The 2023 Draft Class Overview
Who's the best player in the class? Where is the class strong? Where does it stink? What's the deal with the quarterbacks? More!
Players are leaping. The takes are flying. Tape-watchers are grinding. Draft season is in full swing!
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to dig through all your questions related to the draft. There will be all the traditional trappings of this time of year – the big boards, the top players by position, the in-depth analysis of particular prospects, etc – but we’ll close each week with a draft-specific mailbag. So drop your questions in the comments section below (or reply to this email).
For now, let’s zoom out and answer some of the big-picture questions about this year’s class.
Who’s the best player in the draft?
This is an interesting class. Ask any evaluator you trust, and they’ll come back with a similar answer: there is a confined list of blue-chip, A-plus talent. There is, however, a whole stack of exciting, scheme-specific, B-plus players. The gulf from the 20th player in the class to, say, the 58th is minimal. Most talent evaluators will have somewhere between 16-21 across-the-board first-round grades.
And that includes the top quarterbacks. The majority of scouting services – and NFL teams — tack on an extra category to their evaluation process (or weight their grading system) when evaluating quarterbacks in order to (essentially) artificially inflate their grade to match up with the importance of the position and the inflated nature of its draft stock.
This is a year to gather assets, which is why you’ve already been inundated by a never-ending circulation of reports that Team X is ready to shuffle down the board in order to hoard future picks. The sweet spot in this class runs from the foot of the first round and throughout the second day, where some teams will be able to hoover up players with similar grades to those that’ll be selected in the 20s.
Plus, a handful of those blue-chip players lineup at non-premier positions (running back, guard, safety), which will skew some draft boards: Do you take the high-rated guard in the top ten because he’s the sixth player on your overall board or do you shuffle back to the latter stages of the first round, grab some extra capital, and work through some of the deeper, premier positions?
Of the blue-chippers, a pair of players have separated themselves. By now, you will have heard all about Jalen Carter’s arrest on misdemeanor charges. The Georgia defensive lineman is, in essence, Thanos on a football field: Too big, too quick, too strong for any player to contain him. He was the outstanding player on Georgia’s historic defense last year. Were he eligible to be in last season’s class, he would have contended to be the first defensive player off the board. If the Bears had stuck with the #1 pick, Carter would have been in contention to be the first pick in the draft – legal situation pending.
(As an aside on the legal front: I have nothing to add regarding Carter’s draft stock. It is a tragic situation, one that cost the lives of a young player and a young staffer, and could have resulted in even more deaths given the recklessness of those involved. It is an awful situation, and the loss of life and figuring out the specifics of what happened during and after that night should be paramount, not the impact on Carter’s draft stock. Given how the league typically handles/cares about issues of drink driving and patterns of reckless driving, the news will likely be greeted with a disappointing shoulder shrug if Carter is cleared of legal jeopardy.)
Outside of Carter, the standout players are all on defense: Will Anderson (edge, Alabama), Devon Witherspoon (CB, Illinois), and Christian Gonzalez (CB, Oregon). A nudge behind that quartet, there is a pool of talent before the drop toward second-round (instant starter/future impact player) grades.
Anderson tops my board. The prototype for a modern edge defender is Khalil Mack, someone with the springs to beat tackles out of their stance, the strength to overwhelm on in-out moves, the flexibility to dip, turn the corner, and run around the edge, and who can also bring enough tenacity to fight versus the run.
Anderson checks all the boxes. Ever since he stepped on campus at Tuscaloosa, he’s been the most dominant edge defender in college football. His 207 career pressures are 55 more than the next closest defender, and his 35 sacks are 10 more. He’s also a hellacious run-defender. He has the first-step quicks, the flexibility, and the dip to be a vintage dip-and-rip rusher — and he stacked up a bunch of production by beating tackles out of their cleats early in his career. But scan across the NFL, and you’ll notice a trend: There aren’t a whole load of dip-and-rip-only pass-rushers walking around the league. As tackles have screwed an extra set of springs into their feet — and leapt out of their stances a tick early — those edge-rushers that beat linemen only out of their stance *cough* Shane Ray *cough* have washed out of the league.
Having the threat of dipping and running the arc remains lethal – see: Vonn Miller and Hasson Reddick — but all pass-rushers must now be able to win by converting speed to power and overwhelming tackles in the second-phase of the rush (be it a bull-rush, winning the handfight, or showing an array of moves), rather than just springing-and-then-flattening to the quarterback.
Anderson wins in every way you could ask for. He can de-cleat the best of them, but he also added extra oomph to his punch as he has developed. He’s happy to win in the early phase or to engage in the hand-fight when engaged. He doesn’t bring as much pop as some of the larger pass-rushers in the class — and he doesn’t have the widest menu of moves — but he offers enough that he’s just as effective once engaged (these days) as he is with his initial step off the line.
