When looking at the top eligible prospects for the 2014 NFL draft, it doesn’t seem all that surprising that many of the big-name star players have reached great success in their collegiate careers, considering many of them were once considered to be elite blue-chip high school recruits.
The face of this year’s draft class, South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney, was arguably the most hyped recruit of all time and the consensus No. 1 overall prospect of the 2011 recruiting class. Clowney, who was once featured on an ESPN the Magazine cover with the phrase “Future Super Bowl MVP” before he had ever even taken a snap at the college level, isn’t the only notable player in the 2014 draft class who had to deal with sky-high expectations coming out of high school.
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins, Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater and Alabama FS Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix are just a few of the top prospects in the 2014 class who were forecast to be future big-time NFL prospects before they even received their high school diplomas.
Still, there have been many instances when former unheralded and under-the-radar recruits have become just as good as their more celebrated classmates. Never was that more evident than in the 2013 NFL draft, when former overlooked 2-star recruit Eric Fisher went from being a player that no big powerhouse program wanted to being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
The 2014 class once again features a few more examples of players, who have drastically outplayed the modest expectations they were saddled with coming out of high school, and become coveted pro prospects. Here’s a look at 10 players who were once overlooked during their days as unsung high school recruits, but have still managed to become some of the top prospects for the 2014 NFL draft.
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
“A project with plenty of physical ability and potential.”
That seemed to be the general reputation that Mike Evans acquired during his senior year at Texas’ Ball High School. Evans, who was more known for his exploits on the basketball court, only played one season of football at Ball. However, his performance on the field opened up plenty of eyes, as he hauled in 25 passes for 648 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
His breakout performance as a senior, coupled with the fact that the 6’5”, 180-pound teenager possessed an impressive combination of size, speed and natural athleticism is what attracted the attention of former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman.
Though Sherman wasn’t able to stick around in College Station to see Evans grow into the player the coach thought he could become, his decision to take a chance on Evans, when no other BCS school would, has really paid off for the Aggies.
After taking a redshirt year in order to put on weight, fill out his frame and learn all the nuances of being a receiver, Evans exploded onto the scene in 2012. He caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns, and he helped QB Johnny Manziel make an unexpected run at the Heisman Trophy. It was a performance that helped establish him as one of the rising star receivers in the country.
This year, Evans has managed to take the next step in his development and he’s become a truly elite playmaker. In 10 games of action, he’s caught 57 passes for 1,262 yards, averaging a whopping 22.2 yards per reception and scored 12 touchdowns. There have many instances when he’s made opposing defensive backs look downright foolish.
The 6’5”, 225-pound redshirt sophomore has seemingly solidified his status as the top eligible receiver prospect in the 2014 draft class. Evans now looks like he’s destined to be a top-15 pick next May.
Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
Along with Texas and California, Florida is one of the big three recruiting hotbed states in the country. Since the Sunshine State is packed with so many talented prospects on a yearly basis, it can often be hard for players to stand out and attract the attention they truly deserve.
Thus was the case for Khalil Mack when he played for Westwood High School in Fort Pierce, Florida. Mack put together a sensational senior season for the district champion Tigers, racking up 140 tackles and nine sacks—a performance that helped earn him third-team All-State honors.
Unfortunately, the offers from the state’s three big-time programs: Florida State, Florida and Miami never came, and surprisingly, even the state’s second-tier programs like South Florida, Central Florida, Florida Atlantic and FIU never even took an interest in him.
Ultimately, Mack’s collegiate decision came down to Buffalo University or Liberty University. He chose the Bulls, and the rest is history.
It didn’t take long for the former unheralded 2-star recruit to make a name for himself. He quickly became one of the MAC’s most feared defenders. After totaling 18 sacks and 55 tackles for loss during his first three seasons, the 6’3”, 248-pound outside linebacker could have left Buffalo a year early and been a high pick in the 2013 NFL draft. But instead, he chose to stay for his senior year and continue to improve his draft stock, while trying to carry the Bulls to just their second ever bowl game in school history.
He’s already accomplished that first goal, as he’s been one of the hottest defensive prospects this season. He’s also helped guide Buffalo to a 7-2 record and into contention for both a MAC title and a postseason berth.
Mack now appears destined to be a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, and he’ll likely be one of the first defensive players to come off the board.
Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
Going into his senior year at Georgia’s Colquitt County High School, Cameron Erving wasn’t really on many recruiting radars. However, the big defensive tackle gained the attention of the folks at Florida State when he put together a dominant final season, piling up 98 tackles, including 48 solo stops.
The Seminoles and Clemson were the only two BCS schools to offer the massive, yet noticeably raw lineman a scholarship, so Erving didn’t have that tough of a choice to make.
