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Position Group Rankings: Most Likely to Live up to Expectations

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Which position groups are the most likely to pan out in college and beyond?

Stanford v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Over the last month the series using data from my recruiting database has been focused on how individual teams have done at getting the most out of their talent relative to recruiting rankings. Today instead we’re going to see whether there are any trends about certain positions more reliably living up to their rankings than others.

This isn’t about the relative value on the field. No one doubts that the most important position on the field is QB and having an elite player there covers up holes elsewhere on the roster. Even if QBs were to have a dramatically lower hit rate than other positions (we’ll see if that’s true in a bit) it still might be worth it to pursue higher end talent because the position is more valuable.

A warning that the below data includes players from the 2014 through 2016 recruiting classes that initially signed with a power conference team (plus Notre Dame). There are still some players from the class of 2016 that have yet to play their redshirt senior seasons but that risk was outweighed in my mind by adding in the extra year’s worth of data since most have concluded their careers.

In 247’s rating system they have 10 offensive positions, 7 defensive positions, 3 special teams positions, and the catch all of ATH for players who could reasonably play in college on either side of the ball. The sample sizes for some of those positions get pretty small so I combined some to get to the following groupings: Quarterback, Running Back, Pass Catcher, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebacker, Defensive Back, and Athlete. In the descriptions of each I’ll also show what it would look like if you broke it out further.

That gives us 8 position groups with apologies to kickers, punters, and long snappers many of whom are unrated by the scouting services coming out of high school. Let’s go from 8 to 1 in their likelihood to live up to their billing.

8. Linebacker

% of 4+ stars drafted: 14.7%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 14.7%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 5.5%

The linebacker position is a combination of all those listed at ILB and OLB but it doesn’t make all that much of a difference. Fewer than 20% of 4+ star players at either spot end up getting drafted although the odds are generally better at ILB than they are at OLB.

Only 1 of the 11 highest rated ILBs from the 2014-2016 classes has gotten drafted so far although there are still a few from the 2016 class that are redshirt seniors and have a shot. The one true success story is Raekwon McMillan at Ohio State who was a 5-star level player and ended up as a 2nd round draft pick. He’s the only ILB with at least a 0.95 rating to get drafted.

Things have been a little more consistent at the very top for an OLB. 3 of the top 4 rated during that timeframe have gotten drafted and the lone exception was Mique Juarez at UCLA who suffered numerous concussions and was supposed to grad transfer to Utah this winter but is not listed on the Utes roster.

Fully half of the 4+ star players drafted at linebacker in those 3 classes were a 0.93 rating or below which for most positions is where the biggest delineation between 5 and 4-star talent starts to occur. Devin Bush at Michigan had arguably the most productive college career of anyone qualifying in this group and he barely squeaked by as a 4-star with a 0.895 rating (0.89 is the cutoff point).

This is something worth noting as the 3 highest rated players to join the Pac-12 out of the 2020 class were all linebackers with Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell headed to Oregon and Sav’ell Smalls to Washington.

7. Pass Catchers

% of 4+ stars drafted: 22.6%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 11.8%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 2.7%

The numbers above here lead to the reasonable conclusion that the NFL still drafts wide receivers based on pure athletic talent rather than production in college. Just about twice as many players have gotten drafted as have made at least 2nd team all-conference at some point in their career. So if you’re a receiver who can’t crack that barrier then you’ve still got hope for your NFL dreams.

The inclusion of tight ends here does drag down the numbers somewhat. There were 0 All-American tight ends with at least a 4-star rating in the 2014-16 classes and only 7.7% made even a 2nd team all-conference. It’s a position that often has players that either need to gain or lose weight while learning either how to block or catch so it shouldn’t be surprising it’s harder to identify who the studs are out of high school. However, there are so many more wide receivers than tight ends overall that the lower numbers don’t drag the overall totals down by much.

The 12 highest rated players is a mixed bag right away with Calvin Ridley, Malachi Dupre, Deon Cain, Isaac Nauta, and Christian Kirk as success stories while Speedy Noil, Demetris Robertson, George Campbell, Ermon Lane, and Tyron Johnson were all busts. It may seem imperative that you end up with an absolute physical freak coming out of high school at wide receiver but only 1 of the 10 that merited 5-star status in the 2014-16 classes ended up making an AP All-American team.

