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The NFL Draft Prospects to Watch In the 2023 Class

Next year’s group of quarterbacks already looks more impressive than 2022’s, but a defensive player is in the running to be the no. 1 overall pick

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Where the 2022 NFL draft largely suffered for stars—at the quarterback position and elsewhere—the 2023 class looks legitimately star-studded. A season’s development can change a lot about what we know—or think we know—about these prospects, but there’s enough high-level talent worthy of preemptive introduction.

Much better quarterback prospects

There are two names at the top of the list, and both are known commodities from brand-name schools: Bryce Young out of Alabama, and CJ Stroud out of Ohio State. Both are draft-eligible after the 2022 season, and assuming both go in the first round—a safe bet barring disastrous injury or play—they will continue a stellar tradition for their respective schools: Stroud would become the third Ohio State QB taken in the first round in the last five years and Young would be the third Alabama QB taken on Day 1 in the last four years.

Young and Stroud are advanced and mature young passers who should be considered at the top of the first round after another season of development.

Stroud took the most noticeable leap last season. He was a bit of a liability at first, missing open receivers and leaving points on the board in a Week 2 loss to Oregon.

Concerns about his performance against the Ducks proved to be overblown. Stroud grew into a reliable and explosive force as the season progressed, spearheading the Ohio State offense.

Stroud spent much of the rest of his sophomore campaign managing the pocket and executing the offense with aplomb. Stroud may not have the strongest arm, but he throws with accuracy and touch when he’s on—and even under pressure, which he was a lot last season.

That Stroud is such a quality pocket passer at 20 years old is impressive. But Young, also 20, is even better. As always, Alabama’s offensive depth chart is stocked with first-round talent to support Young, and the same is true for Stroud, but Young faces a higher level of competition in the SEC. Young was unflappable in 2021, regularly managing pressure with his quick processing ability and natural quickness. Young’s first game against Georgia—a Crimson Tide win in the SEC championship game—was a statement performance for Young, who created enough offense to beat a Bulldogs’ defense that largely outclassed Alabama.

Young and Stroud both enter the 2022 season looking like consummate NFL pros, with skills beyond their years, desirable physical traits, and winning pedigrees. Young does have one notable wart that Stroud doesn’t: his size. Alabama currently lists Young at 6-feet and 194 pounds, which makes him a remarkably small NFL quarterback. Only 12 quarterbacks in MockDraftable’s database have entered the NFL combine under 200 pounds; none were drafted in the first round, and only West Virginia’s Pat White—one of the greatest rushing quarterbacks in college football history—was selected in the first three rounds. NFL personnel will have questions about size for Young that Stroud (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) will not have to endure.

The best of the rest from the QB class

While Stroud and Young alone represent a massive upgrade on the quarterback landscape compared to this year’s class, there is also a deep group of potential first-round risers. There always is, of course—May is the time for endless quarterback optimism—but the names are still worth mentioning.

Kentucky’s Will Levis has been a hot name, and understandably so. He’s a toolsy passer with a great build for dual-threat usage in the NFL (6-foot-3, 232 pounds, 4.10-second short shuttle and 36-inch vertical jump in high school). That rushing ability, along with his whip of an arm, were put on display by Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen in a college iteration of Sean McVay’s Rams’ offense, which created easy downfield opportunities for Levis to exploit. Divorcing Levis’s production from his offensive system will be tough, but his success under an NFL coach (Coen is now the Rams’ offensive coordinator) will encourage teams, especially as he has been successful making NFL throws.

The biggest knock on Levis is his age. As a graduate transfer from Penn State, where he failed to supplant starter Sean Clifford, Levis is much like Kenny Pickett was in this year’s draft class: He will play his entire final college season at 23 years old, and will turn 24 before he takes an NFL snap. That huge age advantage forces evaluators to grade Levis’s late-career production on a curve, especially relative to the youth of Stroud and Young at the top of this class.

Levis is old; BYU quarterback Jaren Hall is really old. A member of the Cougars’ 2016 recruiting class, Hall began his BYU career later while he embarked on his Latter-day Saints mission. Hall will also be in his mid-20s should he enter the NFL draft after his junior season in 2022. The successor to Zach Wilson at BYU, Hall is another dual-threat quarterback with plus arm talent, and he showed improved consistency in 2021.

Another one-year starter with a ton of hype is Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke. He isn’t the same level of dual-threat as Levis and Hall, but he slung it around with impunity last year. The 2021 ACC Rookie of the Year has a prototypical build (6-foot-4, 224 pounds), a legit NFL arm, and regularly attacked downfield windows that other college quarterbacks would shy away from. He has a nice developmental arc after only nine starts last season: Of the three quarterbacks featured here, Van Dyke has the best chance of ascending into the top echelon with Young and Stroud, as his play style and arm strength will allow for a much bigger portfolio of NFL throws than those of Levis and Hall.

