Super Bowl 51 Is Proof That High School Recruiting Rankings Are a Joke

Tom Brady pumps his fist after scoring a first down.
Tom Brady was a no-name high school recruit | Elsa/Getty Images

National signing day has turned into holiday of sorts for diehard college football fans around the country. The day is all about optimism for the future as fans, coaches, and athletic department staff officially get to celebrate their respective program’s next batch of talent. But when it comes down to it, the notion of celebrating a group of young athletes who have never played a down of college football is simply ridiculous.

In case you somehow missed it, over the last 1015 years, major college football recruiting has become a multi-million dollar industry. There are now multiple websites that employ “experts,” who provide breaking news updates and evaluations on prospects throughout the country. And it all revolves around each prospect’s star rating.

Fans naturally want to see their teams sign a group of all four- and five-star recruits. And high school players regularly spend thousands of dollars traveling to camps in hopes of boosting their rankings and ultimately landing coveted scholarship offers. At the end of the day, though, recruiting rankings are an inexact science and mean nothing once a player steps foot on a college campus.

J.J. Watt smiles on the sidelines.
J.J. Watt was a two-star recruit coming out of high school | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

We remember how ridiculous recruiting rankings are on an annual basis. It’s why guys like Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, and Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. all overlooked as high school recruits regularly remind young players not to be discouraged by the number of stars next to their name in a recruiting database.

While there are a handful of former five-star recruits currently in starring roles around the NFL, there is no denying that they are few and far between. If you don’t believe us, just look at the rosters in Super Bowl 51. First and foremost, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady  the greatest player in NFL history in our eyes — was far from a household name as a high school recruit. And one of Brady’s favorite targets, wide receiver Chris Hogan, wasn’t even recruited to play college football.

All said, the Super Bowl 51 rosters for the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons offer solid proof that recruiting rankings are a flat-out joke. Here’s a look at how 11 of the best players in Super Bowl 51 rated as college football prospects.

1. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

Julio Jones gives his teammates the thumbs up.
Julio Jones was an elite recruit in high school | Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  • Stars: 5
  • National Ranking (overall): 4
  • Position Ranking (national): 1

Julio Jones is one of the rare players who completely lives up to his billing as a five-star recruit. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder signed with the Alabama Crimson Tide out of high school and dominated opposing defensive backs in the SEC for three years before moving on to the NFL (he was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft). As a pro, Jones has developed into arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. He is well on his way to earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he eventually hangs his cleats up.

2. Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots

Dont'a Hightower of the New England Patriots watches the action from the sidelines.
Dont’a Hightower was highly recruited coming out of high school | Jim Rogash/Getty Images
  • Stars: 4
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): 15

Dont’a Hightower signed with the Alabama Crimson Tide out of high school in 2008. He was a fairly highly regarded recruit. However, recruiters often overlooked him (he wasn’t viewed as elite enough to crack the national rankings) due to the fact that he was member of the same Alabama recruiting class as guys like Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, and Marcell Dareus.

Everything worked out well for Hightower, though. He was a first round pick (No. 25 overall) in the 2012 NFL Draft, and is in line to receive a massive contract this coming offseason.

3. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta's Matt Ryan speaks to the media at a conference.
Matt Ryan was a triple-option quarterback in high school | Tim Warner/Getty Images
  • Stars: 3
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): 25

For those who have watched his NFL career closely, this may be hard to believe. Matt Ryan was actually a triple option quarterback during his high school days. His lack of film as a passer may have played a role in his pedestrian ratings as a college prospect. When it comes down to it, though, it’s hard to forgive the recruiting gurus for missing so badly on this one.

As the 25thranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2003, Ryan was viewed as an inferior prospect to guys like Chris Leak, Kyle Wright, Brady Quinn, JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, and Sam Keller.

4. Malcolm Butler, CB, New England Patriots

Cornerback Malcolm Butler of the New England Patriots celebrates after the game.
Malcolm Butler had zero offers coming out of high school | Ethan Miller/Getty Images
  • Stars: 0
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): N/A

Coming out of high school, Malcolm Butler, who is now a premier NFL cornerback, wasn’t even viewed as a college prospect (as evident by his zero stars) worth entering in the Rivals recruiting database. His lack of recruitment resulted in Butler attending junior college before eventually transferring to West Alabama (a Division II school). Butler was again overlooked in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he made the New England Patriots roster as an undrafted free agent. The rest is history.

5. Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons

Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons runs with the ball.
Devonta Freeman had several offers coming out of high school | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
  • Stars: 4
  • National Ranking (overall): 108
  • Position Ranking (national): 10

Devonta Freeman is one of the few big-name players in Super Bowl 51 who was also a big-name player as a college football prospect. He chose to sign with Florida State over scholarship offers from some of the best college football programs in the country. Before bypassing his senior season to enter the 2014 NFL Draft, Freeman had a highly productive three-year career for the Noles.

In his three-year NFL career, he’s established himself as one of the premier all-around running backs in the league. With a standout performance in Super Bowl 51, the 5-foot-8, 206-pounder will likely force the Falcons to sign him to a hefty contract extension this offseason.

6. Devin McCourty, S, New England Patriots

Devin McCourty smiles and cheers.
Devin McCourty proved the recruiting gurus wrong | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
  • Stars: 2
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): N/A

Devin McCourty is undeniably one of the premier safeties (and overall defensive players) in the NFL. The three-time All-Pro is a mainstay in the Patriots’ secondary since the team selected him first round (No. 27 overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft. With everything McCourty has accomplished in the NFL, it’s hard to believe that he was a two-star recruit who had only one scholarship offer (from Rutgers).

7. Vic Beasley, OLB, Atlanta Falcons

Vic Beasley grips the ball and runs into the end zone.
Vic Beasley was recruited as a tight end | Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images
  • Stars: 3
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): 37

Simply put: Vic Beasley continues to prove people wrong. As a college football prospect Beasley was viewed as an above-average athlete without a true position. He had some impressive scholarship offers (Alabama and Auburn), but ultimately chose to sign with the Clemson Tigers. During his first year at Clemson (he redshirted), Beasley practiced and worked out as a tight end (the position most schools recruited him to play). The Tigers coaching staff moved him to the other side of the ball in his second collegiate season.

The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder rewarded them by developing into a two-time consensus All-American. The Falcons selected Beasley in the first round (No. 8 overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. After a rookie season (2015) that resulted in some people labeling the standout pass rusher as a bust, Beasley took the NFL by storm in 2016, earning first-team All-Pro honors after leading the league with 15.5 sacks.

8. Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons

Alex Mack smiles as he sits on the bench.
Alex Mack is thriving with the Falcons | Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
  • Stars: 2
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): N/A

The Cal Bears struck gold when they landed an unheralded two-star recruit named Alex Mack back in 2004. During his college career, Mack earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors three times; he won the Morris Trophy (best offensive lineman in the Pac-12 conference) twice; and he won the Draddy award (otherwise known as the academic Heisman) in 2008. Mack entered the NFL as a first round pick (No. 21 overall) of the Cleveland Browns back in 2009. He has been one of the best centers in the league for his entire career.

9. Nate Solder, LT, New England Patriots

Nate Solder moves side to side during warmups.
Nate Solder flew under the radar in high school | Winslow Townson/Getty Images
  • Stars: 3
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): 35

Nate Solder played his high school football in the tiny town of Buena Vista, Colorado, which may have contributed to his less-than-stellar ratings as a college football prospect. Regardless, when you factor in his freakish combination of size and athleticism, the former University of Colorado standout should have been a can’t-miss recruit. Solder was drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Patriots and has been a mainstay on their offensive line ever since.

10. Martellus Bennett, TE, New England Patriots

New England's Martellus Bennett can't help but celebrate his touchdown.
Martellus Bennett was a can’t-miss recruit coming out of high school | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
  • Stars: 5
  • National Ranking (overall): 8
  • Position Ranking (national): 1

Much like Falcons wideout Julio Jones, Martellus Bennett was big-time college football prospect with offers from practically every powerhouse program in the country. He ultimately signed with Texas A&M where his brother, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, was already enrolled. Bennett went on to have a solid, yet unspectacular career for the Aggies before being selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round (No. 61 overall) in the 2008 NFL Draft.

Bennett has flashed signs of brilliance during his nine-year NFL career, and will likely land a hefty contract as a free agent this offseason.

11. Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots

Julian Edelman stands on the sidelines and cools down.
Julian Edelman played quarterback in college | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
  • Stars: 2
  • National Ranking (overall): N/A
  • Position Ranking (national): N/A

After a stellar career as a high school quarterback, Julian Edelman was forced to attend the College of San Mateo (a junior college) for one season. Despite his immense success at the JUCO level (throwing for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 1,253 yard and 17 touchdowns), Edelman was labeled as a two-star recruit and only attracted one scholarship offer (from Kent State).

Edelman started at quarterback for three years at Kent State before moving on to the NFL where he was a seventh-round pick (No. 232 overall) in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Patriots. The Pats moved him to wide receiver, and the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder has terrorized defensive backs ever since.

Recruiting info courtesy of Rivals. Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.