The NFL draft is the moment when elite college football players join the fraternity of the best football players in the world. Only the best of the best make this jump, and many of them fail to live up to the hype. These young men train to become the best in the world at their craft, often from a very young age. From Pop Warner to high school to college football, these athletes are fighting against the odds to become one of the lucky few to make their wildest dreams come true and play in the National Football League. Every draft season, you hear a story about a seldomly recruited high school football player that will be a high first round pick in the NFL draft. He shares his story about being overlooked and persevering against all odds. He’ll talk about how it doesn’t matter where you start, it only matters where you finish. Fans often use this story as an example of why college football recruiting doesn’t matter. But is that case?
It seems logical that highly ranked recruits have a better chance of reaching the NFL. The most successful college football teams get the best recruits. The best teams have the best players. The best college players get drafted into the NFL. Therefore, it seems logical that the best recruits have a better chance of being drafted and having success in the NFL. But do the statistics back up this claim?
Although there are examples of players slipping through the cracks, this year’s NFL draft showed that college football recruiting plays a role in who gets drafted. Logically, the best players in high school football are usually the best athletes. Even if these players fail to live up to the hype in college, teams are more willing to give them a chance in the NFL. They’ll get the benefit of the doubt that lesser athletes wouldn’t get. Using 247Sports recruiting rankings, 23 players that were five star recruits got drafted in this year’s draft. Since college football players can play for three to five years (or more if they obtain a medical redshirt), it’s difficult to directly compare recruiting classes to NFL draft classes. For the most part, players that were drafted in this year’s draft were part of the 2013 or 2014 recruiting classes. According to 247Sports, there were 34 five star recruits in 2013 and 33 five star recruits in 2014. If there are roughly 35 five star recruits annually and 23 five star recruits drafted in this year’s draft, that seems to show a strong correlation between being a highly ranked recruit and becoming an NFL draft pick.
According to the 247Sports recruiting rankings, 76 four star recruits, 90 three star recruits, 26 two star recruits, and 38 unranked recruits were drafted in this year’s draft. Those numbers are all higher than the number of five star recruits drafted, but that is due to the low number of five star recruits every year. There are a lot more two and three star recruits than four and five star recruits. According to the same 247Sports recruiting rankings, there were 297 four star recruits in 2013 and 283 four star recruits in 2014. In these two years, there are nearly nine times as many four star recruits than five star recruits. But in this year’s draft, there were only three times as many four star recruits drafted than five star recruits. Even though this is a small sample size, the stats show that five star recruits are roughly three times more likely to get drafted than four star recruits.
Looking back at the last three NFL drafts show how important recruiting rankings are for highly drafted prospects. The first round of the 2015 draft included 8 five star recruits, 7 four star recruits, 16 three star recruits, and 1 two star recruit. This draft didn’t include any unranked recruits in the first round. The first round of the 2016 draft included 5 five star recruits, 17 four star recruits, 4 three star recruits, 2 two star recruits, and 3 unranked recruits. Although the majority of college football players are two and three star recruits, they only made up six of the thirty-one first round picks. The first round of the 2017 draft included 10 five star recruits, 12 four star recruits, 6 three star recruits, 2 two star recruits, and 2 unranked recruits. Although this is a small sample size, there were roughly as many five star recruits drafted in the first round of the last three drafts as three star recruits drafted. In the first round of the last three drafts, roughly 25 percent of players were five star recruits, roughly 38 percent were four star recruits, roughly 27 percent were three star recruits, and roughly 10 percent were two star recruits or unranked. This correlation is impossible to ignore.
There will always be high school football players that slip through the cracks and become highly ranked NFL draft prospects. These stories are important for the psyche of two star and unranked recruits that have NFL aspirations. But the numbers don’t lie; higher ranked recruits have a better chance of being drafted into the NFL. These recruits often go to the best colleges and have the best college coaches to help improve their chances of reaching the next level. They’ll be playing in marquee games and will have a greater chance of displaying their talents to NFL talent evaluators. Some of these five star recruits will flame out, but at a much smaller rate than the lower ranked recruits. The teams that win National Signing Day not only have a better chance of winning a national championship, but they also give their highly ranked recruits the best chance of being selected in the NFL draft.