Everybody will be watching Josh Allen on Thursday night, four years after Allen struggled to find anybody to watch him. The former two-star recruit out of Montclair, New Jersey — now projected to be taken in the top five of the NFL draft — had only one initial Division I offer, from nearby Monmouth. But late in the 2015 recruiting cycle, when Kentucky had missed out on a handful of players and needed bodies, the Wildcats took a flier on Allen and gave him an SEC offer. Allen did the rest, breaking out with 17 sacks last season and winning the Bednarik Award as the country’s best defensive player.
How does a 6-foot-5, 262-pound pass rusher end up overlooked? Allen didn’t always fit the mold of a future star. Kentucky’s 2015 roster listed him at just 210 pounds, and he didn’t start playing defensive end until his senior season in high school, after moving from Alabama to New Jersey.
There will always be top NFL draft picks who were missed by the high school recruiting ratings. Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz, drafted No. 2 overall in 2016, was unrated out of high school, while Chicago pass rusher Khalil Mack, drafted fifth in 2014, was a two-star recruit like Allen. But those stories are the exceptions — the first round is still filled with players who caught the eye of recruiting websites while still in high school. We looked at the past 10 years of first-round picks and their ratings entering high school and found that players unrated or receiving a rating equivalent to less than three stars averaged just four slots in the first round. And in that time frame, the recruitment ratings of the first-round picks have actually been getting higher overall.
These ratings of high school and junior-college players are based on highlight tapes, game stats, observations and recruiting camps. 247sports.com publishes a composite ranking, which averages the ratings from its own site, ESPN.com and Rivals.com. A perfect score would be 1.000, with the five-star prospects typically above 0.980.
In 2009, the first-round picks averaged a 0.8782 rating in 247sports.com’s composite rankings, which combine the listings from all of the major recruiting services. That average peaked at 0.9156 in 2017. In 247sports.com’s 2019 composite rankings, that jump from 0.8782 to 0.9156 would equate to more than 300 spots (from 549th to 216th). Last year, the first-round average dipped back to 0.8961, the inexact science proven by Baker Mayfield, the other Josh Allen, unrated Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and pitcher-turned-tight end Hayden Hurst.
This year’s projected first round was similarly highly recruited. We isolated the average top 32 picks using mock drafts, and those picks averaged a past recruiting ranking of 0.9135. Only Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, with a recruiting ranking of 0.7898, had a lower score than Allen’s 0.7965 of our projected first round.
There were 10 future first-round picks among the top 50 high school recruits in 2014, eight among the top 50 in 2013 and 10 in 2012 — all high marks since 2008. For now, the 2015 recruiting class is off to a good start, after six of the top 50 recruits became first-round picks last spring, three years after graduating high school. Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Clemson’s Christian Wilkins are poised to join that group Thursday, pushing the total in the range of 2012-2014.
The 2016 class of high school recruits will get started, too, when names like Dexter Lawrence, Rashan Gary, Ed Oliver and Nick Bosa — all juniors — break in. Then comes Alabama sophomore Tua Tagovailoa (most likely) in 2020, and Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence in 2021. There are still plenty of opportunities for unsung high school recruits like Allen to make their mark in college, but the highly rated players are getting most of the attention in the NFL draft.