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NFL Draft Outliers

by Hayden Winks

There are going to be outliers in every draft, but every time one happens, we can learn about what made them overperform or bust. In this column, I'm going back in time to find out why various NFL studs weren't drafted higher, and then walk away with some takeaway of how to use that information moving forward in the draft. There are some common themes when we go position by position as I did below. Let's dive in.




1) Russell Wilson - Pick No. 75 (3rd Round) - Wisconsin


Wilson has elevated his teammates nearly as much as any other quarterback in the NFL since dropping to Round 3 in the 2012 NFL Draft, despite coming off one of the most efficient quarterback seasons in his last year at Wisconsin. Russ delivered an elite 11.8 adjusted yards per attempt (AYPA) with a 10.7% touchdown rate. Wilson then ran a 4.53 40-time to show off his rushing ability, but it still wasn’t enough to make up for his 5-foot-11, 204-pound frame.


What did we learn? As I showed in the NFL Draft Analytics for QB, size holds zero correlation to early NFL success for quarterbacks. That includes height, weight, and hand size. In Wilson’s case, it’s even less of a factor because of his mobility where he’s making fewer throws over offensive linemen than the traditional player would. Quarterbacks can also add weight after the NFL Combine, and Wilson did just that, which has kept him relatively healthy for a mobile quarterback.



2) Dak Prescott - Pick No. 135 (4th Round) - Mississippi State


The jury is still out on Prescott as a long-term franchise quarterback, but he completely crushed his draft cost, which makes him an NFL Draft outlier. At Mississippi State, Prescott finished with back to back seasons with at least 8.0 yards per attempt, including a senior season where he threw 29 touchdowns and with only five interceptions. But Prescott also showed plenty of rushing ability, picking up at least 10 rushing touchdowns in each of his last three seasons.


What did we learn? The NFL used to hold a bias against quarterbacks like Wilson and Prescott. Both quarterbacks are plus-runners, but both can still sling it with Wilson being closer to being in the elite passing category. The NFL has wanted the stereotypical pocket passer as the franchise quarterback, and it took successes like these two to help break the old fashion thinking. NFL teams need to make sure the same biases that dropped Wilson’s and Prescott’s draft stock don’t make them miss the next sleeper quarterback. Luckily, I think we aren’t going to see this happen nearly as often as it once did.


Running Back


1) Alvin Kamara - Pick No. 67 (3rd Round) - Tennessee


Kamara has been one of the best running backs in the NFL after being a dart throw third-rounder at the 2017 NFL Draft. In his two seasons at Tennessee, Kamara only received 107 and 103 carries, which dramatically hurt his draft profile since teams/analysts were concerned if he could “carry the load” at the next level. But Kamara was heavily used as a receiver at Tennessee, which makes his lack of carries less of a negative. In fact, being a receiver-first running back in today's NFL isn't even a bad thing. But we all quickly learned that Kamara was more than that. Even if he wasn't, he was still drafted too low because of what he showed as a receiver at Tennessee.


What did we learn? If a player wasn’t used a lot in college, that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t maintain a big workload at the next level. Instead, we should put more weight into his body shape and how he runs with the ball in his hands. In Kamara’s case, he fills his frame well -- he checked in at the NFL Combine as a 5-foot-10, 214-pounder -- and he’s so slippery that he doesn’t take as many violent hits as others at his position. So when we take shots at Joshua Jacobs lack of carries this draft season, remember that Kamara was used similarly in college. Oh, and Jacobs looks good as a receiver as well.


2) David Johnson - Pick No. 86 (3rd Round) - Northern Iowa


Johnson isn’t viewed as one of the elite backs after last season, but that’s recency bias. If he didn’t have AAF-level coaches in 2018, Johnson would have produced as he did in 2016 and like he did in college. At Northern Iowa, Johnson had three straight 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown seasons, but he also caught at least 33 passes in four straight seasons. That production puts him in elite company, even if it did take place at NIU. His draft stock improved at the NFL Combine when he tested as a 95th-percentile athlete among other running backs.


What did we learn? Even small school backs can be studs in the NFL, as long as they were productive and test good enough at the NFL Combine. In Johnson’s case, he tested like a freak, which should have been enough for evaluators to go back to his college tape, which showed more than an 86th overall player. While running back doesn’t matter, Johnson can provide tons of value as a receiver -- the biggest impact a running back can have -- and he showed it in four seasons at college. Like I showed in the NFL Draft Analytics for RB, college receiving production translates to the NFL for running backs a lot more than rushing production does. When any running back has tons of history as a pass-catching back, you’ll have my attention. Hello James Williams.  


