Six size outliers in the 2023 NFL Draft and the conundrum they cause

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Tyler Van Dyke #9 of the Miami Hurricanes is sacked by Calijah Kancey #8 of the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first quarter during the game at Heinz Field on October 30, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Tyler Van Dyke #9 of the Miami Hurricanes is sacked by Calijah Kancey #8 of the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first quarter during the game at Heinz Field on October 30, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Every NFL Draft class seems to have at least one high-profile size outlier, from Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith’s weight (170 pounds) in 2021 to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray’s height (5-10 1/8) in 2019. Some prospects are able to beat the outlier allegations, like Smith and Murray have, and ascend to NFL stardom, or at the very least become productive starters. While others like receiver Tavon Austin (5-8, 174), the 8th overall pick by the St. Louis Rams in the 2013 NFL Draft, and interior defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (6-3, 273), the 3rd overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft, came up short… literally.

LA Rams superstar and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Aaron Donald is the poster boy for the outlier club. Despite being one of the most dominant defensive linemen in college football history at the University of Pittsburgh and racking up 66 TFLs and 29.5 sacks before putting together one of the best Senior Bowl weeks in recent memory and blowing up the NFL Scouting Combine, Donald fell to the 13th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft because he measured in at just 6-1, 285 pounds.

That’s what makes it so difficult when evaluating a size outlier; they could have phenomenal tape and traits but not every prospect can overcome size deficiencies when tangling with the big boys of pro football. It also makes the 2023 NFL Draft class extra interesting because the class it littered with size outliers.

There isn’t just a conundrum being caused by one player, there’s multiple size outliers at multiple positions varying in talent level, but each is a legitimate NFL Draft prospect. Some are easier to project than others and others far more polarizing due to just how much they deviate from the norm of their position. It’s an underrated storyline as the 2023 NFL Draft weekend in Kansas City approaches, yet a tasty one that could have a lasting impact on how front offices and the league as a whole views outliers at certain positions.

Size outliers in the 2023 NFL Draft

Bryce Young, QB, Alabama (5-10, 204)

No player in the 2023 NFL Draft has generated more discourse around their size than Alabama’s Bryce Young. The 2021 Heisman winner has all the makings of a franchise saviour save for one little detail… he’s smaller than any quarterback who has found prolonged success at the NFL level. While Russell Wilson (5-11, 204) and Kyler Murray (5-10, 207) have helped breakdown barriers for small signal callers, both Pro Bowl quarterbacks have very different body types than Young.

On paper Young is similar in stature to both Wilson and Murray, but while he crossed the 200-pound threshold at the NFL Scouting Combine, he did not participate in Indianapolis. Young opted to take the field at his pro day, yet chose not to measure. This only reinforces the fact that 204 is well over the weight he played at in Tuscaloosa. Alabama actually listed Young at 194 and his slender frame would support that number being closer to the truth; Wilson and Murray have much thicker builds.

As special as Young is on tape, the fact that his height is in the first percentile for quarterbacks and his weight in the sixth (likely lower than that with him gaining weight just to check the weight box at the Combine) will give teams pause. There hasn’t been a sub-200-pound passer selected in the first-round of the NFL Draft since the Chicago Bears took Jim McMahon in 1982.

Per MockDraftable (since 1999), the average size of quarterback prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine has been 6-2, 221 pounds and there have only been 14 quarterbacks under 200 pounds in that time; Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, a potential Day 3 pick, is one of them. Young isn’t just 4 inches shorter than the average passer, but he’s the second shortest QB in the history of the NFL Combine and will likely be the only quarterback in the NFL playing under 200 pounds.

He’s the definition of an outlier, and yet the tape is so good that it’s hard to imagine him falling out of the top-two picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. In two years as a starter for Nick Saban, Young threw for 8,200 yards with 86 total touchdowns and just 12 interceptions as one of college football’s biggest stars. His size rarely impacts him with his innate ability to find throwing lanes and operate in muddy pockets. His poise and decision making are what make him such a pro-ready passer and his knack for extending plays and escaping pressure are why he’s viewed as having the “It” factor.

The size will remain a concern with 300-pound men falling on him multiple times a game, but Young seems like the type of prospect you wouldn’t want to find yourself betting against.

