Discover more from The Read Optional
The 2023 Draft: Top Prospects By Position
Ranking the top players in the class by position
We made it, folks. It’s draft day. If you haven’t yet, here are a number of pieces (and podcasts) you can binge-read (or listen to) ahead of tonight.
There is also no better time to binge-listen to the Home & Home podcast — available only to subscribers through an exclusive feed. Jon Ledyard and I run through every conceivable scenario for each pick in the first down. We break down the prospects, the teams, the evolution of certain positions and the impact on evaluations, how certain prospects fit into specific schemes, broader, league-wide trends and the strengths and weaknesses of this class as a whole. And a lot more!
Here, in one place, are my top prospects by position, with some notes. And here is the final edition of my 2023 big board:
Bryce Young, Alabama
CJ Stroud, Ohio State
Anthony Richardson, Florida
Will Levis, Kentucky
Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Jake Haener, Fresno State
Jaren Hall, BYU
Clayton Tune, Houston
You can read a breakdown of the top four QBs, and why they’re slotted where they are, here.
Let’s talk about Will Levis, briefly. Levis is now the favorite to be the second quarterback off the board, ahead of CJ Stroud and Anthony Richardson.
It’s a puzzling one. There is little that Levis has shown — either as an at-the-snap processor or post-snap creator — that is not better or equaled by both Stroud and Richardson.
Why do teams like Levis so much, then? A couple of things. He played in a prototypical, modern pro offense. At Kentucky, he essentially lined up in a blend of the Rams’ and Chiefs’ offenses, which should give him a head-start as a year-one starter over Stroud and Richardson. But most importantly is something I’ve banged on about on podcasts throughout the process: His eyes.
Levis’ at-the-snap processing is excellent. He consistently gets to the right spots on the field with his eyes. He knows where he should go with the ball based on concept vs. coverage. He has a good understanding of the pre-snap picture and where he should jump to at-the-snap if his pre-snap indicator is confirmed. The only problem… he doesn’t throw the ball. There’s a hiccup in what he does. Sometimes, he’ll come off that primary read, quick-scan elsewhere, then return to the primary. That pitty-pattering of the feet will mess with Levis’ overall mechanics. He tap-dances as he tries to figure out whether to let go of the ball or not, and in doing so he will either elongate or narrow his base. As that base widens, he loses rhythm, bounce and balance, forcing the ball to come out inaccurately. Too often, he will wind up no longer being aligned with his target — something that was fine early in the rep but that was corrupted by his indecision.
That’s not how Levis is typically typecast. As Jon Ledyard noted on our final pre-draft podcast, there are a whole bunch of analysts looking at Levis’ traits — big arm, can move — and are projecting him as some kind of off-script creator. Some are happy to overlook the technical flaws in the hope that Levis can mirror the kind of in-the-pros boom that we saw with Josh Allen.
But that’s a misreading of the player. Levis isn’t a creator. And as Jon rightly noted, that’s not something that a quarterback learns. It’s innate. They either have the field vision, the twitch, and the capacity to conjure magic from nothing, or they don’t.
Levis’ finest ‘wow’ throws still come in structure. It’s roll out one way and toss the ball 50-odd yards the other way kind of stuff, just the kind that the Chiefs feature in their offense. And that stuff is exciting — and nothing to sniff at. But it’s not the kind of create-on-the-fly offense that’s essential in the modern game.
Playing quarterback in the NFL is about twitch. It’s about subtle movements in the pocket, the process to delivery time, and being able to snap the ball out of your arm as soon as the correct flash of color presents itself. The NFL is lightning-quick. You must be able to operate at warp speed — physically and mentally.
Levis is more of a distributor than he is a playmaker, which nudges him closer to Stroud than Richardson or Bryce Young. His game is built on twitch — he just too often winds up making the wrong call or second-guessing the correct instinct. The idealized version of his game is something approaching on Matthew Stafford: A big-armed bomber who likes to dink-and-dunk and then take shots from five-out sets. As the wide-zone-then-boot offenses across the league look for a path forward, landing on a big-armed chucker with the mental acuity to slice a defense apart from empty is one of the cleanest roads — it’s the road that Sean McVay hit on his way to a championship.
And there’s an added thing with Levis: He’s a legitimate threat as a downhill runner. That’s something that Stafford never possessed, and pushes Levis towards Jalen Hurts’ territory: A lethal weapon from empty who’s capable of carrying the ball on quarterback runs (power, zone, counter, stretch; you name it, they run), making life easier in the dropback game from five-out looks.
That’s the upside teams envision with Levis: A Hurts’ type development curve. And you can make a compelling case for that when you just tot up the attributes: He has the arm, the athleticism, the toughness, and the smarts.
