Why is there a disparity in recruiting NFL stars for defense and offense?


Recruitment never seems to happen at all anymore. Certainly not in a place like Alabama.


One January day seven years ago, around one o’clock in the morning AlabamaThe director of player personnel got a call from the team’s new defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, regarding some “decent” quarterback that a coach had told him about.

Judy Wright clicked on the HUDL link Pruitt sent and watched about 45 minutes of the movie. The more Wright watched, the more interested he became. The player was explosive, showed excellent speed in tight spaces, and seemed to have a sense as he could feel things around him. Wright hesitated to bring up the comparison, but it reminded him of “poor man’s Barry Sanders.”

The player was from an unfamiliar high school in Oklahoma whose games were sparsely crowded. Wright searched for the player on the Internet. Rated a three-star lead but only received offers from Tulsa And New Mexico State. Why aren’t there more schools on this kid? Wright wondered.

Wright had the Tide recruitment team paste up the film and upload it to Nick Saban’s laptop. When he saw it in the morning, Saban liked what he saw.

So did linebackers coach Burton Burns, who traveled to Oklahoma to visit the prospect, watch him play a high school basketball game and learn more about him.

Burns responded, “Everyone is raising their voice as a person.”

By then, Missouri had also entered the picture and scheduled him for an official visit for the last weekend of January. The prospect and his family visited Missouri and then drove 600 miles to Tuscaloosa. The problem was, Alabama was tight on scholarship space, and the only open area was saved for a valuable defensive lineman, Jeffrey Simmons.

Alabama was direct: “Hold on with us. Mizzou will be waiting for you. We probably won’t know until about 11 a.m..” On National Signing Day, Simmons elected to go to Mississippi State.

Alabama had one spot, and it went to this windfall prospect, running back Josh Jacobs.

He was the last man in the 2016 class No. 1 in the country. It didn’t matter to Jacobs that also in the signing class was No. 2 in the country, BJ Emmons. or that the tide has fallen on the No. 1 running in the country in the previous year, Damien Harris.

Josh was the same (another member of the Class of 2016) Jalen Hurts. Wright said he never asked about the depth chart. “They weren’t afraid of competition. They just believed in themselves. All they cared about was, How can I become the best version of myself?”

Wright, who left Alabama in 2019 to become an assistant linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns, said he was not at all surprised Jacobs became NFL player. But he didn’t dream that the brutal quarterback he saw that night in 2016 would one day lead the NFL in rushing.

Jacobs’ rise to superstardom is just the latest example of an interesting exploratory oddity of sorts. On this year’s NFLPA All-Pro Team, none of the 11 offensive players selected were a five-star recruit; Only one of them, a guard Zack MartinHe was even rated a four-star prospect. The average star rating for the 11 players was 2.0. It’s on the other side of the sphere where the stars really seem to matter. Of the 11 defensive players on the All-Pro team, seven were five-star recruits and two more were four-star recruits. The other two players were three-star players, with a 4.5 average.

the athlete He asked 13 people in the ratings and coaching world why they thought there was such a disparity in how the star system worked for offensive and defensive players. Individuals have been granted anonymity in order to speak freely about player evaluation and college football recruiting.

Josh Jacobs, 28, a three-star candidate in 2016, flew largely under the radar while he was recruiting. He played for Alabama and is currently with the Las Vegas Raiders. (Gary A Vasquez / USA Today)

“My theory: You can mask a good player on offense and also elevate and over-rate a player with an incredible support team,” said former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for NFL Network. “With defensive players it’s more of, ‘Did you beat the guy in front of you?'” And when it comes to D-linemen, there are only so many of those guys. It’s like with cornerbacks: There are physical requirements for those positions. You can play with a 4.6 wide receiver. You can’t play with a 4.6 cornerback.”

One of the Big Ten recruiting coordinators echoed Jeremiah’s comments. “If a defensive player does his job and wins his box or singles, he can have an immediate impact and success,” he said. On the other hand, offensive players rely heavily on the scheme — and each other. Like a dynamic wide receiver relies heavily on the QB and O-line. .

“I think you can identify the talent and the attributes that make them elite. The challenge is anticipating the fit based on offensive schemes. Kenneth Walker’s running style suited him Michigan State. “

Walker was also an intriguing evaluation study. Ranked by 247Sports as a top two star, he is the 229th best sprinter in the class of 2019. Wake Forest It was the only Power 5 display reported. In two seasons in the ACC, he was a strong running back but didn’t break out until he transferred to Michigan State, where he ran for 1,636 yards and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back. the Seattle Seahawks His 41st finish last year took him one of six finalists for NFL Rookie of the Year.

“A running back is a dime a dozen, and it’s all about fitness,” said one Big 12 recruiting coordinator, “the same reason Willie Parker worked at North Carolina State and ended up as a Super Bowl champ.”