Calijah Kancey, IDL, Pittsburgh (6-1, 281)

No player’s size has been talked about more than Bryce Young’s yet the more contentious prospect is Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey. Kancey is a rare athlete, was ultra-productive at Donald’s old school, and happens to be in a weak class for interior defensive linemen. All those things are working for him, but like Young, we’ve never really seen a player at his position bring such size concerns to the field and still end up a first-round pick.

Right now it seems like Kancey is trending towards hearing his name called on the first night of the 2023 NFL Draft. After clocking a 4.67 40-yard dash, in the 99th percentile for interior defensive linemen and surpassing Donald for the fastest by a defensive tackle in NFL Scouting Combine history, Kancey added to his gaudy numbers at Pittsburgh’s pro day. At over 280 pounds he hit a freakish 6.82 3-cone (99th percentile) and 4.33 short shuttle (94th percentile). On paper his rare athleticism on the inside compares to that of Donald’s and Ed Oliver, the 9th overall pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 2019 NFL Draft.

His height at the NFL Scouting Combine (6-0 5/8) isn’t far off from Donald’s (6-1) nor Oliver’s (6-1 7/8) neither is hit weight; 281 to Donald’s 285 and Oliver’s 287. Still, that size puts him in the 2nd percentile for height at his position and the 4th for weight. Point being, we’ve seen interior defensive linemen find success at a similar size before when they’ve got rare athleticism and ability. But, the number that is truly concerning is Kancey’s arm length. Unlike Donald (32 5/8), Oliver (31 3/4), and fellow undersized IDL prospect Adetomiwa Adebawore (33 7/8), Kancey’s arms are nowhere near 32 inches, his 30 5/8-inch arms are in the 1st percentile and are actually the 4th shortest from an interior defensive lineman at the NFL Scouting Combine since 1999, per MockDraftable. The average arm length for an IDL at the Combine is a shade over 33 inches.

Kancey isn’t Donald, nobody is… Aaron Donald is one of the greatest players in NFL history and one of the greatest anomalies pro football has ever seen. That being said, it’s easy to see why a front office could fall in love with Kancey’s potential. He racked up 27.5 TFLs and 14.5 sacks the last two years for the Panthers and is one of the best pure pass rushers in the 2023 NFL Draft.

With violent hands, an explosive first step, and ridiculous body control and fluidity, Kancey can be a mismatch inside on passing downs. The main concern is what will happen when he’s dealing with longer, stronger, and more athletic interior offensive linemen in the NFL—he didn’t face an overwhelmingly talented bunch of IOLs on Pitt’s schedule—will he be able to add weight and strength to hold up? Or will he be a rotational defensive linemen that can juice up the pass rush for 30-40 snaps per game? And if so, is that worth a first-round pick? That’s the question NFL decision makers are asking themselves.

Devon Achane, RB, Texas A&M (5-9, 188)

One of the strongest position groups in the 2023 NFL Draft is one of the least valuable positions in pro football: the running backs. With so many talented running backs in the class there’s all kinds of flavors of playmakers that teams will be interested in to add some oomph to their backfields. One of the top running backs in the class is Texas A&M’s Devon Achane.

A star sprinter for the Aggies, Achane took on the lead back role this year for Jimbo Fisher and topped 1,600 total yards (1,102 rushing, 196 receiving, 312 returning) and 12 TDs. His gamebreaking speed showed up in Indianapolis where he clocked the fastest 40-yard dash among running backs with a 4.32 (98th percentile for running backs).

Yet for as dynamic a playmaker Achane can be, his small stature at a position known for short careers due to the amount of punishment it takes, will surely have front offices hesitate when trying to justify selecting him on Day 2 on April 28. Sub-190 pound running backs just don’t go in the top-100; Achane is in just the 3rd percentile for his weight.

Per MockDraftable, since 1999, the average size of running backs at the NFL Scouting Combine has been 5-9, 217 pounds… Achane is nearly 30 pounds lighter than that and just nine sub-190 running backs at the Combine have been drafted since ’99. None of those backs were selected before Day 3.

Unlike most undersized backs, Achane has the ability to run between the tackles with surprising contact balance for a player of his stature. He’s an instinctual runner with a good feel for cutback lanes where he can hit top gear immediately with his burst before making defenders miss in space thanks to impressive elusiveness.

