The Carolina Panthers are reasonably narrow favorites against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, with sportsbooks starting off Carolina with a 3.5-point edge. If the game were being picked based on high school recruiting rankings, the Panthers would probably be picked to win in a total rout.
The Panthers' projected starters include six five-star college prospects and four more four-star players, including Heisman Trophy and national championship-winning quarterback Cam Newton. The Broncos don't have a single five-star recruit set to start for them, although quarterback Peyton Manning likely would've been one if he weren't too old for the recruiting ratings era. He's the son of an NFL quarterback, was a high school wunderkind and made national waves when he decided to play at Tennessee over Ole Miss.
Last year's Super Bowl was a three-star extravaganza all around. This one brings a wider disparity. Carolina's projected starters averaged 3.37 recruiting stars, while Denver's averaged 2.44.
Ten or 15 years ago, it was foreseeable that Carolina's current crop of players could be the nucleus for a Super Bowl team. Denver's players, not so much. Here's how they all rated on the 247Sports Composite, unless otherwise noted.
|QB||Cam Newton||4||Auburn||Won 2010 Heisman Trophy|
|RB||Jonathan Stewart||5||Oregon||Maxwell Award semifinalist|
|FB||Mike Tolbert||1||Coastal Carolina||First Coastal Carolina player in an NFL game|
|WR||Philly Brown||4||Ohio State||Finished with fifth-most receptions in school history|
|WR||Ted Ginn, Jr.||5||Ohio State||Recruited as a defensive back|
|TE||Greg Olsen||5||Miami||Part of famed Miami teams of the early 2000s|
|LT||Michael Oher||5||Ole Miss||Profiled in the movie The Blind Side|
|LG||Andrew Norwell||4||Ohio State||Two-time first-team All-Big Ten performer|
|C||Ryan Kalil||3||USC||Blocked two field goals (!) at USC|
|RG||Trai Turner||3||LSU||Started for two years, left with two years of eligibility|
|RT||Mike Remmers||0||Oregon State||Walked on|
|DE||Charles Johnson||5||Georgia||Left for NFL after being second team All-SEC|
|DT||Star Lotulelei||3||Utah||Began at BYU|
|DT||Kawann Short||3||Purdue||Purdue was only Power 5 offer; named to various All-Freshman teams|
|DE||Jared Allen||N/A (too old)||Idaho State||One of three current NFL players from Idaho State|
|LB||Shaq Thompson||5||Washington||Won 2014 Hornung Award as country's most versatile player|
|LB||Luke Kuechly||3||Boston College||Boston College calls him "one of the most decorated defensive players in college football history," and it's true|
|LB||Thomas Davis||N/A (too old)||Georiga||2004 consensus All-American|
|CB||Robert McClain||2||UConn||Returned kicks, nabbed 10 picks in college|
|CB||Josh Norman||0||Coastal Carolina||Named FCS All-American in 2011|
|S||Roman Harper||N/A (too old)||Alabama||Finished college career with over 300 tackles|
|S||Kurt Coleman||4||Ohio State||Played for two national championships for Ohio State|
Carolina inside linebacker Luke Kuechly is one of the best players in the NFL, and he was just a run-of-the-mill three-star prospect when he got to Boston College. Josh Norman is a Pro Bowl cornerback and played his college ball in the FCS, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short couldn't get power conference offers anywhere except Purdue. It's not as if Carolina's entire team is built on blue-chippers.
But a big-time recruiting pedigree definitely doesn't hurt a player's NFL chances. Newton is Newton, and five-star running back Jonathan Stewart has turned in a productive eight-year career. Defensive end Charles Johnson had five stars, as did passing targets Ted Ginn Jr. and Greg Olsen. They made a movie about five-star left tackle Michael Oher.
|QB||Peyton Manning||N/A (too old)||Tennessee||Holds 42 NCAA, SEC and school records|
|RB||Ronnie Hillman||3||San Diego State||Led Mountain West in rushing as a freshman|
|FB||Virgil Green||2||Nevada||Colin Kaepernick's second-leading receiver as a senior|
|WR||Emmanuel Sanders||2||SMU||Named to various All-Freshman teams|
|WR||Demaryius Thomas||3||Georgia Tech||Leading receiving target for run-heavy Georgia Tech|
|TE||Owen Daniels||N/A (too old)||Wisconsin||Started college as backup QB|
|LT||Ryan Harris||4||Notre Dame||Four-year starter for two different head coaches|
|LG||Evan Mathis||N/A (too old)||Alabama||Alabama only finished the season ranked in the AP Poll once in his time in Tuscaloosa|
|C||Matt Paradis||0||Boise State||Began college career as walk-on defensive lineman|
|RG||Louis Vasquez||3||Texas Tech||Texas Tech calls him "one of the most dominant linemen in school history"|
|RT||Michael Schofield||4||Michigan||Played in both spread and pro-style offenses|
|DE||Derek Wolfe||2||Cincinnati||2011 Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year.|
|NT||Sylvester Williams||4||North Carolina||Began his career in junior college|
|DE||Malik Jackson||3||Tennessee||Transferred to Vols from USC|
|LB||Von Miller||3||Texas A&M||Consensus All-American in 2010|
|LB||DeMarcus Ware||N/A (too old)||Troy||From Auburn, but not offered by Tigers|
|LB||Brandon Marshall||2||Nevada||Played with Kaepernick and Green at Nevada|
|LB||Danny Trevathan||2||Kentucky||Named to various All-American teams|
|CB||Aqib Talib||2||Kansas||Helped lead Kansas (Kansas!) to the Orange Bowl|
|CB||Chris Harris Jr.||2||Kansas||Received school's Don Fambrough Award for "unselfishness"|
|S||T.J. Ward||0||Oregon||Finished career with 10 tackles vs. Ohio State in the Rose Bowl|
|S||Darian Stewart||3 (Rivals)||South Carolina||Hybrid linebacker/safety in college|
Denver has a couple of important contributors who might've rated well if they weren't too old for these ratings. In addition to Manning, tight end Owen Daniels, guard Evan Mathis and future Hall of Fame linebacker DeMarcus Ware are logistical oversights. Ware didn't get major college offers and ultimately followed close friend Osi Umenyiora to Troy, in an interesting recruiting backstory from ESPN's Greg Garber:
Naturally, they both saw themselves playing for Auburn, the local college powerhouse. That didn't happen, though, and Umenyiora matriculated to the program at nearby Troy University, where he redshirted his first year. When Ware didn't get any major offers coming out of high school, Umenyiora said he talked the Troy University staff into bringing him in.
"He said, 'You know what? This guy is going to be a player,'" Ware said. "'You need to pick him up, he is my boy. I will take him under my wing, and he will be a great pass-rusher.' I got a scholarship down there, and it could have been because of him."
That's right: Troy had to be talked into taking Ware. Recruiting can be a funny world.
Player development, by and large, is what powers Denver. Either during college or once they got to the NFL, an impressive nine recruits rated two stars or lower became Denver's Super Bowl starters. Two-star cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib are two of the best in the world at their position, and two-star receiver Emmanuel Sanders went over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons with Denver. Starting center Matt Paradis was a Boise State walk-on.
This game isn't a huge mismatch. After all, Denver has the NFL's leading defense. But when Carolina has the ball against that defense, the recruiting gap will be enormous.
* * *
The T.J. Ward story: How the defensive back defied all odds to make it to the NFL
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