Of the 25 highest career score totals in the 2014-16 classes only 12 of them were at least a 4* player. Dante Pettis comes in at #5 while Marcus Williams at Utah (who switched to safety) was in the top-10 and another 3 players that were 2-star recruits entering high school crack the list. When it comes to college production there’s still a trend that being more highly rated out of high school helps but there are plenty of examples of players with slightly lower levels of athleticism but proper route running technique being more than enough to get the job done.

6. Offensive Line

% of 4+ stars drafted: 18.4%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 19.5%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 7.5%

Whereas the pass catchers had a lot of players drafted who weren’t among the elite of their conference, the offensive line group has more players making 2nd team all-conference than get selected in the draft. That elite performance level tends to be more common in college by players without premium athleticism/size.

This is another position group similar to tight ends which I’m not surprised to see near the bottom of these rankings. It feels like it’s common to see players who were 230 out of high school gain 80 pounds over the next 3 years and enter the NFL draft at over 300 pounds and become 2nd day draft picks. Washington certainly leans on players at Offensive Tackle that were highly rated but with a lean frame that can add weight as they signed 4 of the 18 OL under 275 pounds exiting high school in these 3 classes.

Still, the elite of the elite coming out of high school tend to do pretty well for themselves. 4 of the 6 highest rated linemen were selected in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft and one of the 2 undrafted (Clemson’s Mitch Hyatt) was a 2 time AP All-American.

5. Quarterback

% of 4+ stars drafted: 25.0%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 17.7%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 8.8%

The quarterback position is a tricky proposition because of the frequency of transfers. Some of the most productive players at the position didn’t do anything at the school they signed with out of high school. Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow each won a Heisman trophy and became a #1 overall pick after transferring. 6 of the 7 highest ranked QBs in the 2014-16 classes ended up transferring at some point in their career with UCLA’s Josh Rosen as the lone exception.

5-star quarterbacks have about twice as good of a chance at reaching each of the 3 thresholds listed above than 4-star quarterbacks but none of them won even a conference title with their original team. That has changed somewhat in recent classes as Tua Tagavailoa (2017) and Trevor Lawrence (2018) will go down as having some of the best careers for QBs in college football history. But still, Hunter Johnson, JT Daniels, and Justin Fields have all transferred from those 2 classes while Davis Mills was solid but not spectacular for Stanford last year.

Washington certainly hopes that Sam Huard is a talent on the level of Tagavailoa or Lawrence and if he is then the Huskies have a shot at returning to the College Football Playoff. But with the Quarterback position in modern college football the only strategies that seem to work is to either stockpile as much talent as possible and hope that the winner of the competition is a stud or to hope another school gets 2 stars at the same time and you can get the “loser” via transfer. The latter didn’t quite pan out with Jacob Eason so the Huskies are hoping the former works.

4. Athlete

% of 4+ stars drafted: 25.7%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 18.6%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 8.6%

It shouldn’t be a surprise that those with the “Athlete” designation have a good chance at further success. If you’re good enough to excel on both sides of the ball in high school it seems reasonable to think you’ll continue to excel once you pick a position in college.

If you are a 5-star multi-positional athlete then it’s almost certain that the NFL is going to be willing to take a chance on you regardless of production. 12 of the 15 highest rated ATH players in the 2014-16 classes ended up getting drafted and 10 of them were selected in the first 3 rounds.

And it’s not as if most of those players were busts in college who just tested well at the combine. 6 of the 10 highest rated in that time made at least 2nd team all-conference and 4 of them were AP All-Americans including Jabrill Peppers, Juju Smith-Schuster, Kerryon Johnson, and one Bishard “Budda” Baker.

However there is a major step off the ledge once you get below a 0.96 rating. Only 6 of the 54 athletes who rated between a 0.89 and a 0.95 were drafted compared to the 12 of 16 rated above that point. If you’re signing a player whose designation is still listed as ATH who isn’t among the true elite in the country it may be a signal that they aren’t good enough to truly excel at one thing rather than just be average at more than one thing.

