As NFL draft prospects are put through the grinder of analysis each year, the numbers always come up: how big, how tall, how short, how heavy, how fast, how slow and so on. But there are always a few who force a double-take because their numbers are staggeringly rare or they have played the game well beyond how their numbers say they should. These are the outliers — the guys who make scouts go hmm†
Past examples include linebacker Josey Jewell, whose 4.82 clocking in the 40-yard dash at the 2018 combine caused him to fall to the fourth round despite three 120-tackle seasons at Iowa. He has since started 30 games for the Denver Broncos. Another example is the 5-foot-6 receiver Deonte Harris, who was signed by the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted rookie in 2019 and led the league in punt return yardage that season. Or Orlando Brown Jr., the two-time Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year who turned in what is still considered one of the worst workouts in the combine’s history; the Baltimore Ravens selected him 83rd overall, and he has been selected to three Pro Bowls and been traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for a massive four draft-pick haul, including a first-rounder.
Sometimes there are outliers whose numbers, for better or worse, just don’t match what the player can bring to an NFL team. Here are some from the 2022 class who have already shaken things up in war rooms around the league and will bear watching as the draft unfolds at the end of the month.
Outlier of outliers: Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia
scouts inc. ranking: 16
If a person can really be the “most unique” in any endeavor, Davis is that player in this, or any, draft.
There are big guys in every draft, fast guys in every draft and guys with shocking physical traits in every draft. But Davis’ combination of all those elements make him a short-list prospect even for the most veteran personnel evaluators.
Look, folks misunderstand the whole 40-yard dash thing at times. Most long-time scouts do not overvalue it in the draft process, but it’s a number that easily compares from one year to the next, and any scout with a bucket of hotel points will take any and all information about a prospect. When a 6-foot-6 and 341-pound defensive tackle roars through 40 yards in 4.78 seconds, like Davis did in Indianapolis, it’s going to get attention.
His 10-foot-3-inch standing broad jump was better than many wide receivers posted at the combine, and his 32-inch vertical jump was better than some of the running backs. That’s the rarest of air for a big lineman. Davis was already considered a top prospect for his on-field performance in a ridiculously loaded Georgia defense, but numbers offer confirmation at times, and Davis’ numbers confirmed there is no other player like him on this draft board.
Biggest-of-the-bigs outlier: Daniel Faalele, OT, Minnesota
scouts inc. ranking: 60
The NFL, by its nature, is a big guy’s world at a lot of spots, so most in the league are kind of immune to the simple size of the players around them on a daily basis. It’s just part of it. But Faalele — at 6-8 and 384 pounds, with an 85 1/8-inch armspan — is the biggest player in this draft and one of the biggest players ever evaluated.
He is believed to be the heaviest player to attend the combine since Wisconsin’s Aaron Gibson weighed in at 386 pounds in 1999. Faalele said at the combine that he actually weighed 426 pounds when he got to Minnesota before he went on to play 34 games (31 starts) at right tackle.
Faalele is likely a Day 2 pick in this draft, even as some scouts have wondered how big is too big for the NFL. When asked how his size impacted his play, Faalele said: “Just how strong I am. Being a bigger body, I have longer arms, so just using those intangibles to my advantage. … The biggest challenge is always pad level. I can always get lower. That’s something I’ve worked on throughout my career.”
Better-look-again outlier: Isaiah Weston, WR, Northern Iowa
scouts inc. ranking: 360
When a player’s production doesn’t move the needle all that much, but his workout numbers do, those in the evaluation business will say he has “traits” that give him potential. Often it forces scouts and general managers to go back and look again at the game video.
The 6-foot-4 and 214-pounder ran 4.42 in the 40 at the combine, had a 40-inch vertical jump and posted an 11-foot-3 standing broad jump — all elite results for any receiver, but rare for a receiver of his size. Toss in his 78 3/4-inch armspan, essentially longer than many tackles and defensive linemen in this draft, and he is the workout/measurables outlier.