The question, of course, is whether you can coach him to pull the trigger — and when he does, will he be consistent enough with his base to be accurate? How much of his unwillingness to let it fly at the right moment was because of a mental block? How much of it was due to a craptastic selection of surrounding, umm, talent?
Can that side of his game be de-programmed?
Coaches will be willing to bet the answer is yes — egos and all. They always think they are the ones to fix a fundamental flaw.
It’s a common idea these days that you need a quarterback who can ‘go and get you a bucket’ to survive in the NFL — at least in the postseason. On third-and-whatever, they have to be able to go make a second-reaction play. I agree with that. It’s why Young, Stroud, and Richardson sit ahead of Levis on my board. Levis has the tools that should profile a quarterback as someone who can go get a bucket, but his game and his instincts don’t match up with that style. He’s more of a point-and-shoot, Stafford-esque, let-me-play-ISO-ball QB.
That’s fine! And that’s why, most likely, teams are so compelled. They know what he is; they’re teasing themselves that he can become more. And never forget: Coaches and executives are control freaks. Having an athletically gifted quarterback who executes the offense – their offense, goddammit – will, for a certain kind of coach, always inspire a burning of the football loins more so than the player who will go off-script whenever they damn well please.
Bijan Robinson, Texas
Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama
Zach Charbonet, UCLA
Devon Achane, Texas A&M
Tyjae Spears, Tulane
Isral Abanikanda, Pitt
Sean Tucker, Syracuse
Tank Bigsby, Auburn
If Robinson is not the best overall talent in this class, he’s as near as makes no difference. If you just go attribute by attribute, Robinson is close to flawless. He has the vision, burst, power, balance and power to do two essential things: Turn should-be dud plays into small gains; turn any sense of daylight into a house call.
I understand the thought process behind ‘running backs don’t matter’. I get that it isn’t a premium position. I get, too, that it feels like we have a new ‘generational’ back every couple of years, and that the track record of taking such backs (while they’re individually good), isn’t strong from a team-building perspective.
But Robinson is something a little different. If you view him more as an offensive weapon than merely a runner, then you would have a hard time convincing me he won’t be more valuable to an offense than a decent-ish receiver, which is what the vast majority of this class houses.
Most backs are interchangeable. If we’re talking about a slash-and-kick, wide-zone runner, I get it. But Robinson is not. His ability to impact the passing game separates him from most backs. He can flex into the slot or push all the way out the perimeter. He’s a battler in pass protection. He never has to come off the field, and a savvy offense can use him to mess with defensive matchups, moving him around the formation to exploit mismatches.
Should you take a back, even a great one, if you’re in the early phase of a rebuild? Probably not. In that world, edges and tackles make more sense. But there are not eight prospects in this class who are ready to make an impact today than Robinson. There are not eight prospects in this class who are better than Robinson. For any fringe playoff team or current contender *cough* the Eagles *cough* taking a swing on a special talent seems as though it would be too tantalizing to pass up.
I understand value and probabilities. But I’d also find it hard to pass on a player as special as Robinson, wrapping myself in the comfort blanket that other positions bust too. Best to land a star at the most interchangeable position than a dud at a premier one!
Quentin Johnston, TCU
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
Zay Flowers, Boston College
Jordan Addison, USC
Cedric Tillman, Tennessee
Jonathan Mingo, Ole Miss
Rashee Rice, SMU
Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee
Josh Downs, North Carolina
AT Perry, Wake Forest
You can read a full breakdown of Rashee Rice and AT Perry here.
Quentin Johnston sits at the top of my receiver board. I understand the knocks: the concentration drops; playing smaller than his frame; the lack of a complete route tree in college. But that’s an awful lot of focus on what he does not do or what he’s asked not to do. When you analyze what he was asked to do, and his role within that, you see the potential.
Sure, he’ll drop the ball. He will be frustrating. He will not boast the kind of down-to-down efficiency that marks out the best receivers as The Best. That’s all true. But he is a threat to generate an explosive play at any moment. He is a natural at turning from receiver to runner.
The best matchup to focus on is his one-on-one duel with Kansas State’s Julius Brents – as detailed here.
Brents has NFL size and speed. He’s smart. He might sneak into the back-end of the first round. And Johnstone pulverized him in press coverage. It was everything you want to see from a receiver versus press: he narrowed his target; he was aggressive; he attacked at the right time, not too early or too late; he used his hands as a springboard into the route rather than wasting movement in the hand fight and then looking to break off; he was snappy out of his break; he created after the catch.