Wide Receiver


1) Tyreek Hill - Pick No. 165 (Round 5) - Oklahoma State


“TyFreak” Hill is one of the most twitched up players in the NFL, and his ability to create big plays makes him one of the top receivers in the NFL, despite being a fifth-rounder. While at Oklahoma State, Hill was used in a running back role, carrying the rock 102 times for 534 yards with one rushing touchdown. As a receiver, Hill only caught 31 (check-down) passes for a lowly 281 yards. This receiving production makes Hill one of the biggest outliers for #MarketShareTruthers.


What did we learn? NFL teams need to take tons of risks in their Day 3 picks because even the “safer” prospects have a huge bust rate outside of Days 1 and 2. Hill dropped in the 2016 NFL Draft because of a terrible domestic violence incidence, which makes his draft profile even tougher to analyze post-draft. Some teams didn’t “miss” on Hill, but rather choose not to draft him because of that. But there are certainly teams who were willing to draft him that completely whiffed on his assessment. In Hill’s case, we had an explosive player who was playing a unique role in college -- that’s usually not a good thing -- but the Chiefs were willing to utilize him in a similar role until he exploded as a deep threat too. Hill was the ultimate high-upside, zero-floor prospect with off-the-field concerns, low college production, but “TyFreaky” athletic ability. Someone like Preston Williams in this draft comes to mind, but I’m completely ignorant to all of the details of his character.


2) Antonio Brown - Pick No. 195 (Round 6) - Central Michigan


Like other Hall of Fame wide receivers, Brown has completely gone off the rails as a teammate, but his production on the field is going to lead him to a gold jacket once he retires, despite lasting to Round 6 in the 2010 NFL Draft. In his last season for the Chippewas, Brown posted a 110-1,198-9 receiving line as a junior, but he was in elite company after his freshman season when he broke out to the tune of 102 receptions, 1,003 yards, and six touchdowns. Seasons like this get the NFL Draft analytics community all fired up because it shows dominance early into a receiver’s career. However, Brown had one of the worst NFL Combines for a player of his caliber. In fact, he set multiple new minimum thresholds for the NFL Combine that still stand today.


What did we learn? The NFL didn’t put enough weight into his elite freshman season and put too much emphasis on the NFL Combine. If you want to look at the statistical evidence of what matters for receiver prospects, please check out the NFL Draft Analytics for WR and you’ll see that college production and efficiency is more impactful than NFL Combine measurables. Brown is one of the best-cherry-picked examples to rest my case. Even when we account for Brown’s character concerns that he had coming into the league, there’s no way that Brown should have fell passed the 3rd Round, and that’s without hindsight analysis.


Tight End


1) George Kittle - Pick No. 146 (5th Round) - Iowa


Kittle won thousands and thousands of fantasy football trophies this season after breaking out without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle was a #DraftTwitter favorite and a Rotoworld sweetheart after testing as an 89th-percentile athlete among tight ends at the NFL Combine. But even after that clinic, Kittle didn’t move the needle for NFL teams, likely because of his on-field production. If you read my NFL Draft Analytics for TE, you’d already know that college receiving production for tight ends is pretty noisy, unless a tight end is putting up 750-yard seasons. In Kittle’s case, he had two straight 290-yard seasons, which put him in the “noisy” range like 95% of the other tight end prospects.


What did we learn? Unlike other positions, the NFL Combine matters for tight ends because the receiving sample sizes are often too small to get a good grasp of the tight end prospect. There’s no reason that a tight end who ran a 4.52-second forty should fall to the 5th round, especially when he’s coming from freaking Iowa where tight ends are groomed by the tight end Gods. When we look at tight end prospects, the on-field production needs to be considered more of a cherry-on-top situation. If a tight end hovers around 250-450 yards, that doesn’t mean he won’t produce. In fact, that’s where most tight end prospects check in, so we need to be extra cognizant of those NFL Combine freaks who are in this range. Kittle is a textbook example.


2) Owen Daniels - Pick No. 98 (4th Round) - Wisconsin


In case you forgot, Daniels was a pretty productive tight end in the NFL -- he had six 45+ catch seasons -- but he wasn’t playing like that in college. At Wisconsin, Daniels only caught 22 passes as a senior, but he left the NFL Combine as a 91st-percentile athlete among tight ends. This is a very similar story as Kittle, so I’m not going to explain it over and over again. But what made Daniels a little different was his old age. Daniels was 22.8 years old when he broke out at college, which puts him in the bottom 10-percentile.

What did we learn? The NFL Combine can erase some (not all) flaws in a tight end’s on-field receiving profile. Daniels had everything going against him as a tight end prospect when he left campus, but his NFL Combine performance erased some of those issues. The total production isn’t much of a problem, but Daniels needed to test like a stud to mask that poor break out age. There needs to be some wiggle room at tight end, or else there won’t be any tight ends worth drafting. Very rarely are there tight ends with near-perfect profiles, but luckily there are a few of them this year in T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, and Irv Smith Jr.

Hayden Winks