20 of the Best High School Football Players Ever

20 of the Best High School Football Players Ever

Every year, the football community welcomes a new class of high school recruits looking to be named one of the best high school football players ever. Some of those players will earn that right, while others will fall short. Either way, they’re all fighting for a potential shot at the NFL.

High school is an important time for any football player that wants to make it at the next level. It’s where young football players can display their talent to college and professional scouts. As for the best high school football players ever, they know how to grab attention and they do it often. 

Of all the high school football players to ever suit up, there are a select few that did it better than anyone else — but have you ever wondered who those players are? You’ll likely recognize a majority of the names, but there might be some that you’ve never heard of or forgotten about!

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Who Are the Best High School Football Players Ever?

20 of the Best High School Football Players Ever
Geoff Nelson / Shutterstock

The best high school football players ever were known for creating mismatches and dominating at the high school level. Some of them went on to have great college careers, some of them enjoyed success in the NFL, and others saw their dominance come to an end after high school. 

No matter where they ended up or how far their football careers took them, the best high school football players ever will be remembered for what they did in their youth years. They not only exceeded expectations at that level, but they set the bar for future high school football recruits. 

As we reminisce about the best high school football players ever, know that there are a lot of names that we could’ve chosen for our list. There are a lot of factors to consider, but we’ve put together some of the most dominant, influential, and impactful high school football players ever. 

20. QB/WR Terrelle Pryor

High School: Jeannette High School

College: Ohio State University

NFL Teams: Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Washington Redskins

NFL Stats: 51 games played, 30 games started, 3-7 record as QB, 1,994 passing yards, 9 passing touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 115 receptions, 1,563 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns, 646 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns

Terrelle Pryor was a star athlete at Jeannette High School, starring in both football and basketball. He became the first high school football player in the state of Pennsylvania to rush for 4,000 yards and pass for 4,000 yards. He had the size, the speed, the power, and the IQ.

His athleticism showed throughout his career. He had a stellar three-year career at Ohio State University before being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2011. While he never found success as a quarterback, he switched positions and recorded 1,000 yards as a receiver in 2016.

19. WR Dorial Green-Beckham

High School: Hillcrest High School

College: University of Missouri

NFL Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans

NFL Stats: 31 games, 68 receptions, 141 targets, 941 yards, 6 touchdowns

Dorial Green-Beckham was a monster of a receiver at Hillcrest High School, totaling 300 receptions, 6,356 yards, and 74 touchdowns in his three years of varsity football. He averaged 21.2 yards per reception and 135.2 yards per game over 4 games played at Hillcrest.

He spent two years at the University of Missouri, but was dismissed after his sophomore season due to legal problems. In 2015, he was drafted 40th overall by the Tennessee Titans, but he would only play two years in the league before never stepping foot on the field ever again. 

18. LB Derrick Brooks

High School: Washington High SChool

College: Florida State University

NFL Teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL Stats: 224 games, 1,713 tackles, 68 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, 24 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 25 interceptions, 7 defensive touchdowns, 84 passes defensed

Derrick Brooks was known for his stout play as a safety at Washington High School. He was recruited to play college ball at Florida Stateand was eventually switched to an outside linebacker during his freshman season — a move that helped spur his Hall of Fame career. 

Drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the 1995 NFL Draft, Brooks spent his entire 14-year career with the team. He currently ranks third all-time in solo tackles and sixth all-time in combined tackles. He was later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. 

17. RB Emmitt Smith

High School: Escambia High School

College: University of Florida

NFL Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals

NFL Stats: 226 games, 4,409 rushes, 18,355 rushing yards, 164 rushing touchdowns, 515 receptions, 3,224 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns

Emmitt Smith is one of the best high school football players ever for his efforts at Escambia High School. Over his four-year high school career, Smith ran for 8,804 yards and 106 touchdowns. He led his team — which had never won a title — to two state championships.

