How sleeper recruits still make the NFL, despite blue-chip dominance

Elsa

And it's not usually because major college football programs and recruiting analysts miss on elite high school prospects.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Draft

Every year around NFL Draft time, writers from all over the country put out troublesome columns like the one from Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald, claiming that a five- or four-star recruit's chances of making the NFL are roughly equal to those of three- or two-star recruits.

If you are a high school football recruit and you aren't considered a four- or five-star recruit there is no need to panic. Your chances of being a future NFL first round pick are just about as good as those guys who receive all the attention.

Don't believe me? I spent this afternoon looking up the recruiting backgrounds of the Top 50 NFL Draft Prospects according to ESPN and found some intriguing information on how many stars they were given in high school. Of the top 50 players expected to be taken over the next three days, Rivals.com rated 26 either 4- or 5-star recruits and 24 were 3-star recruits or worse according to the scouting website.

Here's the breakdown: Six five-star recruits; 20 4-star recruits; 17 3-star recruits; six two-star recruits and 1-no star recruit.

Again in 2014, as it has been for the entire history of mainstream recruiting rankings, this assertion is false. And misleading to recruits. To his credit, Navarro amended his column to read, "Your chances of being a future NFL first round pick aren't impossible," after an exchange.

Four- and five-star recruits were 995 percent more likely to be drafted in the first round.

But why do so many columnists fall victim to this logical fallacy each year? A lack of perspective and understanding of probability. Let's dig into what they're missing.

Each year, roughly 4,500 football players sign Division I scholarships. In 2010, the year from which most of the prospects in the 2014 draft came, 27 were rated as five-stars by Rivals.com. Five-stars are considered no-doubt, superstar-type players. There were 395 four-stars, a designation for very good players, and 1,644 three-stars, or good players. And 2,434 were rated as two-stars or not rated at all, meaning they are at the lowest levels of FBS (85-scholarship level) or FCS players (63-scholarship level).

If, as many columnists maintain, the chances of a two-/three-star being drafted in the first round are "just about as good as those guys who receive all the attention," we would expect the following results in the first round, based on the distribution of players:

  • Five-stars: Zero or one
  • Four-stars: Three
  • Three-stars: 12
  • Two-stars/unranked: 17

But nobody, not even writers, would expect that result.

The actual breakdown:

  • Five-stars: Four
  • Four-stars: 13
  • Three-stars: 12
  • Two-stars: Three

That's not close to the same.

Four- and five-star recruits were 995 percent more likely to be drafted in the first round than their lesser-ranked counterparts.

Here's the breakdown of the draft:

Total recruits in 2010 2014 first-rounders Total 2014 draftees
Five-star 27 (0.6%) 4(12.5%) 16 (6.3%)
Four-star 395 (8.8%) 13 (40.6%) 77 (20%)
Three-star 1644 (36.5%) 12 (37.5%) 92 (35.9%)
Two-star/unrated 2434 (54.1%) 3 (9.3%) 71 (27.7%)

Obviously, there are limitations to this analysis. Even if all 256 draft picks were two-star/unrated recruits, that would still leave 2,178 undrafted from that category. The maximum percentage drafted from that level, given the constraints of the draft, is 10.5 percent.

The chance of a lesser-rated recruit being drafted in the first round is nowhere close to what it is for a blue-chipper.

Consider this: While four- and five-star recruits made up just 9.4 percent of all recruits, they accounted for 55 percent of the first and second round. Any blue-chip prospect has an excellent shot of going on to be a top pick, if he stays healthy and out of trouble.

For those who don't like percentages, here are some more intuitive breakdowns based on the numbers from the entire 2014 draft:

  • A five-star recruit had a three-in-five chance of getting drafted (16 of 27).
  • A four-star had a one-in-five chance (77 of 395).
  • A three-star had a one-in-18 chance (92 of 1,644).
  • A two-star/unrated recruit had a one-in-34 chance (71 of 2,434).

And if the two-stars didn't already have enough going against them, keep in mind that the data set of two-star and unrated players includes three kickers and punters (who are rarely rated above two stars), two players who originally went to college on basketball scholarships and later picked up football, and a player from Canada (foreign players are almost never rated).

Ra'Shede Hageman was a 250-pound high school tight end with one scholarship offer. Then he gained 60 pounds in college and became a second-rounder. Jesse Johnson, USA Today

When two-stars get drafted ...

Sometimes, colleges and recruiting analysts simply misevaluate players. More often, however, when a low-rated recruit becomes a big NFL prospect, there is an explanation for why the prospect was rated as he was. The most common reasons are that the recruit:

  • had very limited film due to injury or focus on another sport,
  • is a punter or kicker,
  • gained a ridiculous amount of muscle in college, while retaining athleticism,
  • is from another country, or
  • was expected to head to junior college because of academics but somehow qualified for a four-year school.

Let's look at two of the two-star recruits who were picked in the first round, No. 5 Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack and No. 30 NIU safety Jimmie Ward.

Mack played at a high school that, while not a powerhouse, is not exactly a stranger to producing DI recruits. Westwood High School in Ft. Pierce, Florida, has produced seven since 2003.

So why was Mack rated a two-star? A perfect storm of reasons, really:

There were reasons: Mack was a prep basketball player who as a junior suffered a patella tendon injury that threatened his high school athletic career. He returned to health stronger than before, but he wasn't even thinking about football until Ashmon phoned Mack's dad early in the teenager's senior year and promised him that if he allowed his son to pick up a new sport, he'd go to college for free.

So Mack not only was coming off an injury, he had no film to send out to college coaches from his first three years of high school. And while he was very athletic, he did not yet have great football skills.

