What's the Success Rate for 5-Star Recruits Reaching the NFL?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2014

MIAMI - JANUARY 08:  (L-R) Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow of the Florida Gators greet each other in the end zone during warm-ups against the Oklahoma Sooners prior to the start of the FedEx BCS National Championship game at Dolphin Stadium on January 8, 2009 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Marc Serota/Getty Images

Since the recruiting class of 2002—a group so old it includes Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee—Rivals.com has bestowed the 5-star rating on 353 prospects, not including classes that have yet to arrive at college.

In the first seven years of that span, between the classes of 2002 and 2008, there were 203 5-star prospects, all but two of whom expended their college eligibility before 2013.

That final duo includes offensive tackle Matt Patchan, who just spent a week at the Senior Bowl after starting 12 games at left tackle for Boston College, and Oklahoma castoff Jermie Calhoun, who wasn't quite the next Adrian Peterson as some had once thought. He played for Division II Angelo State this past year.

For the other 201 5-star recruits in that span, we already have a pretty good sense of their NFL trajectory. Some who have started well might falter, while some who have faltered might eventually do well. But for now, the sample is large enough to draw a few tentative inferences.

What is the success rate for 5-stars in the pros?

Note: Data only concerns the 201 5-star recruits from 2002-2008 that left school before the 2013 season. This was done for reasons of completeness, as the later classes have too many rookies and/or players still in school.

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By Draft Position

Matt Stafford went from 5-star recruit to No. 1 overall pick.
Matt Stafford went from 5-star recruit to No. 1 overall pick.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

More than half of all 5-star recruits are selected in the NFL draft, which is a better ratio than other classifications. That makes sense because (a) there are less of them, and (b) they are supposed to be the best players.

But the draft rate isn't as far above 50 percent as you might think, and it's remarkably stratified between early-round picks and later ones: 

5-Star Recruits by Round Drafted (2002-2008)
Round 13517.4
Round 22110.4
Round 3178.5
Round 4126.0
Round 584.0
Round 694.5
Round 731.5
Source: Rivals.com / NFL.com

Because of their documented physical gifts, 5-star prospects have inflated boom-or-bust potential. At other star levels, a good college career usually means getting drafted into the NFL, but not necessarily as an early-round pick.

At the 5-star level, you likely either go early or don't go at all:

  • If a 5-star prospect didn't get selected by Round 1, he has a 58 percent chance of going undrafted.
  • If a 5-star prospect didn't get selected by Round 2, he has a 66 percent chance of going undrafted.
  • If a 5-star prospect didn't get selected by Round 4, he has an 83 percent chance of going undrafted.

Of course, getting drafted isn't the only thing that matters.

Thirteen 5-stars have made an active NFL roster after going undrafted, and some, such as Antone Smith and Alex Boone, have enjoyed solid careers. Meanwhile, special cases such as Maurice Clarett and Chad Jones both got drafted early but never played in the league.

A more important barometer of NFL success is retention: How long do 5-star prospects stay in the league, and how big of an impact do they make? The (admittedly) broad metric we'll use for retention is simple:

Since being drafted (and barring injury), has the player made an active roster in 75 percent of NFL seasons? 

So if a player has made an active roster in two of three or five of seven potential seasons, we'll say he hasn't been retained. If he's made an active roster in three of four or six of eight, we'll say he has.

Here's a look at the data:

5-Star Recruits: Retention Rate by Round
Players DraftedPlayers RetainedRetention Rate
Round 1353394.3%
Round 2211990.5%
Round 3171270.6%
Rounds 4-7321443.8%
Source: Rivals.com / NFL.com

These numbers aren't overly important quite yet, as they more or less reflect something obvious: Players drafted earlier have a better chance of sticking in the league than players drafted later.

If the table above does say anything of import, it's probably that 5-star players are not immune to this phenomenon—that if a former blue-chipper is available late, it's often with good reason. He shouldn't be selected on the basis of perceived former upside.

Still, these numbers are a whole-sample benchmark for retention rate by draft position, so keep them in mind as we start to explore other areas. We've also learned that 52 percent of 5-star players get drafted and that 75 percent of those draftees are retained.

Coming out of high school, a 5-star recruit thus has a 39 percent chance of "sticking" in the league. Three of every five will not.

By Class Ranking

Adrian Peterson was not your average prospect.
Adrian Peterson was not your average prospect.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Are all 5-stars created equal?

