Looking Back at the High School Scouting Reports of Today's Biggest NFL Stars
Long before the NFL's top stars took the field, many of them had dreams of major college football and enjoying the recruiting process. Others were barely recognized for their ability. Regardless of their path, each became a dominant player at the highest level.
To rediscover how the league's elite were once viewed in high school, two recruiting sites help paint a comprehensive picture. For our purposes here, Scout provided the star rating system and the individual scholarship offers, while ESPN supplied the scouting reports. To determine which stars to highlight, many of those atop the NFL Network's "Top Players of 2017" made the cut, along with a few of the league's other most recognizable names.
Since none of the databases extended beyond 1999, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady couldn't be included. A few others were likewise left out because they didn't draw much interest coming out of high school or their recruitment predated the available reports. As such, Antonio Brown, Khalil Mack, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and David Johnson slipped through the cracks.
For the most part, each of the NFL's top performers—at least those who warranted high school scouting reports—received positive reviews, with a few projections being borderline prophetic.
LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Scholarship Offers: Six (Texas A&M, Florida, LSU, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas Tech)
Scouting Report: "Miller is athletic player with upside at the end position. You can tell watching him that this is a kid with ability, but you also feel like at times he can squeeze more out of that ability. He has a solid get-off but will flash an initial burst at times that you would like to see more consistently."
Consistency is a buzz word throughout many of these scouting reports, as it's an applicable trait for most high school players. As superior athletes, many got away with giving less than maximum effort.
Those who continue to mature and develop instead of relying on raw athleticism are the ones who turn into elite NFL prospects and players. Von Miller is a prime example.
During his Texas A&M career and working his way to Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl, Miller's first-step quickness was breathtaking. Every pass-rusher now wants to emulate his ability to bend the edge and turn the corner against the NFL's best blockers.
While his high school report indicated he had a strong initial burst, it proved to be an understatement. Miller posted a 1.57-second 10-yard split at 246 pounds during the 2011 NFL combine, per NFL Combine Results. To put that time into perspective, wide receiver A.J. Green, who was selected two slots behind Miller in the 2011 draft, ran a 1.55-second 10-yard split.
The hybrid edge defender explodes past and through blockers. His 73.5 sacks in his first six seasons rank among the best ever, as Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas DeMarcus Ware and J.J. Watt are the only five players in league history to record more over that period.
Miller's continued improvement is even more impressive. Questions lingered about his ability to hold the point of attack and defend the run against NFL linemen. He's excelled working as a strong-side linebacker on early downs and a pass-rusher in sub-packages.
As one of the NFL's best defensive players, Miller certainly has squeezed the most out of his ability.
WR Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Scholarship Offers: Seven (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas Tech)
Scouting Report: "This guy is a unique, rare prospect for the wide receiver position with his supreme blend of size, power, speed and agility. He reminds us of a high school version of Michael Irvin, but at this stage Jones is more explosive and faster. ... This player has very few weaknesses in terms of physical tools and in our opinion could make an impact right away."
Julio Jones was the closest any prospect can come to being a sure thing, and he lived up to the hype with the Alabama Crimson Tide and in the NFL. He made an instant impact at both levels, too.
As a freshman, Jones led Alabama with 924 receiving yards. No other target on the roster came within 600 yards of his performance. In his first year with the Falcons, the rookie finished second on the team with 959 receiving yards and tied for first with eight receiving touchdowns, even though he missed three games due to injury.
Jones' polish and physicality stood out early in his career. When those two aspects were added to his size (6'3" and 220 pounds), speed (4.39-second 40-yard dash) and body control, he quickly established himself as a complete receiver.
The comparison to Michael Irvin may have been deemed unfair for any player trying to establish himself prior to stepping onto a collegiate field, let alone dealing with being better than a Hall of Fame wide receiver. But all of it has proved true. Jones is a faster and more explosive player than Irvin ever was.
In his first six seasons, Atlanta's top target caught 497 passes for 7,610 yards and 40 touchdowns. He even led the league in receiving yardage and receptions during the 2015 campaign.
The four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is rare and unique, and he now serves as the measuring stick for incoming prospects.