Johnston is a master at shrinking his strike zone. He’s a big corner who wants to play small, so he condenses and closes his frame to limit how much space there is for a corner to target.
Check out the rep a time or two. One-on-one against Brents, Johnston bursts open. Brents goes for a two-hand pop. But he plays wide. Johnstone shrinks. Brents is longer than Johnstone. He should be able to put a clamp on the receiver before Johnstone can even get into his route, let alone shake free, right?
Not quite. Length gets draft analysts and scouts all sorts of excited but if you don’t *JOKE REDACTED BY EDITOR*
Johnston taught Brents a lesson about the importance of timing and location of press coverage. Brents beat Johnstone to the punch a fraction early, but he was too wide. He laid a glove on Johnston, but not a true punch. Johnston, in contrast, delivered one, short, sharp, explosive pop, timed just as he wanted to exit his break, and not a moment earlier.
Brents was in a solid position. He probably felt comfortable within the rep. And then, all of a sudden. Thwack. Johnston was gone.
That wasn’t a one-time incident. Johnston lit Brents up seven times in straight man-to-man, press coverage. It was the same formula each time: timing and pop can beats length and passivity.
Losing those opening exchanges had a knock-on effect. As the matchup against Johnston unfurled, Brents was fed up with losing. So, he decided simply not to engage in the hand fight at all, to play the show and mirror game, a no-no against a receiver with such short area quickness.
Oops. Checkmate. Game, Johnston.
There are more refined receivers than Johnston, true. There will probably be players who are less frustrating on a snap-to-snap basis. But Johnston is the most likely to consistently create explosive plays. In a weak group, that puts him at the top of my board.
Smith-Njigba: Smoothness. That’s Smith-Njigba’s superpower. He’s a glider, using subtle movements to create separation in all phases of the route. His 2021 season was his most impressive in college. He finished the year averaging 4.01 yards per route run- - a better mark than teammates Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, who were both selected within the first 11 picks of the 2022 NFL Draft. A hamstring injury limited him to just three appearances this past season, and that’s a worry. But Smith-Njigba put enough dominance on tape, in big spots, against future pros, that he is still likely to be the top receiver on the vast majority of team’s boards. The most common comparison for Smith-Njigba’s game is peak-Adam Thielen, which feels fair.
Flowers: Slippery. There’s no other way to describe Flowers. He’s a sudden, oily mover. Think of Julian Edelman at the apex of his powers: Someone who can shake a defender early in the route or create late, and then go grab some more yards after the catch. He plays with the kind of bounce that wins in the NFL; receivers are forced to create in short areas – you don’t create masses of separation in the pros. Flowers wins by digging into his route and then creating with a wiggle late in the rep, and that, at any level, is unguardable. Some teams will worry about his size, but Devonta Smith, Edelman and the like have proven a sturdy receiver matters more than a big one.
Addison: As the winner of the Biletnikoff award at Pittsburgh in 2021, Addison heads to the NFL draft as one of the best route runners in football. Addison torched the college game while playing for Pitt. He racked up 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns in that award-winning season. He transferred out of the ACC ahead of the 2022 season, ending up with USC. Addison’s season didn’t go as promised, but he still featured heavily in the offense and showed the kind of lateral quicks and change of direction skills that made him so tough to cover at Pitt. Grabbing Addison now, when his stock has shrunk a little, would be great value for any team.
Darnell Washington, Georgia
Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
Dalton Kincaid, Utah
Sam LaPorta, Iowa
Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State
Luke Musgrave, Oregon State
Zach Kuntz, Old Dominion
Brenton Strange, Penn State
You can read in detail about the evolution of the tight end position, what’s being demanded by the league, and how the influences my rankings here.
You can read a full breakdown of Sam LaPorta here.
You can read a full breakdown of Zach Kuntz here.
There isn’t a true #1 tight end in this class. The top-four players all fit different profiles. So, as with linebackers in the modern game, it’s more about what skill set you’re looking for within your system than a player who is indisputably the best across the board. Ranking tight ends globally as just ‘tight ends’ is folly.
Still: Washington is a player that should get any staff or fan-base excited. He’s the athletic phenom of this draft class. It’s not often you see a 6-7, 270 lbs player hurdle defenders. Washington does it on the regular!
At Georgia, he was ostensibly used as a sixth offensive lineman. And he’s a mauler in the run game. But there’s plenty of untapped potential as a receiver, too. He averaged 17.2 yards per catch over the course of his college career. On those 45 receptions at Georgia, he forced 14 missed tackles and averaged 7.5 yards after the catch per reception. Georgia didn’t need him to be a down-the-field dynamo. In the NFL, that potential could lead to something truly special.
