Every year roughly 5,000 high school football players earn scholarships to play college football at the Division I level. And each year, 32 of those players will go on to become No. 1 picks in the NFL Draft. Following the journey of the 5,000 has always been an interest of mine. I track how well the recruiting industry does with its blue-chip grades (four- and five-star recruit ratings), and how many two-star and unrated recruits end up in the elite company of the first round. I particularly like digging into the stories of the two-star and unrated recruits who end up as No. 1 picks, since their odds are astronomical.
If you’re new to the ratings process, read up on the 247Sports Composite.
For purposes of analyzing the results of Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft, the high school recruiting classes of 2016 and 2017 will be in focus because those are the two classes from which most of the draftees came.
The rarest designation among prospects is five-star status. Only 30 players, 0.6 percent (not six percent, but point six percent) of all incoming D1 scholarship football players were given five-star status in a given year. That’s about one in every 167 recruits.
The next category, still quite rare, is a four-star rating. Only 311 players, or about six percent of D1 scholarship football signees get a four-star rating. That is about one in every 16.
Three-star status is far more common. About 1843 of incoming D1 scholarships are filled by three-star recruits. That’s 37 percent, or about one in every three D1 recruits. It incorporates a large range of ability levels, all of whom we consider as possible NFL players long term.
Two-star status is the second-biggest category. About 1755 two-star recruits sign D1 football scholarships on an annual basis, or about 35 percent. These are prospects that we consider to be FBS-level players with very limited NFL potential, though many sign scholarships at the FCS level as well.
And unrated prospects make up the third-largest group of D1 signees, numbering about 1061 a year in the relevant sample for the 2020 NFL Draft. That is roughly 21 percent of prospects who did not receive a grade. Most of these prospects (about 700 annually) are signing with the bottom feeders of the FBS level or in the FCS..
So, to recap, the breakdown of D1 scholarship signees:
- 0.6%: 5-star
- 6%: 4-star
- 37%: 3-star
- 35%: 2-star
- 21%: Unrated
If star ratings are meaningless and getting to the NFL Draft is all about coaching, development, and heart, like some people choose to believe, then the breakdown of the NFL Draft should be roughly zero five-stars, two four-stars, 12 three-stars, 11 two-stars, and 7 unrated prospects.
But it’s not. Not even close. The NFL Draft’s No. 1 picks had the following ratings out of high school:
- 5-star: 6
- 4-star: 15
- 3-star: 10
- 2-star: 0
- Unrated: 1
Those numbers are pretty wild. They suggest that those who deny the overall accuracy of the recruiting industry are not operating in reality.
Four- and Five-stars made up just seven percent of recruits yet 66 percent of No. 1 picks.
Keeping in mind the upper limit of there being only 32 No. 1 picks, here are the percentage chances of becoming a first rounder based on star rating via the 2020 draft:
- 5-star: 1 in 5
- 4-star: 1 in 21
- 3-star: 1 in 184
- 2-star: 0 in 1755 (none drafted)
- Unrated: 1 in 1061
Four- and five-star recruits were about 29 times more likely to be No. 1 picks than other D1 recruits.
So a five-star recruit was about 4X as likely to be a No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft as a four-star. And a four-star was about 9X more likely than a three-star. It’s worth noting that the gap between five-stars and four-stars in period drafts has been much higher, with five-stars usually being about 8-10X more likely to be picked than a four-star.
The 2020 first round had the highest average star rating out of high school ever
The 2020 NFL Draft’s No. 1 picks had an average star rating out of high school of 3.75. This is higher than the average of the prior ten drafts, which was 3.47, an increase of eight percent. It is only the second time since 2010 that the average has been 3.6 stars or higher.
The 2020 first round featured 21 blue-chip (4- or 5-star) high school recruits, the second-most ever
The prior ten drafts had averaged 17, and only the 2016 draft had more than 21 blue-chips, with 22.
Only one player rated two-stars or unrated out of high school was selected in Round 1. That’s a new record.
The previous average over the last ten drafts was 4.4 such players. This means as an industry there were far fewer players to call through the cracks than there were before.
Is this a mark that can hold? It’s uncertain. There’s an argument that many schools having cancelled pro days due to the shutdown caused teams to rely more heavily on drafting college players who provided more certainty, which likely means drafting players who were invited to the combine and who have been seen multiple times in person by NFL scouts. Those players are typically players who are at big schools and have been on the radar for longer. Round 1 did feature the most players from Power 5 schools ever.
But what about the lone player who was unrated out of high school?
Working backward from the draft, we can typically uncover some interesting stories of recruits who ended up becoming No. 1 picks in spite of being rated as a two-star or unrated player in high school.
