Evaluating the size outliers in the 2023 NFL Draft

Shreveport, Louisiana, USA; Houston Cougars wide receiver Nathaniel Dell (1) reacts after scoring the game winning touchdown during the second half against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns in the 2022 Independence Bowl at Independence Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

  • This year's draft class is one of the shortest or smallest on record.
  • First-rounders lacking sand in their pants: Potential first-rounders Bryce Young, Calijah Kancey and Emmanuel Forbes will be the lightest such picks on record.
  • Light receiver class: Three receivers could go in the top 100 despite weighing 173 pounds or lighter.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

This is the year of the size outliers. And outside of Ohio State tackle Dawand Jones, I don’t mean in a good way. This class is small. With speed and dynamism at a premium in today’s NFL, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Let’s examine exactly what the size deficiencies mean for some of the top prospects in the class.

QB: Bryce Young, Alabama

Young is the poster boy for size concerns in the draft class. He’s the exact same height as Kyler Murray (5-foot-10 ⅛”) and checked in three pounds lighter (204 pounds) than the Cardinals signal caller. Even that weight is 10 pounds heavier than he was listed at for the Crimson Tide. 

I wrote all about why that isn’t so much a worry for him on the field with the way he plays. The worry, though, is if he’ll stay healthy getting tossed around by grown men in the NFL if forced to play behind a suspect offensive line. It doesn’t help that he already missed a game this past season due to a shoulder injury suffered as he was getting tackled outside the pocket. Is that reason enough to take others in this class over him? For me, no. But for general managers whose jobs are on the line, it may be.

RB: Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State

Vaughn checked in at the combine at 5-foot-5, making him the shortest player in the history of the event. Don’t call him small, though, because at 179 pounds, Vaughn packs a punch.

His 29.8 BMI is actually higher than Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs (29.4), who’s pretty much the consensus RB2 in the draft class. While weight still matters in certain situations, Vaughn makes up for it with his running style. He earned 84.5 and 93.4 rushing grades the past two seasons with 107 broken tackles and 27 scores on 525 carries. That’s no RBBC workload, that’s a bell cow. That’s not likely to be his role in the league, but I wouldn’t bet against him making an impact.

WR: Tank Dell, Houston

There are a number of slighter receivers who are highly touted prospects in the class. North Carolina’s Josh Downs is only 5-foot-9 and 171 pounds while Jordan Addison is 5-foot-11 and 173 pounds. At 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, Dell isn’t unprecedentedly small for a wide receiver prospect, but there’s really only one player in the realm of that size that’s been a multi-1,000-yard season type of receiver. That was DeSean Jackson, who was 5-foot-9 and 169 pounds when he came out of Cal in 2008, but he ran over a tenth of a second faster than Dell did at the combine (4.35 versus 4.49). You shouldn’t think that means Dell can’t break the mold, though, as he already did so by leading college football in yards (1,399) and touchdowns (17) last season. 

DT: Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

There’s precisely zero track record of successful defensive tackles in the NFL who match Kancey’s weight (281 pounds) and arm length (30 ⅝ inches). You have to go back to Notre Dame’s Chris Zorich, who was the 49th pick by the Chicago Bears in 1991 to find a defensive tackle even close to both. That’s over 30 years!

To find a comparison for Kancey athletically, though, you have to go back even further — all the way to the beginning of NFL history actually. That’s because a comparison doesn’t exist. His 4.67-second 40-yard dash, 1.58-second 10-yard split, and sub-7-second three-cone are the best times for a defensive tackle ever. He plays football on fast forward. When that’s the case, size is far less of a concern. 

ED: Nolan Smith, Georgia

At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, Smith is likely to be the lightest edge-rusher drafted in the first round since Haason Reddick in 2017 (237 pounds). The last one before that? Florida edge defender Huey Richardson, who was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 15th pick in 1991. Smtih ran the fastest (4.39-second 40-yard dash with a 1.47-second 10-yard split) and jumped the highest (41.5-inch vertical) of any edge-rusher in attendance. Those are high-end numbers for a cornerback, let alone someone that rushes the passer. He’s coming off a torn pec, which clouds his evaluation, but you saw a level of physicality from Smith on tape (82.4 and 90.6 run-defense grades over the past two seasons) that make me not worried one bit about his size. 

CB: Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State

There’s a good case to be made that Forbes is the skinniest defensive back prospect in modern NFL history. At a whopping 6 feet and 166 pounds, Forbes will be the lightest corner drafted since 2000 by five pounds. But Forbes' 6-foot-7 wingspan helps him stand out a little. He’ll be the lightest 6-foot-plus corner taken on Day 1 or 2 by 10 pounds. He’s also the FBS leader for career pick-sixes with six. With wide receivers trending skinnier and faster, it only makes sense for corners to follow suit.

CB: Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU

Hodges-Tomlinson has about as small of a frame as you'll see in the league —5-foot-7 ⅝ and 178 pounds with a 70.5-inch wingspan. The last time a defensive back under 5-foot-8 was drafted was Tim Jennings (5-foot-7 ¾) picked by the Indianapolis Colts in the second round back in 2006. And Jennings, if you recall, made his living as a Cover-2 corner bouncing from Tony Dungey to Lovie Smith-coached defenses. More modern comparisons at that size are slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman (5-foot-7 ¼) and slot/safety Lamarcus Joyner (5-foot-8). 

With off-coverage becoming the wave in the NFL, pure size isn’t at a premium the way it once was. And if there was an athlete that can overcome it, it’s THT, who posted a 1.47-second 10-yard split, 4.41-second 40-yard dash, 12 bench reps,and an 11-foot broad jump. On tape at TCU, he never backed down from anybody, as he allowed only 72-184 targets (39.1%) for 975 yards with five interceptions and 29 pass-breakups in his career. That’s high-end production in a pass-happy conference.

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