I understand people who have reservations about that projection. Washington will never be a flex-him-around-the-formation guy. He doesn’t have the subtlety or instincts of Dalton Kincaid as a route runner. Developing that stuff is tough. But, right now, he is the perfect combination of clean-fit-with-high-upside within the Shanahan-LaFleur-McVay-style wide-zone-then-boot offense. In the run game, he can hold the point or put a dent in the defensive front. He has the burst to press downfield in the passing game, and enough wiggle to create separation one-on-one.
It comes down to this, for me: the Shanahan-style offense is built to put a two-way stretch on the defense and pierce a hole at the second level, with receivers catching the ball on the move in the void between a (pushed back) secondary and (drawn up) front. That doesn’t require a tight end to detach from the formation (though it’s a nice addition), but it does require them to be a net positive in the run game. I ask you this, who would you be most worried about grabbing the ball at the second-level with a runway? If you answer Sam LaPorta, I hear you. For me, that guy is Washington.
Mayer: Mayer isn’t your traditional Notre Dame tight end. He bounced around away from the formation more than the typical in-line guys that come out of the school. There is still an awful lot of good as a traditional combo tight end, though: He is an effort blocker in the run-game who can also punish defenses in the middle of the field. Mayer has a high floor. At worst, he will be a decent-ish blocker in the pros who can be relied upon to win one-on-one in coverage. The question is whether he has the twitch or long-speed to be a true game-breaker at the position.
Kincaid: Kincaid is the top ‘move’ tight end in this class. He’s a receiver in a tight end’s body — an oversized ‘X’ or boundary receiver playing as a tight end. He will be one of the league’s smallest tight ends as a starter – and he is one of the oldest prospects in the class. Only three tight ends in the NFL last year were 240 lbs. Kincaid is a tough one: he was one of college football’s best and most dynamic players. But his physical profile doesn’t match up with someone who will be a dynamic, multi-positional player at the next level. If you look across the league, there are a dearth of flexible tight ends – something I wrote about in more detail here. The league has moved on from that trend. They get receivers to be receivers – and they have the tight end do all the tight end stuff. They are still mismatch weapons over the middle of the field and in creating after the catch, but there’s less movement around the formation from the highs of the Jimmy Graham-Rob Gronkowski era. Kincaid’s skill-set feels like it would have blossomed eight years ago. What if he’s just a bigger, slower receiver? But what if you can construct a fresh offense around a move tight end, pushing the league into a new era? This stuff is hard.
LaPorta: LaPorta was the focal point of a truly awful Iowa passing game. He finished with 18 more receptions than any other Hawkeye weapon in 2021 and 24 more in 2022. Despite that, LaPorta is still raw as a route runner. He’s not a technician; he’s a bulldozer. But LaPorta is electric after the catch. He can break tackles and wriggle by smaller, agile defenders in the open field. It feels like his best football will be in front of him with a competent passing attack.
Paris Johnson Jr., Ohio State
Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
Anton Harrison, Oklahoma
Broderick Jones, Georgia
Darnell Wright, Tennessee
Dawand Jones, Ohio State
Nick Saldiveri, Old Dominion
Carter Warren, Pitt
Matthew Bergeron, Syracuse
Tyler Steen, Alabama
You can read a full breakdown of Dawand Jones here.
On Wednesday, Jon Ledyard and I went back and forth on our rankings and evaluations of the top-six tackles. You can listen to that here.
I’m more bullish on this tackle class than most. There is not a special prospect among this group. And if Paris Johnson, the top tackle on my board, was in last year’s class, he’d have ranked fourth. But I still like the five players who will be under consideration on Day One.
A quick note: I have Skoronski still listed as a tackle even though most have pushed him to the interior. If I were running a team, I’d at least try Skoronski at tackle first before moving him inside if necessary.
One name to watch on Day Two: Carter Warren. If not for an injury, Warren would feature in the discussion with the top six tackle prospects. He’s played a ton of football, starting at left tackle 40 times. Standing at 6-5, 320 lbs, he has a good frame. Warren is not an explosive athlete, and that lack of athleticism (paired with the injury) will have dinged him on boards. But he’s steady, a technician within the second-phase of the rush who plays with balance and strength. Power-rushers struggle to move him, and he’s quick enough to kick out to dip-and-rip guys. He has starter upside but will be available on Day Two.
Interior Offensive Linemen
O’Cyrus Torrence, Florida
Steve Avila, TCU
Jon Michael Schmitz, Minnesota
Cody Mauch, North Dakota State
Jon Gaines II, UCLA
Chandler Zavala, NC State
Luke Wypler, Ohio State
Joe Tippmann, Wisconsin
Ricky Stromberg, Alabama
Asim Richards, North Carolina
You can read a full breakdown of O’Cyrus Torrence, and why he’s the safest pair of hands in this class, here.