He was also 6'1 and 215, according to the linked article. Four years later, Mack is 6'3, 251. Those 35 pounds of added muscle are important.

It is fair to say that recruiting services and major football powers missed on Mack. He made 140 tackles during his senior year, and he had a teammate in Luther Robinson headed to Miami. That should have been enough to get him noticed.

Yet a YouTube search does not turn up any video. A player making 140 tackles in a season on a very good high school team should have a highlight tape, but Sports Illustrated indicates that he did not have much film. That is not on schools or recruiting services; it is the responsibility of  someone connected to him to get his film cut up and sent out. Recruits cannot rely on college coaches being at their games every Friday night, not when there are thousands going on every week.

I wrote about how some good players fall through the FBS cracks and end up at the FCS level, like what almost happened to Mack, when I spoke with Samford offensive coordinator Travis Trickett:

Players routinely fall through the cracks of FBS recruiting in a variety of ways, often out of the athlete's control. Prospects may not have enough highlight footage to send to big programs, or may not know how to send it (or whom to send it to). Coaches, either at the high school or college level, can leave for other jobs, leaving the prospects in limbo, hoping they're not forgotten. That's where FCS schools come in -- they are able to limit themselves geographically while also looking at a wider range of talent sets (late bloomers, players new to the game, etc.).

How the colleges and recruiting services might have missed Mack is by starting the recruiting and evaluation process earlier and earlier each year. LSU recently offered a player before he entered the eighth grade. Most elite players emerge fairly early in their high school careers, and it makes good sense for colleges to focus on them to try to sway them to their schools. By the time Mack was finishing up his senior season, the evaluation process at many big schools was focused on juniors and sophomores. And recruiting services follow the evaluation timelines of major schools pretty closely. Missing on players like Mack is a risk big schools are willing to take, because so few players fitting Mack's profile actually exist.

And players like Mack don't always go unnoticed. Take Eddie Jackson, a player from an area close to Mack's high school, who did not play as a junior, but burst onto the scene as a senior and got noticed because his film got out. He picked up offers from Alabama, LSU, and Florida State, signed with the Tide, and was Alabama's best cornerback as a true freshman for much of the season.

Major schools and recruiting services don't require four years of excellent play, but they typically do need some film showing promise.

For those reasons, Ward -- the NIU safety from Mobile (Alabama) Davidson -- is a bigger miss than Mack. He is not a player who underwent a major growth spurt in college, played in an under-scouted area, or lacked experience. I am not saying that Ward should have been a five-star prospect based on his high school resume (size is a limiting factor), but he should have been at least a mid-level three-star.

First-round pick Jimmie Ward should've gotten more attention as a high schooler. Pat Lovell, USA Today

Weight room warriors

While all of the above reasons appeared in 2014, I wanted to take a special look at the players who blew up in the weight room after leaving high school.

Every year, we see former low-rated recruits get drafted who look nothing like they did in high school. In the 2013 draft, that group included the No. 1 pick, CMU's Eric Fisher.

Recruiting analysts and colleges must project a player to the college level, and part of that entails how much weight he can add to his frame. If a player appears to be maxed out, it can hurt his rating. On the other hand, a player with great length and a wide frame might be rated higher, because of his potential to add weight in a college strength program.

But that has its limitations, and the majority of undersized players with promising frames are unable to blow up in the weight room while still retaining the athleticism that got them noticed in the first place. College coaches and recruiting analysts would lose their jobs if they routinely projected every slender prospect to add the type of muscle these guys did.

Four- and five-star players rarely blow up to this extent. And there's a reason for that: they are already further along in their physical development, they offer greater certainty to the school, and they are able to be productive much earlier in their careers.

Contrast the following former low-rated recruits with No. 1 pick and No. 1 recruit Jadeveon Clowney, who gained only 10 pounds between high school and the Combine, and No. 44 pick and No. 2 recruit Cyrus Kouandjio, who gained seven.

Ra'Shede Hageman, No. 35 overall, gained 60 pounds

Hageman was a well-regarded but raw tight end recruit who grew from a listed 6'6, 250 to 310 pounds while at Minnesota, moving to defensive tackle. He's expected to make an instant impact for the Atlanta Falcons.

Weston Richburg, No. 43 overall, gained 40

RIchburg was a lightly recruited two-star offensive lineman out of Texas who, like Mack, burst out during his senior season at a small West Texas high school. Oh, and he added 40 pounds of good weight in college at Colorado State. That helps.

Richburg also played basketball and ran track, and it's fair to wonder if Richburg would have been bigger in high school, and thus noticed more, had he not participated in the other sports. On the other hand, those sports have helped him develop other skills that eventually helped him in football. He'll now be a center for the New York Giants.

Jay Bromley, No. 74 overall, gained 71

Bromley received a scholarship offer to Syracuse after taking over a postseason high school all-star game. Considering he was 6'4 and 235 pounds out of high school, nobody expected the former unrated recruit to be drafted early in the third round as a 306-pound defensive tackle by the New York Giants.

Keith Reaser, No. 170 overall, gained 42 ... as a cornerback!

Reaser was a two-star, 5'10, 147-pounder when FAU signed him, and was drafted by San Francisco at 189. He plays cornerback. Ridiculous.

Jimmy Staten, No. 172 overall, gained 86

Staten was a 6'3, 217-pound two-star defensive end in high school when he signed with Middle Tennessee State. The Seahawks drafted him at 6'4, 303.

At least nine other drafted two-stars increased their body weight by 20 percent between high school and the Combine.

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