By now, you're probably familiar with the Eric Fisher story -- from a two-star linebacker/defensive end recruit as a junior at Rochester Hills (MI) Stoney Creek High School, to the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft as an offensive tackle. Fisher has gained roughly 70 pounds in the last 60 months, while not losing much of the athleticism he had when he weighed less than 250 pounds.
Many claim that the recruiting industry missed on Fisher, grading him as a two-star. If that is true, so did all 56 schools residing in BCS conferences. But I find it inappropriate and lazy to label Fisher a miss. A miss implies that there was something to be found. With Fisher, that simply wasn't the case. He played only one year of offensive line in high school and was very undersized.
No scout should be expected to predict Fisher would develop as he did. For every Eric Fisher, there are exponentially more 6'6, 245-pound high school offensive linemen who will never crest 290 pounds while retaining athleticism and flexibility.
The anatomy of a sleeper
In the age of YouTube and digital film, it's exceedingly rare for a great recruit to go unnoticed. But diamonds in the rough who are far from great high school players do sometimes go unnoticed.
One way sleepers sometimes slip through the cracks is that they are younger than grade level. Age matters in recruiting much more than the average fan realizes. It makes sense to factor in more continued physical growth for younger players, particularly if the player is a full year or 18 months below grade level. Similarly, if a player is a full year or more older than grade level, he may have less potential for development. Fisher played his senior season at age 17, which is somewhat on the younger end of the spectrum (many of the best prospects have earlier birthdays or have been held back a year either on purpose by their parents or because of academics), but is not extremely young. With a January birthday, Fisher hardly fit the bill of someone for whom scouts should have factored in a lot of continued growth, independent of his frame.
And while Fisher had a good frame, he did not have one that suggested he would explode.
But explode he did. Fisher was listed at 6'6 and 240 pounds before his senior year, and 6'7 and 260 pounds after. Since, he's put on roughly 50 more pounds of muscle. Some of that can be attributed to a different training and dietary regimen, as he attempted to bulk up for his new position. But it's still remarkable and almost certainly unpredictable. Fisher is a story because things like this just don't happen.
Other than age and frame, however, there is one other factor that coaches consider when trying to project growth.
Sometimes when a coach is recruiting a player from an area of abject poverty, he'll expect to be able to put more weight on him than the typical prospect, because the player is not being provided proper nutrition and protein at home. But that description doesn't fit Fisher; he grew up in Rochester, a well-off suburb of Detroit.
Fisher is an awesome player and story. But those who point to him as a way of discrediting recruiting rankings are way off the mark. Four- and five-star recruits remain about 10 times more likely to be drafted in the first round as two- and three-star recruits, and with the rankings improving all the time, the number will only continue to rise.
Bone age: exposing a scouting inefficiency?
But perhaps there is another way to identify the next Eric Fisher other than the typical "he still has a baby face" method: bone age. I hadn't heard of it, either.
Recently, after writing a story about a 6'0.5 (maybe 6'1) quarterback who can really sling it, I was contacted by the recruit's mother. I asked about his birthdate, as he has a baby face, and I was wondering if he was below grade level, which could suggest continued physical maturation above and beyond the normal expectation. This was her response:
"11/25/95 and he really is 6'1" Haha AND we had his bone age done in February -growth plates still wide open. His bone age was 16. Haha "
Her son is right on grade level, and will turn 18 right at the end of his senior season. But his bones are apparently 16. At first, I thought this was a joke. But apparently, the measuring of bone age is a real thing -- though I'm not yet sold on its predictive power.
What is bone age? According to BoneExpert.com:
Bone age is a measure of the degree of skeletal maturity of a child, i.e. how far the child has advanced in its development of the skeleton. Conventionally this is determined from an X-ray image of the hand.
Skeletal maturation is controlled by hormones, and the same hormones also govern the start of puberty, so a child with delayed skeletal maturity is also likely to enter puberty late.
If true, that measurement could be useful in projecting football players. It seems to be somewhat backed up by this study.
But assuming for a second that there is some predictive value in bone age, I wonder: What was Eric Fisher's as a junior in high school? As a senior? Could it have revealed that Fisher would get taller, or that his frame would continue to expand? We can't know.
What I do know, however, is that if I were the parent of an undersized recruit, I would have his bone age tested. And if the results showed that his bones were considerably younger than his actual age, I'd be getting that info to college coaches, with the hope that they'd like him more.
While I don't think colleges will start measuring the bone age of prospective recruits (medical privacy issues, expense and feasibility being the primary factors), I do think teams might start measuring this once players arrive on campus.
Think of the implications: Say a player arrives at 6'5 and 255 pounds. Should he be a big tight end? Or should the school redshirt him, bulk him and hope he can be 6'5 or 6'6 and 290 pounds as a redshirt sophomore offensive tackle? It's an important decision made early in the player's career, and perhaps a decision that could be made easier with the help of a bone age measurement. Knowing which players have a greater propensity to add a lot of muscle would be a huge advantage for a school.
Photo credit: Charles Fishbien, Elite Scouting Services