Ultimately, his decision to come to Tallahassee has paid off in a big way for both him and Florida State.
After making the switch from the defensive side of the ball to left tackle before the start of the 2012 season, the incredibly gifted 6’6”, 320-pound junior has developed into one of the best blindside protectors in college football.
After an impressive first season as a starter in 2012, Erving has now caused quite a buzz in the scouting community with a tremendous performance as the leader and linchpin of a Seminoles offensive line, which is arguably the best front-five in the country.
Erving has been blessed with rare agility and natural athleticism for his size. If he decides to declare for the 2014 draft, he clearly has the potential be a top-20 pick.
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett was able to put together an impressive highlight-reel during his career at California’s Rodriguez High School. Unfortunately, though, he wasn’t able to garner much attention from any of the many FBS teams on the west coast.
That’s why Verrett ultimately ended up making the trip a few miles down the road to Santa Rosa Junior College. In his only season playing for the Bear Cubs, the once overlooked corner was able to build a reputation as one of the top defensive backs in the JUCO ranks, which eventually led to scholarship offers from the likes of TCU, Boise State, UTEP and San Jose State.
Verrett’s decision to come play for Gary Patterson, one of the best defensive minds in college football, has turned out to be a life-changing choice. During his time down in Fort Worth, the 5’10”, 180-pound senior has developed into one of top corners in college football. After putting together an All-American campaign in 2012, Verrett has once again been one of the best cover men in the nation during his final campaign.
Though scouts may have some concerns about his size, there’s no reason the highly active and instinctive ball-hawk shouldn’t be in the first-round mix for the 2014 draft.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Not only has Jordan Matthews solidified his status as one of the greatest athletes to ever put on a Vanderbilt uniform, he’s also cemented a place in SEC history after breaking the conference’s all-time receiving record against Texas A&M on Oct. 26.
Four years ago, no one could have predicted that Matthews would experience the type of remarkable success he’s been able to accomplish. Back in 2010, when he was a senior at Alabama’s Madison Academy, Matthews was just a lowly-rated 2-star prospect, whose only scholarship offer from a BCS school came courtesy of the Commodores.
After seeing the type of impact Matthews has made throughout his career, you can bet that the more prominent programs in the SEC wish they would have taken notice of the 6’3”, 206-pound senior when they had the chance.
Though it’s likely that underclassmen receivers like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, USC’s Marqise Lee and Clemson’s Sammy Watkins may overtake him on draft boards in the coming months, there’s no question that Matthews is the top senior receiver in the 2014 draft class.
Trevor Reilly, LB, Utah
Trevor Reilly put together a strong performance during his senior year at San Diego’s Valley Central High School, totaling 83 tackles, including 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. However, Reilly wasn’t able to garner much attention from power programs. Texas Tech was the only BCS school to offer the former 2-star recruit a scholarship. He made the decision to sign with the Red Raiders on the condition that the devout Mormon would be allowed to take a two-year LDS mission in Sweden.
Once he returned from his mission, however, Reilly’s heart had changed, and he ultimately switched his allegiances to Utah.
It certainly seems to have been the right move, because he’s put together a truly spectacular career during his time in Salt Lake City.
This season, with Star Lotulelei now in the NFL, the spotlight has switched over to Reilly, who admittedly had been overshadowed by his massive nose tackle teammate for the past two years. So far, the versatile 6’5”, 255-pound hybrid defensive end-linebacker has been one of the Pac-12’s most dominant defenders. In nine games of action, he’s totaled 78 tackles, including 48 solo stops, 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Though he hasn’t received nearly the same level of national attention or publicity as his more heralded conference counterparts such as UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Stanford’s Shayne Skov, Reilly is quickly ascending up draft boards and becoming one of the hottest defensive prospects in the country.
The versatile edge-rusher will likely end up being one of the most coveted 3-4 rush linebacker prospects in the 2014 draft class, and he may even move into the first-round conversation in the coming months.
Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor
If you were to predict which offensive lineman from Baylor’s 2009 recruiting class would go on to have the greatest success, at the time, you probably would have chosen Ivory Wade, who was ranked as a 4-star prospect by Rivals.com.
While Wade turned out to be a solid three-year starter for the Bears, it’s actually former 2009 classmate Cyril Richardson, who has enjoyed the much more impressive career during his time in Waco.
Once a lightly recruited 3-star prospect from Texas’ North Crowley High School, Richardson has developed into the Big 12’s best overall blocker since entering the starting lineup as a sophomore back in 2011.
The massive and supremely powerful 6’5”, 340-pound senior has proven that he can handle himself at both tackle and guard during his collegiate career. But he’s really shined in the interior, where he’s used been able to use his size and strength to overpower opposing defensive tackles.
After earning All-American accolades and receiving the honor of Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year last season, Richardson is likely going to repeat both of those feats once again this year. He even has a strong shot at ending up as one of the three finalists for the prestigious Outland Trophy.
He may be just a notch below the top two guard prospects of the 2013 class, Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack, who both ended up being top-10 picks. Still, Richardson is one of the rare guards who is worthy of a first-round grade, and he’ll likely end up hearing his name called on the first night of the 2014 draft.
Michael Sam, DE, Missouri
The headliner of Missouri’s 2009 recruiting class was a defensive lineman, but it certainly wasn’t Michael Sam. No, instead it was DT Sheldon Richardson, an All-American 5-star prospect. Sam, on the other hand, was just a 2-star rated afterthought from Hitchcock, Texas, who didn’t receive nearly the same amount of buzz or nearly the same amount of scholarship offers from big-time programs as Richardson did.
After a short stop at the College of Sequoias in California, Richardson eventually arrived in Columbia and became the disruptive defensive difference-maker he was originally projected to be. Still, the fact that Richardson became a top impact defender and ultimately a top-15 draft pick is no surprise, considering how highly rated he was coming out of high school.
What is a surprise is the breakout season that Sam is putting together in 2013. The 6’2”, 255-pound senior certainly isn’t an afterthought any longer. In fact, no other defensive lineman in college football has been as productive as he’s been up to this point in the season.
Before the season started, fellow DE Kony Ealy was the player who many thought had the best chance to follow in the footsteps of Richardson and Aldon Smith and become the Tigers’ next star defensive lineman. Instead, Ealy has taken a back seat to Sam so far this season. The ferocious edge-rusher is currently tied for second in the nation with 10 sacks, and he currently ranks third in the country with 16 tackles for loss.
Few other players have boosted their draft stock as much as Sam has this season. After totaling just 9.5 sacks in his first three seasons, No. 52 has finally started to hit his stride as a senior, and he’s really opened up the eyes of scouts with an exceptional final campaign.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
When Penn State coaches scouted and watched tape of highly touted dual-threat QB Rob Bolden, they obviously must have liked what they saw from Bolden’s teammate: WR Allen Robinson.
Though Robinson didn’t receive nearly the same amount of national attention as Bolden did during his time at Michigan’s St. Mary’s Prep, his big frame and sure hands obviously caught the attention of coaches at Penn State. That’s why the Nittany Lions were just the second BCS school, along with Minnesota, to offer a scholarship to the intriguing, yet clearly underdeveloped 3-star-rated wide out.
Coming out of high school, Robinson was seemingly viewed as a player who had the potential to develop into a solid possession wide receiver, but not necessarily an explosive playmaker in the passing game. In an evaluation by Scout.com’s Allen Trieu, he said Robinson “shows good awareness around the sidelines. He’s not a blazer though and is not a big threat after the catch. He’s a physical kid who will block.”
This year, Robinson has dispelled the notion that he can’t create big plays in the passing game. At this point in the season, he is one of just 10 players in the country with over 1,000 receiving yards, and he currently leads the Big Ten with 15 catches of over 20 yards and 11 catches of over 30 yards.
While it’s true that the 6’3”, 210-pound junior may not possess blazing down-field speed, he still has some pretty fast wheels for his size. When you couple that with the frame to create matchup nightmares, sure hands and outstanding leaping ability and awareness, it’s easy to see why scouts have been so impressed with the Nittany Lion receiver in 2013.
Though there will likely be plenty of standout underclassmen pass-catchers who declare for the 2014 draft, few will offer the combination of size, speed, athleticism, hands and natural playmaking skills that Robinson does.
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Scott Crichton had a decorated career at Washington’s Henry Foss High School, earning Washington 4A First-Team All-State, Tacoma Weekly Player of the Year and Narrows League Defensive MVP honors during his senior year. Still, the 2-star prospect wasn’t able to make much of a name for himself on the national scene and garner much interest from schools outside the Pacific Northwest, which is why he ultimately ended up at Oregon State.
Crichton has had no trouble making a name for himself on the collegiate level, though.
After following up an eye-opening breakout performance as a freshman in 2011 with a spectacular sophomore season, in which he totaled nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss, the menacing 6’3”, 265-pound junior has now once again caused plenty of havoc this season. So far, Crichton has totaled 4.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles, and he’s displayed the type of tenacity, aggressive attitude and non-stop motor that scouts love to see.
With nothing left to prove on the college level, there’s a good chance that Crichton could declare for the 2014 draft at the end of the season. If he does, he has the chance to quickly rise near the top of a defensive end class, which doesn’t feature many standout senior prospects.