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How 15 players who weren’t blue-chip recruits became 2019 first-rounders

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Four- and five-star recruits are much likelier to be top draft picks, but let’s see if some trends apply to the lower-rated guys.

NFL: NFL Draft Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Four- and five-star recruits make up only about 10 percent of all football recruits nationally, yet they are 10 times more likely than other DI recruits to be drafted in the first round.

That number has been relatively stable for years now. It continued in 2019, with more than half of the first round coming from that elite pool of high schoolers.

What is more interesting is an examination of the first-rounders who were not considered elite high school prospects by the national rating services, as collected by the 247Sports Composite. Can we identify patterns among these players, and could this lead to better rankings?

Here are factors that can contribute to a future first-rounder having a low rating as a high schooler, followed by how they fit with the 2019 class.

  • JUCO: Recruits who are forced to junior college or prep school are often rated lower, due to the increased likelihood they will fail to qualify in college.
  • Played a sport other than football as primary: This often factors into a recruit’s availability for exposure at offseason camps. While game performance is the primary factor in the rankings, exposure matters. It’s also common that a player’s football skills are less developed at the time of his recruitment, due to another sport being his focus, thus presenting the possibility the player has higher instant upside than he otherwise would, if he had focused solely on football. It’s also not uncommon for football prospects to have sat out a year in order to focus on another sport.
  • New to the sport or position: Sometimes, a recruit has a limited sample set for evaluation.
  • From a foreign country: This presents obstacles for evaluation and exposure, as well as questions about his previous level of competition and how likely the prospect is to assimilate into this country’s football culture.
  • Attended multiple high schools: If a recruit has transferred around, he might lack film (perhaps some went missing along the way) or coaches who will vouch for him.
  • Had an injury: Injury can make it impossible to showcase abilities and delay a player’s development, making him appear less talented than he really is.
  • Changed positions in college: This is something that evaluations attempt to project for, but it’s incredibly difficult. And sometimes, a player shows an adeptness at a new position that was not observable in high school.
  • Underwent a major physical change in college: This is a big one (literally). Recruiting evaluators would be out of a job if they projected each player to gain 15 percent or more of his body weight upon entering college. Yet every year, some true freaks do so while also maintaining their quickness. Going from 170 to 200 pounds, 215 to 250, 245 to 285, or 265 to 305 are patterns seen in first rounders, but the vast majority of prospects are unable to do that while maintaining their athleticism.
  • From a remote location: Some prospects get less exposure because it doesn’t make business sense for evaluators to travel near them. If they do not attend combines, they might not receive in-person evaluations. Schools are also much less likely to stop by tiny towns.
  • Played for a tiny high school: This prospect is going to face questions about his competition level. If he does not perform at events featuring more talented players, such as invite-only camps, his rating might be depressed due to the inexact science of game film.
  • Younger than grade level: Prospects who are a full year or more younger than their peers are less physically developed. While evaluators do try to account for this, it is an inexact science.

Now let’s see how 2019’s first rounders who weren’t blue-chip recruits fit into these categories.

6. Daniel Jones, QB, not rated: Played for a small, private high school in Charlotte. Some of the fields upon which he was playing do not appear to have bleachers, based on his tape. Jones did not turn 18 years old until six months after his senior season of high school, which makes sense, considering he continued to grow physically in college.

7. Josh Allen, DL, two-star: Checks a ton of boxes. He went from 210 pounds to 262, yet retained the quickness. He played several years in Alabama, but his final season in his home state of New Jersey, leading to a disjointed resume. And he played only one year of defensive end after being a receiver. His time in Alabama was also in a town of fewer than 3,000 residents.

8. T.J. Hockenson, TE, three-star: Comes from a tiny high school (enrollment: 472) and a home town with a population of 4,122.

14. Chris Lindstrom, OL, three-star: That he was rated three-stars at just 240 pounds shows the services believed in his ability. That he gained an incredible 68 pounds in college was not foreseeable.

18. Garrett Bradbury, OL, three-star: Was rated as a tight end. He switched positions and gained 66 pounds over his college career, checking in at 306 at the NFL Combine.

20. Noah Fant, TE, three-star: Transformed himself from 210 pounds to 249, yet maintained the athleticism of a receiver.

21. Darnell Savage, DB, three-star: Is from Delaware, a state that does not produce much football talent. As far as I can tell, no football players from his high school had ever been rated as recruits before his class came along. He broke his femur early in his junior high school season, which robbed him of development. He also went from 166 pounds to 198 in college, transforming his profile as a player.

22. Andre Dillard, OL, three-stars: Went from 240 pounds as a high school senior to 315 at the end of his college career.

23. Tytus Howard, OL, not rated: The 322-pounder was a quarterback in high school. He was recruited to FCS Alabama State to play tight end. And he then put on almost 100 pounds. He even grew two inches. Also, he is from Monroeville, Alabama, a town with fewer than 7,000 people. And his high school had never before produced a recruit with a star rating.

24. Josh Jacobs, RB, three-stars: Was banged up as a high school junior, meaning he did not truly break out until his senior year. And he played for a tiny high school (enrollment: 600). But Alabama, Oklahoma, and Missouri all wanted him badly. Jacobs seems like the most glaring of the misses by the recruiting services.

25. Marquise Brown, WR, not rated: Was only 130 pounds in high school. That is not a typo. He went from 130 to 166 over the course of his college career, which included a stop at a California JUCO due to academics.

26. Montez Sweat, DL, three-stars: Basketball was his main sport for most of high school. He did not play his junior season of football. And he also played tight end, not solely focusing on defense as a high schooler.

27. Jonathan Abram, DB, three-stars: Simply turned out better than his ranking. He was a top-700 player, which is a good rating, but not a blue-chip. But his highlight tape is not otherwordly.

29. L.J. Collier, DL, three-stars: Went from 227 to 283 pounds while maintaining athleticism.

30. Deandre Baker, DB, three-stars: I suspect Baker was rated as a three-star because there were so many good corners in the state of Florida in the 2015 class. That’s not an excuse for the miss.

Overall, the ranking services did a pretty good job with this class.

There were, in my opinion, legitimate reasons why 12 of the 15 non four- and five-star recruits in the first round were rated as such. Jacobs, Abram, and Baker seem like potential misses, though perhaps there were mitigating factors of which I was unaware contributing to their lower ranking.

Outlier physical changes were by far the biggest cause of a player who was not a four- or five-star elevating himself to first-round status. Nine of the 15 non-blue-chip first rounders increased their weight by 15 percent or more following high school.

Five of the six offensive linemen in the first round weighed less than 275 pounds in high school. And four were 240 pounds or less. That is not typical, but there is evidence that high school offensive linemen who are rated very highly at well over 300 pounds might not have the upside their recruit rankings suggest. A separate article is coming which discusses this.

Half of the 15 prospects were from towns with populations of under 10,000 or high schools with enrollments of fewer than 750 students. There seems to be an inefficiency in the system with players from these spots.

However, is this really exploitable, with the current NCAA travel, staffing, and timeline restrictions? Only so many coaches can be on the road, and for so many days, and the rating services have little incentive to evaluate areas that football coaches themselves aren’t. Putting more coaches in remote areas could mean devoting less attention to talented areas, which could be a bad trade. Perhaps a compromise could come from putting additional focus on one specific rural area or division of small schools.