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

Here we are, climbing through July and inching near the regular season and eventually the 2023 NFL Draft. Our PFN Scouting Notebook this week aimed to decipher the difference between sleeper prospects and breakout candidates. Once again, NFL Draft Analyst Oli Hodgkinson is off this week, so Ian Cummings is here to update the notebook with a couple of new entries.

2023 NFL Draft: Defining sleepers vs. breakout for prospects

Ian Cummings: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been chipping away at a couple of related series — 2023 NFL Draft sleepers and breakout candidates for each position group. The pieces are a great way to become familiar with some of the lesser-known prospects on the 2023 NFL Draft circuit, but there perhaps can be more clarity surrounding the criteria that makes a sleeper or a breakout candidate. That’s something I’ll devote part of the latest PFN Scouting Notebook to.

Sleepers and breakout candidates are both similar in a sense. They’re both under-appreciated in a way, as their diagnostic traits deserve more attention on the draft stage. But that’s largely where the similarities end. When identifying the difference between sleepers and breakout candidates, the most important factor to consider is production or recent performance.

Production isn’t something that should be relied upon for draft evaluation in and of itself, but it does do well to outline the difference between sleepers and breakout candidates. Sleepers, in my mind, are players that have been productive and have ample tape readily visible. On that tape, these prospects show diagnostic traits translatable to the NFL. Still, their recognition in the media doesn’t quite reflect their ideal standing.

Breakout candidates don’t typically have as much available tape

Breakout candidates are different, in the sense that they either haven’t had a chance to produce yet, or something’s been holding them back from truly ascending. Ironically, while breakout candidates usually don’t have as much tape available as sleepers, identifying translatable diagnostic traits is arguably more important for them.

While productive college football players and prospects dominate the media landscape, they’re actually the minority. Most CFB players are marginally productive, so sifting through that massive pool to find potential breakouts is tougher than it sounds. But that’s why you can use things like recruiting billing, recent departures, and tape from limited samples to narrow down the pool of 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 their titles with the intent of drawing more attention toward them, but sleepers are more established than breakout candidates. Attention drawn toward a 2023 NFL Draft sleeper is focused more on his current ability, while attention drawn toward a 2023 NFL Draft breakout candidate is focused more on his upside and potential.

Keep all this in mind when the 2023 NFL Draft sleeper and breakout candidate series are finished. And also keep an eye out for the 2023 NFL Draft All-Sleeper and All-Breakout teams. I’ll be filling out a roster from the pre-existing articles, choosing the most compelling sleepers and breakout candidates.

The modern running back conundrum in NFL draft evaluation

Do running backs matter or not? Who knows anymore? The debate has raged on for the better part of the last decade. And all the while, the average number of RBs going in Round 1 has slowly but steadily decreased.

In the 1990s and 2000s, and even in the early 2010s, it was a regular occurrence for at least three running backs to go within the top 32. That’s only happened once since 2013, and over the past four cycles, only four total running backs have gone in Round 1. In the 2022 NFL Draft, the first RB selected was Breece Hall, at 36 overall in Round 2.

It’s clear that running backs are slowly trending down the draft board. Amidst this cycle, the exact importance of a running back in an NFL offense remains difficult to quantify — and thus, the proper investment into an RB in the NFL draft with it. There are a few select truths that have slowly been accepted as the NFL modernizes.

In the past, it was believed that the traditional ground and pound, and wearing down one’s opponent, was a key to success. While it can’t be denied that the NFL is a physical game, it’s now largely believed that running production — in its most efficient form — is a byproduct of good game management and should not be used as supporting evidence for a lasting commitment to the run game, or the maintenance of a static identity.

What stands out for guys like Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs?

It’s also clear that while RBs can independently create, they are, by their nature, more dependent on their surroundings — mainly their blocking and the density of the boxes they face. So yes, running backs are relatively replaceable because of their relative dependence on their surroundings. But are there select traits found in specific RBs that make them more valuable than their counterparts?

That’s a question I’ve been revisiting through the early stages of the 2023 NFL Draft cycle. It’s a question that becomes even more intriguing when looking at prospects like Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs.

Both Robinson and Gibbs are phenomenal prospects, and a few foundational traits stand out when observing their tape. Quick processing is a staple for both. In Robinson’s case, the 6’0”, 220-pound back is a master of space manipulation. He feels lanes so quickly and so effortlessly. He navigates through those lanes with smooth athleticism and quick cuts. In doing so, Robinson can actually compensate for poor OL play, just as strong OL play can elevate mid-level running backs.

Drawing from the tape of exceptional RB prospects, you can start to gain an understanding of what traits to look for in first-round worthy RBs. Yes, the position simply isn’t as inherently valuable as others. But running backs with a combination of high-end athleticism and high-level processing and reaction ability are those who can supersede their dependence on blocking and other external factors.

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

Those are the running backs that matter, and if a team is in a position to use an early pick on those players, it has a definite chance of being worth it.

Cam Mellor is the Senior Director of the College Football/NFL Draft vertical for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and follow him on Twitter: @CamMellor.

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