebraska — which most critics consider a major college football blue blood — has not had a player taken in the first round since 2011. 

Historically, 297 former-Panthers have heard their names called in the NFL draft, which ranks Pitt at No. 19 in all-time number of Draft picks. While No. 19 all-time doesn’t sound overly impressive, it still puts Pitt ahead of notable schools such as Clemson and Auburn. 

But draft selections only go so far. For a school to gain recognition as an NFL pipeline, its players must actually succeed in the league. 

This is where Pitt shines. 

Once Darrelle Revis is officially enshrined, Pitt will boast ten former players in the NFL Hall of Fame. This does not include players such as Larry Fitzgerald, LeSean McCoy and Aaron Donald, who are near locks to make it to Canton. By the end of the decade, Pitt could have at least 13 players enshrined in Canton.

In comparison to other schools, Pitt is tied with Ohio State for fourth place all-time in players inducted into the Hall of Fame. Only Notre Dame, USC and Michigan have more players selected. 

This means Pitt has more players in the Hall of Fame than some well-recognized NFL pipelines, including Alabama, Georgia and LSU. 

But all of Pitt’s Hall of Famers are already retired. What truly matters is the modern day — and Pitt’s current NFL players are dominating. Right now, Pitt boasts over 30 players in the league — some of whom are representing the blue and gold extremely well. 

Take Donald, for instance. To date, Donald has racked up three Defensive Player of the Year awards, seven First-Team All-Pro honors and nine Pro-Bowl selections — all while consistently ranking as one of the most double-covered pass-rushers in the league. 

And if the personal awards weren’t enough, Donald also has a Super Bowl ring for his role in the Rams 2021-2022 championship run. 

While Donald is undoubtedly the most notable former Panther in the league, it doesn’t mean the others aren’t dominating in their own ways. 

Running back James Conner had a breakout year with the Cardinals in 2021, earning himself a Pro-Bowl selection in the process. He had a quiet year in 2022 due to injury, but he looks poised for another big year in 2023. 

Meanwhile, Conner’s former Pitt teammate Tyler Boyd continues to prove himself as a key member of the Bengals’ electric receiving corps. Boyd — a second-round Draft pick in 2016 — has played in some major games with the Bengals, including the 2022 Super Bowl. 

Then there are Pitt’s promising defensive backs, including Jordan Whitehead, Damar Hamlin and Dane Jackson. With Hamlin — who suffered a devastating cardiac injury last season — already cleared to play in 2023, the future looks bright for Pitt’s NFL defensive backs. 

All in all, Pitt’s impact in the NFL is on par with the most notable college football programs. Yet, it still doesn’t get recognized as one of the best. This poses the question — why?

Arguably, a lot of Pitt’s lack of recognition as a NFL pipeline is due to brand name. Just before last football season, ESPN posted its “Position U” ranking — where it ranked teams by their ability to produce NFL-level talent at a given position.

In this ranking, Pitt was only mentioned once, as ESPN brought up Jordan Addison’s time at Pitt to help justify why USC is the best at producing wide receivers. 

Nonetheless, most of the teams ESPN ranked No. 1 at their positions were also some of the top teams in yearly revenue. Out of the eight programs that earned No. 1 selections as a “Position U,” six of them ranked in the top 25 in value, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Teams like Alabama and Georgia are national brands, which automatically gives them more attention when topics like “Which programs are NFL pipelines?” come up. Smaller brands like Pitt, meanwhile, struggle to get recognition, despite producing all-time greats.

Ultimately, Pitt is a top-tier NFL pipeline. It might not get the recognition it deserves, but critics can’t ignore the history and talent Pitt has produced over the years.