Who came through as the No. 1 overall recruit over the last 14 years? The ranking of all the top prospects shows who was, and wasn’t, worth the hype?
Ranking the No. 1 overall recruits since 2002
Rashan Gary, a defensive tackle from Paramus (N.J.) Catholic High School, is the consensus top overall prospect in this year’s college football recruiting cycle. The Signing Day world anxiously awaits his choice of programs, likely between Michigan and Clemson.
Gary is the most coveted high school player in America, and his talent his undeniable. But will he wind up being the next Leonard Fournette or the next Bryce Brown in terms of fulfilling the hype? To get a better idea of the range of possibilities for Gary, based mostly on their college careers, here’s how the last 14 No. 1 guys worked out.
14. RB Bryce Brown, Tennessee (2009)
In a process that’s become a full-fledged circus over the last decade, Brown’s recruitment would have made both Barnum and Bailey blush. He had a “handler”, Brian Butler, and took until a month after Signing Day to announce he’d be attending Tennessee. Brown lasted one year in Knoxville, transferred to Kansas State, where he carried the ball just three times, and eventually declared for the 2012 NFL Draft. While he’s gotten paid by three different organizations, he’s also flamed out since showing flashes as a rookie understudy to LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia, but having fumbling issues.
13. DE Ronald Powell, Florida (2010)
While Powell had all of the physical tools of a No. 1 overall recruit, he didn’t come close to fulfilling expectations in four seasons in Gainesville. To be fair, he suffered a pair of crushing ACL tears in 2012, just when it looked as if he might be ready for liftoff. Only a year earlier, Powell notched nine tackles for loss and six sacks as a sophomore. But he wasn’t the same since the injury, delivering uneventful seasons with the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
12. RB Lorenzo Booker, Florida State (2002)
It’s not as much about who the top guy was as much as it was about the next few after him. Oregon Haloti Ngota turned in a Hall of Fame-caliber NFL career, Miami’s Devin Hester turned into the greatest kick returner in pro football history, and Vince Young became an all-timer of a college legend. Booker? On Signing Day he famously chose Florida State over Notre Dame on the podium, and he went on to be just okay. An all-around back, he was a decent runner, a decent receiver, and a bust of a pro going in the third round to Miami. He ran for 230 career yards and caught 47 passes for 362 yards in four years with three teams.
11. OT Jeff Byers, USC (2004)
It was a who’s who of bust prospect among the elite, but Adrian Peterson turned out to be okay, and Calvin Johnson turned in a pretty good pro career. Those transcendent stars aside, Miami LB Willie Williams and Florida State QB Xavier Lee were among the misfires. Byers was supposed to be a be-all-end-all offensive lineman, and ended up struggling after a great freshman year at guard and center. Injured, he missed all of his sophomore and junior years, but ended up getting a break and a sixth-year working as a starter on the interior after earning all-star honors in 2008 at guard after starting out the year hurt. He played 22 games in three years for the Carolina Panthers.
10. WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri (2012)
Green-Beckham has always possessed five-star ability, though he didn’t pay back Mizzou with five-star production. True, he exploded for 59 receptions for 883 yards and a dozen touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013, but it would be his final season as a Tiger. The subsequent year, he was booted following several run-ins with the law, and was ultimately chosen No. 40 overall by the Tennessee Titans last April. Green-Beckham still harbors an enormous upside, laying the foundation by catching 32 balls for 549 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie.
9. DT Kahlil McKenzie, Tennessee (2015)
It’s way too early to judge his career based off a true freshman season, but the early returns are promising. Call this a ranking based on potential. The 6-3, 344-pound NFL-sized defensive tackle worked his way into the rotation making 24 tackles with a sack in 13 games of action. It was slow going early on, but as he gets into better and better playing shape as he matures, and has he gets used to the workload, he’s expected to be an anchor of the line. He’s just not there yet.