3. Defensive Line

% of 4+ stars drafted: 29.2%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 21.1%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 6.5%

Admittedly this is a bit of a hard position to separate out. The front 7 in football is probably most accurately broken down into Defensive Line, Edge Rushers, and Linebackers if you’re trying to narrow it down but the delineations in the 247 ratings while they get close by breaking out Strong and Weakside defensive ends still don’t quite capture it. I went ahead and combined all Defensive Tackles and Ends into one grouping here and it shows up as 3rd on the list.

The numbers when it comes to 4-star players are pretty even no matter what their positional designation is. All 3 spots saw between 20% and 24% of players drafted, between 14% and 17% of players making an all-conference team, and between 2% and 6% of them making an AP All-American team. The real delineation comes when comparing the cream of the crop.

An astounding 11 of the 13 defensive tackles rated a 5-star in the 2014-16 classes ended up getting drafted. Benito Jones at Ole Miss and Trenton Thompson of Georgia were the lone exceptions. If you are a complete man-child at defensive tackle coming out of high school the odds are that not all that much is going to change when you get to college. Only 2 of them made an All-American team but they’re going to be coveted by the NFL and help you recruit in the future.

Not that 5-star defensive ends are slouches by any means. 10 of the 16 in this time period were drafted and 3 of them were taken in the top-3 picks of the draft. Higher than you’ll see any of the defensive tackles going generally. An unfortunate twist? 3 of the 6 defensive ends who haven’t gotten drafted in this pool went to Pac-12 schools. The 10 that were drafted all left the Pac. (Although unfortunately Kayvon Thibodeaux is certain to break that trend.)

2. Defensive Back

% of 4+ stars drafted: 23.1%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 23.1%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 10.9%

It was essentially a tie between the defensive line and the secondary here for 2nd place but the edge goes to the DBs because of their better college production. If you get a 4-star defensive back there’s about a 1 in 10 chance that they make an All-American team. That’s pretty solid odds.

Just like every other position the odds are better if you’re rated higher. 8 of the 15 DBs rated as a 5-star player in the 2014-16 classes were drafted and 7 of them made an AP All-American team. It’s interesting to note that 14 of the 15 5-stars went to just 5 schools though: Alabama, USC, Florida, Florida State, and LSU (safety Quin Blanding went to Virginia).

There also wasn’t much separation between safeties and corners in the numbers. When you break it down to 4 and 5-stars by position the percentages look better on the high end for safeties but that’s because there have been only 3 of them that merited a 5-star ranking. The 4-star draft percentages are almost identical although 24% of safeties made at least 2nd team all-conference compared to just 17% of corners.

1. Running Back

% of 4+ stars drafted: 32.2%

% of 4+ stars making at least 2nd team all-conference: 24.4%

% of 4+ stars making at least 3rd team AP All-American: 10.0%

Nearly 2,500 words later and we’re here. The running back is officially the king in these rankings. If you can stick as a stud running back in high school then the odds say you’re the most likely to go on to see similar college success and hear your name called on draft night. For this group I even included fullbacks which drags the numbers down a tiny amount. I also included all purpose backs who often times are switched to wide receiver when they get to college.

7 of the 9 RBs rated as 5-stars in the 2014-16 classes were drafted in the NFL and all went in the first 3 rounds. That list includes Leonard Fournette, Miles Sanders, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Damien Harris, and Joe Mixon. Off-field disgusting incidents for Mixon aside, that list pretty well captures the biggest names at the position in college football in the back half of the 2010’s. And if you make the cutoff point a 0.94 rating then you get to add in Royce Freeman, Ronald Jones II, Derrius Guice, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, and Saquon Barkley.

It’s still possible to have a great career and come from slightly lower stock. Bryce Love had a 0.911 rating, Zack Moss a 0.839, and Myles Gaskin a 0.879 and they were 3 of the 6 best backs to come out of the Pac-12 in those 3 classes along with McCaffrey, Jones, and Freeman. But that miss rate on elite running back talent is pretty slim. Even the “busts” like Soso Jamabo at UCLA still ran for nearly 5 yards per carry in his career and finished with over 650 yards from scrimmage as a junior. The # of cases where those players just never even crack the depth chart are exceedingly rare.