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.

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?

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.