Why high-school recruiting gurus are better than NFL scouts at finding gridiron talent.

How popular culture gets popular.
Nov. 26 2008 6:52 PM

Gazing Into the Crystal Football

Why high-school recruiting gurus are better than NFL scouts at finding gridiron talent.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Who's the best player in high-school football? Bobby Burton, the publisher of Rivals.com, a forensic report on the best high-school players in the country, says he's got it narrowed to three candidates. Californian Matt Barkley, Rivals' current No. 1 player and a future USC Trojan, is your standard-issue star quarterback: good size, good mobility, great arm strength, blond hair, million-dollar smile. Rueben Randle, a Louisiana wide receiver prospect, is such a great athlete that he's led his team to the top of the state rankings while playing out of position at quarterback. The final contender: LSU-bound quarterback Russell Shepard. The day he arrives on campus, Burton says, he'll be the best running quarterback in college.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

Burton and his small staff narrowed in on these three fellows after scrutinizing thousands of players in all 50 states. This is an incredible undertaking. Imagine having to determine the country's three best high-school cellists or the top three trig students. Stop a moment and consider the differences in high-school facilities in your own district, much less districts around the nation. How do you compare a guy who plays six-man football in Texas with someone who attends a 4,000-student mega-school in California or assess whether a player who runs the wing-T offense is better than a kid who plays in the spread?

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Despite these obstacles, Rivals.com and its competitors—Scout.com, ESPN's Scouts Inc., Tom Lemming of CBS College Sports—are eerily good at sussing out which high-school athletes will excel in college. Since Burton started anointing the No. 1 high-school football player in the country in 1994, he's botched the pick only once—and Ronald Curry, a schoolboy basketball and football legend who never amounted to much as a college athlete, did eventually become a passable NFL receiver. (OK, maybe Burton's botched it twice: The jury's still out on Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen.) Every other player Burton has touted—in order, that's Peyton Manning, Kevin Faulk, Tim Couch, Andre Carter, Curry, Chris Simms, D.J. Williams, Kevin Jones, Vince Young, Ernie Sims, Adrian Peterson, Derrick Williams, Percy Harvin, Clausen, and Terrelle Pryor—developed into one of the nation's very best college players. All of them except the last four, who are still plying their trade in the NCAA, have also enjoyed substantive NFL careers.

Burton's feat is more impressive when you compare his talent evaluation with those of the NFL pros. NFL teams have multimillion-dollar budgets; years of game tape to scrutinize; and a much smaller, much more thoroughly vetted pool of players to sift through. And yet, in the last 15 years, pro football franchises have repeatedly fumbled the top selection in the NFL Draft, spending millions on duds like Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, Ki-Jana Carter, Courtney Brown, David Carr, and Alex Smith. (I'll leave it up to you to decide whether Michael Vick should be considered a bust.)

So what's Rivals' secret to divining football stardom? Burton claims it's easy to spot high-school talent if you're looking for it; he says it took him all of a couple of seconds to know that star running back Adrian Peterson, now with the Minnesota Vikings, would be his top guy—even in high school, he "looked like Adrian Peterson." The talents of Percy Harvin, now starring at receiver for the University of Florida, were similarly apparent to the naked eye; as a junior, Harvin piled up 476 all-purpose yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions in the Virginia state championship game. Though Burton has a strong track record, he doesn't have a special gift for finding exemplary players; Scout.com and others were similarly agog over Peterson and Harvin. The question, then, isn't why Rivals is so good but why high-school scouts are better in general.