NFL Stars

How recruiting translates to the Draft


-by Braden Gall

The closest thing NFL fans get to actual football this time of the year is the NFL Draft. It is the NFL’s version of Christmas day. Fans from San Diego to Buffalo wait in anticipation as Santa Claus — played by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — walks to the podium every 10 minutes to hand out another present. Kansas City fans love their shiny new bike: LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. While Houston fans scoffed at their new pair of tube socks: Virginia Tech offensive lineman Duane Brown.

But how did Dorsey and Brown come to be first round draft picks?

Dorsey was a highly touted, four-star Rivals100 (top 100) defensive lineman from Gonzalez, La. Brown, on the other hand, was a lower rated three-star tight end from Richmond, Va.

It raises a question that is always a hot-button issue within the walls of the palatial Athlon Sports headquarters: Do recruiting rankings really matter?

In an effort to finally reach the bottom of this long-debated argument, I examined the recently completed 2008 NFL Draft. What better way to truly evaluate talent than with a list of the top-100 players selected by NFL talent gurus and personnel wizards.

For the sake of discussion, the first three rounds of this year's draft will be used. If it wasn’t for those darned Patriots and Spygate — and their forfeited first-round pick — it would have been a nice, clean 100-player list. Instead, I am stuck with only 99.

In addition, all non-FBS picks will be excluded as well. Eight players from FCS schools were selected. Two went in the first round (Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, Joe Flacco), two in the second (Jerome Simpson, Dexter Jackson) and four in the third (Kendall Langford, Antwaun Molden, Bryan Smith, Chad Rinehart). There is one small caveat, however. Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco, the 18th overall pick, will be included, since he originally signed with Pitt. The reasoning behind this is simple: Not only did all the recruiting services pass these guys, so did all the FBS coaching staffs.

For the sake of consistency, all recruiting rankings will come from

Using a 3,000-player pool for any given year (25 scholarships x 119 FBS teams = 2,975 prospects), here is how a normal recruiting class looks:

Five-Stars: 25-30 per year
Four-Stars: 275-325 per year
Three-Stars: 700-800 per year
Two-Stars: 1,600-1,800 per year

This means that only the top one percent of high school football players receive that coveted fifth star. The top 10 percent get a fourth star. If a prospect is ranked in the Rivals 100 — or the Athlon Consensus 100 — he is ranked in what is roughly the top three percent of high school prospects.

That is rarified air.

Those are just the ones that get evaluated and receive the subsequent star ratings, however. According to, there are roughly 15,000 high school football teams in this country. That is approximately 300,000 senior football players in any given year (15,000 teams X 20 seniors per team). Those aforementioned percentages become microscopic when applied to the true player pool.

One-thousandth of one percent of high school senior football players will ever receive a five star rating. Keep that in mind.

Now that all of that is out of the way, the following is a look at the 2008 NFL Draft as recruits.

"Straight Cash, Homie"

Only one player in the top 10 was not ranked as a four-star prospect or higher. Matt Ryan, the third overall pick, was a three-star prospect coming out of Exton, Pa. Here is the breakdown of the top-10 picks:

Player Position School No. of Stars Rivals 100?
1. Jake Long T Michigan No
2. Chris Long DE Virginia No
3. Matt Ryan QB Boston College No
4. Darren McFadden RB Arkansas Yes
5. Glenn Dorsey DT LSU Yes
6. Vernon Gholston LB Ohio State No
7. Sedrick Ellis DT USC Yes
8. Derrick Harvey DE Florida Yes
9. Keith Rivers LB USC Yes
10. Jerod Mayo LB Tennessee No

The 10 most valued NFL prospects were almost unanimously ranked very highly coming out of high school. The only one that was not a big time recruit, Ryan, plays the most difficult position to evaluate — quarterback.

No, I am the Best

Not many high school football players can claim that they were the best player at their position in the nation. This draft’s first four rounds saw eight players drafted that were ranked as the best player at their given position when coming out of high school.

School Pick (Round) HS Position Class
Keith Rivers USC 9th (1) ILB 2004
Jonathan Stewart Oregon 13th (1) RB 2005
Kenny Phillips Miami 31st (1) S 2005
Martellus Bennett Texas A&M 61st (2) TE 2005
Early Doucet LSU 81st (3) WR 2004
Andre Caldwell Florida 97th (3) WR 2003
Justin King Penn State 101st (4) CB 2005
Tony Hills Texas 130th (4) TE 2003

Additionally, there were 14 players taken in the first three rounds that were ranked in the top-5 at their position nationally when coming out of high school. Among these were Darren McFadden (#2 ATH, 2005), Derrick Harvey (#2 WDE, 2004) and Dan Connor (#2 ILB, 2004) who ranked as the second best prospect at their position nationally.

The Numbers Game

Here is a round-by-round breakdown of how draftees ranked as high school prospects:

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Total (Top 99)
5 4 3 12
11 10 9 30
7* 9 13 29
7 5 7 17
FCS 1* 4 2 7

* - Joe Flacco is counted as a three star Pittsburgh signee

Roughly 45 percent of the first three rounds were highly ranked recruits coming out of high school. There were also 25 members of the Rivals 100 — the top-100 prospects in any given year — taken in the first three rounds.

On the surface it looks like a prospect is almost more likely to be a first-round pick as a two star (7) than a five star (5). However, a deeper look at these numbers shows just how remarkable recruiting rankings can be:

No. in each class 25-30 275-325 700-800 1,600-1,800
No. drafted in '08 12 30 29 17
Percent drafted 40-48 9-11 3.6 Less than 1

This means that a player has nearly a 50-50 chance of being drafted in the first three rounds if he is ranked as a five star recruit. The chance drops significantly for four stars. It drops even further for three star prospects, as they have less than a four percent chance. Two star recruits basically have no chance of being drafted in the first round — in fact, its less than one percent.

The Big Six

College football fanatics have recently fallen in love with the “BCS Busters.” Utah, Boise State and Hawaii have all played in recent BCS bowl games. Fans and athletic directors alike have complained about the smaller schools not getting a chance at a National Championship.

Do they deserve a chance? Yes. Will they ever win a National Championship? The talent breakdwn says no.

For the most part, ‘non-big six’ schools finish outside of the top-50 in recruiting rankings. But there are plenty of players drafted from these schools. So why do they get the perceived slight in recruiting rankings? One word: depth.

Since 2000, the Miami Hurricanes lead college football with 62 draft picks. The first non-big six team is BYU. The Cougars’ 20 draft picks rank 39th in the nation. This means that two-thirds of the big six teams are consistently putting more players into the NFL than any one of the smaller schools.

Lump of Coal

As the draft played itself out, one thing kept popping into my head: There is a lot of talent being drafted in the middle rounds. In particular, underclassmen who declared early were being passed over. There must be a reason. The talent is clearly apparent as all of the players got drafted in rounds 2-4 and were all highly touted recruits. However, it is obvious that all of these players could have used one more year of growth and development:

Team Pick (Round) Stars Rivals 100?
Devin Thomas Michigan State 34th (2) NA*
Curtis Lofton Oklahoma 37th (2) 62
DeSean Jackson California 49th (2) 18
Calais Campbell Miami 50th (2) No
Malcolm Kelly Oklahoma 51st (2) 68
Martellus Bennett Texas A&M 61st (2) 8
Jamaal Charles Texas 73rd (3) 57
Reggie Smith Oklahoma 75th (3) 64
Jermichael Finley Texas 91st (3) No
Mario Manningham Michigan 95th (3) 45
Justin King Penn State 101st (4) 19

*- Thomas was the #15 ranked junior college prospect nationally in 2006

Except for Campbell and Finley, all of these prospects were ranked in the top-100 nationally coming out of high school. One more year and many could have been first round picks.

The Athlon Consensus

These numbers mean that recruiting ranking really do matter. Are recruiting services 100 percent accurate? Of course not. It is nearly impossible to evaluate motivation, maturity and integrity (See former Florida State WR Fred Rouse). However, recruiting rankings are pretty good indicators of how a prospect will turn out. As the industry grows, fans of college football can only expect that these self-proclaimed talent evaluators to get even better at predicting the future.

Athlon Sports debuted its Athlon Consensus 100 this January. The 2009 AC100 will include additional expert rankings to expand the recruiting rankings for fans in order to get a true national top-100 list.

So in a special service announcement to all college and pro football fans: Pay attention to recruiting! It is the future of the sport that we all know and love so much.

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