You can read a full breakdown of Steve Avila, and why he could be the ideal power-spread center, here.
You can read a full breakdown of Jon Michael Schmitz, Luke Wypler, Joe Tippmann and the center class here.
You can read a full breakdown of Cody Mauch and Jon Gaines II here.
Will Anderson, Alabama
Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech
Lukas Van Ness, Iowa
Myles Murphy, Clemson
Nolan Smith, Georgia
Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
Keion White, Georgia Tech
Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Kansas State
BJ Ojulari, LSU
Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame
Derick Hall, Auburn
Byron Young, Tennessee
Tuli Tuipulotu, USC
Zach Harrison, Ohio State
Andre Carter, Army
Nick Hampton, Appalachian State
You can read a full breakdown of Will Anderson, the top overall player on my board, here.
You can read a full breakdown of Isaiah Foskey and Byron Young, a player far higher on draft boards inside the league than on those out of it, here.
There is a significant gulf between Anderson and the rest of this class. Anderson stands alone as the sole blue-chip player. What this class does have is depth. I’d estimate 16 players will be selected in the top 100 picks. That’s a lot, particularly when pass-rush help is so universally valuable. What’s more impressive than the volume is the variety of pass-rushers. Every build and style is strongly represented. There isn’t a stand-alone crunch rusher and a batch of dip-and-rip guys. There is an even split of every skill set. There are the pogo stick artists (Nolan Smith, Keion White), the out-to-in maulers (Luke Van Ness, Isaiah Foskey), the outside swoopers (BJ Ojulari, Felix Anudike-Uzomah), and the physical freakazoids (Tyree Wilson, Myles Murphy). There aren’t many all-around packages — only Will Anderson truly fits the bill — but there are dynamic talents in every typical edge-rushing category.
Let’s rattle through a few.
Wilson: Wilson’s rise to his status as, likely, the first edge defender off the board is part-baffling, part-utterly predictable. He is one of the best athletic testers to have ever entered the draft. Whether he, you know has the skills and know-how to play football remains an open question. But the athletic traits are tantalizing: Wilson is 6-6, 275 lbs, and he moves like a middle linebacker. Texas Tech dabbled with bouncing Wilson around, using him as an off-ball ‘backer and an interior run-game clogger as much as an out-and-out pass-rusher. In those roles, he was miscast. He doesn’t have the natural leverage to play inside:
Out in space, he wasn’t nimble enough or switched on enough in coverage to be effective. He was essentially a traffic cone, albeit one with tree-like arms that could gum up passing lanes.
In the NFL, his job will be simpler, and that should unlock his game: Go and get the quarterback! Wilson needs technical refinement. There’s a ton of wasted movement in his game. He’s inconsistent off-the-ball. He arrives at blockers and then looks to bring power. His hands are sloppy. He can deliver serious power when everything is timed up correctly. When everything is synced up, he’s a freight train:
There are bad reps where he still does impressive things, his tools (the strength, second-surge, and contact balance) taking over.
But that doesn’t happen often enough – yet. And even when it does, the mechanics of how he gets there are off. The wasted steps. The technical constraints. Iffy pad level. He will not get away with that stuff and still be impactful in the pros.
Teams are hanging on to two ideas: That they can work on the initial rush phase; that he’s shown just enough in the second phase that he can get by as he develops in the early portion of the rep. Even when he doesn’t win off-the-snap, Wilson has the power to win with a second surge:
The talent is there to be tapped into by a quality defensive line coach. Feet. Hips. Hands. Coaches believe those are correctable, in that order. Fix the feet, and Wilson will better time his rushes; fix the hips, and his pad level will naturally sink, making him a more effective power-rusher. The glimpses of what could be are there.
Some plays look better suited for the Discovery Channel, not ESPN.
Holy God. What are we even supposed to do with this guy? Take him with a top-five pick and hope for the best, I guess. Gulp.
Maybe the hand-work never gets there, but if Wilson can correct the first two – and that remains a big if – he will develop into an effective rusher with a unique athletic profile. Slide him into an all-pass, all-the-damn time setup, utilizing ‘head-on’, out-to-in rushes, and you could unlock a Rashan Gary/Jadeveon Clowney caliber player if he’s able to overcome the technical issues.
