2023 NFL Draft: 'Trust The Tape' prospects who shouldn't be overlooked despite lacking elite athletic traits (2023)

If you're creating the perfect NFL draft prospect, he'd have tremendous collegiate production and jaw-dropping athletic traits at imposing size. Of course, most don't check all those boxes. Sometimes you have to trust a prospect's film even if he's not an athletic, Greek god type.

This is the first in a two-part, annual series that examines a pair of unique subsets of every draft class. Below are NFL hopefuls who don't have requisite physical traits or maybe didn't crush their combine/pro day workouts yet I still really like and believe in as prospects. They can be good at the NFL level, I'm telling you!

These are my 'Trust The Tape' prospects for the 2023 class.

Karl Brooks, DL, Bowling Green

Man, I was bummed when I saw Brooks' pro-day workout numbers. On film, listed at 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, Brooks was an edge-rushing nightmare for offensive lines, and 303-pound edge-rushing nightmares are incredibly rare in the game of football.

His Relative Athletic Score (RAS) -- which grades a player's measurables compared to their peer group at a position throughout history -- at the defensive spot: a ghastly 1.66. All hope is not lost, however, because his RAS at defensive tackle was a respectable 5.83. Either way, regardless of what his "base" position will be in the NFL, the team that drafts Brooks must give him some outside rushing opportunities. The dude tied for the most quarterback pressures (69) among draft-eligible defenders and did so on under 400 pass-rushing snaps (386). Nutso production.

And this is a (seemingly) explosive, decently bendy rusher with the nastiest swim move in the 2023 class. He can pick and choose from a rather large collection of pass-rush moves in general. Yes, Brooks will have to mainly work on the inside. Moonlighting on the edge should be in the cards for him too. Beyond his incredibly polished game, I'm trusting the tape on Brooks because of his combination of essentially unprecedented frame and production.

Brian Branch, S/CB, Alabama

Branch ran 4.58 and had a vertical in the 34th percentile at the safety position. Neither are amazing. Branch isn't your classic, deep-middle free safety nor is he a safety who everyone realizes should probably just play linebacker. He's a do-everything "slot defender." Call him a nickel corner if you want, really. He was a routine big-play creator in the intermediate level of the field playing the famous "Star" position in Nick Saban's defense, the spot in which Saban at least attempts to place his best defensive back.

At just under 6-foot and 190 pounds, Branch doesn't have intimidating size either. I do not care. He is, legitimately, the best tackling defensive back I've ever scouted. I won't go as far to say that he never misses a tackle. But it is exceptionally rare. He has such a tremendous feel for route combinations in man or zone and finds the football frequently when it's arriving. Because the first round is actually more about traits than tape, Branch may not hear his name called until the second half of the first round. If we're simply asking "who are the best football players in this class?" Branch is unequivocally in the top 10 in my view.

Jayden Reed, WR, Michigan State

I've been going with a Stefon Diggs comparison for Reed since before the combine, and I'm sticking to it. Reed was not the recruit Diggs was by any stretch (two stars vs. five stars). But their collegiate careers are super-comparable, and on-field style of the two are spitting images of each other.

Reed wins with lightning-quick feet against press and during his route, efficient and springy YAC capabilities, and the contested-catch skill of a 6-foot-4 receiver. That's exactly the quick scouting description on Diggs -- a fifth-round pick, remember -- when he entered the league out of Maryland.

Then there's this -- Diggs' RAS was 5.66 in 2015. Reed's is 6.73. Reed was unguardable at the Senior Bowl, demonstrating veteran-esque savvy selling his routes. Diggs hit the ground running in the NFL because of his route-running intricacies too. It doesn't bother me that Reed isn't a 4.40 wideout with a 41-inch vertical. For as much as I believe in the predictive powers of athleticism in the NFL, it is fascinating that none of Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, or Davante Adams were spectacular athletes entering the league around the same time.

