High School to NFL: Athleticism Matters

On Trent Thompson and undrafted five-stars

The 2018 NFL Draft saw former Georgia defensive lineman Trent Thompson become the first 247Sports Composite number one overall prospect to go unselected. The Composite pulls from the recruiting network rankings to create an industry average and retroactively dates back to 2002. Florida's Ronald Powell, the top prospect in the 2010 cycle, was taken with the 169th pick (fifth round) of the 2014 draft and was the previous low man among Composite number ones. 

At first glance most will cite Thompson's fall as a direct result of off-field issues. Prior to the 2017 season he had an encounter with campus police and was hospitalized with what Georgia called an adverse reaction to medication. Thompson withdrew from classes while rehabbing from shoulder surgery during the spring semester and returned in time for the season. Without knowing all the details it is unfair to Thompson to adjudicate the incident, but inspection of his drop reveals additional contributing factors. 

Thompson tested as an average athlete in the pre-draft process. His SPARQ score registered in the 44.2 percentile among NFL defensive linemen (slightly below average). While his testing results are not poor enough to be considered a red flag alone, they did not make up for any other perceived weaknesses, unlike many drafted prospects with off-field or even medical questions. 

In hindsight there were some signs that Thompson was not an elite athlete as a high school prospect. Prior to his junior season, he posted a 5.76 second 40-yard dash, 4.84 second short shuttle and 23.7 inch vertical jump at a Nike Football Training Camp in Atlanta. Poor testing numbers from a sixteen-year-old are certainly not a death knell. However, these are (to my knowledge) his only verified results as a high school prospect. Verified athleticism should be a critical factor for a five-star, let alone a number one overall prospect and Thompson's was murky at best. 

Thompson measured at 6'2.5", 313 pounds as a high school prospect and checked in at 6'2.5", 288 pounds at the NFL Combine. Recent history shows that defensive tackles who cut weight between high school and the pre-draft process tend to not fare well both in the draft and on the field. Just eight of the forty-five of the defensive tackles taken in the first three rounds of the five drafts from 2013 to 2017 cut weight. Two are no longer in the NFL. 

While the weight loss may have marginally helped Thompson's testing numbers, it did him no favors on the field and as a prospect. At 6'2.5", 288 pounds with average quickness and below average pass rush skills (ranked 196th best pass rushing interior defensive lineman by Pro Football Focus in 2017), he is suddenly considered a tweener defensive lineman who is a master of none. 

Thompson saw an on-field regression in both production and overall quality of play from his sophomore to junior seasons. In 2017, he ranked as the 102nd best interior defensive lineman in college football according to Pro Football Focus, down from 41st in 2016. 

It is obvious that Thompson should have returned for his senior season at Georgia. Even then it is far from likely that he would have become a top draft pick, given his average athleticism and off-field/medical questions. A former number one prospect needing to return for a senior season is uncommon in itself. Just two of thirteen former number ones- Matt Barkley and Eugene Monroe- exhausted their eligibility and both would have been top picks had they declared early. Barkley made a clear mistake by returning. Monroe had injuries early in his career but was first team All-ACC as a junior and did not surrender a sack. 

Simply put, Thompson had a lower margin for error than many other top prospects due to his athletic profile. 

Thompson was one of eighteen former five-star prospects to go undrafted. Quin Blanding, Tony Brown, Roc Thomas and Matthew Thomas are the only ones to test as top athletes as high school prospects. All but Matthew Thomas failed to appreciably progress while in college. 

Kevin Toliver II and Tarvarus McFadden were ranked as the 2nd and 3rd cornerback prospects respectively in the 2015 cycle and went undrafted. Miami Dolphins first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, who ranked as the fifth corner in the 2015 cycle, tested significantly better than both, most notably running one tenth faster in the 40-yard dash and several tenths faster in the short shuttle. The top-ranked corner in the 2015 cycle was Iman Marshall, who opted to return to USC for his senior season. Marshall scratched his testing numbers at The Opening in 2014, but has a verified 4.68 40-yard dash as a high school prospect. All four five-stars played at national-level high school programs yet Fitzpatrick was the only one to star on both sides of the ball in addition to testing as the best athlete. 

Other undrafted five-stars who did not test as a top athlete as high school prospects along with their pre-draft SPARQ percentile in parenthesis:

  • WR Robert Foster- 4.83 second 40-yard dash, 4.34 second short shuttle, 29.1 inch vertical (30.3 draft SPARQ)
  • LB Clifton Garrett- 4.79 second 40-yard dash, 4.78 second short shuttle, 33 inch vertical (no SPARQ-out of football)
  • WR/S Ermon Lane- 4.68 second 40-yard dash, 4.60 second short shuttle (11.1 draft SPARQ)
  • OL Maea Teuhema- 5.61 second 40-yard dash, 5.41 second short shuttle, at 330+ pounds (7.9 draft SPARQ)
  • LB Tre' Williams- 4.93 second 40-yard dash, 4.78 second short shuttle, 29.3 inch vertical (35.3 draft SPARQ)

Verified athleticism is often viewed as a prospect's "upside." This is only partially true. High-end athleticism raises both the ceiling and floor of a prospect. It is because of the clear on-field crossover that top athletes receive much more benefit of the doubt with NFL front offices increasing the margin for error in other areas. There are too many good football players who are also elite athletes to take outliers.

Positional Trends

Here are a few positional trends from the 2018 draft to chew on.

  • The ten offensive tackles that were taken in the first three rounds averaged 6'5.8", 279 pounds as high school prospects, including a 43-pound outlier in Orlando Brown. Geron Christian was the only other one over 300 pounds (305).
  • Mike McGlinchey is the only of the ten offensive tackles taken in the first three rounds to be ranked as a four-star or higher by the 247Sports Composite. He was ranked as the 172nd overall prospect in the 2013 cycle.
  • The ten interior offensive linemen taken in the first three rounds averaged 6'3.5", 285 pounds as high school prospects. Five of the ten were ranked as offensive tackles while Billy Price was ranked as a defensive tackle. 
  • The nine off-ball linebackers taken in the first three rounds averaged 6'2.4", 205.3 pounds as high school prospects. Rashaan Evans was the heaviest at 217 pounds. 
  • The six quarterbacks taken in the first three rounds averaged 3,420 total yards, 44.6 total touchdowns and 5.6 interceptions as seniors in high school. 
  • Jared Goff is the only first-round quarterback taken in the last four drafts to throw for more than 10 interceptions as a senior in high school. 
  • 36 quarterbacks have been selected in the first three rounds of the last seven NFL Drafts. Just one is from the SEC- Johnny Manziel.

SPARQ data via Three Sigma Athlete.

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