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2017 AFC Championship starters: The Steelers and Patriots as recruits

Some of these guys played high school football before recruiting rankings went mainstream.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Houston Texans at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers. New England Patriots. What a rare opportunity it would be to one of these teams in the Super Bowl ...

... or not.

These teams have been here before, and they’ll likely be here again as long as Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have anything to say about it. What we’re here to talk about though is how these starters were rated as recruits. And that means stars. Players are rated between two- and five-stars.

There is a common refrain that stars don’t matter. That refrain is incorrect. Star ratings are a reliable predictor of which team will win the national championship at the college level. And they are a good indicator of a player’s chance of getting drafted. They aren’t a predictor of NFL team success, obviously, but they’re a frame of reference for how well regarded the talent once was, and what their NFL teams have been able to maximize with more refined coaching and more practice time.

There are often more three-star players at this level because there are just simply more three-star players in the sport. The math of it gives three-stars a better chance at making NFL rosters than four - or four-star players (or blue chips).

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 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).

So let’s take a look at each roster to see how things shake out. We’ve even got some fun facts thrown in for good measure to add some context to the facemasks you’ll see playing shield ball this Sunday, should you be so inclined to watch. We used the 247 Composite, which is a ranking that rolls all big recruiting services into one digestible ranking.

Steelers: 5-Stars: 0 | 4-Stars: 6 | 3-Stars: 7 | 2-1-/Unrated: 9

The Steelers sport six four-stars, and you’d be tempted to say Ben Roethlisberger could have been a seventh if he didn’t play in the era before recruiting rankings were as mainstream as they are now. Same for wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

To put things in perspective, 27 percent of the Steelers’ starters were rated four-stars. Only nine percent of Division I signees were rated four-stars.

Steelers starters

Pos. Player Stars College Notes
Pos. Player Stars College Notes
QB Ben Roethlisberger N/A Miami (Oh) Holds multiple Redhawks records
FB Roosevelt Nix 2 Kent State Was a substitute teacher and a cop between playing in college and making it to the NFL
RB Le'Veon Bell 3 Michigan State Was recruited by Jim Tressel's younger brother to go to Michigan State.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey N/A Maryland Has his mom keep his accounting books, and has saved most of his $35 million career earnings
WR Antonio Brown N/A Central Michigan Went to CMU thanks to a connection with now Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
TE Jesse James 3 Penn State Coming off a career game against Kansas City.
LT Alejandro Villanueva N/A Army Yes, it's that dude from the USAA commercials.
LG Ramon Foster 3 Tennessee Said everyone in the league is "an asshole."
C Maurkice Pouncey 4 Florida Says he'll retire when Ben Roethlesberger does.
RG David DeCastro 3 Stanford Fully supports Leonard Fournette and Christiam McCaffrey sitting out bowl games.
RT Marcus Gilbert 4 Florida Thinks this is Pittsburgh's best defense since 2011.
LDE Ricardo Matthews 2 Cincinnati Was inactive against the Chiefs but should play against the Patriots.
NT Javon Hargrave N/A South Carolina State One of three rookies to start for the team on defense, the first time that has happened since 1971.
RDE Stephon Tuitt 4 Notre Dame Walked 10 miles to his first football practice in high school.
LOLB Bud Dupree 3 Kentucky Originally came to Kentucky as a tight end.
LILB Ryan Shazier 4 Ohio State Draws strength from his alopecia.
RILB Lawrence Timmons 4 Florida State Stopped eating fast food to lose weight -- besides after games.
ROLB James Harrison N/A Kent State At 38 years old, still a workout marvel.
CB Artie Burns 4 Miami (FL) You thought he was a bust, didn't you? Not so fast.
SS Sean Davis 3 Maryland Steelers rookie of the year award winner.
FS Mike Mitchell 2 Ohio His reaction to a call not going his way is still everything.
CB Ross Cockrell 3 Duke Couldn't make the roster with the Bills. Now he's starting in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots may surprise you with two 5-stars, and two 4-stars. Not just a bunch of nameless faceless guys. Belichick & Co. are incredible at finding diamonds in the rough. But when they need to, they’ll obviously go with the best of the best.

Patriots: 5-Stars: 2 | 4-Stars: 2 | 3-Stars: 12 | 2-Stars: 6

18 percent of New England’s starters were four or five-stars, yet only 10 percent of all Division I signees are rated that highly on a yearly basis.

Patriots starters

Pos. Player Stars College Notes
Pos. Player Stars College Notes
QB Tom Brady N/A Michigan Let's laugh at the combine picture one more time.
RB LeGarrette Blount 4 Oregon Flamed Tom Brady for his blocking skills.
RB James White 3 Wisconsin Played a wonderful part in a glorious FU touchdown earlier this season.
WR Chris Hogan N/A Monmouth Scored the longest TD of the season for the Patriots.
WR Julian Edelman 3 Kent State He threw 13 TD passes as a QB his senior season.
TE Martellus Bennett 5 Texas A&M Was the No. 1 TE in the nation coming out of high school.
LT Nate Solder 3 Colorado Was a 6'8, 240-pound tight end in high school.
LG Joe Thuney N/A NC State Named to PFWA all-rookie team.
C David Andrews 3 Georgia Was a three-year starter and three-time captain for the Dawgs.
RG Shaquille Mason 3 Georgia Tech He's named for two NBA stars. His middle name is Olajuwan.
RT Marcus Cannon 3 TCU He's a cancer survivor.
LDE Chris Long 3 Virginia Had a minor fracas with his brother once during an NFL game.
LDT Alan Branch 3 Michigan Actually had a marijauana suspension overturned by the NFL.
RDT Malcom Brown 5 Texas Was not recruited to Texas as a safety.
RDE Trey Flowers 3 Arkansas His coach, Bret Bielema, compared him to JJ Watt.
WLB Shea McClellin 2 Boise State He's a field goal blocker you should be scared of.
MLB Rob Ninkovich 3 Purdue Played last season with a three-inch hole in his leg.
SLB Dont'a Hightower 4 Alabama Wishes his super power was telekenisis.
CB Malcolm Butler N/A West Alabama The Steelers should totaly run the Sehawks Super Bowl play against him he totally won't see it coming.
SS Patrick Chung 2 Oregon Originally born in Jamaica.
FS Devin McCourty 3 Rutgers Both McCourty and Ryan had interceptions in addition to another former Scarlet Knight Duron Harmon in the AFC Divisional round game, prompting Bill Belichick to talk about Rugters. He loves talking about Rutgers.
CB Logan Ryan 3 Rutgers See above.