Theories about the evaluation process are all over the map — literally.

“Most of the (online recruiting) industry is in the Southeast, which is where the big money and the benefits are. This is also where the top defensive talent is, with D-linemen and DBs. And then competitors and 247 guys can see and rate them more in the South East,” said NFL High School Relations Director Ryan Bartow, who previously spent more than a decade covering recruiting for 247Sports and Rivals. “The best locations for QBs (California and Texas) and O-lines (Midwest and Northeast) are seen less often in that space and industry.”

The average star rating for 11-man units can also be affected by the fact that the two hardest positions to rate, midfield and offensive line, will make up more than half of that starting unit. This year’s All-Pro quarterback is a former three-star recruit Patrick Mahomes.


Go deeper

Feldman: Why the offensive line is the most difficult position to evaluate for college football recruits

However, the skill functions also reflect how difficult the appraisal work is. Jacobs is the running back. Travis Kelseyformerly a two-star prospect, was rated the 85th best tight end in 2008. He reached the NFL as a third-round pick and is now a four-time All-Pro. Kyle Joczeka former zero-star prospect who played at Harvard, is the linebacker. Justin JeffersonRanked as the 308th best wide receiver in the class of 2017, he is one wide receiver; Possibility of two previous stars Davant AdamsHe is the 281st best receiver in the class of 2011, and the other.

Of the five O-lin men on this year’s All-Pro Team, only one, Martin, is ranked higher than three stars. Trent Williamsthe fourth pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, was rated by 247Sports as a three-star prospect and the 22nd-best guard in the class of 2006. Joel Petonioa two-star prospect in the class of 2009 as the 136th offensive tackle prospect in the country, made the All-Pro team for the second consecutive season. Lynn Johnsonanother fourth overall pick, was a zero-star high school prospect, as was the center Jason KelseyNow a five-time first team All-Pro.

“The O-line (recruiting ratings) is the best crapshoot,” he said University of California Coach Chip Kelly, who spent four seasons coaching in the NFL and had some of the best offensive linemen in the NFL in Philadelphia. Football’s best center, Jason Kelsey, was a former linebacker. Len Johnson was a quarterback in high school. Jason Peters It was a tough end to college. The offensive line is kind of like the last stop. This is the only situation where you really have to bring down or push people into it. When it comes to quarterbacks and the O line, they really are in their own little world.”

The history of All-Pro defensive line ratings is the polar opposite. There are five defensive linemen on the 2022 All-Pro Team. Four five-star recruits: Miles GarrettAnd Chris JonesAnd Dexter Lawrence And Nick Bosa. Aaron Donalda three-star prospect, was the exception.

“Rating D-line players is probably the easiest thing,” said an NFL coordinator who coached at the Power 5 level recently. “These are your biggest nerds, the best place to put them near the ball and just tell them to ruin the play.”

“When you’re doing defense, you have to be more athletic than offense, maybe other than running back because defense is so reactive,” said an NFL defensive line coach.

The NFL veteran scout who began his career as a college coach agreed.

“Your best athletes end up on defense,” he said. “It’s always been like, if you’re not good enough on the D-line, you’re going to end up on the offensive line. With offense, it’s more mental and how they think and act.”

Schemes often vary from high school to college and to the NFL, but the nature of lining up from another player and trying to hit him is still the core of what makes a player stand out at every level, said the SEC’s recruiting coordinator.

“D-lin guys have to approach each game individually, and what they’re being asked to do in college isn’t fundamentally different from the offensive line, so you’re watching them do what they’re really going to be asked to do,” he said. “So you can see their twitch, their ability to lean off the edge, but they have to do it constantly through the O-line.”

Another position that best tracks from high school ratings to the best performing players in the NFL is the defensive back. Three of the four defensemen on the All-Pro team – Derwin James, Patrick Sirtain, and Minka Fitzpatrick – They were all five stars. Darius slaughteredformerly a three-star prospect, was the other.

“Rules players have to play on the ball and compete with wide receivers, where the receiver can simply be open and catch the ball. If a football player is in a man, you see he has to be able to sink his hips, track the ball, and have hands.” Amina to end the play, and they are isolated and forced to make tough plays,” said the SEC’s hiring coordinator.

Wright, now back in the SEC as South CarolinaThe team coach said it was great to look back at the world rankings and see which players made it big and which didn’t.

“You see, it may turn out that some of them are not as tough as you thought,” he said. “You can’t measure their heart, their determination and that football mentality. Those are things you can’t measure on the combine and now a lot of them are being trained how to fake it on the combination.”

(Illustration: Eamon Dalton / the athlete; Images: Kevin Sabitos, Michael Owens, Chris Unger/Getty)

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