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Scholarship Offers: 17 (Ohio State, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn State, Tennessee, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Wisconsin)
Scouting Report: "Elliott is a complete back at the high school level and projects as an every-down back in college. He has a very good blend of size, speed and strength, but is not elite in any one area."
Does leading the NFL in rushing as a rookie count as being elite?
Elliott decided against staying in-state to play for the Missouri Tigers. Instead, he choose to attend Ohio State, and it proved to be the best decision he could make from a football perspective.
During his final two seasons in Columbus, Elliott rushed for 3,699 yards and 41 touchdowns while also capturing a national championship. His ability to take over games helped propel the Buckeyes to that level of success.
Physically speaking, Elliott isn't a standout compared to other NFL running backs. He's big, but not the biggest. He's fast, but not the fastest. He's versatile, but others are better catching the ball. What separates Elliott is his vision, decisiveness and lateral agility coupled with a 225-pound frame and 4.47-second 40-yard-dash speed.
Playing behind the NFL's best offensive line last season, Elliott maximized his production with a league-leading 1,631 rushing yards. He became the first rookie to lead the NFL since Edgerrin James in 1999. As a result, Elliott earned his first Pro Bowl berth and first-team All-Pro honors.
Everything Elliott has accomplished on the field since 2014 signals an elite talent.
WR Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Scholarship Offers: Five (LSU, Memphis, Miami [Fla.], Mississippi State, Nebraska)
Scouting Report: "Beckham is an exciting athlete that displays some versatility and range as an offensive weapon. He is undersized, but very explosive and shifty with good change-of-direction and excellent overall instincts with the ball in his hands. ... He will likely end up as a slot receiver and return specialist, but flashes some tools and the measurables to possibly develop as a corner on defense."
Recruiting services dubbed Odell Beckham Jr. as an "athlete" back in 2011. During his time at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, Beckham was a multisport star. On the football team, he played wide receiver, running back, quarterback and cornerback.
Being designated an "athlete" typically means the recruit doesn't have an established role entering the collegiate ranks—which is obvious due to the suggestion Beckham could permanently play cornerback.
ESPN's report about Beckham also made no mention of his hands. Due to the uncertainty of where he would play in college, ESPN emphasized his ability to create after the catch and how he could be a weapon in spread offenses.
That part of the evaluation couldn't have been more accurate. According to Pro Football Focus, Beckham ranked first last season in forced missed tackles by a wide receiver.
The report faltered with regard to his ability to become a deep threat, however. Since Beckham is a sub-6'0" receiver, ESPN suggested he "lacks the size to be a factor in the vertical passing game." The receiver's combination of elite body control, hand strength, 4.43-second 40-yard-dash speed and a 38.5-inch vertical allows him to overcome his lack of length compared to a traditional target.
One thing is certain: Beckham is exciting. Even playing in the LSU Tigers' run-first offense, he made special plays. Now in the NFL and unleashed, Beckham counts himself among the league's best targets.
RB Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Scholarship Offers: Four (Michigan State, Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Marshall)
Scouting Report: "Bell has the size for the running back position at the major level of competition; however his playing speed will be a concern as he lacks the burst and second gear necessary to break out of the pack for long gains. Lines up as a deep back showing adequate quickness and vision approaching the line of scrimmage; more of a straight line runner with an upright style; must learn to run over his pads when in traffic. ... Flashes limited receiving skills which if they can be developed will improve his value. Bell does not project high at the BCS level of play."
Le'Veon Bell is not the same player today as the one who committed to the Michigan State Spartans out of high school or even the one who ran for 1,793 yards as a junior to warrant a second-round draft selection. He completely reshaped his body and turned himself into the game's premier all-around back.
The original scouting report was right. Bell was a bigger back without a top gear, and he lacked lateral agility. He was rarely asked to be much more than an outlet receiver in the Spartans' run-heavy offensive scheme. Instead, he became a battering ram who carried the ball 382 times during his final season on campus.
Michigan State's official site listed Bell at 237 pounds. He dropped down to 230 pounds by the NFL combine. He's now closer to 225 pounds. The sleeker version of Bell is far superior to the one many saw coming through the ranks.