After a successful three-year career at the University of Florida, Smith went on to become one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. His 18,355 rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns are both the most all-time, cementing himself as a one-of-a-kind running back.

16. LB Dick Butkus

High School: Chicago Vocational High School

College: University of Illinois

NFL Teams: Chicago Bears

NFL Stats: 119 games, 11.0 sacks, 27 fumble recoveries, 22 interceptions, 1 safety, 1 defensive touchdown

Dick Butkus will go down as one of the most intimidating and fearsome linebackers in football history. He knew he wanted to play football ever since he was in the fifth grade, the same year he decided to attend Chicago Vocational High School to play under coach Bernie O’Brien. 

He played fullback, punter, kicker, and linebacker in high school, center and linebacker in college, and eventually ‘invented’ the middle linebacker position in the NFL. He was known for his fierce tackling, ability to force turnovers, unmatched effort, and fearless attitude on the field.

15. CB Dre Kirkpatrick

High School: Gadsden High School

College: University of Alabama

NFL Teams: Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers

NFL Stats: 119 games, 365 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 3 fumble recoveries, 13 interceptions, 72 passes defensed, 2 defensive touchdowns

Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the most sought after high school cornerbacks of all-time. He recorded 193 tackles, 17 interceptions, 36 passes defensed, 2.0 sacks, and 6 total touchdowns in his high school career, being named ASWA 6A Back of the Year after his senior season. 

On National Signing Day, Kirkpatrick announced he would be attending the University of Alabama. After a three-year college career, Kirkpatrick was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He spent his first eight years in the league with the team.

14. S Jabrill Peppers

High School: Paramus Catholic High School, Don Bosco Prep

College: University of Michigan

NFL Teams: Cleveland Browns, New York Giants

NFL Stats: 61 games, 333 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 4 interceptions, 25 passes defensed, 1 defensive touchdown

Jabrill Peppers played both defensive back and running back at Paramus Catholic High School and Don Bosco Prep. From 2011-2014, he totaled 3,059 rushing yards, 43 rushing touchdowns, 842 receiving yards, 17 receiving touchdowns, 134 tackles, and 7 interceptions in varsity. 

After high school, Peppers attended the University of Michigan and played three seasons for them. The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the first round and he has since been traded to the New York Giants. He has recorded at least one interception in each of his first four seasons.

13. QB John Elway

High School: Granada Hills Charter

College: Stanford University

NFL Teams: Denver Broncos

NFL Stats: 234 games, 148-82-1 record, 51,475 yards, 300 touchdowns, 226 interceptions, 56.9% completion percentage, 3,407 rushing yards, 33 rushing touchdowns

John Elway is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play and his success on the football field dates back to his high school days at Granada Hills Charter High School. He recorded 5,711 passing yards and 49 passing touchdowns throughout his four-year high school career. 

After receiving over 60 scholarship offers as the top-recruited player out of high school, Elway played college ball at Stanford University and was the No. 1 draft pick in 1983. He enjoyed a 16-year Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos, throwing 300 touchdowns in the process.

12. LB Ronald Powell

High School: Rancho Verde High School

College: University of Florida

NFL Teams: New Orleans Saints

NFL Stats: 14 games, 2 tackles

Ronald Powell was the No. 1 high school football recruit in 2010 after an incredible senior season that included 80 tackles, 13 sacks, and 28 tackles for loss. He was also named MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl before accepting a scholarship at the University of Florida.

Powell spent five years at Florida, playing four years and spending one year as a medical redshirt. By the 2014 NFL Draft, he was the 15th-ranked outside linebacker prospect and was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the fifth round. He was out of the league by 2017. 

