Long before the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan became "Matty Ice" and reached the Super Bowl as the likely NFL MVP, he was a three-star quarterback running the triple option at William Penn Charter in Pennsylvania.
Rivals rated Ryan as the 25th-best quarterback in the 2003 class. Based on composite rankings from multiple services, 247Sports later ranked Ryan 34th, behind signal callers such as a future No. 1 NFL Draft pick bust (JaMarcus Russell), a future major-league pitcher (Clayton Richard) and a future plaintiff against the NCAA over video games (Sam Keller).
The top three quarterbacks in the 2003 recruiting class -- Kyle Wright, Chris Leak and Tommy Grady -- never threw a pass in an NFL regular-season game. Ryan, who starred at Boston College, has more NFL pass attempts than 32 of the 33 QB recruits combined who were ranked ahead of him. Only No. 28 Joe Flacco joined Ryan with a real NFL career out of the Class of 2003.
One of the cool parts leading up to each Super Bowl is tracing the players' journey. I've done this for several years. Though I don't have the data, this Patriots-Falcons matchup seems like a Super Bowl with some of the longest odds given where many starters were ranked in high school.
Sixty-one percent of the projected Super Bowl LI starters were not ranked in the top 500 overall in their recruiting class, according to 247Sports Composite rankings. This statistic counts only starters whose past recruiting rankings could be found, though that's most of them.
While it's true that three stars are handed out far more to recruits than any other rating, 61 percent not in the top 500 feels like a very high number. To put that in perspective, the No. 500 recruit in 2017 is dual-threat quarterback Jason Shelley, who is committed to Utah and also has offers from Clemson, New Mexico, North Texas, SMU, Southern Miss, Utah State and Virginia, according to 247Sports.
Sure, the Falcons and Patriots have one-time elite recruits in Julio Jones, Jake Matthews, Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount and Malcom Brown. (Tom Brady, who was famously a sixth-round NFL Draft pick, had a mixed bag with his recruitment. He was overlooked for a while and got labeled as the No. 6 pro-style quarterback by recruiting analyst Tom Lemming in 1995, which came before recruiting rankings blew up into a major industry.)
Still, the Falcons and Patriots have far more players who were under the radar. Thirty-seven percent of this year's Super Bowl starters weren't even in the top 1,000 of their recruiting class.
Malcolm Butler, the Patriots' star of Super Bowl XLIX, was unranked out of high school. He went to junior college, took a job at Popeyes and later went to Division II West Alabama.
Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley, the NFL's leader in sacks, was the No. 23 tight end and No. 487 player overall when he signed with Clemson.
Alex Mack, the Falcons' four-time Pro Bowl center, was a two-star recruit by Cal and rated the 79th-best guard.
Chris Hogan, who caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game, played three years of lacrosse at Penn State before taking up football at Monmouth for one season.
If the Falcons beat the Patriots, Ryan would become the fourth three-star quarterback to win the Super Bowl in the past seven years. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Flacco also had three stars out of high school.
Different paths lead players to the Super Bowl, as this season can attest. Recruiting rankings are only the starting point, not the finish line.
Super Bowl LI projected starters as recruits
|WR Julio Jones||5||No. 3||No. 1 WR|
|LT Jake Matthews||4||No. 38||No. 5 OT|
|LG Andy Levitre||2||No. 1,420||No. 130 G|
|C Alex Mack||2||No. 987||No. 79 G|
|RG Chris Chester*||3||Not available||No. 8 TE|
|RT Ryan Schraeder||0||Not ranked||Not ranked|
|TE Austin Hooper||3||No. 394||No. 25 strong-side DE|
|WR Mohamded Sanu||3||No. 693||No. 51 S|
|QB Matt Ryan||3||No. 698||No. 34 pro-style QB|
|RB Devonta Freeman||4||No. 102||No. 7 RB|
|FB Patrick DiMarco||2||Not ranked||No. 89 TE|
|DE Brooks Reed||3||No. 556||No. 37 strong-side DE|
|DT Jonathan Babineaux||NA||Not available||Not available|
|DT Grady Jarrett||3||No. 1,140||No. 81 DT|
|DE Tyson Jackson||3||No. 569||No. 35 strong-side DE|
|LB Vic Beasley||3||No. 487||No. 23 TE|
|LB Deion Jones||3||No. 377||No. 37 OLB|
|LB De'Vondre Campbell||3||No. 76||No. 8 OLB|
|CB Robert Alford||0||Not ranked||Not ranked|
|CB Jalen Collins||3||No. 369||No. 33 CB|
|S Ricardo Allen||3||No. 594||No. 43 CB|
|S Keanu Neal||4||No. 109||No. 13 S|
|K Matt Bryant||NA||Not available||Not available|
|P Matt Bosher*||3||Not ranked||No. 6 K|
|KR/PR Eric Weems||0||Not ranked||Not ranked|
|WR Chris Hogan||0||Not ranked||Not ranked|
|LT Nate Solder||3||No. 884||No. 51 TE|
|LG Joe Thuney||2||Not ranked||No. 142 OT|
|C David Andrews||3||No. 523||No. 9 C|
|RG Shaq Mason||3||No. 1,151||No. 74 G|
|RT Marcus Cannon||3||No. 1,003||No. 79 G|
|TE Martellus Bennett||5||No. 16||No. 1 TE|
|WR Julian Edelman||3||No. 103||No. 4 dual-threat QB|
|QB Tom Brady^||NA||Not available||No. 6 pro-style QB|
|RB James White||3||No. 551||No. 46 RB|
|RB LeGarrette Blount||4||No. 12||No. 1 RB|
|DE Chris Long||3||No. 199||No. 16 strong-side DE|
|DT Alan Branch||3||No. 249||No. 19 strong-side DE|
|DT Malcom Brown||5||No. 9||No. 2 DT|
|DE Trey Flowers||3||No. 1,335||No. 62 weak-side DE|
|LB Shea McClellin||2||No. 1,511||No. 86 strong-side DE|
|LB Don't'a Hightower||4||No. 257||No. 23 OLB|
|LB Rob Ninkovich||3||No. 89||No. 10 strong-side DE|
|CB Logan Ryan||3||No. 355||No. 37 CB|
|CB Malcolm Butler||0||Not ranked||Not ranked|
|S Patrick Chung||2||No. 1,300||No. 95 S|
|S Devin McCourty||3||No. 906||No. 55 S|
|K Stephen Gostkowski||0||Not ranked||Not ranked|
|P Ryan Allen||0||Not ranked||Not ranked|
|PR Danny Amendola||3||No. 546||No. 64 WR|
|KR Cyrus Jones||4||No. 43||No. 6 Athlete|
| All rankings are from 247Sports Composite data unless otherwise noted. |
* Rivals ranking | ^ Tom Lemming ranking
247Sports was created in 2010. The 247Sports Composite is a proprietary algorithm that compiles prospect "rankings" and "ratings" listed in the public domain by the major media recruiting services. As such, it is the industry's most comprehensive and unbiased prospect ranking. For rankings prior to 2010, the 247Sports Composite includes only rankings from the major media recruiting services and not its own rankings.