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Evaluations

Recruiting Busts in the Draft

by Mark Lindquist
Updated On: July 16, 2020, 5:17 pm ET

In this exercise, we’re taking a look at the recruiting rankings of this spring’s draft class and searching for the post-hype sleepers who never quite lived up to their ranking in college for one reason or another, be it a pure lack of production, off-field missteps or injury -- and assessing their viability for the NFL. The classes represented -- we utilized the top-100 prospects in each class -- are from 2015-17. Rankings provided courtesy of Rivals. 


2015

Arkansas TE CJ O’Grady

Rivals rank: No. 90

O’Grady initially committed to the Razorbacks in December of 2014 before signing with the home state school in February of 2015 as Rivals’ No. 2 prospect in the state. We’re talking over five years ago at this point and for O’Grady, it’s been a very turbulent ride. It began with a DWI arrest which led to a freshman redshirt and ended with O’Grady exiting from the program in November as Arkansas was flaming out on the field. It would be one thing if O’Grady left with a massive statistical record, but that wasn’t the case. O’Grady was unable to post 1,000 yards receiving for his career in Fayetteville and never a topped 30-400-6 receiving line. That came in 2018, which led to the possibility of a show-out 2019, but no such luck. And granted, Arkansas averaged just over 21 points a game last season, 110th in the FBS. It’s not like he was getting any help, at all.

After all that, O’Grady (who will turn 24 on Sept. 20) put in forgettable athletic testing at the combine -- a 4.81-second 40-yard dash, just barely faster than Tristan Wirfs’ 4.85, with a SPARQ percentile in the 39th percentile of NFL tight ends -- dampening any real steam he might have had in this process.

2016

Michigan QB Shea Patterson

Rivals rank: No. 3

You might have forgotten that Shea Patterson was once considered awesome, but he really was. Only Rashan Gary and Dexter Lawrence ranked ahead of him on Rivals. Patterson signed with Ole Miss and played in a late three-game cameo as a true freshman, which set the stage for Patterson to blossom with the Rebs. In 2018 Super Shea looked to be off to the races, with four games over 325 passing yards before everything ground to a halt due to a knee injury. Oh, and Ole Miss was hit with massive sanctions, fired its head coach and became one of the most-difficult rebuilds in the Power Five.

Patterson didn’t stick around to see the wreckage, transferring to Michigan and gaining instant eligibility. The rest, history. Patterson and the Wolverines faceplanted and failed to ever come up even knee-high to foe Ohio State. 

Patterson does have a faint, faint heartbeat for a pro future, but certainly not as a starter. Your third-stringer? Yeah, maybe. Super Shea ain’t coming back, though.


Illinois EDGE Oluwole Betiku Jr. 

Rivals rank: 48

Betiku burst into the collegiate ranks with USC draped in hype out of the Gardena, California, prep ranks. his career with the Trojans went absolutely nowhere. He would see just 100 snaps before opting for a graduate transfer to Illinois, where Betiku finally flashed a little bit of the mojo which made him such a recruiting gem. With the Illini in 2019, Betiku recorded 37 tackles (13.0 for loss) and nine sacks in 10 games.

Betiku needed a season like that, because without it, he would have been in for a long, hard climb to make it as a draft pick. It’s still going to be a long climb, to be clear. Per PFF, Betiku feasted on Akron, UConn and EMU last fall before falling off the face of the earth against Big Ten competition -- he posted an overall grade of just 59.4 once past those sweeter cupcakes. 


Florida WR Tyrie Cleveland

Rivals rank: 73

Cleveland showed promise out of the gate with the Gators, posting a 14-298-2 receiving line while averaging 21.3 yards per reception in 2016. The Houston prep star would help down Kentucky with a 63-yard Hail Mary grab in September of 2017 and looked for all the world like he was about to take off. Things never really progressed from there, though. The 410 yards he posted for the 2017 campaign would be the most for any season in his Gainesville career. He never topped 25 catches at Florida.

But the athleticism never left him, even if the production failed to catch up. Cleveland showed that at the NFL Scouting Combine, posting a SPARQ score in the 89th percentile of NFL wide receivers. While the lack of collegiate production is troubling, Cleveland’s length, hands and playable athleticism should be enough to get him an NFL look, if not in the draft proper, then as a priority UDFA.


Ohio State WR Austin Mack

Rivals ranking: 96

While Mack started 17 games with the Buckeyes, he never evolved into The Man with the Buckeyes. Part of this was due to injury in 2018 and 2019, but even accounting for that he failed to live up to his top-100 hype coming out of high school. Mack never recorded more than 365 yards receiving in a college season. Mack had competition for catches, to be sure, but that just underlines the point. 

It’s not that Mack lacks completely for charm -- he’ll fight you for the ball, his route development shows promise, he’s long with 33 ⅝-inch arms and was good for some fun extendo-catch action at OSU -- but he’s not fast and he doesn’t make up for that lack of speed with any kind of movement or elusitivity skills. Mack managed to break a paltry eight tackles his entire career, per PFF. That’s mind-meltingly forgettable.

There’s late appeal in the boom/bust athletic kinds of lottery tickets and in the Steady Eddie of the high-floor competent roster cog. Mack is most definitely not the former. He’s not really the latter, either.


2017

Miami WR J.F. Thomas

Rivals rank: 57

Thomas gave recruitniks a glimpse of the future -- or one future, anyway -- when he rolled for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl near the end of the 2017 cycle, showing off the blistering speed that would become his calling card with Miami. After a somewhat bizarre end to what had been an encouraging sophomore campaign -- Thomas left Miami by mutual decision in November of 2018, very nearly transferred to Illinois, then opted back in with the Hurricanes after Manny Diaz took over for Mark Richt -- Thomas closed out his Miami career with a modest 31-379-3 receiving line in 2019. He was also suspended for the final two games of the campaign.

Thomas remains plenty fast, with a 4.45-second run through the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. And while his numbers in college never quite jump off the page, it’s important to keep in mind the context of the troubled passing offense in which he played. 

What gives Thomas a shot at digging out a foothold in the NFL is his raw ability to work downfield, as well as his chops as a special teams cog. While with Miami, Thomas averaged 22.6 yards per kick return.


Mississippi State LB Willie Gay

Rivals rank: 73

Gay’s case is one of superlative, 98th percentile athletic ability, braced against persistent off-field and character concerns. He played in just 177 snaps in 2019 due to an eight-game suspension, reportedly relating to an academic matter. Gay’s issues go beyond that, though. He and QB Garrett Shrader reportedly got into a fight prior to the team’s bowl game this past winter, a fight which resulted in the fracturing of Shrader’s orbital bone.

Gay has to answer for these issues to pro teams, but his otherworldly athleticism is going to carry the day for somebody. While he makes for a clear risk and a potentially combustible locker room presence, that has to be weighed against his pure ability. 

Mark Lindquist
Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.