Albert Breer contributed reporting to this story
In the fall of 2003, Maurice Clarett sued the NFL, challenging the rule that players must be out of high school for at least three years before becoming draft-eligible. An NFL personnel executive recalls the team he was with at the time debating whether it was possible for football players to make the jump to the pros earlier. The executive remembers the team’s general manager replying, “There’s a high school kid in Texas right now who could do it.”
That fall, the kid in Texas rushed for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns his senior season at Palestine (Texas) High School. Adrian Peterson was the same height then as he is today (6' 1") and weighed more than 200 pounds; he says he was able to squat 500 pounds, bench-press close to 400 and run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds at age 18. So when Clarett sued the NFL, Peterson was watching closely.
“I can tell you, when that situation happened with Maurice Clarett, I was elated,” Peterson says now. “I was like, ‘Yes, thank you Jesus,’ because I just knew that was the route I was going to take, and I would have taken it. Think about the type of year I had my freshman year [at Oklahoma]. Come on. Like, I’m out of there. I’m in the NFL already.”
Peterson, who rushed for 1,925 yards and 15 TDs and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy during his freshman season at Oklahoma, might have been one of the few players in history who could have been able to make that early jump—but don’t just take his word for it. With the NBA preparing for the arrival of Duke freshman Zion Williamson, and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start and win a national championship in three decades, The MMQB asked evaluators around the NFL one of the most-discussed hypotheticals in sports: Could any college football player go one-and-done into the NFL?
We polled 26 general managers, head coaches and personnel executives from 18 different NFL teams, granting them anonymity so they could answer honestly. Some who were polled gave more than one name, while two of the 26 were resolute that no player could do it. The most common answer, named by nearly one-third of those polled, was Adrian Peterson. His reaction: “I knew they knew!”
A breakdown of the results:
• Eight evaluators picked Peterson, because of the physical ability and skillset he displayed as a freshman at Oklahoma. “He’s the only one I’ve seen who could do it,” one GM said. “He was so physically gifted; he was already a man his freshman year at Oklahoma. I said, This guy can play in the NFL.”
• The second-most popular answer, named by three voters, was Charles Woodson, the ball-hawking cornerback and two-way star who led Michigan with five interceptions in his first collegiate season. Todd Gurley, who rushed for 1,385 yards and 17 TDs as a freshman at Georgia, and Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded eight sacks and five forced fumbles his first season at South Carolina, each received two votes.
• One GM picked Trevor Lawrence. “If he came out, he’d be the first pick in the draft this year,” he said. A different team’s head coach put Lawrence in the “maybe” category, noting that if you didn’t know his age, you’d think he was 22 by the way he carries himself. Another GM disagreed, saying he thought Lawrence, at age 19, is still too skinny. Only one other QB received a vote—Peyton Manning—and two evaluators said they did not think any quarterbacks would be ready after their freshman season.
• The only other current collegiate player who received a vote was Lawrence’s top target, Clemson receiver Justyn Ross, also a true freshman this past season. Ross, who is 6' 4", 205 pounds, caught six passes for 153 yards and one TD in Clemson’s national championship game win over Alabama. “I’d take him right now,” the head coach said. “You can teach him the rest of what he needs to know.” The other receivers who evaluators believed could have made the jump as freshmen: A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones.
• Nine running backs received votes, the most of any position. One personnel executive named Saquon Barkley, explaining that while scouting Ezekiel Elliott during a 2015 game between Ohio State and Penn State, he came away thinking Barkley, then a true freshman, was better than Elliott, who was a few months away from becoming the No. 4 pick in the draft. The other selections spanned all eras: Herschel Walker, Marcus Dupree, Bo Jackson, Ricky Williams, Clarett, Frank Gore and Nick Chubb. Several evaluators said running back would be the easiest position from which to make the jump after one season of college football. The transition is easier than at other positions, one GM said, because “it is what it is,” meaning that backs can rely on field vision and instincts. Another GM concurred: “Just run the ball,” he said.