Of course not. Adrian Peterson was Adrian Peterson, and he was the only one there will ever be. Scoring him as the No. 1 overall player was a coup for Oklahoma in 2004, even with a future top-10 NFL draft pick in Ted Ginn Jr. right behind him at No. 2.

On a broader scope, though, is there a statistical difference between landing a player in the top half of his 5-star class and one in the bottom half? In terms of NFL longevity, does landing the No. 10 overall recruit mean more than landing No. 20?

Here's how the players stack up in terms of draft rate and retention rate, this time including players from the class who went undrafted or flamed out in college, along with average round drafted (for those who were drafted):

5-Star Recruits: Blue-Chippers vs. Top Blue-Chippers
Bottom Half of 5-Star ClassTop Half of 5-Star Class
Draft Rate43.1%61.6%
Retention Rate32.4%52.5%
Avg. Draft Round2.982.67
Source: Rivals.com / Pro-Football-Reference

*Note: In classes with an odd amount of 5-star prospects, the median player was rounded into the bottom half.

To state the obvious: Yes, there is a difference between top-half 5-stars and bottom-half 5-stars, and that difference is fairly significant.

Top-half 5-stars are roughly 20 percent more likely to get drafted and stick in the league, doing so in more than half of all cases. In a world where three of every five 5-stars fails, one of every two from the top half succeeds.

If you're wondering, here's what this year's class of incoming 5-stars looks like, broken up by halves:

5-Star Recruits: Class of 2014 by Halves
Top HalfSchoolBottom HalfSchool
D. HandAlabamaC. RobinsonAlabama
M. GarrettTexas A&MD. CookFlorida St.
J. PeppersMichiganR. McMillanOhio State
L. FournetteLSUD. Prince*TBD
Q. BlandingVirginiaS. NoilTexas A&M
A. Jackson*TBDC. ThomasMiami
K. AllenTexas A&MT. WilliamsAuburn
J. MixonOklahomaJ. Smith*TBD
M. HumphreyAlabamaT. BrownAlabama
J. TaborFloridaM. McDowell*TBD
T. RudolphFlorida St.J. MaloneTennessee
R. ThomasAuburnE. Lane*TBD
S. MichelGeorgiaQ. NelsonNotre Dame
R. Evans*TBDE. HoodUNC
M. Dupre*TBDD. WatsonClemson
B. ScarbroughAlabamaA. BrownVirginia
J. HurdTennessee
Source: Rivals.com

Keep in mind that this doesn't consign the bottom half to failure—far from it. Making the league 42 percent of the time and sticking more than 30 percent of the time is a very nice percentage.

On average, though, eight or nine guys from the left column will still be in the NFL 10 years from now. Only five or six will remain from the right.

By Position

There's no safer bet than a 5-star tight end, like Martellus Bennett at Texas A&M.
There's no safer bet than a 5-star tight end, like Martellus Bennett at Texas A&M.DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press/Associated Press

Let's say your team is bringing in three 5-star recruits.

First of all, congratulations. You are probably an Alabama fan. You're so used to winning that an 11-2 season felt like Judgment Day. Life is good.

But even Alabama fans know that not all 5-stars pan out. Does the name Tyler Love ring a bell? What about Burton Scott?

Looking just at the positions, would there be any good way to predict the success of that hypothetical trio? Does any spot on the field make a high school standout more likely to become a professional one?

Let's take a look:

5-Star Recruits by Position*
5-Star PlayersDraft RateRetention Rate
Tight Ends5100.0%100.0%
Wide Receivers3262.5%50.0%
Running Back2642.3%38.5%
Offensive Line2931.0%37.9%
Defensive Back2466.7%37.5%
Defensive Line3850.0%34.2%
Source: Rivals.com / Pro-Football-Reference

*Note: "Athletes" were assigned to their primary college position.

The perfect success rate of 5-star tight ends jumps off the page, even despite a tiny sample.

In fact, I'd reckon the small sample and rate of success are related. Rivals won't give a tight end five stars unless he's truly, transcendently special. That's why there are so few, but it's also why every single one—Marcedes Lewis, Greg Olsen, Tony Hills Jr., Martellus Bennett and Kyle Rudolph—has stuck in the NFL.

(And if you want to argue that Hills Jr. doesn't count because he now plays tackle, understand that Redskins tight end Fred Davis was counted here as a receiver. Either way, the position went five of five.)

Also worth noting is the bizarre case of offensive linemen, which actually have a higher retention rate than draft rate. More specifically, only nine of 29 5-star offensive linemen were selected in the NFL draft, but 11 of 29 offensive linemen have been retained.

This anomaly occurs on the strength of undrafted free agents such as Alex Boone and Michael Brewster—both Ohio State Buckeyes—reviving their careers in the NFL and becoming useful blockers. If a 5-star offensive lineman underachieves in college, or if he's brandished with specious character concerns, his upside might still be worth banking on.

Derrick Harvey was a 5-star recruit and top-10 NFL draft pick. Now he's out of the league.
Derrick Harvey was a 5-star recruit and top-10 NFL draft pick. Now he's out of the league.Stephen Morton/Associated Press/Associated Press

The same cannot be said of defensive backs and defensive linemen. Both positions see a precipitous drop from draft rate to retention, signaling a phenomenon where 5-star pass-rushers and secondary players can do well in college but get exposed in the pros.

What is the reason for this? It's hard to say for sure, but I'm willing to make a guess.

Five-star defensive backs and defensive linemen can coast on their physical tools in college. They can mask some severe mechanical flaws with size and speed and strength. At the next level, however, those defects are exposed in a league where everyone is also big and fast and strong.

The ones who are unwilling to adapt or admit their inadequacy don't stick. 

By Conference

The SEC produces more NFL busts, like Jarvis Moss, than one might realize.
The SEC produces more NFL busts, like Jarvis Moss, than one might realize.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In matters of recruiting, the rhetoric of SEC schools is simple, arrogant and unapologetic: Come play for us, against the best competition in the country, and you'll stand the best chance of making the NFL.

But is that the truth?

The SEC certainly attracts the most 5-star talent. No other conference has even two-thirds of its 60 5-star players recruited between 2002 and 2008. But do they really do the best job developing it?

Two notes before we look at the numbers:

  1. Players who transferred were counted for the conference of the school they committed to.
  2. Conference re-alignment was ignored. That is, even if a player committed to Miami when it was part of the Big East, he was counted toward its current conference, the ACC.

These things were done for both practicality and relevance.

Since we are, more than anything, trying to get a sense of where this year's 5-stars are expected to end up, we're looking at how players fared given their immediate commitment from high school. That is, after all, the stage this year's players are at.

And what would be the point of exploring defunct leagues like the Big East? It's the programs within those leagues that we're concerned with.

Hopefully that makes sense. 

Here's the breakdown:

5-Star Recruits by Conference
5-Star PlayersDraft RateRetention Rate
Big Ten3650.0%44.4%
Big 122343.5%30.4%
Source: Rivals.com / Pro-Football-Reference

Let's start with the SEC, which is one spot away from the gutter in terms of power-conference retention rate. How could that be possible?

Part of it might have to do with sample size. Its retention rate of 40 percent is on line with the whole-sample retention rate we calculated earlier; and the bigger the sample, the more likely your population to regress toward the mean.

The other part is simple: SEC powers don't coach talent the way they purport. Some of the conference's blue-blood programs, specifically Florida and Tennessee, did a very bad job developing 5-stars during this span:

SEC Teams That Struggled to Develop Talent
5-Star PlayersDraft RateRetention Rate
Mississippi St.425.0%25.0%
Source: Rivals.com / Pro-Football-Reference

No school produces busts like Florida, which had 11 5-star players drafted but only six that were able to stick around in the league. And it's not like those players were seventh-round picks, either.

In the first section of this piece, we looked at retention rate by round selected. Of the 56 5-star players taken in the first two rounds of the draft, only four haven't lasted 75 percent of their professional seasons.

Three of those four players went to Florida.

Derrick Harvey, Jarvis Moss and Chad Jackson have been abject disasters in the NFL, making up three-fourths of the outliers in that subset. If and when Tim Tebow doesn't make an active roster next season, he too will fail to qualify for retention, and this number will drop even lower.

Rhett Bomar was one of countless busts from the Big 12.
Rhett Bomar was one of countless busts from the Big 12.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When the later recruiting classes become viable to study, some of the SEC's numbers are sure to come around. Alabama, for example, only had four 5-star recruits during the entire sample we studied; now it has five in the class of 2014 alone. And Nick Saban knows talent development.

On the whole, though, only the Big 12 did a worse job grooming long-tenured NFL players than the SEC. And this sample was pretty darn big.

