We had some incredible college football talents finish second in the ESPN 300, and some who would claim the number one spot in history.
We also had a few underdogs who, if they were ranked now, would not be in the top 10 of their class.
We have been evaluating college football recruits since 2006, so we ranked 15 candidates with some college football experience based on their college careers.
1. QB Trevor Lawrence
Class of 2018.
In the past 15 years, probably no freshman quarterback has made the transition from high school to college easier than Lawrence, who won a national championship in his first season with the Tigers. The same argument can be made if one were to re-evaluate the top prospects of the last 15 classes, Lawrence would be No. 1. He could not have been better announced physically and will undoubtedly be the best player selected in this year’s NFL Draft.
2. WR Julio Jones
Alabama Crimson Tide
Class of 2008.
When Jones arrived in Tuscaloosa, there were few wide receivers in college football who even remotely resembled his physicality. Sure, it took Jones a while to develop consistent ball and arm skills, but he was clearly inconsistent from day one. He finished a spectacular junior season with 78 catches for 173 yards and seven touchdowns, making him the sixth pick in the 2011 draft.
Julio Jones, who was picked second in 2008, has become one of the best receivers in the NFL over the past decade. Chris Livingston/Icon Sports Wire
3. RP Percy Harvin
, class of 2006.
Harvin may be the best offensive weapon of the last 15 years. The ultimate all-around player was a nightmare to keep in check at the college level. He could play at all positions in the attack and dominated them. He finished his career at Florida with 32 touchdowns and an impressive average of 11.6 yards per touchdown. His production was hampered by injuries throughout his career, but he still managed to be picked 22nd overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.
4. Pepper CB Jabrill
Class of 2014
Peppers should have been a major player from the moment he set foot on the Ann Arbor campus, but it was a slow process before he became the player he should have been. He saved his best year for last as a defensive lineman, nickel linebacker, return man and part-timer on his way to becoming a 2016 Consensus All-American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Heisman finalist. The Cleveland Browns selected him 25th overall in 2017.
5. Bachelor of Laws Manti Te’o
Notre Dame Fighting Irishman
Class of 2009.
Theo was, for the most part, as advertised. He was a four-year starter at Notre Dame, lived up to the hype and led his team to the 2012 BCS National Game as a senior. He left college as one of the most decorated players after his 2012 campaign. Te’o was an average linebacker, but lacked the range and pass-rush skills that would have made him a versatile hot commodity for an NFL franchise, leading to him being taken in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers. He played for the Chicago Bears during the 2020 season.
Manti Teo came to South Bend as the No. 2 player in the Class of 2009 and left Notre Dame as one of the best defensive backs in program history. AP Photo/Joe Raymond
6. THE Carl Lawson
Class of 2013.
In the initial evaluation process, Lawson was somewhat underestimated at the time. If you click on his film, he stands out for his explosiveness and quickly rises in the rankings. At Auburn, he was one of the top defenders in the 2013 class and earned All-Conference and All-American honors for the Tigers. He slipped to the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
7. OT Greg Little
Ole Miss Rebels
Class of 2016.
Offensive tackle is one of those top positions, so it’s no surprise that Little, a tall and agile big man, finished second five years ago. He has many of the coveted traits of an elite left tackle, was the consensus top player at his position, and did not disappoint with his play at Ole Miss. As an assistant for the Rebels, he was a solid starter and established himself as one of the best players in college football during his time in prison.
8. OT Isaiah Wilson
Class of 2017.
The New York prospect had never occupied one of the top two spots in the ESPN 300 before Wilson. With his tremendous physical presence, strength and good feet, Wilson was poised to become a top college offensive force. A little rough from his high school days, he was redshirted early, but over the next two seasons he was one of the best tackles in the country. The first-round pick in the NFL draft has had a rough start to his career, but in his short time in Athens he has shown five-star level performances.
9. THE Jackson Jeffcoat
Class of 2010.
One aspect of the 2010 cycle that immediately stood out was that no candidate emerged as a clear No. 1, although Jeffcoat was a consistent presence in the mix. The son of former NFL linebacker and defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat has combined physicality with technique and football knowledge to prove he has what it takes to become a good college quarterback. His career may not live up to his high rank, but make no mistake about it: He continued to be a very productive player for the Longhorns and proved to be one of the best in his class.
10. DT Terry Beckner Jr.
Class of 2015.
Again, no number one came out, but Beckner was consistently near the top of the leaderboard. In college, Beckner was not only powerful and explosive, but also very agile for his 2, 205 pounds. He showed that he was capable of being a destructive force in the trenches. Knee injuries plagued his career early on, but when healthy, Beckner proved he could be the handful he wanted to be in the 2015 class.
11. DT Anthony Johnson
Class of 2011.
Johnson, who ended up behind Jadeveon Clowney in the 2011 class, was also a defensive line full of promise only on the inside. Johnson was an explosive big man who made about 70 sacks in high school and had the tools to wreak havoc. He was very productive at LSU, earning second-team All-SEC honors as a junior, but dropped out early and ultimately was never as influential as the defender he supported.
12. RB Jonathan Gray
Class of 2012.
Gray was super-talented, but also super-expansive. By the time he arrived in Austin, he had already gone through a lot of runs – 1,209 attempted runs in high school – that affected his health, and Gray could never quite replicate that success. He played four years at Texas, and although he totaled 2,610 rushing yards, he was never the star people thought he would be. He was very affected during the match by his injury.
13. THE Nolan Smith
Class of 2019.
The 2019 class was led by two exciting Oregon edge defenders in Kayvon Thibodeau and Smith, who captured the ESPN 300 title. The Georgia pioneer has plenty of tools pointing to a bright future and showed some impressive data during camp testing, including a 4.51 40-yard dash and a nearly 40-inch vertical. Smith’s time at Georgia wasn’t over, but he lacked consistency and didn’t live up to the high expectations of a top 2 finish. He’s a player to keep an eye on as a breakthrough candidate in 2021.
14. ILB Chris Galippo
Class of 2007
Galippo, the best defensive prospect in the class of 2008, showed everything he needed to become a versatile and effective college linebacker. A productive and physical high school player with a nice combination of size, intelligence and range, expectations were high for a USC signee. He has had moments when he seemed to be able to live up to those expectations, like when he was named a Butkus Award semi-finalist in 2009, but overall his career has been plagued by back problems and inconsistency.
15. THE Desmond Evans
North Carolina Tar Heels
Class of 2020.
The five-star 2020 slot is at the bottom, but only because his rookie campaign had a slow start and because he has the least amount of work. The tall, agile defender continued to develop during the 2020 season, putting in stunning performances that catapulted him into second place in his class. If we were to repeat this exercise in five years’ time, there are already signs that Evans would be much higher in the rankings.
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