• The second-most commonly named position was edge rusher, with six votes cast for five different players. One team’s personnel director picked Joey Bosa, explaining that Bosa had more than just size and physical ability; his skills were also refined as a freshman, which in his view was an important criterion that made him NFL-ready. A college scouting director named Myles Garrett, who broke Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record, with 11 in his first season at Texas A&M. The other edge rushers who received votes: Mario Williams, a freshman starter at NC State, and Alonzo Spellman, whose collegiate career-highs for sacks and TFLs came his freshman season.
• Other than quarterbacks, many head coaches and GMs thought offensive linemen would have the hardest time making an early jump because of the physical fortitude needed to hold up in the NFL trenches. Just two offensive linemen received votes: Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace, both Pro Football Hall of Famers. Similarly, only two votes were cast for interior defensive linemen: Ed Oliver, a projected top-10 draft pick who recorded a ridiculous 23 TFL as a true freshman at Houston, and Tommie Harris, the Oklahoma DT who was a Bears first-round pick.
• One GM picked Andy Katzenmoyer, the first true freshman to start at linebacker for Ohio State, in 1996. “Remember him?” the GM asked. “He was big, fast and had a great freshman year.” Katzenmoyer was Ohio’s Mr. Football as a high school senior, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year after recording 12 sacks, and a first-team All-America and winner of the Dick Butkus Award and Jack Lambert Trophy as a sophomore. His early success, according to a 2008 New York Times article, briefly tempted him to challenge the NFL’s age eligibility requirement. Once he got to the pros, as a first-round pick by the Patriots in 1999, Katzenmoyer suffered a neck injury on a helmet-to-helmet collision his rookie season that would eventually limit his NFL career to three seasons and 24 games.
• Four other linebackers received votes due to their physical readiness, in some cases as early as high school, even though they didn’t necessarily have standout seasons as true freshmen. Chris Spielman, who was limited by injuries his freshman year at Ohio State, was the first high school athlete to appear on a Wheaties box. One GM who saw Junior Seau and D.J. Williams play in high school thought they were ready then (Williams played on offense as a freshman at Miami, and Seau was academically ineligible his first year at USC). Brian Bosworth redshirted behind two senior linebackers, though Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said he was good enough to start as a true freshman; his measurables at that age, as reported in The Oklahoman, were 6' 21⁄2", 228 pounds and 4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
• One head coach named cornerback Patrick Peterson, whom he said was almost as good as a high schooler as he is today. Another head coach cast a vote for Kenny Easley, who had an opportunity to be a quarterback at Michigan but chose to play safety for UCLA, where he set a school record with 93 tackles his freshman season.
• The two “no” votes came from one head coach and one general manager. “No f---ing way,” said the head coach, saying that he didn’t believe any 19-year-olds would be physically developed enough to compete with players in their 20s and 30s. “They’re not physically ready,” the GM agreed. “There’s nothing to physically prepare them for the beating of a 20-game season.”
Peterson was quoted in a Dallas Morning News article in Feb. 2004—right after he signed a letter of intent to Oklahoma and when Clarett was temporarily declared eligible for the draft by a district judge—as saying he thought he could already play in the NFL. He hit a growth spurt his freshman year of high school, after which he says he grew into a frame that was only about 5 percent smaller than the 215 to 218 pounds he plays at today. He recalls going to a Cowboys game during his high school senior season, and feeling like he fit in when he visited the team’s locker room.
“A lot of guys in there were looking at me crazy, like, ‘Oh this high school guy; he is probably arrogant,’ but it wasn’t that,” Peterson says now. “I was looking at other guys in the NFL, and I’m like O.K., I’m bigger than this guy, faster than that guy, more athletic than this guy ... I didn’t see why I couldn’t make that jump.”
Peterson said physical ability isn’t the only factor; he also named mental toughness as being necessary to withstand the grind of 20 games (preseason and regular season), plus the pounding he takes at his position. He cited witnessing his older brother killed by a drunk driver when Peterson was 7, and his father being sent to prison for money laundering when he was 13, as reasons why he developed a mental fortitude at a younger age.
In Peterson’s view, he believes there are a few players each year—maybe an average of five, he says—who may be capable of playing in the NFL after their freshman seasons. He agrees that QB would be the toughest position to do it at, though he also thinks Lawrence would have a chance. “He is definitely a guy that I looked at and thought, He has some tremendous ability,” Peterson says. “The hardest thing for him would be to take on the terminology and the execution of what that team would be asking, but as far as throwing the ball and being agile and athletic and able to make plays with his feet, I would say he would be one of those guys that could do it.”