11. QB Trevor Lawrence

High School: Cartersville High School

College: Clemson University 

NFL Teams: Jacksonville Jaguars

NFL Stats: 8 games, 2-6 record, 1,821 yards, 8 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 59.5% completion percentage, 2 rushing touchdowns

Trevor Lawrence won 41 straight high school games from his sophomore season to his senior season. He totaled 13,902 passing yards, 161 passing touchdowns, 21 interceptions, 707 rushing yards, and 11 rushing touchdowns in a productive four-year high school football career

He was one of the most recruited quarterbacks of all-time after breaking the Georgia state record for passing yards and touchdowns — previously held by Deshaun Watson. After an incredible career at Clemson University, he was drafted first overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

10. WR Randy Moss

High School: DuPont High School

College: Marshall University

NFL Teams: Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans

NFL Stats: 218 games, 982 receptions, 1,741 targets, 15,292 yards, 156 touchdowns, 15.6 yards per reception

Randy Moss played football, basketball, track, and baseball at DuPont High School. He was the football team’s kicker, punter, returner, wide receiver, and safety. He led his team to state championships in 1992 and 1993, earning West Virginia Football Player of the Year in 1994. 

After a successful college career at Marshall University, Moss was drafted 21st overall by the Minnesota Vikings in 1998. Over the next 15 years, Moss established himself as one of the greatest wide receivers to ever play, catching for over 15,000 yards and 156 touchdowns.

9. Peyton Manning

High School: Isidore Newman School

College: University of Tennessee

NFL Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos

NFL Stats: 266 games, 186-79 record, 71,940 yards, 539 touchdowns, 251 interceptions, 65.3% completion percentage, 667 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns

Peyton Manning will go down as one of the best high school football players ever after leading the Isidore Newman School to a 34-5 record as starting quarterback. He tallied 7,207 yards and 92 touchdowns in his three-year high school career, earning a lot of attention along the way.

After receiving dozens of scholarships, Manning chose to attend the University of Tennessee and went on to become their all-time leading passer. He was selected No. 1 overall by the Colts in 1998, won two Super Bowls in his day, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021. 

8. Adrian Peterson

High School: Palestine High School

College: University of Oklahoma

NFL Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans

NFL Stats: 181 games, 3,202 rushes, 14,841 rushing yards, 119 rushing touchdowns, 302 receptions, 2,471 receiving yards, 6 receiving touchdowns

Adrian Peterson wasn’t eligible to play high school football as a sophomore, so he only played varsity football his junior and senior years at Palestine High School. Still, he was able to rack up over 5,000 rushing yards and 54 rushing touchdowns in his two-year high school football career.

After a successful three-year career at the University of Oklahoma, Peterson was drafted seventh overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. He has put together a Hall of Fame career and continues to tear up opposing defenses to this day — despite being 36 years old in his 15th NFL season. 

7. Vince Young

High School: Madison High School

College: University of Texas

NFL Teams: Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles

NFL Stats: 60 games, 31-19 record, 8,964 yards, 46 touchdowns, 51 interceptions, 57.9% completion percentage, 1,459 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns

Vince Young was treated like LeBron James in high school. He was on every television station, everyone was talking about him, and he received more attention than most pro athletes. Young tallied 3,819 yards and 59 touchdowns as a senior and nearly 13,000 total yards in his career. 

After high school, Young attended the University of Texas — leading them to a Rose Bowl victory in 2004 and a National Championship in 2005. He was drafted by the Tennessee Titans third overall in 2006, but never found his footing at the next level and threw too many interceptions.

6. Robert Nkemdiche

High School: Grayson High School

College: University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)

NFL Teams: Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks

NFL Stats: 35 games, 56 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 3 passes defensed, 10 quarterback hits

Robert Nkemdiche was a three-sport athlete at Grayson High School, excelling in track and field, football, and basketball. He played both defensive end and running back for the school’s varsity squad, racking up 59 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and 7.0 sacks his senior season. 

After tallying 41 career sacks in high school, Nkemdiche attended Ole Miss and only recorded 6.0 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in his three-year college career. Still, he was drafted 29th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2016 and is still trying to make a name for himself in the NFL.

