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The Outliers: How Polarizing Prospects Will Define the NFL Draft

This class of prospects is filled with players who excel in some areas of the game but fall short of certain benchmarks in others. How will that play out for the likes of Kyler Murray, D.K. Metcalf, Marquise Brown, and others? And should teams be nervous about picking one of these players?

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Teams navigate a minefield of risks when evaluating NFL draft prospects. Bust rates, even for players chosen in the first round, remain astoundingly high given so many variables at play. To mitigate the inherent unpredictability of the draft, teams lean on analytics and historical data to evaluate risk and upside, with clubs moving players up or down their boards based on benchmarks for size, athleticism, college production, or positional value. While truly “safe” picks are few and far between any year, the top of this draft class seems uncommonly loaded with prospects that either break convention or stand out as outliers.

With just two days until the first round kicks off on Thursday, let’s take a look at a few of this draft class’s most confounding players to evaluate and break down why these prospects are historical outliers and whether those factors could—or should—matter.

QB Kyler Murray, Oklahoma

Statistically, it’s tough to poke holes in what Murray did at the head of Oklahoma’s offense in 2018. The dynamic playmaker threw for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns with just seven interceptions while completing 69 percent of his passes at 11.6 yards per attempt. He displayed top-tier accuracy as a passer and added another 1,001 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. But the former Sooners signal-caller is still a polarizing prospect among scouts and analysts and is viewed by many as a risky potential top overall pick because of one major factor: his distinct lack of size.

Murray alleviated some of those concerns by weighing in at 207 pounds at the NFL combine—a more-than-acceptable number considering some feared he’d come in under 190 pounds. Despite that, Murray still faces an uphill battle to chip away at long-held standards for quarterback height. Russell Wilson (5-foot-11), Drew Brees (6-foot), and Baker Mayfield (6-foot-1) have each done their part in changing the quarterback paradigm, and we can point to that trio as a big reason that Murray is even in the conversation at no. 1. But it’s surely not lost on NFL decision-makers that even with recent precedent, Murray checks in slightly below all those three at 5-foot-10. That makes Murray an outlier among short quarterback outliers: Just one quarterback listed 5-foot-10 or under has started an NFL game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger: Doug Flutie. It may also be a concern that Murray’s arms are shorter (at 28 and 1/2 inches) than those of any combine quarterback this century.

Still, Murray remains the favorite to be the top overall pick by the Cardinals. He showed last year that his lack of height hasn’t kept him from making plays in the pocket—where he’s adept at sliding and maneuvering to avoid the rush and find passing lanes. I believe he’ll be capable of doing the same at the pro level.

WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma

Speaking of wildly undersized playmakers coming out of the Sooners offense, Murray’s favorite pass catcher, Brown, must prove he can break the mold for generally held minimum weight thresholds at the pro level. Brown is one of a few receivers expected to be picked in the first round on Thursday because of his electric speed and strong production at the college level. He racked up 132 catches for 2,413 yards and 17 touchdowns in the past two seasons. But, after Brown weighed in at 166 pounds at the NFL combine—that’s a full 62 pounds lighter than fellow first-round prospect D.K. Metcalf—the team that chooses Brown is going to have to be comfortable with the fact there just isn’t much precedent for receivers that small making noise in the league. The list of pass catchers this century to weigh in at less than 170 pounds and post more than 500 yards receiving is four players long: none of them—Taylor Gabriel, J.J. Nelson, Dexter McCluster, or Paul Richardson—have ever eclipsed 1,000 yards or six touchdowns.

Brown also missed combine testing after having surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury. With no 40-yard dash number, no short shuttle number, no three-cone number, and no vertical jump number, teams cannot compare his full athletic profile to that of previous players his size. Basically, they’ve got to go off the tape.

That may end up being a good thing for Brown, because his game film shows a dynamic, field-stretching talent who can pick up yards after the catch and play from any alignment. Brown is, rightly in my opinion, most commonly compared to DeSean Jackson, who’s currently listed at 175 pounds. Is that nine-pound difference a big enough gap for some teams to move Brown down their boards—or off their boards altogether? If I were running a team, the answer would be no―his electric talent as a receiver trumps the size concerns. We’ll find out how the league views him later this week.

WR D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss

Metcalf is one of those rare double outliers. His athletic testing results occupy polar ends of the spectrum. For starters … how should I put this? He’s fast as hell. Since 2000, the list of receivers weighing 225 pounds or more that ran the combine 40-yard dash in under 4.35 seconds is exactly two players long: one is Metcalf (4.33 seconds), and the other? Former Lions great and future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson (4.35 seconds).

