Earlier this month, the life goals of 256 men were realized when they were selected in the NFL Draft. For some, such as Jadeveon Clowney, getting drafted had always been a forgone conclusion, simply the next step in their illustrious careers. But many, such as Khalil Mack, rose from humble beginnings to earn their selection.
Given the choice, almost every player would choose Clowney's path -- the defensive end was the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2011 class, a rock star from the first day he set foot on South Carolina's campus. Mack, meanwhile, was a two-star in the 2009 class whose only offers were from Buffalo and Liberty.
Yet on May 8, they were selected within half an hour of one another -- Clowney went No. 1 overall to the Texans while the Raiders scooped up Mack with the No. 5 pick. Despite their vastly different Rivals rankings, the two start their NFL careers in similar situations.
Needless to say, each year there are talented high school prospects who slip through the cracks, just as there are big-name players who never quite put it all together. But for the most part, getting a higher ranking from Rivals gives a player a stronger shot at an NFL career. Here's the breakdown from the 2014 draft:
Of the 64 players selected in the first two rounds, a whopping 35 (56.4 percent) were ranked as either four or five-star prospects coming out of high school. Just 10 two-star or unranked players (15.6 percent) were picked in those rounds. Of the top 15 picks, 60 percent were four- or five-stars.
Over the past 10 seasons, Rivals has given a five-star ranking to an average of 29.8 players per year. With 14 such players being selected in 2014, earning five-star status gave those players nearly a 50 percent chance of eventually getting drafted.
This isn't to say that a low ranking coming out of high school means the end of a player's NFL dreams. A total of 73 players who ranked as two-stars or lower were picked in the 2014 draft. But they made up just 28.5 percent of the draft class, as opposed to 92 (35.9 percent) former four and five-star players, and there are far, far more lower ranked players in each years' recruiting class.
There are several factors that can cause a lower-ranked player's profile to rise dramatically between high school and the draft.
Players simply get better in college
This seems like a no-brainer, but it's the simple truth. Take Mack. He was more interested in basketball in high school until suffering a torn patella his sophomore year. He didn't break out on the football field until he was a senior. Mack had 140 tackles as a senior, but few teams saw his game film and only two offers materialized.
Players' bodies are drastically reshaped in college
Mack weighed 220 pounds during his senior season at Westwood HS in Fort Pierce, Fla. He's now 251 pounds, and most of the new weight is muscle. While weight gain in college isn't exactly unexpected, that dramatic of a change altered Mack's professional career.
Here are a few other players who saw their NFL futures affected by great college weight gains:
This list could go on and on. Maybe the best example is Eric Fisher, the offensive tackle taken No. 1 overall by the Chiefs in the 2013 draft. A two-star prospect, Fisher weighed 240 pounds in high school before beefing up to 305 while at Central Michigan. That gain, much of which was muscle, changed Fisher's career in a way no one predicted while he was in high school.
Georgia's Aaron Murray and LSU's Zach Mettenberger were both four-star prospects who fell in the draft because of ACL injuries sustained during their senior seasons. Both likely would have been selected higher had they managed to stay healthy. Injuries are nearly impossible to predict, but they can drastically alter a player's fate on draft day.
Some players are better suited for the college game
AJ McCarron was a four-star prospect in the 2009 class, and nothing about his Alabama career suggests that rating was inaccurate. He won two national titles and became the Crimson Tide's all-time leader in passing yards. But he wasn't picked until late in the fifth round by the Bengals because teams question whether his arm strength is NFL-caliber. Dozens of players each year submit tremendous college careers, but their skills don't translate well to the next level.
The devaluing of running backs
Of the combined 52 five-star players in the 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes, 10 were running backs. But the NFL simply doesn't value the position like it used to -- this was the second straight draft in which no backs were picked in the first round. Former five-stars such as Lache Seastrunk (No. 186 overall pick), De'Anthony Thomas (No. 124) and James Wilder Jr. (undrafted) all fell in the draft as more teams use multiple running backs or gamble that they can find productive ones late in the draft.
Trouble in college
Unfortunately, there are players every year that submarine their draft stock by making poor decisions in college. The two poster boys for this group in this year's draft are former five-stars Colt Lyerla and Isaiah Crowell, both of whom went undrafted. Lyerla was suspended and ended up quitting Oregon's team during the 2013 season, and Crowell was arrested and dismissed from Georgia before the 2012 season, when he transferred to Alabama State.
Needless to say, there are a ton of factors that affect the status of a player between high school and the NFL draft. And while there are no guarantees, one thing is certain: the more stars a player has attached to his name coming out of high school, the better his chances are of hearing his name called on draft weekend.