8. WR Derrick Williams, Penn State (2005)
Williams had a slew of offers from around the country. In retrospect, he should have gone someplace other than Penn State, where he was never fully utilized. Williams was a multi-dimensional playmaker, scoring touchdowns as a receiver, runner, punt returner and kick returner. But he never blossomed into a dominant national force, a trend that continued in the NFL. Williams slipped to the Detroit Lions in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and finished his pro career with just nine receptions for 82 yards.
7. LB Ernie Sims, Florida State (2003)
Sims played in Tallahassee for three years, peaking as a sophomore in 2004. In 2005, his final season as a Nole, he was arrested in the summer following an altercation with his girlfriend. The incident set the tone for an underwhelming junior year in which he finished fourth on the team in tackles. Sims was taken No. 9 overall in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions, the beginning of an eight-year pro career. But after starting fast with the Lions, he tailed off and failed to live up to his first-round price tag.
6. QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame (2007)
Whether it was at Oaks Christian (Calif.) High School or in South Bend, Clausen always seemed to be somewhat overhyped, the golden boy who never quite played up to the level of expectations, even though he threw 28 touchdown passes and just four picks in a terrific junior season. The gem of Charlie Weis’ third recruiting class parlayed that great year into a second-round selection by the Carolina Panthers the following spring. However, Clausen has floundered ever since, going 1-13 as a starter and being relegated to a career as an emergency backup.
5. RB Beanie Wells, Ohio State (2006)
His NFL career never quite got off the ground with injuries becoming a problem, but he had a few decent moments in his four years including a 1,047-yard, ten touchdown 2011 season. Unfortunately, he was done too early with 2,471 career yards and 24 scores. Before going to the Arizona Cardinals, he turned in a strong three years for the Buckeyes running for 3,382 yards and 39 touchdowns highlighted by a 1,609-yard, 15-score 2007 season. As good as he was for Ohio State, Florida’s Percy Harvin, Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy, and Georgia’s Matthew Stafford turned out to be a bit stronger.
4. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss (2013)
It’ll be a long time before the final chapter is written on Nkemdiche’s career. But the early returns have been promising as he prepares for life in the pros. One of the defining figures of Hugh Freeze’s success with the Rebels, Nkemdiche brought instant attention to the program when he shunned more prominent offers. In three seasons, he succeeded in matching the hoopla by elevating into one of the nation’s premier interior linemen and even an occasional tool of the offense. Nkemdiche will be a first-round pick in April, provided he isn’t hamstrung by nagging character issues.
3. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (2011)
Clowney has vowed to erupt into an NFL game-changer in 2016, which will be his third season with the Houston Texans. He has the ability to do just that as long as he can stay healthy enough to reach his astronomical potential. Clowney has always been a man among boys, a freakishly physical and agile athlete. Still, he hasn’t dominated the game since 2012, his sophomore season with the Gamecocks, so it’s about time to begin performing like the top overall from the 2014 NFL Draft.
2. QB Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State (2008)
What if? What if Pryor chose to play for Chip Kelly at Oregon instead of Jim Tressel at Ohio State? And what if Pryor didn’t have such an affinity for tattoos? Still, despite a Buckeye career that ended in scandal, he did a lot of good things in Columbus, including winning a pair of BCS bowl games. As a pro, though, Pryor has been a colossal bust since being taken in the third round of the 2011 Supplemental Draft. After five teams in five years, he’s now trying to reinvent himself as a wide receiver with the Cleveland Browns.
1. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU (2014)
It was a terrific top ten of the 2014 recruiting class with Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, USC’s Adoree Jackson and Juju Smith-Schuster, and Alabama’s Cameron Robinson all looking like keepers to offset the misfires like Kyle Allen. Fournette is looking like the star of stars, coming up with a nice freshman season before dominating with 1,953 yards and 22 scores as a sophomore. The rest of his career will determine where he ends up on this list, but if he has the 2016 season like he’s supposed to, he could be No. 1 – and the only Heisman winner among the top recruits.