So here we are, climbing through July and closer to the regular season and eventually 2023 The NFL Draft. Our PFN scouting notebook this week aimed to decipher the difference between sleeper prospects and exit candidates. NFL draft analyst Ollie Hodgkinson is off again this week, so Ian Cummings is here to update the notebook with a couple of new entries.

2023 NFL Draft: Defining sleepers vs. breakout prospects

Ian Cummings: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been going over a couple of related series – the 2023 NFL Draft and exit candidates for each position group. Snippets are a great way to get to know some of the lesser-known prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft, but perhaps there could be more clarity around the criteria that makes a sleeper or exit candidate. That’s why I’ll be devoting a portion of the latest PFN scouting notebook.

Sleepers and breakout candidates are similar in some ways. Both of them are underrated in some ways, as their diagnostic traits deserve more attention in the draft. But in many ways, the similarities end there. When determining the difference between sleepers and breakout candidates, the most important factor to consider is production or recent results.

Production alone isn’t something to rely on to evaluate draft picks, but it’s good for defining the difference between sleepers and exit candidates. In my opinion, sleeper players are productive players that are highly visible. On this tape, these prospects show diagnostic traits that can translate to the NFL. However, their media recognition does not exactly reflect their ideal status.

Breakout candidates usually don’t have a lot of tape available

Breakthrough candidates are different in that they either haven’t had the chance to perform yet, or there’s something holding them back from truly climbing. Ironically, while breakout candidates typically don’t have as much available tape as sleepers, identifying translatable diagnostic features is arguably more important for them.

So far productive college football players and prospects dominate the media landscape, in fact they are a minority. Most CFB players are marginally productive, so sifting through this huge pool to find potential breakouts is harder than it seems. But that’s exactly why you can use things like hiring billing, recent departures, and records from limited samples to narrow down potential breakouts.

If we were to condense the difference between sleepers and breakout candidates into a shorter definition, it would be this: Both are given titles to attract more attention to them, but sleepers are better known than breakout candidates. The focus on a 2023 NFL Draft prospect is more on his current ability, while the 2023 NFL Draft prospect is more focused on his strengths and potential.

Keep all this in mind when 2023 NFL Draft berth and a breakthrough candidate the series is over. Also, keep an eye out for the All-Sleeper and All-Breakout teams in the 2023 NFL Draft.

A modern-day conundrum in NFL draft evaluation

Do backs matter or not? Who else knows? The debate has raged for most of the past decade. And all the while, the average number of RBs going in Round 1 has slowly but steadily declined.

In the 1990s and 2000s and even the early 2010s, it was common for at least three running backs to be ranked in the top 32. That’s only happened once since 2013, and just four running backs have gone in the 1st round in the past four cycles. In the 2022 NFL Draft, the first RB selected was Brice Hall with the 36th overall pick in the 2nd round.

Obviously, running backs are slowly going down the draft board. In this cycle, the exact importance of a running back in an NFL offense remains difficult to gauge — and thus the corresponding investment in RB in the NFL Draft along with it. There are a few select truths that have gradually been accepted as the NFL has modernized.

In the past, it was believed that the key to success was the traditional ground-and-pound and wearing down the opponent. While there’s no denying that the NFL is a physical game, it’s now largely believed that production — at its most effective — is a byproduct of good game management and shouldn’t be used as proof of a strong commitment to running the game, or maintaining a static identity.

What makes guys like Bijan Robinson and Jameer Gibbs stand out?

It’s also clear that while RBs can spawn independently, they’re inherently more dependent on the environment — mainly their blocking and the density of crates they face. So yes, runningbacks are relatively replaceable due to their relative dependence on the environment. But are there particular traits found in certain RBs that make them more valuable than their counterparts?

It’s a question I’ve been revisiting in the early stages of the 2023 NFL Draft cycle. This question becomes even more intriguing when considering perspectives such as Bijan Robinson and Jameer Gibbs.

Both Robinson and Gibbs are phenomenal prospects, and a few key traits stand out when watching their tape. Fast processing is a staple for both. In Robinson’s case, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound back is a master manipulator of space. He feels the streaks so quickly and so easily. He moves through those lanes with smooth athleticism and quick cuts. By doing this, Robinson can actually make up for weak OL play, similar to how strong OL play can elevate mid-level running backs.

By pulling exceptional RB prospects off the tape, you can begin to understand what traits to look for in RBs worthy of the first round. Yes, the position is just not as inherently valuable as the others. But running backs with a combination of high-end athleticism and high levels of processing power and ability to react are the ones who can overcome their reliance on blocking and other outside factors.

And if those backs provide value in the passing game, how do Robinson and Gibbs? That just sweetens the cake.

It’s the running backs that matter, and if a team is able to use an early pick on those players, they have some chance of being worth it.

Cam Mellor is the senior director of the college football/NFL Draft vertical for the Pro Football Network. You can find his works here and ffollow him on Twitter: @CamMellor.


2023 NFL Draft Scouting Notebook: What defines a prospect as a ‘sleeper’ vs. ‘breakout’?

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