Van Ness: Van Ness has a strange back story for a top prospect. He was a rotational option for Iowa. There were crucial games, and crucial reps, where he was kept off the field. As ‘oh no’s’ go for a big-time prospect, that’s just about a five-alarm fire. But Van Ness’ best football should be in front of him. He’s an all-power, all-the-time rusher built in the Trey Hendrickson model – he was better when matched up against guards (which was often his main assignment in college) than he was playing on the edge. Van Ness cannot do a lot; he’s not as versatile (yet) as you would like. But he brings so much oomph at the point of attack that he can be a valuable rotational option for any team’s pass-rush.
Murphy: Murphy sits in the freakazoid category alongside Tyree Wilson. He has been highly touted ever since high school simply because of his raw physical tools. Murphy works primarily as an edge defender but he has enough inside-out versatility that plenty of teams will see him as an interior rusher on passing downs. He has a ton work to do in developing his pass-rushing moves, but he clearly possesses the athletic ability to do so. The concern: his production. Murphy recorded 96 total pressures and 20 sacks in his Clemson career. His highs were some of the finest, most jaw-dropping plays in college football. But that was supplemented by 20-30 reps a game of wondering if he was even on the field.
Smith: Looking for a juiced-up, get-off-and-go, spring pass-rusher? Look no further. Smith is the twitchiest edge defender in this class. The question is whether he’s too light to play in the league. Smith played at a smidge over 250 lbs in college. At the combine, he tested in at 235 lbs. Can he continue to pack on weight and maintain his springs? He can sink and dip like anyone, but does he have the in-line torque to hang in the run game and to not be a one-dimensional rusher? In the modern NFL, the bulkier, power-rushers have taken over. Who’s the best pure dip-and-rip guy right now? Haason Reddick is the closest, but he’s got so many other angles to his game that play off the threat of the rip. Smith does not right now. Smith was, however, a menace vs. the run. There’s some thunder in those mitts. He can convert speed-to-power when required; it’s just an open question of whether that power can translate to the league against tackles who will have 100lbs-plus on Smith.
White: White is another bouncy swooper who wins with first-step quicks around the edge. He’s heavier than Smith, standing at 286 lbs, which gives him an edge. White is still learning, he played tight end at Old Dominion before transferring to Georgia Tech to play defense. Often, he looks. But he’s further along in his development than someone like Tyree Wilson, with a similar athletic upside. White’s best football is ahead of him. Someone should bank on the upside.
McDonald IV: I would be stunned if McDonald (and Felix Anudike-Uzomah, for what it’s worth) was not a first-round pick. He has two key unteachable traits: Burst and bend. McDonald’s path to the pros is a tricky one. He played in Iowa State’s funky three-down, three-deep defense. Often he was pushed inside into a heavy-5/4i role, or lined up over a tackle rather than outside of them, despite having a skinny build. He was a cog in the Iowa State machine, rarely given the width to play as a true get-off-and-go edge-rusher, which will be his future in the NFL. He is a classic dip-and-rip rusher with an explosive first-step. As of now, there’s little else to his pass-rushing repertoire. He wants to arc around the edge and bend home. At the next level, he will have to learn how to use that move to set-up counter moves. He flashes some power, but his game is more speed-based. He will need to beef up to live on the edge in the NFL; teams will be hoping he can maintain his hops and flexibility as he adds some extra lbs.
Interior Defensive Linemen
Jalen Carter, Georgia
Calijah Kancey, Pitt
Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin
Siaki Ika, Baylor
Mazi Smith, Michigan
Bryan Bresee, Clemson
Gervon Dexter, Florida
Adetomiwa Adebawore, Northwestern
Zacch Pickens, South Carolina
Kobie Turner, Wake Forest
You can read a full breakdown of Calijah Kancey here.
You can read a full breakdown of Gervon Dexter here, one of the top ‘boom or bust’ prospects in this class: An immensely talented lineman with one fundamental flaw.
You know all about Jalen Carter by now. On the field, Carter is essentially Thanos: 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. Off the field issues – speeding tickets; an arrest in relation to the death of a teammate and team staffer – have, understandably, overshadowed Carter’s pre-draft process. There are open questions about his football character and work ethic. For what it’s worth, the intel I’ve gleaned from scouts on Carter is that the majority of the ‘off-the-field’ concerns boil down to ‘he plays too much PlayStation’.
A couple of other names to touch on here. Siaki Ika is the top pure-nose tackle in this class. He’s a vintage: drop his ass in the A-gap and dare you to move him off his spot, kind of lineman. That’s a pro and con: He has a clearly defined game and he’s already mastered it; there’s questions about his ability to rush the passer in obvious pass-rushing situations. Defenders (and I count myself among them) will point to the development of Vita Vea, who became a valuable pass-rusher at a heavier size once he was in the league. Detractors will point to a slew of one-dimensional, one-down, one-tech tackles who cannot get on the field for more than a handful of snaps.
The #MyGuy from this group: Keeanu Benton. Benton has the ideal frame and burst for an interior lineman – 6-4, 315lbs. He plays with outstanding strength and balance in his base and strong hands at the point of attack. He is rarely, if ever, moved off his spot. He’s quick enough to wreck the backfield off the snap, and has the strength and body control to hang in a rep and collapse things once in flow.
He can play anywhere along the interior, in any scheme you demand. He is an outstanding team construct run defender, and four or five times a game he is just going to take over.
The question is whether he can develop as a true three-down player. Right now, his pad level stinks, which limits his get-off and effectiveness as a pass-rusher. His in-line strength and body control can help cover up flaws in the run-game. But he plays too upright and wide in the passing game to be consistently effective. By playing high, he loses leverage and momentum on contact, forcing him to stop his feet and then restart.
He can be maddeningly inefficient as a pass-rusher.
The flashes are tasty. He certainly has the torque, the balance, the hands and the closing speed to be an effective interior rusher. When he gets off the ball with the correct pad-level, he can collapse things on his lonesome. But he remains a work in progress as a pass-rusher. That will ding his value, but some team will snag a valuable, versatile lineman with three-down, game-breaking potential.
Daiyan Henley, Washington State
Jack Campbell, Iowa
Drew Sanders, Arkansas
Trenton Simpson, Clemson
Dorian Williams, Tulane
Demarvion Overshown, Texas
Nick Herbig, Wisconsin
Anfernee Orji, Vanderbilt
Henry To’oto’o, Alabama
Yasir Abdullah, Louisville
You can read a breakdown of this linebacker class, and why it’s silly to lump all linebackers together as a collective here.
You can read in more detail about Daiyan Henley and Drew Sanders here.
You can also read a breakdown of Anfernee Orji, a sleeper in this class, here.
Dorian Williams is the name to watch outside of the top-four. It wouldn’t be a complete stunner if he was the second linebacker off the board. Williams is a see-ball-get-ball flier. He doesn’t have the versatility of a Sanders or Simpson. He won’t flex across the formation in the same. But he’s the ideal weakside zoomer who will serve as both a torpedo versus the run and a solid zone defender in coverage. Whether he can offer more is an open question. But in the current evolutionary cycle of the NFL, that profile has value.
Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
Deonte Banks, Maryland
Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
Cam Smith, South Carolina
Kelee Ringo, Georgia
Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State
DJ Turner II, Michigan
Julius Brent, Kansas State
Tyrique Stevenson, Miami
Clark Phillips III, Utah
Kyu Blu Kelly, Stanford
Darius Rush, South Carolina
Terell Smith, Minnesota
You can read a full breakdown of DJ Turner II, Julius Brents and Terell Smith here
I realize I’ve not written a ton about the top-end of this cornerback group this cycle, a group I love. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of the top-11 on the above board go in the first-round, and I could make a compelling case for each why they should. It’s unusual to have any one position — a premium position — with that level of concentrated talent. Someone is going to snag a gem at the back-end of the first round and early on Day Two. Here’s a quick snapshot of each of the top guys.
But first: Keen-eyed readers will have spotted something. In the last week, I’ve flipped Devon Witherspoon and Christian Gonzalez. They still occupy the 3rd and 4th spots on my overall board, but I’ve flipped them.
Why? It’s hard to say — it’s one of the reasons why doing this on the outside is so much easier than on the inside. My grading system hands the edge to Gonzalez, by a hair. But my heart — MY FOOTBALL SOUL, PEOPLE — cannot get past the ferocity Witherspoon’s ferocity. He plays with an aggressiveness bordering on violence.
Illinois lined up Witherspoon in press-coverage on damn near every snap. And he obliterated everyone. Witherspoon demolished receivers in press (sometimes literally heaving them into the backfield) and he flattened people in the run game. Concerns about his size and how that translates to the next level are indeed fair, but Witherspoon is so technically astute that I don’t the size will be an issue.
There are so few flaws to correct, technically, when lined up one-on-one in press. There will need to be growth as a zone and match corner, but there isn’t a coach alive who wouldn’t prefer the dominant press corner who might take a couple of years to understand the nuances of a match-based system.
Witherspoon dominated outside. He was outstanding when lined up in the slot:
Witherspoon pairs an understanding of route concepts and combinations with his quick feet and natural, in-out fluidity. He is always – always – arriving at a receiver’s landmark before they even get there themselves.