While Achane will likely be the first sub-190 running back to go in the first 100 picks in over two decades, this class is interesting because it has two other might mouse type runners in Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn (5-5, 179) and East Carolina’s Keaton Mitchell (5-8, 179). Their tape and testing say they’re draftable prospects, but will NFL decision makers be hung up on the fact they’re sub-180?

Nolan Smith, EDGE, Georgia (6-2, 238)

A Georgia defender who happens to be a freak of an athlete you say? Those guys always go in the first-round. Last year it was Travon Walker and Jordan Davis causing jaws to hit the floor at the NFL Scouting Combine with those two being joined by fellow Bulldog defenders Quay Walker, Devonte Wyatt, and Lewis Cine as first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. This year, while Jalen Carter will be the first Georgia defender selected, Nolan Smith is the one who put on a show in Indianapolis.

Smith, the former No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class, entered his senior season as one of the top defensive prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft class, but a torn pec in the eighth game of the season quieted his buzz. That didn’t last long though with him healthy for the Combine and putting up mind-numbing numbers. Smith hit the 99th percentile for edge rushers with his 40 (4.39) and 10-yard split (1.52), and to add to it he notched a 41.5-inch vert (98th percentile) and 10-8 broad jump (95th percentile). Needless to say, his athleticism puts him in rare air among pass rushers.

So why the hold up? A Georgia pass rusher with production (20 TFLs, 12.5 sacks) and remarkable traits known for being the emotional leader of a two-time CFP National Championship, prospects like that are top-10 locks. Well, Smith is tiny by edge rusher standards with his weight putting him in the 2nd percentile, his height the 15th, his arm length (32 5/8) the 17th, and his hand size (9 inches) the 5th.

For some teams a trench player lacking so much in size is too much of a risk in the top-half of the first-round, for others, they’ll see the potential he brings as one of the most gifted athletes in the class. What helps Smith is the fact that his size is rarely an issue on tape.

He attacks blockers with violent hands and despite his arm length, he frequently gets them inside on tackles when setting a strong edge. Smith’s a plus-run defender and has the fluidity to knife through blocks and blow plays up in the backfield. As a pass rusher the athleticism jumps off the screen with his quickness off the ball, pass rush repertoire, and relentless motor.

With a similar profile and playing style to Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro Haason Reddick, Smith’s size shouldn’t deter teams looking for pass rush help from taking him in the top-15; mock drafts should already have him there. Other than his size, he’s got everything you want in a prospect both on and off the field. Another player in a similar boat as Smith in this class is Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV (6-3, 239) who could also find himself hearing his name called on the first night of the draft.

Jordan Addison, WR, USC (5-11, 173)

It’s a bad year to need a wide receiver, not just because the NFL free agency class was lacking, to put it mildly, but because for the first time in years the wide receiver group in the NFL Draft isn’t overflowing with talent. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting class and there’s still a chance as many as five receivers go in the first-round on April 27, however, it lacks the pizzaz we’ve seen. It doesn’t have the depth at the top that 2022 did (Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Drake London, etc.) nor the star power of 2021 (Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith), and 2020 had both stars (Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb) and depth (Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. went in the second-round).

This year, there’s no clear way to stack the top receivers and many of them aren’t the “ideal” size with as many as nine of the top 20 or so receivers being sub-190 pounds. There’s even three receivers who could go in the first 35 picks that are sub-180. Leading that group is USC’s Jordan Addison.

Addison won the 2021 Biletnikoff, given annually to the best receiver in college football, at Pittsburgh before transferring to play his junior season with the Trojans. In three collegiate seasons, he caught 219 passes for 3,134 yards and 29 touchdowns leaning on his suddenness and nuanced route running to make up for his slender build.

With a similar body type to DeVonta Smith, there’s proven success for an NFL receiver of his size, but Smith was one of the best receivers in college football history at Alabama winning the Heisman in 2020 and a clear pro-ready prospect with few holes in his game. With his size being in the 3rd percentile, Addison’s 4.49 40-yard dash (56 percentile) left a lot to be desired, even if speed isn’t his game (Smith didn’t run the 40 pre-draft). There’s just not a lot of sub-175 receivers in the NFL who aren’t clocking sub-4.45.