One key trait came with Bell from Michigan State to the Pittsburgh Steelers: patience. The running back's ability not to panic behind his offensive line and identify the hole makes him special. The difference today is his burst to come through the other side of the hole.
The Steelers also love to utilize Bell out of the backfield. In four seasons, he already caught 227 passes. Alongside quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh features the NFL's best set of triplets.
QB Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Scholarship Offers: Two (Fresno State, Utah)
Scouting Report: "Carr may be a late bloomer, but if there's anything missing here, his flaws don't appear to be physical. In any case, he should be receiving more attention and will surprise a lot of folks if he continues to develop."
No one should have been surprised by Derek Carr's development into a franchise quarterback.
Carr has been in the spotlight since he turned 10 years old. While his brother, David, made his case for the 2001 Heisman Trophy, Derek impressed during his first television interview.
Derek received some interest from other schools, but he became determined to follow David's path at Fresno State. During his four years with the Bulldogs, Derek threw for 12,843 yards.
If anything, his lineage was held against him. Since David didn't succeed in the NFL after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, Derek's bloodlines weren't viewed as a positive, unlike many legacy prospects.
This became especially true regarding one of the knocks placed on Derek throughout the evaluation process. David's career was ruined when the Houston Texans front office didn't surround him with adequate skill position performers or a capable offensive line.
Many questioned whether Derek held up against pressure coming into the league, even though his film showed a willingness to stare down the gun barrel against an oncoming blitzer. The above scouting report suggested there may be issues with how he grasps the mental aspects of the game.
Others seemed more concerned about Fresno State's system or the quarterback's footwork and far less about his ability to complete passes due to immense arm talent.
Carr is now the NFL's highest-paid player after signing a $125 million contract extension this summer, and he's finally receiving the attention he should have all along.
TE Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Scholarship Offers: Six (Arizona, Clemson, Louisville, Maryland, Ohio State, Syracuse)
Scouting Report: "Gronkowski is really a tight end by title only. He is used mostly as a big wide receiver. Unlike other players who are often used like this though, Gronkowski has the physical build to be a true tight end. ... He can stretch the field some, and along with his height, he can cause some real match-up problems for linebackers and defensive backs. ... He has the potential to be a 'big' presence on the field.."
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a "big presence" both on and off the field. His play on the gridiron has him on the path toward Canton as a future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. Gronk's scouting report wound up being on point, only magnified as an NFL athlete.
A back injury cut Gronkowski's collegiate career short, and he only played in 22 games before declaring early for the NFL draft. The Patriots still took a chance on him in the second round even though he didn't play in a single contest as a junior.
Why? His potential was obvious.
At 6'6" and 265 pounds, neither linebackers nor defensive backs can cover him in space, as he retained the aforementioned wide receiver skill set. In seven seasons, he already amassed 405 receptions for 6,095 yards and 68 touchdowns. He already ranks 14th on the all-time receiving yardage list among tight ends, and he has a chance to crack the top eight by the end of the 2017 campaign.
He's more than a tight end in title even though his abilities as a receiver haven't diminished. According to Pro Football Focus, Gronkowski finished among the top five tight ends in yards per route run during each of his seven professional seasons. He's ranked first in the category four different times, including this past year.
Where he improved the most since entering the NFL is with his blocking. He's a complete tight end and presents the league's best combination of receiving skills and in-line blocking. His physicality helps establish the Patriots' running game at the point of attack.
As long as Gronk remains healthy—which remains no sure thing—he'll be counted among the best to ever play the game.
DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Scholarship Offers: Three (Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Toledo)
Scouting Report: "Donald is an active and disruptive defensive tackle. ... He really seems to be able to adjust his game to beat blockers by taking what they give him. He flashes the ability to fire off the ball and execute a quick swim to get penetration. ... He is an active kid and tough to keep blocked. He hustles around and can make plays when he gets into the backfield. ... You wish he was a little bigger, but the kid plays the game well and is active."
For Aaron Donald, size always mattered. As a high school athlete, the Pittsburgh native weighed 260 pounds. At 285 pounds, he's still one of the NFL's smallest defensive tackles.
