Now that National Signing Day 2017 is in the books, will Najee Harris, who was the top overall recruit in college football, be Jadeveon Clowney or Bryce Brown?
Alabama commit Najee Harris was the top-rated high school recruit for 2017, according to Scout.com. That’s both an honor and a potential burden. Sitting at No. 1 overall brings a ton of attention and expectations that can reach unrealistic levels, especially in the early stages of a career. With National Signing Day now in the rearview mirror, the onus is now on Harris to fulfill his potential and live up to those expectations in Tuscaloosa.
Harris, as well as the can’t-miss gems that preceded him, is a supremely talented athlete. But can he manage the sudden step up in competition and the intense pressure of being graded above all of his peers? History indicates that talent alone won’t be enough to parlay a blue-chip high school grade into a blue-chip career, in college and in the pros.
Note: Rankings include only players whose college careers have ended
No. 1 Overall Recruits Since 2002
13. RB Bryce Brown, Tennessee (2009)
The three-ring circus that has become Signing Day was best encapsulated by Brown’s recruiting saga and subsequent college career. The kid was managed by a “handler,” Brian Butler, who sold updates of Brown’s whereabouts and threatened to direct him to the CFL. In the end, Brown wasn’t worth the hype or the attention, transferring out of Knoxville after a year, logging three carries at Kansas State and declaring for the 2012 NFL Draft. To his credit, he did bounce around the NFL for four years with three teams, rushing for a career-high 564 yards as a rookie with the Eagles.
12. RB Lorenzo Booker, Florida State (2002)
Booker never could develop into a feature back in Tallahassee, often sharing carries with teammates. He had a pedestrian career with the Seminoles, peaking as a sophomore in 2004 with 887 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Booker was every bit as mediocre as a pro, never having an impact after being selected in the third round of the 2007 draft by the Miami Dolphins. He’ll be best known, for better or worse, as the first high school kid to announce his intentions in front of a nationally televised audience.
11. OT Seantrel Henderson, Miami (2010)
Henderson always looked the part, an imposing 6-foot-8 tackle with the feet of an accomplished basketball player. But he lacked the head, the heart and the luck to ever perform like a blue-chipper, either with the Canes or as a seventh-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2014. Henderson’s career has been marked by a steady drumbeat of self-inflicted wounds, most recently a 10-game suspension last November for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. At Miami, he was named honorable mention All-ACC as a junior and a senior.
10. QB Mark Sanchez, USC (2005)
Since graduating from Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School, Sanchez has had one great year as a Trojan and a journeyman NFL career. Hardly the resume of a one-time projected franchise quarterback. After sitting behind John David Booty, Sanchez got his chance in 2008, throwing 34 touchdown passes and leading USC to a 12-1 mark. Against the advice of Pete Carroll, Sanchez turned pro early, setting the stage for a disappointing NFL career. A survivor who’s still getting paid, he was a bust as the No. 5 overall pick of the New York Jets, and has thrown as many career picks as touchdowns.
9. OL Jeff Byers, USC (2004)
Byers was one of the most decorated recruits to ever come out of the state of Colorado. But injuries, including two hip surgeries and two back surgeries, prevented him from reaching his full potential. He did persevere to start three seasons with the Trojans, earning All-Pac-10 in each of his final two years. Byers beat the odds in the NFL as well, going from undrafted in 2010 to a part-time starter with the Carolina Panthers two years later. He retired from the game in 2014 to use his MBA and pursue a career as a financial advisor.
8. WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri (2012)
Green-Beckham possesses undeniable talent and upside, beginning with the long frame and enormous arms needed to operate above opposing defensive backs. However, he was a two-year tease for Tiger fans, catching 59 balls for 883 yard and a dozen touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013 before being exiled from the program the following spring. Green-Beckham, a 2015 second-round pick of the Tennessee Titans, has caught 68 passes for 941 yards and six scores in his first two seasons in the NFL.
7. LB Ernie Sims, Florida State (2003)
Sims had a penchant for starting fast and then failing to maintain the momentum, both as a Nole and in the NFL. He had his best season as a sophomore in 2004, but an arrest the following summer sidetracked his final season in Tallahassee. Still, Sims was the No. 9 overall pick of the Lions in 2006. He spent four seasons in Detroit, racking up more than 100 tackles in each of his first three years, before tailing off considerably in the second-half of an eight-year pro career that ended in 2014.
6. RB Beanie Wells, Ohio State (2006)
Buckeye fans will always have a soft spot for Wells, who saved some of his best moments for the Michigan game. He was a part of three Big Ten title squads, rushing for a career-best 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2007. Arizona Cardinal fans, though, are far less nostalgic. Yeah, Wells broke the team’s single-game rushing mark in 2011, but that’d be the only year he’d rush for 1,000 yards. Plagued by fumbles and injuries, the former first-round pick lasted just four years in the NFL.
5. QB Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State (2008)
It’s hard not to ponder what Pryor might have accomplished in college had he chosen to play for Chip Kelly at Oregon instead of Jim Tressel in Columbus. Or if he didn’t have such an appreciation for tattoos. Still, despite an abbreviated career that ended in scandal, he authored a solid stint as a Buckeye, accounting for 76 touchdowns and winning a pair of BCS bowl games. And while Pryor never cut it as a pro quarterback, he has reinvented himself as a wide receiver, leading the 2016 Cleveland Browns with 77 receptions for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns.
4. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU (2014)
Obviously, the book on Fournette won’t be complete for a number of years. He just put a bow on his college career, which was sort of a mixed bag of results. Clearly Fournette was a man among boys in Baton Rouge, especially during a record-setting sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns. But a high ankle sprain limited him throughout last fall, and his struggles versus Alabama in 2015 and 2016 were stigmatizing. If healthy, Fournette can still be a once-every-generation feature back, beginning with this April’s NFL Draft.
3. DE Everson Griffen, USC (2007)
Troy didn’t quite get to benefit from all that Griffen had to offer as a pass rusher. But the Minnesota Vikings have since selecting him in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Griffen was a solid performer with the Trojans, blooming into a starter and an all-star in his 2009 amateur finale. As a Viking, though, he has emerged into a force off the edge. Griffen now has 48 career sacks, while appearing in the last two Pro Bowl games. Not yet 30, he’s still improving as a defender.
2. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss (2013)
Nkemdiche was much more than a disruptive defensive lineman in Oxford. He was symbolic of what was possible at Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze. Nkemdiche was the leading man of a recruiting class that would help propel the Rebels onto the national stage. While there were some off-field issues, he was dominant on it, attracting All-America recognition as a sophomore and a junior. The first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals had an inauspicious debut in 2016, but his upside remains enormous if he matures and focuses on improvement.
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (2011)
Clowney was the prototype of a top overall recruit in 2011—enormous, cat-quick and coveted by nearly every major program in the country. He was also an immediate force for the Gamecocks, starting as a true freshman and copping All-America honors in 2012 and 2013. As a sophomore, Clowney tore through opposing lines for 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He was No. 1 again in 2014, picked first overall by the Houston Texans. After an injury-riddled start, Clowney broke through with an All-Pro campaign in 2016.