The Pac-12 was king, and the majority of that good work was done by USC, which turned 13 5-star prospects into tenured NFL players. Pete Carroll was truly the master, though some of USC's recent 5-stars like Su'a Cravens look poised for future stardom as well. 

The Big Ten and ACC also did a solid job at development.

Class of 2009

Russell Sheppard played special teams for Tampa Bay this season. Should that count?
Russell Sheppard played special teams for Tampa Bay this season. Should that count?Chris Graythen/Getty Images

As noted earlier, the sample used in the data above was every recruiting class between 2002 and 2008.

The classes of 2009 and 2010 were excluded because there were too many players either (a) still in school, or (b) finishing up their rookie season in the NFL. That second point is a problem, because a one-year sample hurts the accuracy of retention numbers.

A lot of players who didn't qualify in the above data would have qualified after their rookie season, so it didn't seem fair to count so many kids so fresh out of school. Likewise, a number of players who qualify today, in my estimation, will not qualify after next season.

Don't believe me and still think I should have included the class of 2009? Here's a look at how it would have shook out:

5-Star Recruits: Class of 2009
5-Star PlayersDrafted / RetainedIn SchoolUnretained
3314 / 1797
Source: Rivals.com / Pro-Football-Reference

Do you see how that would have harmed the data? All 14 players who were drafted made an active roster, and so did three more—Russell Shepard, Vontaze Burfict and Ray-Ray Armstrong—who went undrafted either this or the previous season.

Burfict is someone who deserves to qualify for retention, but the jury is still out on Shepard and Armstrong, who may both be gone from the league next season. Since they technically qualify right now, however, they would have had to be counted for retention, along with other players from the class who won't be long for the league.

It simply hasn't been enough time to count the class of 2009 as a viable data point, especially with nine guys still in school this season. Who am I to speculate on their future?

Hopefully that clears up some questions—which I suspect some of you had—about why only the players from 2002-2008 were used.


CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 07:  Head coach Jimbo Fisher of the Florida State Seminoles looks on against the Duke Blue Devils during the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Le
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I'll be the first to admit it: The data isn't perfect. 

For one thing, Rivals.com is just one recruiting service, used for the sheer purpose of how far back its database goes. Nowadays, the 247Sports composite give a much broader, more accurate assessment of who should be considered a 5-star prospect, since it collates data from multiple services.

For another thing, you might disagree with retention as a good way to measure NFL success. You might prefer something manifest like Super Bowl rings or Pro Bowl appearances, or you might think that 75 percent of seasons is too strict or too weak of a parameter.

These are all fair opinions.

I understand that the data here is far from perfect; using it, we are not able to make grand, sweeping conclusions on the success rate of 5-star recruits. What we can do is make very strong, very correlated judgements on the success rate of 5-star recruits, and hopefully dispel some misconceptions in the process.

In short, this is what we think we've learned from the data above:

  • Two of every five 5-star prospects becomes a long-term NFL player.
  • There is a significant difference between 5-stars in the top half of their class and 5-stars in the bottom half.
  • Receivers and tight ends are the best bets to pan out; defensive backs and defensive linemen have the most bust potential.
  • Programs in the current Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC have done the best job cultivating 5-star talent.

Now let's put this to practical use: Based on the verdicts above, who among the 31 5-stars in Rivals' current class has the best chance of becoming a solid NFL player?

The answer might surprise you. Florida State commit Travis Rudolph is the prototype of a future NFL contributor—not based on body or skill set or anything player-specific, but simply on how he fulfills these requirements.

Receivers pan out well, he's in the top half of his 5-star class, and he's going to a school in the ACC with a good track record of producing talent. That does not guarantee him a spot in the NFL or even a chance to make an impact in Tallahassee; it simply points him in the right direction and perhaps mitigates his risk.

Credit: 247Sports

Oddly enough, Rudolph isn't favored as keenly on the aforementioned 247Sports composite, which only gives him 4-stars based on the rest of the scouting service's rankings. If that metric reached back as far as Rivals' did, we would have a large enough sample to discern what might happen when the two rankings disagree.

For now, Rivals has always done a great job with 5-star receivers, and Rudolph seems to fit the mold. All he needs is to do is put in the work, and according to Corey Clark of the Palm Beach Post, Rudolph's high school coach praised his "humble spirit" and said he "works harder than anyone on the team."

So congrats, Jameis Winston, and enjoy your shiny new toy.

The numbers say he might be special.

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT