Adrian Peterson doesn't think he needed college football to reach the NFL. Two years ago, the then-Minnesota Vikings running back said, "Not to sound cocky or anything, or confident, but yeah, I do feel like I could have came out my senior year of high school and played in the NFL."
"Not a chance," says Adam Kurkjian, Boston Herald reporter and Athlon Sports NFL Draft analyst.
"I really do," Peterson claimed. "And I'll just say this, people were like 'well, physically you just weren't ready.' I came in my freshman year and I was up for the Heisman, had a pretty good season, was the leading rusher."
True, but Kurkjian still disagrees, strongly.
"Adrian Peterson was the most physically 'ready' kid I've seen come into the college game in the last 15 years and even he would not have been able to do it. There's not a single position on the field . . . I think even the best high school prospects I've ever seen could transition from high school to the NFL in an impactful way. Not even kicker."
Jim Weber, former ESPN the Magazine reporter and Lost Lettermen founder, also ponders Peterson's NFL impact as a teenage rookie, along with two defensive ends who starred as true freshmen: Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett. Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports, calls Garrett a "monster" and "machine."
Still, they weren't "dominant to the point . . . they could have actually seen the field in the NFL," Weber clarified.
Had Peterson, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound top-overall recruit in 2004, departed Palestine, Texas for the NFL, he would've entered a draft class that featured three first-round running backs (Steven Jackson, Chris Perry and Kevin Jones) among the 13 total running backs drafted. And that doesn't include non-draft-eligible college players, a group that could have included Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams, all top-10 picks in the 2005 draft.
What about Leonard Fournette? The 6-foot, 240-pounder came out of high school in 2014. If eligible for the draft immediately, Fournette would have joined a running back class viciously chastised before and since the draft. Bishop Sankey was the first ball-carrier chosen that year (No. 54 overall) and of the 20 running backs selected in the entire draft, only fourth-rounder Devonta Freeman has made the Pro Bowl. Chosen 10 spots after Freeman was Andre Williams, who had more rushing yards in 2013 than Peterson or Fournette in any of their six combined seasons.
"Andre Williams rushed for a bajillion yards in college," Wiltfong says. "He’s as big a specimen as you’ll ever see and he went in the fourth round. [Fournette] would have to be able to play special teams. He’d have to bring value in a different area. He’d have to physically be able to fit the mold. It’d be hard."
Hard, but "not impossible" for a high school-to-NFL player to make an immediate impact, says Allen Trieu, midwest football recruiting manager for Scout, though he does say it's "very, very unlikely."
"I look at the number of guys who truly made an impact going straight from high school to the NBA and it was not that many," Trieu said. "And in football, there is so much more of a physical development process and so much more to learn in terms of scheme that I think the chances . . . are extremely slim."
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Joe Butler, former scout for NFL agents and founder of Metro Index scouting service, agrees, "I don’t know if the young guys are ready. The physicality of the game would be overwhelming for a 17-18-year-old."
"I think the NFL would have a college draft and a high school draft," Butler says, if high schoolers were eligible. "They’d have to hire a new set of scouts to look at the high school players and establish minor-league format for players coming out of high school and let them play before moving them in."
The NFL has no incentive to create a minor-league system. Why reinvent the wheel when the well-oiled and well-funded college football machine grooms their future players' talent and marketing value? Players get at least three years of film study, strength training and in college.
"There’s a reason college strength coaches get paid well," says Wiltfong. "They’re developing athletes, who are ultimately developing into professionals. College football prepares people for their profession the same way college prepares the average student. Football goes beyond your physical traits."
"[Players] not only have to adapt to the game, you have to adapt to the coaching," adds Butler, a veteran scout of 41 years. "It’s different. The playbook in pro football is gigantic. It’s hard for young people and they need to adapt to that style. That transition is too difficult for football."
And, despite more training, camps and resources for prep players, the hypothetical gap isn't getting smaller. For certain positions, it's a transition that borders on impossibility.
"Our number one high school prospect last year was Najee Harris," says Trieu of Alabama's incoming running back. "You look at a kid who is 225 pounds, ready to play major college ball at Alabama right away and at a position where it's easier to make the transition than our No. 2 guy Foster Sarell, an offensive tackle. Even still, it is not certain Najee will start at Alabama."
Wiltfong expressed similar doubt, lauding high school talent but cautioning that even elite prep prospects like uncommitted top-ranked strongside defensive end Xavier Thomas (above) simply aren't ready.
"If you’re in the trenches, you’d have to be a guy who can get after the quarterback or a guy that stop the run," Wilfong says emphatically. "Xavier Thomas needs to go to college develop. I’ve seen Xavier Thomas in person. I’ve seen other guys in person. If you saw them in person, you wouldn’t even think to disagree."
Don't even ask Wiltfong to entertain the idea quarterbacks skipping college.
"No chance a quarterback could ever. You can never gamble on quarterbacks. They need to play college to see what kind of decision-maker they are. Sam Darnold could be the top pick in next year’s draft. He didn’t even start as a true freshman."
Wiltfong also points to Philip Rivers, one quarterback off the top of his head who had a great true freshman season. Rivers passed for 3,054 yards and 25 touchdowns at North Carolina State in 2000, but he still threw 10 interceptions and had a 53.7-percent completion clip. The future fourth-overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft bumped it to 65.2 percent as a sophomore and 72 as a senior.
"I don’t see one player in this year’s class that could skip college football," Wiltfong says of 247Sports' 2018 class headlined by Thomas, future Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and uncommitted cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. "I’m not saying I see one every year, but there’s no specimen yet . . . I don’t think if Lawrence could go pro, he would. Patrick Surtain is eventually going to be a high draft pick but he’s got a lot to learn, I would assume."
Despite minor disagreements on the impact of high school players in the NFL, there is unanimous agreement that it's too risky for NFL teams to gamble on teenagers. It's not worth an early draft pick, and it's not worth earmarking a roster spot for an unknown number of years.
But could it work?
"Nope," says Kurkjian, again.