Every year, recruiting analyst Tom Lemming and I engage in a friendly debate over the talent level of football players in the Chicago area. Are they overrated? Is this just a down cycle? Will next year's class be as good as 1986? Why aren't local kids getting more exposure? Without spring practice, do they suffer in comparison to other states?
Look at the facts:
* Last year, 48 Illinois products suited up in the NFL, more than any other region of the country outside of Los Angeles. But at the current rate, Chicago will quickly fall behind Miami, Dallas and Houston.
* In 1986, a total of 141 Chicago area products earned full-ride scholarships and 16 were later selected in the NFL draft. Today, fewer than 70 get scholarships.
* In this weekend's NFL draft, one Chicago area product, Northern Illinois' Larry English (Marmion), figures to be picked in the first round. Two others, Purdue's Alex Magee (Oswego) and Western Illinois' Josh Williams (Du Sable), figure to be picked later.
* In 2008, only two Chicago area players, Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall (Niles West) and Notre Dame's Tom Zbikowski (Buffalo Grove), were selected.
* In 2007, only two Chicago area players, Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe (Holy Cross) and Notre Dame's Dan Santucci (St. Patrick), were picked.
* In the previous eight years, dating to 1999 when Syracuse' Donovan McNabb (Mount Carmel) was the No. 2 pick overall, the Chicago area had a minimum of four players and a maximum of seven selected. There were seven in 2006, six in 1999 and five in 2005 and 2003.
* English could be a rarity. McNabb and Northwestern's Napoleon Harris (Thornton) were the only first-round selections during that 10-year period. Harris was No 23 in 2002 while his high school teammate, Antwaan Randle El, who played at Indiana, was No. 62 in the second round.
* In that period, Thornton had four selections, Naperville North three, Richards, St. Patrick and Leo two each.
So what's wrong? Has the talent level slipped in the last few years? Is Chicago overrated?
Lemming doesn't buy the theory that the talent level has dropped. Sure, the Catholic League isn't what it used to be but the suburbs have picked up the slack and the Public League has greatly improved. Lemming believes the Chicago area isn't producing as much talent as in the past because fewer college coaches are coming into the area to evaluate the players.
"There has been a huge dropoff in the number of colleges that come to recruit in Chicago over the last 10 years," Lemming said. "In the 1980s, they all came here. But because most of the top prospects commit early, moreso than in the South, the coaches don't come back in the fall. Without spring practice, which is a great advantage for kids in the South, fewer Chicago kids are being evaluated and scouted.
"When a lot of coaches come into an area to evaluate talent, they not only see the blue chippers but they also uncover some hidden gems, sleepers, kids with potential and talent that nobody knows about. As it is now, the coaches only come back in the fall if they are looking at underclassmen, not the senior class."
Lemming predicts the situation will begin to change this fall when Chicago-based National Collegiate Scouting Association opens its doors to college recruiters to watch film on hundreds of Illinois products.
NCSA director Chris Krause and his recruiting coordinators, Randy Taylor and Bob Chmiel, will provide one-stop shopping for coaches to evaluate players in a state-of-the-art setting. Because of new NCAA restrictions that limit the amount of time coaches have to evaluate talent, it will be an opportunity to view many more players in a shorter period of time.