"Size doesn't mean anything," Donald said at the 2014 Senior Bowl. "If you can play the game of football, you can play."
Donald can play. More importantly, he has produced at every level for all of the above reasons.
During his final season with the Pittsburgh Panthers, Donald amassed 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. He won the Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award and ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 before the then-St. Louis Rams selected him 13th overall in the 2014 NFL draft.
The defensive lineman may not be a 300-pound behemoth, but the 6'1" Donald is thickly built, strong and an elite athlete. He posted 35 reps on the bench press and ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. His explosiveness paired with his natural leverage, strength and technique make him nearly impossible to block.
In three NFL seasons, Donald has managed 28 sacks, which is the most among defensive tackles during that span. None of the league's top interior defenders stack up against Donald, per Pro Football Focus. His disruptive play translates against the run, too. PFF graded him as the game's third-best defensive tackle versus opposing ground games over the past five years.
Not every player fits the standards teams prefer. While coaches may have wanted Donald to be bigger, he always saw his body type as an advantage. If he was bigger, he'd probably be less effective than he is.
DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Scholarship Offers: Six (Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Colorado, Minnesota, Northern Illinois, Wyoming)
Scouting Report: "Watt is a tall, rangy defensive end who flashes some playmaking ability. ... He demonstrates some skill at getting his hands up in the throwing lanes, which is what you would expect from a taller player. Where Watt can improve the most is with his consistency. ... He will have to add some bulk and strength to compete in college. Overall, Watt has an impressive frame and must work hard to improve his technique and consistency to be a solid college player."
A disclaimer needs to be placed at the bottom of the screen every time J.J. Watt's story is told. While Watt is generally regarded as the best former walk-on to play in the NFL, he wasn't a walk-on to begin his collegiate career.
Watt committed to Central Michigan before choosing Minnesota. He de-committed one more time before finally settling on the Chippewas. He held scholarship offers from both schools. After playing one year in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, Watt decided he wanted to play college football at the highest level and walked on to the Wisconsin Badgers program.
As such, his situation is far from the feel-good story of a relative unknown going on to become a dominant first-round talent it's often made out to be.
What made Watt so enticing at the time was his natural tools. He already stood 6'5" coming out of high school and started to pack on pounds. Even in high school, Watt's knack for batted passes stood out, and that continues to this day. In his first five seasons, the defensive end registered 45 deflected passes, the sixth-most among all defensive linemen or linebackers over that span.
The biggest difference at this point in Watt's career compared to concerns at the high school level is his consistency and work ethic. The defensive lineman grew into a 295-pound powerhouse due to his legendary workout prowess. He's strong enough to overwhelm NFL blockers yet athletic enough to consistently beat them off the snap.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is the most unstoppable force in football when healthy.
CB Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Scholarship Offers: Five (Stanford, Mississippi State, Nevada)
Scouting Report: "On defense he shows a lot more burst and acceleration and makes plays on the ball in coverage. Pursues well versus the run and shows good closing speed. He has a nose for the ball and defensive instincts to go with it."
Richard Sherman went to Stanford University to be a wide receiver. He spent his first three years with the Cardinal as one of the team's top targets. He actually led the program in receiving yardage during the 2006 and '07 campaigns.
He didn't transition to cornerback until his senior season. Those ball skills never left, though, which prompted the Seattle Seahawks to use a fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft on him. In fact, his "nose for the ball" makes him one of the NFL's most dangerous defenders.
His performance during his first six seasons is eerily similar to the greatest cover corner of all time. ESPN noted Sherman has the same amount of interceptions (30), Pro Bowl appearances (four), first-team All-Pro nods (three) and Super Bowl championships (one) as Deion Sanders at the same point in their careers.
His 30 interceptions are the most since entering the league in 2011, per NFL Research. No cornerback in the league replicates his "defensive instincts."
Sherman also benefits from his length. The 6'3" corner can physically dominate receivers at the line of scrimmage. He's more than willing to come up and support the run as well. He's an ideal fit in the Seattle Seahawks' Cover 3 scheme.
As a wide receiver, Sherman displayed some talent. As a corner, he's working his way into the conversation as an all-time great.