Every team in the NFL is looking for a big, fast guy who can win downfield. The only problem, of course, is that the former Ole Miss star is an outlier athlete in another way: His three-cone time (7.38 seconds) and short shuttle time (4.5 seconds) were not only among the slowest for receivers at the combine this year, but among the worst ever recorded for the position. That apparent lack of agility is at best a big red flag, and at worst, a deal breaker for some teams.

The decision-maker who turns in their card for Metcalf later this week, likely sometime during Thursday’s first round, is going to be comfortable with the idea that the big receiver can become a high-impact player despite those alarming agility results.

RB Josh Jacobs, Alabama

Jacobs is the consensus top running back in this class and is expected to be a first-round pick. He’s also a complete disaster according to most analytics. The former Crimson Tide star would be the first running back selected in the first round since 2000 without at least one season with 1,000-plus yards from scrimmage in college. NumberFire’s JJ Zachariason summed up his statistical shortcomings:

Jacobs split time with fellow draft-eligible running back Damien Harris in 2018, which is something to consider when it comes to that lack of production. But Jacobs’s athletic testing numbers were disappointing, too (he ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at his first pro day). Still, I’m not convinced that either of those factors is going to end up mattering. Jacobs’s tape shows that he is a back who runs with good burst, plenty of physicality, and a finisher’s mentality. Plus, he’s effective in the passing game.

DT Ed Oliver, Houston

Oliver is one of the most intriguing players in this class. He’s an athletic wonder who bowls through offensive linemen with the power of a wrecking ball. But while his tape is exciting, historical precedence could cast some doubt upon the idea he’s a lock for the top five. It’s already rare enough for full-time defensive tackles to be taken that high—only six such players have been taken in the top five since the 2000 draft (and that list is highlighted by Marcell Dareus, Gerald McCoy, and Ndamukong Suh), but no one in that group weighed in at less than 290 pounds. Oliver is an outstanding athlete who posted strong production in college, but at 6-foot-2 and 287 pounds, he’s undersized.

Of course, Oliver is an extraordinary player with the type of athletic talent to make teams ignore that established positional value and size benchmarks. Hell, someone may even take him that high with a wider role in mind: Oliver was asked to work out as an outside rush linebacker at the combine and some teams may even see a player who’s athletic enough to line up at the strongside defensive end spot. In any case, the NFL is continuing to trend toward an increase in pass-rushing subpackages that combat the proliferation of passing offenses. A gap-shooting three-technique may not have been as valuable in previous eras, but the ability to quickly get into the pocket and disrupt quick-passing quarterbacks has never been as important.

LB Devin White, LSU

It’s hard to find a mock draft these days that doesn’t have White slotted into the no. 5 spot to the Buccaneers. It’s easy to see why Tampa Bay may have interest—White plays incredibly fast and is aggressive and versatile against both the run and pass. But if he goes anywhere in the top 10, he’d represent a relative outlier for the way teams have valued the off-ball linebacker position in the past decade. Before the Bears selected former Georgia star Roquan Smith with the eighth overall pick last year, you’d have to go back to 2012—when the Panthers took Luke Kuechly with no. 9 overall—to find another non-rush linebacker inside the top 10. As for the top five? The last off-ball linebacker taken that high was in 2009 when the Seahawks took Aaron Curry with the fourth overall pick. That, uh, did not work out.

But as it is with Oliver, the evolution of the game is working in White’s favor. Offenses are finding more ways to use running backs as receivers and as teams spread out and get more players involved in the passing game, defenses need faster, rangier linebackers in coverage. White projects as a prototype of that modern linebacker: He’s still capable of delivering big hits in the run game, but his true value at the next level will come as a pass defender.

TE T.J. Hockenson, Iowa

Hockenson is frequently projected as a top-10 pick, but like White, has years of positional value precedent working against him. Just one tight end has been selected in the top 10 since 2007, and that was when Eric Ebron went to the Lions with the no. 10 pick back in 2014. Hockenson has the potential to be a special player, and should contribute early as both a blocker and a pass catcher, but NFL teams rarely invest in his position that early in the draft and instead look for some of the quote-unquote premium positions like offensive tackle, edge rusher, cornerback, or receiver.

Hockenson may be a top-10 talent in this class, but based on what we’ve seen through the past 20 years, there is a solid chance he takes a short tumble down into the teens.