In 2022, Anderson won on the edge. He won inside. He won with hops. He won with power. He won with in-out twitch. He won with balance.
Here’s the other thing with Anderson: evaluating him based solely on his 2022 tape is tricky.
There was plenty of Anderson The Superstar on film, but he was also asked to play different roles for Nick Saban throughout the season. He served as Saban’s problem solver as much as a full-time pass-rusher.
There are games where rather than standing up and playing as a classic get-off-and-go pass-rusher, channeling his inner Miller/Mack (which is his natural game), he was moved around the formation. Saban pushed him out of his natural habitat. He moved him inside a little, playing Anderson as a ‘heavy five’ to try to slow down option elements within run-centric and RPO-based offenses. And then there are full games where he was used, essentially, to spike an opponent's RPO package. He was asked to unload on the backfield, to force the ‘quarterback keep’ or ‘pass read’ for opposing quarterbacks, regardless of the mechanics of the option ‘read’, with Alabama layering the rest of its defense on that basis to stifle the pass read.
Anderson didn’t grumble. He embraced the bullshit work. He was Alabama’s best team construct defender. He brought a real thump to defending the run. He did all the little things at the highest of levels. He did the difficult things at the highest levels.
That’s not glamorous work. It doesn’t always show up on stat sheets. For someone who could have been the first overall pick last year, Anderson could have been forgiven, as plenty of other prospects do, for wanting to preserve his legs, for saving himself for those pure pass-rushing opportunities.
Nope. Anderson isn’t built that way. He isn’t wired that way. He’s a pass-rushing phenom willing to accept the drudgery of early-down work to give himself a shot at teeing off on third-and-long. And then when he was given the chance to shuffle into a two-point stance, to stand on the edge and pressure the backfield, he destroyed folks.
There might not be a more compelling tape from this season than Anderson vs. Texas A&M. It isn’t his most dazzling game. The numbers are not eye-popping. It isn’t the easiest to evaluate or project to the next level (he’s playing in a three-down defense, the type you never see in the NFL; there aren’t a ton of reps of him going against a tackle or linemen slipping into ‘true’ pass sets). But it doesn’t matter. It tells you all that’s right and good about Anderson — and the player he could become when he trades in trigonometry for footballology full-time.
That sound you hear is the noise of evaluators and coaches clapping their hands together in unison. Okay, good. This guy has got *it*. And you’re telling me he can beat tackles out of their stance… and he convert speed-to-power… and he has legit in-out twitch… and he plays with great contact balance… and he ran a 1.61 ten-yards split… and his overall athletic testing scores matched up with anyone at the combine? Okay, Cool. Cool. Umm, What blood sacrifice do I have to commit to get this guy on my team?
Pre-snap, Anderson (#31) aligned as a mugged ‘backer, before stemming into the three-tech spot as A&M engages its pre-snap procedure. Anderson delivers a shot to the initial down block to maintain his leverage, before disengaging to hustle the quarterback toward the sideline. To some, that seems small. Even writing it makes a writer feel like a grouchy, hungover, aging scout next to Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. But it matters. To a whole batch of evaluators, that, when paired with Anderson’s obvious pass-rushing chops, is everything.
For three-quarters, that was Anderson’s game. He embraced the grunt work. He slotted into what the scheme demanded. He used that turbo-charged enginge to create whatever chaos he could inside. He was consistently asked to slide from the edge into the heavy-five role. Anderson’s job: to absorb double teams and to swamp the coveted B-Gaps — and when aligned on the edge, he was sent to attack the mesh-point, to force a specific read that fit neatly into the rest of the defensive gameplan rather than to play read-and-react football, which often left him stood around, unblocked, while the ball went zooming the other way.
For three and a half quarters, Anderson got on with it. He was disruptive, if not overtly game-altering. Then, with ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Alabama decided to unleash Williams as a pass-rusher. With A&M abandoning their base offense and dropping back to pass to try to get back into the game, Saban ran out a pass-rush-only sub-package, with Anderson pushed out to his preferred role, lining up in a two-point stance on the perimeter.
Anderson ran through people. He ran by them. He was everywhere, all at once:
That’s the player Anderson can be when given the opportunity; it’s the player has has been when given the opportunity. A less studious star would have pushed for that to be his only role – or a staff would have acknowledged other limitations and slotted him only into that sub-rushing role.
You do not find many Khalil Mack’s walking around Planet Earth. There is one. Few, if any, sport Mack’s bundle of power and hops, at his size, combined with his ferocity when engaged, quick feet, and pass-rushing smarts. But Anderson gets pretty damn close. The basic stuff is obvious. The extra stuff — the slick reactions, the diversity of techniques — pushes him into a different tier.
In a class light on premium players at premium positions, Anderson is the one.
What are the strongest position groups?
Cornerbacks. Edges. Tight Ends. Quarterbacks.
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