Through tape alone, Witherspoon may be the very best player in this class; it’s him or Bijan Robinson. By the measurables, he will make history when he’s selected in the top-eight. Witherspoon is undersized. He has shorter arms. He’s light. Taken together, those traits make pro teams wince. But Witherspoon plays bigger than his size. He’s a missile versus the run. He’s a savant in press-and-trail technique, making up for his lack of arm length with smarts and instincts. And he’s the slickest in-out mover in the class, giving him the kind of anywhere-in-the-backfield versatility needed in the modern era as offenses motion, shift and move around pre-snap.
Gonzalez has special skills. He’s going to be really, really good. But if you asked me, of the two, who I would want on my team, Witherspoon is the one.
As we head to draft night, it seems like his floor is the sixth overall pick.
Gonzalez: Gonzalez is the prototypical cornerback prospect. Everything he does looks effortless. At 6-foot-2, 201lbs, he moves extremely well for his size. Gonzalez has displayed an array of coverage skills: he’s mauled people in bump-and-run coverage; he’s shown sharp instincts when pressing-and-trailing (the most used style in the NFL); he’s shown great instincts sagging off in off-man and zone-coverages, undercutting throws to make plays on the ball. With arms so long he looks like he can tie his shoes stood up, he profiles as a pure press-corner at the next level, with enough in-out versatility to move around the defensive formation. There aren’t typically homerun cornerback picks; it’s a volatile position. But Gonzalez is one of those rare homeruns.
Banks: Banks is the contrast to Witherspoon. Banks is, in essence, Stephon Gilmore. He’s a big, thick, long, bump-and-run corner. He wins by stone-walling receivers at the snap, dislodging them from their routes, and throwing off the timing of the offense. He isn’t as fluid in space as Witherspoon, but he’s plenty fluid enough for someone of his size. Unlike other man-coverage-only corners in this class, who get some coverage help from their scheme, Banks has shown he can toggle between alignments even at his size – playing some off-ball, playing some in the slot. If anything, his menu will be limited once he arrives in the pros: Go and plant those long arms on a receiver and run all over the field. With his size and skills, there’s a chance he’s a shock top-ten pick.
Porter Jr.: Porter is a ginormous corner with a massive wingspan. Plenty of analysts and evaluators will have him closely comped to Deonte Banks and, like Banks, they will compare him to Stephon Gilmore. The consensus has Porter Jr. third in the class among corners. I’m not there. Porter is too grabby. He panics. Banks, like Gilmore, is patient. They win with a punch, and then they’ve mastered the art of reading hips and diagnosing route patterns. Porter wants to be more physical. He punches, he grabs, and he rides that down the field. That style can work in college. In the pros, the players are too good and the officials too whistle happy. Once he’s disengaged from the receiver, Porter lacks the high-end speed needed to recover, and the short-area twitch to cut in-and-out. He needs to develop a secondary move after the punch. If he can do that, he has the physical profile to be one of the rare corners who can truly match up with #1 receivers on the perimeter.
Brian Branch, Alabama
Quan Martin, Illinois
Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
Jordan Battle, Alabama
Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State
Sydney Brown, Illinois
Jammie Robinson, Florida State
JL Skinner, Boise State
You can read a full breakdown of Quan Martin here.
You can read a full breakdown of Jordan Battle here.
In a dud of a safety class, Brian Branch stands alone. Branch might be the most fun player in the entire country. He is a top-10 talent who can align anywhere on the field. He is a heat-seeker at the position despite being undersized (6-0, 193 lbs). There’s some Honey Badger to his game: He can align anywhere in the defensive backfield. He’s a high-level slot corner, he can play off the ball (only 101 snaps in his career though), and he can move and roll all over the place pre-snap, which would help make up for some concerns about his natural agility. He also played a bunch as a dime linebacker in Alabama’s system. At his size, that might be tough in the NFL, but he plays the run with such ferocity and authority that he will be able to get away with it in spurts. Defensive coordinators will be falling over themselves to get Branch on their defense.
Like Branch, Antonio Johnson bounced around the Aggies’ defensive backfield. He played some free safety, played some on the strong side and played a bunch of snaps as a true slot. He’s a long, lean safety with a real suddenness to his game. There are rightful concerns about his fluidity in space. Is he a linear athlete or a natural football player? And that lack of agility impacted his production when pushed out the slot – a spot in which he could not win in the initial phase by just bodying receivers at the line of scrimmage. Where, exactly, Johnson plays at the next level is a question, but there’s an interesting player in amongst those tools somewhere.
Johnson is the second safety on the consensus big board. And I do believe that he’s a more polished player (and prospect) than Quan Martin. But there’s something about Martin’s tenacity and instincts when afforded the chance to play in the middle-of-the-field that gives him the edge for me here.