Weston just had 37 catches last season, with six games featuring two or fewer receptions, yet he was a second-team pick for the All-Missouri Valley Conference team. But take into account that his Northern Iowa team ran the ball more than it threw it (433 rushes vs. 345 passing attempts) on the way to a 54.5% completion rate from the three quarterbacks who played in 2021. He is an upside player who runs his routes in a one-speed fashion and needs to add some texture to his game, but he’s just the kind of player some teams will select far sooner than many expected because of his traits.
A bonus: Virginia tight end Jelani Woods — a 6-foot-7 and 253-pounder who ran a 4.61 at the combine — also fits in this category.
Smallest-of-the-smalls outlier: Calvin Austin III, WR, Memphis
scouts inc. ranking: 80
Austin is one of the questionable players for many in the league simply because he’s 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, though he was listed at an optimistic 5-foot-9 at Memphis. He is certainly fast, considering he ran a 4.44 40 at the combine. And he has produced with two 1,000-yard seasons for the Tigers to go with a career 16.3 yards per catch average. Austin also made the most of his Senior Bowl week, as he consistently made plays against more notable players and showed scouts a top-tier understanding of the game.
But when he is selected during the draft weekend may be determined by how soon a team can look past Austin’s height.
No-combine outlier: Eric Johnson, DT, Missouri State
scouts inc. ranking: 154
For many, Johnson is the highest-rated prospect in this draft who was not invited to the scouting combine. But for the most part, he played well enough during his college career to be invited to the combine and tested well enough in the weeks after it to show he should have been there. Still, the list of non-combine players who are selected each year is usually fairly short.
Johnson has made the most of appearances at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and Senior Bowl. Folks loved the 40-yard dash time from his pro day (4.87 hand-timed), which is one of the fastest for an interior defensive lineman in this draft. But they wonder about his play strength — he had 20 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press — and was not that explosive in other parts of his testing.
Either way, Johnson has a significant playing resume with 48 career games, including starts in the last 42 games of his college career. He had just 5.5 sacks in his five seasons, but he is a player who is creeping up draft boards as evaluators continue to study his game.
Pile-up-the-stats outlier: Bailey Zappe, QB, Western Kentucky
scouts inc. ranking: 139
There is always a quarterback on the board who is considered too small, too light and/or maybe even too slow, but has a pile of passing yards and touchdowns. This year, that quarterback is Zappe, who will be shoved down the board for some because he is barely over six feet tall at 6-foot 1/2 and 215 pounds. And while that is almost the same measurement of Liberty’s Malik Willis, who is one of the top quarterbacks on the board at 6-foot 1/2 and 219 pounds, Zappe will need a quarterbacks coach or an offensive coordinator to pound the proverbial table for him far more than willis will.
Zappe, unlike many quarterbacks, elected to run the 40-yard dash at the combine and turned a ho-hum 4.88. He has also been dinged by scouts for a slow delivery at times to go with a selection of what-was-he-thinking interceptions. But if the job is throwing the ball, Zappe set FBS records for passing yards in a season (5,987) and touchdowns in a season (62) in the Hilltoppers’ high-volume passing game. He had two games with at least 500 passing yards, along with eight or at least 400 yards.
“I don’t think there’s a single quarterback in history that wouldn’t want to throw 680 times in a season,” Zappe said. “It’s amazing. Coach [Zach Kittley] gave me, like he said, keys to a Lamborghini. I was able to check in and out of plays, whatever I saw fit, whatever I saw the defense was doing. And I think how that translates to the NFL is just a knowledge of the game in part. Being able to read defenses, be able to see what the defense sees, what the defense is in pre-snap. And I think that will continue to help me throughout my career in the NFL.”
History hasn’t always been kind to these kind of QBs, but Zappe has shown NFL teams that he knows the game and understands a lot of what he sees from defenses. And his NFL future will hinge on whether a coach believes there is enough to work with moving forward.