But this year there is only one (and zero if you prefer to incorporate junior college ratings): Brandon Aiyuk.
Before digging into Aiyuk, here are the categories into which No. 1 picks recruiting services and colleged missed on typically fall:
- Academic issues: Colleges and rating services do not believe the player will qualify academically for college. Many of these players end up in junior college (JUCO) or prep programs.
- Football not primary sport: We love multi-sport athletes, but if a player is seen as a much better prospect in another sport than football, and thus likely to pursue the other sport professionally, this can impact how he is viewed by schools and rating services. It also could impact his ability to attend camps, combines, or other events which allow for exposure. And it could also artificially depress his true ability level in football, which is later shown once he focuses on football in college, improving his game while capitalizing on the skills he honed in the other sport. Basically, he could have more potential than realized if he actually chooses football.
- Foreign country: There are often questions about the quality of competition faced by players from outside the US. These prospects are often behind developmentally and have issues with exposure, suggesting there could be greater unlocked potential in college.
- Full year younger than peers: If a prospect is a full year younger than his high school classmates he might have more untapped potential than them. This is something that baseball scouts seem to put more stock into than football scouts, though it is something which is at least discussed on the football side.
- Growth Spurt: Historically, this has been the most common miss. If a player manages to increase his weight by 15 percent or more while maintaining his relative quickness he possessed as a lighter player, he is exceedingly likely to outperform his recruiting ranking. Of course, going from 165 to 190, 195 to 225, 235 to 270, or 270 to 315 while maintaining quickness at the lower weight is rare, and college coaches and analysts would be out of a job if they bet on that happening with any regularity.
- Injury: If a player had a serious injury or multiple injuries which either delayed his development in high school or which limited his exposure in games or offseason events, he could have more potential than schools and evaluators realized.
- Multiple transfers in high school: Players who are constantly transferring schools are harder to track, and often make it tougher for colleges and evaluators to find their film, visit them, make connections, etc. And it’s unlikely that a recruit is going to be seen by the same college coach or evaluator throughout his high school career if he is transferring into different areas. And they are less likely to have high school coaches who will stump for them to a college or evaluator, due to the short nature of the relationship.
- New to the sport of football: If the player is new to the sport of football, perhaps playing just one season in high school, it can be very difficult to judge just how good he can be because the sample set is so small and the learning curve so steep.
- Remote or tiny high school classification: If a player is playing at a tiny high school which rarely or never produces D1 prospects, his chance of being overlooked by schools and evaluators is greater. There could be questions about competition level. And some areas are so small or remote that they play eight-man football. Colleges and services only have so many resources, and playing in the extreme remote, tiny high school region does seem to increase a player’s chance of being missed or underrated.
- Position change in college: Many prospects are projected to put on 10 or 15 pounds and change positions, perhaps from receiver to right end. But some prospects make big position changes (QB to defensive line, for instance) which evaluators and colleges are not projecting.
The 2019 draft had a lot of examples of players falling into these buckets. Defensive end Josh Allen of Kentucky, for example, went from 210 pounds to 262, transferred high schools and states, was thought of as a basketball prospect for a time, was primarily a receiver in high school, and played for a high school in a town with a population of under 3,000 people.
But this year, the only two-star or unrated player is Aiyuk. He fits several several categories.
Brandon Aiyuk played for McQueen High School in Reno (NV). As best we can tell, Aiyuk did not have any D1 offers because he was seen as a player who was a non-qualifier, meaning that if he did plan to continue his football career, he’d have to go to junior college. He did, attending Sierra College in Rocklin, CA, where he excelled and garnered multiple Power 5 offers before choosing Arizona State.
In high school Aiyuk played defensive back, returner, and some receiver, and most of his best work was done as a DB and a returner. Position changes from defensive back to receiver are rather uncommon, as opposed to receivers switching to defensive back. Even out of junior college, most schools recruiting Aiyuk wanted him to be a defensive back, Aiyuk told AZ Central. Aiyuk fits in the position change category, but that is certainly not the reason he was unrated coming out of high school.
Aiyuk was selected to the All Northern-Nevada team, which didn’t include many other recognizable names, and was just an honorable mention on the All-State team as a senior.
Aiyuk’s quarterback as a senior seems to have been a better runner than a thrower, seeing as he went on to run track at Southern Oregon University. This could have also limited Aiyuk’s ability to rack up yards even if he had primarily been a receiver.
Brandon Aiyuk certainly had the talent to merit a star rating, but the academics kept colleges off him and he went to junior college, where he exploded and is now a No. 1 pick.
Perhaps some year there will be a draft without any two-stars and unrated players as No. 1 picks. But until then this will be the high-water mark.