A long time ago, an NFL general manager told me that "anyone can look at statistics to see a player's production, but we pay scouts to look at traits that translate to NFL success."
In other words, teams are less concerned about whether a player is ranked among the country's leaders in rushing yards or interceptions. They're more interested in evaluating players to find out if they have the ability to consistently perform on the field and/or possess the athleticism to be effective in the NFL with proper coaching and scheme fit.
Most top NFL draft prospects put up excellent numbers in college, as they make plays when given the opportunity. But there are some players each year that earn the respect of NFL personnel men without stuffing the stat sheet.
Just last week, an NFL evaluator told Yahoo! Sports that star Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa is "still getting it done" even though his sack numbers are down. It was a great example of how misleading statistics can be. Here are a few more prospects that should be highly rated by scouts, even though they don't have all-world numbers this season.
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina: Many of the top receiver prospects in the country are racking up big numbers in potent offenses, and they are getting the respect they're due. However, struggles at the quarterback position for the Gamecocks (they rank 98th in the country in passing efficiency) have led to a significant decline in production for Cooper in 2015. He ranks 73rd in the FBS with 72.9 receiving yards per game, and has found the end zone just five times. Put him in an NFL offense, however, and watch him bloom just like Green Bay PackersPro Bowler Randall Cobb.
Paul James, RB, Rutgers: Injuries are a bugaboo for running backs in both the college and professional ranks. James has been bitten by the injury bug in both of the last two seasons, and also had issues in high school, but is proving himself healthy in 2015. James is averaging just eight rushes per game for the Scarlet Knights this season, so he's not likely to finish among the top 100 rushers in the country. But his power, speed, and cut-back ability are on display when he's given a chance. If he clears medical exams at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, look for James to crack the top half of the draft and be a strong contributor at the next level.
Dadi Nicolas, DE/OLB, Virginia Tech: Nicolas has yet to have a huge game for the Hokies, putting up just 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. However, in some games, he's asked to play a five-technique position despite being listed at just 6-foot-3, 223 pounds. He won't be miscast in that role at the next level, where his ability to chase down plays will be more regularly utilized as a rush linebacker or situational defensive end.
Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss: In nine games this season, Nkemdiche has 22 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Those aren't very impressive numbers, but opposing offensive coordinators are definitely aware of his presence. His explosive first step and ability to push guards and tackles into the backfield allow him to affect plays, without receiving statistical credit, on a regular basis. Whenever he moves on to the NFL, he'll see more time outside the tackle and fewer double-teams, especially if he is fortunate enough to play with Pro Bowl-level talent up front. That means his NFL production will greatly outpace his collegiate numbers.
Nick Vannett, TE, Ohio State: Vannett has 11 catches for 100 yards and one touchdown -- that's not much to write home about. His athleticism and pass-catching skills might eventually shine as Ohio State marches toward the College Football Playoff, but even if he doesn't get an opportunity to showcase that ability, NFL scouts will see it at a postseason all-star game and/or the combine. Vannett will then get his due as a probable NFL starter.
Antwaun Woods, DT, USC: I could put several nose tackles on this list. As everyone knows, that job is more about eating space than accumulating stats. Woods has five solo tackles this season (he's been credited with four tackles for loss, including two sacks), and that is a good indicator of how little numbers matter in comparison to the senior's ability to disrupt plays and fill running lanes. Others like Florida State's Nile Lawrence-Stample, Nebraska's Maliek Collins, and Oregon's Alex Balducci will be playing on Sundays, even if their stats don't stand out on Saturday.