The 26 evaluators we talked to gave a much more conservative estimate, with each person listing, at most, a handful of guys across history who could do it—and the two who said zero.
“Every now and then, you have a kid who thinks he can,” one general manager said. “But one out of every 1,000 is physically and emotionally ready, so it’s not fair to the other 999. If a player at that age gets hurt, he can get hurt for life.”
It’s unlikely the NFL will ever lower the age requirement for eligibility, but two new leagues may soon offer players a choice to play professional football before they are eligible for the NFL. The XFL, which plans to launch in 2020, has said it will not be bound by the same eligibility rules as the NFL. And the Pacific Pro Football League, also planning to launch next year, was created by veteran agent Don Yee specifically to be a developmental league for high school graduates who are not yet NFL eligible; there would be a short summer season with practice weeks following an NFL schedule, rules mimicking NFL games and split reps to develop all players and minimize injury risk.
Pro Football Talk reported last year that the XFL commissioner Oliver Luck sent an email to agents stating that “exceptional” players could earn more than $200,000 per season. Yee projects the average annual salary and benefits for players in the Pacific Pro League will be $50,000, plus one year of community college tuition and books, as well as a potential internship or apprenticeship program that could help players pursue vocational or different professional paths until they’re old enough for the NFL.
Ross, the pro-ready Clemson receiver, told Bleacher Report that leaving for a league like the XFL would be tempting for some college athletes, even if he would not personally make that choice. “If [the XFL] is offering that kind of money, that’s hard for an 18- or 19-year-old to turn down,” he said. Says Peterson: “It depends on how much they are getting paid, you know? I can go to college on a full scholarship and have to stay in a dorm room. I think I would take that $200,000 and do it that way.
“Or they could just make it easy and start paying some of these college players.”
After the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Clarett in May 2004, Peterson knew he would have to wait three years to enter the NFL. He never thought about sitting out (“I’m too prideful for that,” he says). But he does think he would have been drafted higher if he’d been able to go pro after his freshman season—which, because of injuries, ended up being his most productive college season.
Peterson suffered a Grade 3 high ankle sprain as a sophomore that caused him to miss parts of four games; in 2006, his junior season, he broke his collarbone diving for a TD during the sixth game of the season. He returned for the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State, and says he re-broke his collarbone in the first quarter of that game, which he didn’t realize until several weeks later while he was training for the NFL draft.
“A lot of things that I had to endure those extra couple years in college that possibly wouldn’t have happened if I was able to go ahead and go to the NFL,” Peterson says. “So coming out, I had that red flag on me: ‘He was injured, and I was not gonna heal, and this, that and the other.’ I think that made me slip a little bit as well.”
In the 2005 NFL Draft—after Peterson’s freshman year—three running backs were selected in the top 5: Auburn’s Ronnie Brown to the Dolphins at 2, Cedric Benson of Texas to the Bears at 4, and Auburn’s Cadillac Williams to the Bucs at 5. Peterson amassed more rushing yards, more carries and a higher yards-per-carry than all three of those backs (Benson had the edge in rushing TDs, with 19 to Peterson’s 15).
“The one guy I used as an example was Cedric Benson,” Peterson says. “He was a senior my freshman year, and I out-performed him that year, so I was just like, If he could go play in the NFL, why couldn’t I? He went [fourth] overall, and you’ve got a guy that’s younger, with less wear and tear on his body. Where do you put me if he went [fourth]?”
Things, of course, still worked out well for Peterson. He was drafted by the Vikings No. 7 overall in 2007 and currently ranks eighth all-time in career rushing yards, last season posting his eighth 1,000-yard season at age 33. But the list of names that came out of our poll is a veritable choose-your-own-adventure: There are Pro Football Hall of Famers, players who peaked as freshmen in college and a spectrum of outcomes in between. Nothing in football is guaranteed, but that high school kid in Texas looks as good now as he did back then.
“It’s pretty cool to hear that those guys thought that highly of me,” Peterson says. “It makes me feel good that they know my talent. But I think about it in this aspect, too: I have played 12 years now, so they have been able to see a lot more since I was coming out of high school.”
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