If you’re the #1 recruit coming out of high school football, you’re an automatic future NFL starter, right? Not so fast.
Recruiting rankings are really good at forecasting talent, but not every elite recruit makes the league, much less pans out when they do.
Still, all but one #1 recruit since rankings really became a thing (let’s call it 2000) has been drafted. Some have had fine pro careers. Others have flopped. Others are still too young for us to know what kind of legacy their careers will leave.
But who was the greatest #1 recruit ever — or at least of the modern rankings era?
There’s a straightforward answer to that question. But the bar for success once a #1 prospect actually enters college is quite high, so it’s best to put them into tiers.
In very college football fashion, there often isn’t really a consensus #1 recruit. Four or so players can sometimes claim that mantle at once because of ratings differences. But here, I’ll use the 247Sports Composite, which gathers ratings from around the recruiting industry.
Note: For the purposes of this exercise, I’m omitting former USC running back Joe McKnight, who died in a shooting in 2016. It doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do on the field. His untimely death will always be a tragedy.
Tier 1: The nearly unimpeachable greatest #1 recruit since rankings became a formal, national thing
2004: Adrian Peterson — Oklahoma RB
I mean, it’s Adrian fucking Peterson. He’ll probably finish as a top-six rusher in NFL history. That’s after a college career in which he was a unanimous All-American as a freshman (also finishing second in the Heisman Trophy race) and a three-time all-Big 12 player despite missing most of his third and final year at OU.
Few have consistently lived up to the hype, recovering from a catastrophic knee injury in a shocking amount of time for his career’s second act. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame, likely on the first ballot.
Tier 2: The only other guy I’ll hear an argument for
2002: Vince Young — Texas QB
AP has all the fun stuff I just listed, and NFL accolades, and whoop-de-freakin’-doo. He sure as hell doesn’t have this on the resume:
Starring in one of the greatest football games ever counts for a whole lot in my book.
Tier 3: The most legitimate chance to unseat Peterson up top, but we’re just gonna have to wait on it
2018: Trevor Lawrence — Clemson QB
I understand it’s premature, but if Lawrence continues the career trajectory of his first season, he’ll be one of the best college QBs ever. Peterson’s career had both elite college and pro production.
Lawrence’s hype will be Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck-level when he decides to turn pro. He’ll get the keys to some franchise, and the sky will be the limit as long as he stays healthy and out of trouble.
Tier 3: Others who could also conceivably, at this point, still become the greatest #1 recruit ever
2016: Rashan Gary — Michigan DE
2011: Jadeveon Clowney — South Carolina DE
Gary’s college career was not out-of this world productive, but as an all-Big Ten talent on one of college football’s best defenses, he has some of the bona fides. He became a first round pick but will have to be truly incredible as a pro to even have an argument.
Clowney has the distinction of being a wire-to-wire player as the #1 recruit and the #1 pick in the NFL Draft. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler and was one-time All-Pro in 2016. He hasn’t kicked into a truly all-time gear as an edge rusher, but he certainly could explode and become a double-digit sacks player for a long time.
Clowney’s college career, however, was a highlight reel of superhuman feats.
Tier 4: A former #1 recruit who was mostly great in college but has bad numbers in the pros, but there are factors and circumstances and listen I’m a Jaguars fan please trust me here I need this
2014: Leonard Fournette — LSU RB
I covered Fournette at the 2014 Under Armour All-American Game. Having seen him up close as a high school phenom and then as a college player ...
... I’m still holding out hope Fournette realizes his potential. I know he had a rough second year filled with injuries to both himself and his offensive line for a team that quite literally built the offense around him. I know the yards-per-carry number isn’t awesome. But ... sigh.
Tier 5: Capital-F Fine pros after exceptional college careers
2000: D.J. Williams — Miami LB
2003: Ernie Sims — Florida State LB
2001: Kevin Jones — Virginia Tech RB
2005: Eugene Monroe — Virginia OT
2006: Andre Smith — Alabama OT
This is the part where the weight of expectation works against #1 . These are guys who either made it to their second contracts outright or at least got close to a serviceable NFL career. All were really good college football players. Not everyone can be a Hall of Fame guy, though.
Tier 6: A guy who had one great college year but couldn’t get much traction in the NFL, partially because of injuries
2008: Da’Quan Bowers — Clemson DE
Bowers had 15.5 sacks for Clemson in 2010. He was one of the players who helped Dabo Swinney while he was getting started on building a dynasty. He made 10 NFL starts in parts of five years and did stints on injured reserve and the PUP list.
Tier 7: Matt Barkley
2009: Matt Barkley — USC QB
This is the part where I reminded you Barkley started an NFL game in 2018.
Tier 8: Incomplete
2017: Jaelan Phillips — UCLA DE
2013: Robert Nkemdiche — Ole Miss
2019: Nolan Smith — Georgia
Phillips soon transferred to Miami, so it remains unclear how his college career will turn out. He didn’t stay healthy during his two seasons at UCLA.
Nkemdiche was the most hyped recruit in Ole Miss history when he arrived in Oxford and was a productive player despite switching positions. It’s a touch early to fully call him an NFL bust just yet, though it didn’t work out in Arizona.
Smith just got here.
2012: Dorial Green-Beckham — Missouri WR
2010: Ronald Powell — Florida LB
2015: Trenton Thompson — Georgia DT
These guys we can call busts, though. It’s hard for anybody to make the NFL, but #1 recruits are nearly locks.
Powell and Green-Beckham got drafted, but were out within two years. Thompson got cut on the fourth day of Browns camp after being undrafted.
Green-Beckham was dismissed from Mizzou, and had further legal issues when he got to the NFL.
Injuries plagued Powell, but he was at least a consistent starter at Florida.
Thompson had an odd college career marred by a health scare. While he was a contributor at UGA, he has the dubious distinction of being the only #1 recruit to go undrafted.