Per MockDraftable (since 1999), of the receivers sub-175 who ran 40-yard dashes at the NFL Scouting Combine 18 of them, including Addison, ran slower than sub-4.45. Of those 18, nine were selected in the NFL Draft, but just two went in the top-100 (Dexter McCluster and Snoop Minnis) and neither went in the first-round, and two others are in the 2023 NFL Draft class (UNC’s Josh Downs and Houston’s Tank Dell).

Addison would be the first receiver taken in the first-round with his size and speed profile in at least 24 years. Despite being the outlier he is with his size, his deep release repertoire helps him beat press coverage and his change of direction skills and fluidity allow him to create separation with his pristine route running. He has the stop-start ability to help him create after the catch and a strong understanding of how to set up his routes with pacing and stem work. That’s why he’s viewed as a prospect who can immediately help a passing attack as a slot or Z, even if he doesn’t end up in the first-round.

When and where these receivers go will be a storyline tracked closely four weeks out from the draft, and it’s not just Addison who could be a top-100 pick despite being sub-180. Downs, Dell, Tennessee’s Jalin Hatt, and Cincinnati’s Tyler Scott could all join him.

Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State (6-1, 166)

Speaking of DeVonta Smith, Emmanuel Forbes might actually be the closest size comparison in the 2023 NFL Draft to the former Philadelphia Eagles first-round pick, and unlike the receiver class, the cornerback group is loaded this year. Could the talent at the top of the cornerback class push down Forbes due to weight and strength concerns? It’s entirely possible, but he’s a playmaker at a valued position with tape that says he’s worthy of a top-50 selection.

What’s working against Forbes is the fact that he’s the second lightest cornerback to weigh-in at the NFL Scouting Combine since 1999, per MockDraftable. There’s only been six cornerbacks who are sub-170 in that timeframe at the Combine and none of them were drafted; the only one to play in the NFL was Nickell Robey-Coleman, who Forbes has a six-inch height advantage on. Point being, we’ve never seen a cornerback with his body type make it in the modern NFL. Two of the closest comparisons would actually be two players coming off their rookie seasons in the NFL in Jack Jones (5-11, 171), a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots, and Cordale Flott (6-1, 175), a third-round pick of the New York Giants.

To put Forbes’ wiry frame into perspective, the average cornerback at the NFL Scouting Combine since 1999 has been 5-9 1/2, 192 pounds. Forbes is three inches taller but gives up nearly 30 pounds. He’s an interesting test case because he’s in the 0th percentile for weight, yet doesn’t lack length with 32 1/4-inch arms (78th percentile) and a 79-inch wingspan (92nd percentile). He also ran a 4.35 40-yard dash (92nd percentile) with a 1.48 10-yard split (92nd percentile) and hit a 37 1/2-inch vertical (69th percentile) and 10-11 broad (64th percentile).

Forbes’ length and athleticism show up on tape too where he became a dynamo for the Bulldogs where he set the FBS record for career pick-sixes with six in just three seasons. He left Starkville fourth all-time in interceptions with 14 to go with 20 passes defensed thanks to his ball skills, cover instincts, and closing speed.

His impressive fluidity and speed have allowed him to become one of the best playmaking corners in college football despite his size. Given how light he is in the pants, you’d think he would shy away as a run defender and tackler, but that couldn’t be further from the case. When Forbes sees a screen he fires downhill to blow it up and he never hesitates to trigger against a ball carrier; his take on skills are surprisingly solid.

As he makes the leap to the NFL, the big question will be how he holds up against bigger more powerful receivers with his lack of play strength. The hope is once he’s on an NFL training program he’ll be able to add at least 10 pounds to his frame. Without adding that size and strength it’ll be hard to deal with receivers built like AJ Brown and DK Metcalf.

One other defensive back who’s quite the outlier but has tape to get excited about is TCU’s Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson. The Jim Thorpe Award winner, given annually to the top defensive back in college football, was a key cog in the Horned Frogs run to the CFP National Championship game and has the tools to be a starting NFL nickel. With tape that says top-150,  but size that says otherwise (5-8, 178 pounds with 29-inch arms), he’ll be a fun one to track on Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft.