February 14, 2013

Why doesn't NFL Draft mirror Rivals rankings?

MIKE SILVER: Clowney should challenge Draft rules

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Since 1998, there have been 12 quarterbacks taken with the first pick in the NFL Draft -- and 2013 could make it 13 as the Kansas City Chiefs reportedly are mulling taking West Virginia's Geno Smith.

But that trend hasn't been reflected in recruiting rankings as Rivals.com has named a defensive end the top prospect in four of the past five classes, including the initial class of 2014 Rivals100 ranking, with Woodbridge (Va.) High DE Da'Shawn Hand in the top spot.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said if the rankings were simply about predicting the NFL draft, Rivals.com would just tab QBs. But they are not.

"Some people will say quarterback is the most valuable spot because it goes first in the NFL Draft every year, but future projections are only part of the equation when it comes to rankings," Farrell said. "The way positions get overvalued as you move up the ladder is a part of the rationale of why a quarterback isn't our top guy every year. I would love it if there were a quarterback worth that top spot every year, but the bottom line is that so much with a quarterback is mental; and that is one of the hardest parts to determine on this level.

"I don't want it to sound like an easy way out, but when you see a big, rare athlete at the defensive end position, or an incredibly athletic offensive tackle, or a linebacker that can rush and cover in space with all the physical tools, or even a cornerback that has size and speed, those are easier to rank than high school quarterbacks.

"The competition level that a quarterback goes against in high school changes from player to player, as do his receivers, linemen, everything really, and we are against the wall in that aspect," Farrell said. "When I hear that Rivals missed on this guy or that guy, it isn't really true or fair. Some guys get into a system that is wrong for them or one that really benefits their game. Some develop late. Some have an 'it factor' that you just can't see when you put them in a camp setting."

Three of the four quarterbacks who reached the AFC and NFC Championship games were rated as three-stars by Rivals.com. Tom Brady was in college before the first class of players was evaluated in 2002.

Matt Ryan was a three-star from Philadelphia (Pa.) William Penn Charter. He ran a Wing-T offense in high school and had only four offers being ranked No. 25 at his position in the class of 2003.

Colin Kaepernick famously had only one football offer coming out of Turlock (Calif.) Pitman. He was a touted baseball player with a handful of offers to stay on the diamond but chose football. He was a three-star and the No. 34 player at his position.

Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco had six offers and chose Pittsburgh before transferring to Delaware. He was the No. 39 pro-style quarterback from Audubon (N.J.) High.

POSITIONAL INFLUENCE
The NFL Draft has not shifted the Rivals.com recruiting formula, but the evolution of the spread game and utilization of the tight end has.

Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said that the game has changed for the position and it has been reflected in the rankings.

"We try to consider what is being done on the field and what players can make a major impact," Farrell said. "Right now there is a major push for athletic tight ends that can cause problems, and kids who once were too big to be true receivers but didn't want to be blocking tight ends are getting more looks."

O.J. Howard, who just signed with Alabama, was the first five-star tight end for Rivals.com since Kyle Rudolph in the Class of 2008.

Farrell said Howard, from Autauga (Ala.) Academy, is in the same mold as some of the stars of the NFL.

"He is 6-foot-6 and pushing 240 pounds," Farrell said. "I am not sure there is much he can't do, and I am not too sure there are many players who can cover him.

"When you start looking at Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates, he is the same type of match-up nightmare. I don't like to compare kids to NFL players but you can see that he has a progression along those lines because of his physical tools."
Farrell said none of those players were misses by Rivals but instead had more opportunities after high school.

"Those are guys that almost no one wanted," he said. "It isn't like they had every school beating down the door and we thought they weren't any good. Quarterbacks are just very hard to rank. We have had quarterbacks land in the top spot, but it is rare because of how physically gifted kids are getting now. They almost have to be flawless every time out there, or else there is always a negative working against them."

Chris Burke covers the NFL Draft for Sports Illustrated. He said that the ranking on the high school level is relatively immaterial to the NFL, but teams continue to overextend themselves for QBs.

"There is this mentality in the NFL that the zone-read and pistol offenses are something that were just invented, so clearly the league is slow to react even to not-so-new trends," Burke said. "That said, teams that are successful in the NFL -- no matter the offense -- have franchise quarterbacks, so front offices feel the need to go draft them early.

"When you look at who has had success year-in and year-out, it does center around having a quarterback. It isn't like Peyton Manning is available on the free agent market every year and so you have to draft them yourself. I don't think that should mean you take them with the first pick if you have a pressing issue at other spots or have players rated higher, but that doesn't always mean it will happen that way."

Burke said that the Chiefs' main need is at quarterback and that Smith is the highest-rated player at the position. He has been evaluated by most as a mid-round pick and was a four-star player when coming out of Miramar (Fla.) High in the class of 2009.

If Kansas City doesn't trade down, it might end up taking Smith, although some might see that as a reach.

"Let's say the Chiefs do pass on Smith, someone will take him before their next pick so now they are left with a second tier of players in an already thin group," Burke said. "To go in the other direction and build from other spots is just too hard.

"What good does it do to draft the top cornerback without an impact defensive line to put pressure on the other team? Why select the best defensive lineman if you can't score enough points to win? Who will an offensive lineman protect? Who throws to the best receiver on the board? It is a cycle that has started to feed on itself."

But Farrell believes that QB cycle might be ending, and it could be validation for the Rivals.com model.

"I think if Jadeveon Clowney came out this year, he would be the top pick," Farrell said. "He is nearly a lock for that top spot next year and was one of the best players we have ever seen in high school.

"It was just before that class that we really started noticing that kids playing that end position were freaks and needed to be moved up."

Ronald Powell was the No. 1 player in the Class of 2010. He went to Florida from Moreno Valley (Calif.) Rancho Verde and is being graded out as one of the top players for the draft next season.

Clowney claimed a wire-to-wire No. 1 ranking out of Rock Hill (S.C.) South Pointe before staying home at South Carolina.

Robert Nkemdiche was the top player from the recently signed class of 2013. He signed with Ole Miss from Loganville (Ga.) Grayson, and many expect him to be a three-year starter before leaving for the NFL.

Burke said that the influx of talent at those spots may start to turn the tide at the top of the draft.

"I think more people are going to start looking for the J.J. Watt-type players and those guys will start to move up the draft board," Burke said. "Those guys that can play end in a 4-3 or outside 'backer in a 3-4 will be in high demand because of the field spreading out. ... Being versatile will be in high demand.

"Next in that line of thinking will be safeties that could do it all like when Troy Polamalu was in his prime. Those guys who can be in the box to support the run but run well enough that they can get back in coverage will help with the new-to-the-NFL offenses. I think building that way will be the alternative if you don't have a quarterback. The offenses are so far ahead of defenses in the NFL right now that it will only make sense to see front offices correct to stop it."

Of the top 15 rated players in the current NFL Draft class, seven are on the defensive line, four on the offensive line, two in the secondary, with one QB and one receiver.

To Farrell, it is evidence the Rivals.com high school rankings formula is on the right track.

"All of these big, freaky athletes are being ranked at the top because they are the top players individually," he said. "They are difference-makers and we are looking at them like that. The top of our rankings are full of guys that are special. Robert (Nkemdiche), Carl Lawson, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jaylon Smith, Laquon Treadwell, I mean all of those guys have some attributes that you don't always see.

"But if this were the NFL Draft, Max Browne would probably go first and that is OK, too."

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