ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- No player in modern NFL history has made the leap from preps to pros. Players are ineligible to enter the NFL until three years after their high school class graduates. But if that door were open, could it be done?
LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 1,034 yards last season as a true freshman, has rushed for 631 yards in three games this season, including back-to-back 200-yard games. He is the latest player to put the topic into the national conversation. By league rules, Fournette will not be eligible for the NFL until the 2017 draft.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said this week he could have made the leap to the NFL from high school. As a senior in 2003 at Palestine (Texas) High School, Peterson rushed for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns and was consensus national player of the year. After his freshman year at Oklahoma, in which he rushed for 1,925 yards and scored 15 touchdowns, Peterson thought he was better than Cedric Benson, the player who was drafted fourth overall by the Chicago Bears.
Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, who played for the Rams and Steelers from 1993-2005, believes he could have played fullback in the NFL straight out of high school. "I was already 240 pounds coming out of high school," he said. "I already had the size and speed to do it.”
In an informal survey of 10 league scouts and personnel executives this week, the position said to offer the best chance for a player to make the prep-to-pro jump was running back. Those football evaluators put Peterson and Hall of Fame running backs Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton among the few players who could have made the leap. Also named were Hall of Fame tackles Anthony Munoz and Bruce Matthews and former Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Eric Swann. A two-time Pro Bowl selection in his career, Swann did not play college football and was the sixth pick of the 1991 draft, four months before his 21st birthday. After attending Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina, Swann played for a semi-pro team called the Bay State Titans.
Gary Kubiak was Houston Texans head coach when the team made 19-year-old defensive tackle Amobi Okoye the 10th pick of the 2007 draft. Okoye had moved from Nigeria to Huntsville, Alabama, as a 12-year-old. After just two weeks in middle school, as Okoye told the story at the 2007 scouting combine, he tested into high school. He was a student at the University of Louisville at age 16, playing 13 games as a true freshman. He was drafted into the NFL less than two months before his 20th birthday and is believed to be the youngest player selected in the draft’s modern era.
"He was a very mature young man, he had no problems socially with the team," said Kubiak, now Denver Broncos head coach. "That was not a problem. As a matter of fact, it turned out to be a positive. Because he was so young, people all around the team went out of their way to make sure he was doing OK because they knew he was so young." No longer in the league, Okoye struggled with injuries and other health issues during his career and was released by the Dallas Cowboys in April.
Kubiak didn’t say the jump couldn’t be made from high school, noting "it depends who the player is,” but said it was highly problematic because of the physical demands of the league.
Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman and backup quarterback Brock Osweiler were about as close to entering the league as teenagers as players can be in the current environment. Hillman, now in his fourth season and still seven months younger than one of the team’s rookies, was selected in the third round of the 2012 draft, five months before his 21st birthday. Osweiler, who has played sparingly as Peyton Manning's backup, was the Broncos’ second-round pick in that same '12 draft, six months before his 21st birthday.
Hillman moved up and down the depth chart in his three previous seasons, including a stint as the team’s No. 1 back during the offseason workouts before the 2014 season. But he didn’t hang on to the job and was No. 3 when the regular season began. Earlier this season, he said he believed he was ready to be more reliable on the field and off.
Many NFL coaches and general managers say it takes time for players who have spent four or five years in college football’s power programs to adjust to the physical demands of the league. In addition, it takes time for players to manage life off the field as well. Asked if he had ever evaluated players who could have made the jump directly from high school to the pros in his long career, Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s director of recruiting/scouting, said simply: "None. Not a single one."
Longtime Oilers/Titans scout C.O. Brocato, who died earlier this summer after battling cancer, often said Peterson was the only player he had seen who would have had a chance to make the transition because of his body type. Peterson stood 6-foot-2 and was a chiseled 207 pounds in high school. But Brocato added years ago, "You never know about the rest of it, just being with a team of players older than you."
In the pre-AFL/NFL merger days, before the current rule was in place, running back Cookie Gilchrist went to training camp with the Cleveland Browns when he was in high school. Gilchrist said he left the team’s camp when head coach Paul Brown wouldn’t guarantee he would make the roster. So Gilchrist, 19 at the time, went north to play for the Sarnia Imperials in 1954 in the Ontario Rugby Football Union. He played in the CFL with Hamilton at 21. By the time Gilchrist had reached the AFL in 1962, he was 27 and already had been a professional for eight years.
In the end, almost no one in the NFL sees a rule change that would allow a player to join the league any earlier than three years after his high school class graduates. Players such as Fournette and Peterson are considered outliers. Even the few 20-year-olds who have entered the league have found the physical and maturity hurdles difficult.
"In this business,” Kubiak said, "that is just an awfully big jump, awfully big, and it’s hard enough for rookies now."
ESPN staff writer Johnette Howard contributed to this story.