5. Ernie Sims

High School: North Florida Christian High School

College: Florida State University

NFL Teams: Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles

NFL Stats: 109 games, 623 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles 3 fumble recoveries, 1 interception, 11 passes defensed

Ernie Sims began his varsity football career in eighth grade, which is a rare feat for a middle schooler. He led his team to four-straight state championships from 1998-2001. As a senior in 2002, he had 133 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, and seven fumble recoveries. 

He eventually chose to play college ball at Florida State and had a successful three-year career on campus. The Detroit Lions selected him ninth overall in 2006 and he would spend his first four years with them. He was never really a standout player and only lasted 8 years in the NFL.

4. Ron Powlus

High School: Berwick High School

College: University of Notre Dame

NFL Teams: Tennessee Oilers, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles

NFL Stats: n/a

Ron Powlus was easily one of the best high school football players ever and received a lot of attention from scouts. During his three years as a starting high school quarterback, he threw for 7,339 yards and 62 touchdowns, earning a number of national prep player of the year awards. 

After high school, Powlus spent four years as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s starting quarterback. He totaled 7,602 passing yards and 52 touchdowns — setting a number of school passing records along the way. Unfortunately, his success didn’t follow him into the NFL. 

3. Marcus Dupree

High School: Philadelphia High School

College: University of Oklahoma

NFL Teams: Los Angeles Rams

NFL Stats: 15 games, 251 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 6 receptions, 46 receiving yards

Perhaps no running back has ever had as dominant of a high school career as Marcus Dupree. In his four years at Philadelphia High School, Dupree totaled 7,355 rushing yards and 87 total touchdowns. 2,995 of those yards and 36 of those touchdowns came in his senior season. 

Dupree decided to attend the University of Oklahoma under head coach Barry Switzer. He had a successful freshman season with 1,144 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Unfortunately, his sophomore season didn’t quite go as planned and he barely received a shot at the NFL. 

2. Rashan Gary

High School: Paramus Catholic High School

College: University of Michigan

NFL Teams: Green Bay Packers

NFL Stats: 40 games, 84 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 32 quarterback hits, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 pass defensed

Rashan Gary was a highly-touted defensive tackle that dominated the high school football scene for four years. He spent his junior and senior seasons at Paramus Catholic High School, finishing his senior year with 55 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and 4 forced fumbles.

After being named Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the Under Armour All-America Game with three sacks, Gary had a successful career at the University of Michigan. He was drafted by the Packers 12th overall and is now a regular starter along the defensive line. 

1. Jadeveon Clowney

High School: South Pointe High School

College: University of South Carolina

NFL Teams: Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns

NFL Stats: 91 games, 274 tackles, 83 tackles for loss, 35.5 sacks, 98 quarterback hits, 10 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, 1 interception, 4 defensive touchdowns, 18 passes defensed

Jadeveon Clowney is easily one of — if not the — best high school football players ever. He played defensive end at South Pointe High School and wreaked havoc on the defensive line for three years. He recorded 306 tackles and 52.5 sacks in his junior and senior seasons. 

After high school, Clowney attended the University of South Carolina and enjoyed a successful three-year career on campus. He was drafted by the Houston Texans first overall in 2014, but has struggled to produce consistently ever since. He has recorded 35.5 sacks in the NFL. 

Not All NFL Greats Were the Best High School Football Players Ever

The players listed above found a great deal of success playing high school football and most of them continued that success into college and eventually the pros. With that said, not all NFL players received that type of attention out of high school — they had to earn their keep differently.

Some of the greatest players that were overlooked in high school include Khalil Mack, Jimmy Garoppolo, Aqib Talib, Carson Wentz, T.Y. Hilton, Cooper Kupp, Josh Allen, J.J. Watt, Jason Kelce, Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, Antonio Brown, and Adam Thielin.

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Whether you make noise in high school or turn heads in college, making it to the NFL isn’t easy. Even once you make it to the NFL, sustaining a successful career is even harder. That’s why we appreciate all the hard work these players dedicate to being the best player possible.

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