Kaevon Merriweather, S, Iowa

Iowa can certainly pump out some Trust the Tapers, from Mike Daniels to Micah Hyde to Amani Hooker to Josey Jewell. Merriweather is the next Hawkeye in line. Nothing Merriweather did at the combine finished above the 50th percentile at the safety spot, and on film, you'd think he was the fastest, most athletic player on the field in every game he played because of how frequently he's around the football.

In his final two seasons as a full-time starter for Bill Belichick disciple Kirk Ferentz, Merriweather had four interceptions and seven pass breakups across 25 games and tackles very well. His defensive instincts are off the charts, and there won't be many instances in which he's lost when the football enters his coverage vicinity. Merriweather feels like a Day 3 safety who'll eventually land in a starter role and thrive in the NFL.

Andre Carter, EDGE, Army

Carter's 2021 was one of the most productive seasons we've seen from a full-time edge rusher in a while, from a pressure-generation angle -- 59 pressures on 293 pass-rush snaps is absurd. Now, in 2022, Carter wasn't nearly as productive, then at the Senior Bowl, he was manhandled a bit in one-on-one drills. I, for one, am not overly concerned with Senior Bowl one-on-ones and do not let them alter my evaluations. In-game action across multiple seasons matters astronomically more. I'm assuming the vast majority of NFL scouts and GMs feel similarly. But, his down week at the Senior Bowl coupled with a blah combine have led to Carter's stock free-falling into Day 2 or even Day 3 after being a believed to be first-round pick all 2022 season.

At nearly 6-foot-7 and almost 260 pounds with 33 3/8-inch arms, Carter did manage a blisteringly fast 6.97 seconds. That type of bend, at that size -- and yes, he needs to add weight and power to that frame -- cannot be coached. Plus, Carter dominated 2021 thanks to a well-assembled package of pass-rush moves. I'm trusting the tape on this Army alum.

Parker Washington, WR, Penn State

Washington is such a fun, new-age wide receiver, and one that feels like is being vastly underrated in this class. Why? The theme of this article should tip you off here -- he doesn't appear to be a tremendous athlete, and he's not an intimidating physical specimen for the receiver spot at just under 5-foot-10 and 204 pounds with super-short 29-inch arms.

On the field, Washington fits the profile of a modern-day YAC specialist. Think about the best run-after-the-catch wideouts in the NFL today, the majority are stocky, RB-like ball carriers with unshakable equilibriums. That's Washington. He absorbs contact amazingly because of tremendous natural balance. He constantly creates big gains out of easy, high-percentage throws, and that ability is vital in the NFL today. We never got a Washington workout during the pre-draft cycle. That's fine. He probably wouldn't have been that impressive, anyway. On the field, he is. Oh, and he has vice grips for hands too. Contact at the catch point rarely throws off his concentration.


Who is the top NFL prospect for 2023? ›

2023 NFL Draft prospect rankings, board: 100 best available...
  • Bryce Young, QB, Alabama, 5-10, 204, Junior. ...
  • C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State, 6-3, 218, Redshirt Sophomore. ...
  • Will Anderson Jr., Edge Rusher, Alabama, 6-4, 243, Junior. ...
  • Tyree Wilson, DE, Texas Tech, 6-6, 275, Redshirt Senior.
7 days ago

Who is best running backs in the 2023 draft? ›

  • Bijan Robinson, junior, Texas.
  • Jahmyr Gibbs, junior, Alabama.
  • Zach Charbonnet, senior, UCLA.
  • Devon Achane, junior, Texas A&M.
  • Tyjae Spears, junior, Tulane.
1 day ago

Who is the best free safety in the NFL draft 2023? ›

2023 NFL Draft Position Rankings: Safety
  • Brian Branch, Alabama.
  • Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M.
  • Sydney Brown, Illinois.
  • Jordan Battle, Alabama.
  • Jammie Robinson, Florida State.
  • Christoper Smith, Georgia.
  • Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State.
  • JL Skinner, Boise State.


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