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Does the NFL underrate the Big 12?

This year’s NFL combine is underway in Indianapolis and the Big 12 only has 19 players participating, by far the fewest of any Power 5 conference. Over the past few weeks, this has naturally evoked all sorts of takes about the Big 12’s perceived fifth-place status among the major conferences.

But are NFL combine invite lists really worth all that scrutiny? After reviewing the past four years of combine participant lists, here are three takeaways worth considering.

1. The perception problem of 10

Expecting the Big 12 to someday produce just as many NFL prospects as the 14-team SEC, ACC or Big Ten is just not reasonable. A more realistic goal for the 10-team league, at least based on the recent history of its peers, would be about 40 combine-level draft prospects each year.

So when you have a year with half that many, the challenge is clear. Recruits notice this stuff. If your conference isn’t sending teams to the College Football Playoff and isn’t sending an impressive number of players to the NFL, those recruits might go elsewhere. If they do, they widen the talent gap between Power 5 leagues.

One concern worth mentioning: Over the past four years, two Big 12 teams have not been producing much NFL talent. Iowa State has had just two players invited to Indy (one in 2015, one in 2014) during that span. Kansas had three combine prospects in 2015 and zero in 2017, 2016 and 2014.

From 2014-16, Big 12 teams have produced an average of three combine prospects per year. If you were to take Kansas and Iowa State out of that equation, the average jumps to 3.5, which would rank third-best among Power 5 leagues ahead of the ACC (3.4) and Big Ten (3.3).

It’s easy to point a finger at Texas not sending more players to Indy, but it’s going to be tough for the Big 12 to catch up to anybody if it only has eight programs consistently producing future NFL players.

2. 19 was right this year

Go over the list of players who will participate in this year's combine and it’s hard to muster a defense that the folks who put that list together made big mistakes with the Big 12. No offense intended here, but there weren’t that many Big 12 standouts who were egregiously snubbed.

Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon and Baylor’s Ishmael Zamora didn’t get the call because of their off-field issues. Kansas State's Elijah Lee should be in Indy, and you can make a solid case for safeties Jordan Sterns (Oklahoma State) and Fish Smithson (Kansas). The NFL will give all of those guys a long look, no doubt. Maybe the number of invites should’ve been 25 instead of 19, but that’s not a big difference.

Think about this: Big 12 teams sign about 250 recruits every year. The total number of Big 12 seniors going to the combine this month: 12. That is absolutely brutal. It’s probably abnormal, too, a number that might never get that low again in the near future. But in the case of the 2017 combine, facts are facts. This conference didn’t deserve much more than what it got.

3. Combine isn’t final judgment

Let’s go back to a year ago, when a total of 34 former Big 12 players received invites to Indianapolis. That seemed at the time like a fairly reasonable number. Well, when it came time for the NFL draft, 23 of those 34 players ended up getting selected. Seven were picked up as undrafted free agents and are still in the league.

But the Big 12 also produced 12 players who were snubbed for the combine yet are on NFL rosters today. Let’s give some props to Jarell Broxton, Jakeem Grant, Aaron Green, Joey Hunt, Michael Hunter, Marquis Lucas, Blake Muir, Oni Omoile, Pete Robertson, Nick Rose, Taylor Symmank and Duke Thomas for proving they deserved a shot at playing in the NFL. Grant and Hunt didn’t need the combine to get drafted.

You can turn those results into a reasonable argument that the Big 12 deserved up to a dozen more combine invites if you want, but the the combine invite list is never going to get this completely right. It’s probably wiser to just accept that the combine invite list, while interesting, really only provides a limited snapshot of how much talent each conference is producing.

Again, it’s all about perception vs. reality. And the reality, at least with the Big 12’s most recent NFL rookie class, ended up being better than expected.