These three are far from the only three quarterbacks who could rise during the 2022 college football season: Stanford’s Tanner McKee, South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, Fresno State’s Jake Haener, and Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec are all names to watch. I’m confident saying the 2023 quarterback class will be a good one. Certainly better than whatever we were dealing with this year.

The edge rusher that would have gone no. 1 overall this year

Despite all of the talent at quarterback, if I was laying money right now, I’d bet that Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. goes first overall in the 2023 NFL draft. And he doesn’t play quarterback—he rushes the quarterback.

Anderson’s film is hilarious. He looks like he was custom-built to rush the passer: He’s 6-foot-4, 243 pounds, with arms so long he could touch his knees without bending over. Alabama’s GPS tracking has clocked Anderson moving at 20 mph; he was the fastest player on the Crimson Tide’s 2021 team going from a total standstill to five yards, moving at 10.7 mph. That instant acceleration came just behind ex-Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle, who hit 11.2 mph.

Waddle: 182-pound punt returner and standout NFL wide receiver. Anderson: 243-pound pass rusher. It’s difficult to capture just how insane that explosion is. But you can see opposing tackles feel it on any given snap.

Anderson moves and looks like a first overall pick. Like Travon Walker, who went first overall this year, there will be some difficulty in projecting out Anderson to the league. Anderson spent a healthy number of snaps this year playing on the interior, so most of those reps aren’t translatable to his NFL role. But it is shocking to see how successful Anderson is taking on contact and playing the run at his size. This is no Brian Burns-esque rusher who just “gets away with it” in the running game—he’s a legit force in the trenches. The violence and strength with which he plays is … well, it’s also really hard to express. This is a unique player.

Anderson will hopefully get more true outside pass-rushing reps this season, but even if he doesn’t, his current body of work and physical profile already warrants the first overall selection.

The Georgia defender that would have gone before all the others this year

OK, so this title doesn’t actually work that well, in that a Georgia defender went first overall in the 2022 NFL draft, but hear me out: The best player on the Georgia defense in 2021—a defense that had five first-round picks—is still on the roster in 2022.

Defensive tackle Jalen Carter isn’t draft-eligible until next year. He wears no. 88, in case you noticed him on the Dawgs’ national championship-winning team, and he’s something special.

While Walker and last year’s teammate, fellow DT Jordan Davis, may have been atypical stars on a dominant college defense, Carter is more in line with what we expect from a player at his position. He’s a penetrating upfield force with the ability to win in a multitude of ways, possessing the size, hand usage, change of direction, and straight-line explosiveness that detail a dominant three–technique in the NFL. It is impossible to watch Carter annihilate college offensive lines and not immediately see a prime Fletcher Cox, another upright and powerful rusher with impossible agility for his 310-pound size. Like Cox, Carter is one of those rare prospects who can produce double-digit sacks from the interior.

Georgia may struggle to keep attention off of Carter this year, as the talent drain along their defensive line leaves Carter as one of few remaining proven quantities from last year’s dominant team. Young 4- and 5-stars will certainly step up, but don’t be surprised if Carter gets regular double-team treatment and doesn’t stuff the stat sheet. Of course, Carter can handle the attention of multiple blockers, no problem.

The proof is in the film, however: Carter is as dominant of a force as the position sees. Four defensive tackles have been selected in the top five of the draft in the last 12 years: Quinnen Williams (third overall in 2019), Marcell Dareus (third overall in 2011), and Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy (second and third overall in 2010). I expect Carter to be the fifth by this time next year.

The ‘nexts’

First-round RB: Bijan Robinson

It’s always a pleasant draft cycle when we can sidestep the hemming and hawing about a potential first-round pick at running back – we likely won’t have that luxury next season. Texas RB Bijan Robinson is a true junior with everything you expect from a star back: size, explosiveness, vision, and third-down value as a pass-catcher. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t a first-round pick next season—and he may not be the only one.

First round LSU WR: Kayshon Boutte

The battle for WR1 should be fun, as it is every season. The clubhouse is led by Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who had a breakout season even while contending with 2022 first-round picks Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson for snaps and targets. But don’t sleep on Kayshon Boutte, a rising junior at LSU. Boutte has been the WR1 in LSU since the departures of Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Terrace Marshall Jr., and horrible quarterback play and injury has concealed another stud pass-catcher for the Tigers. There’s always a wide receiver who jumps from relative anonymity into the first round limelight – I like Boutte as that player.

Joey Porter: Joey Porter Jr.

This one doesn’t actually work, because Joey Porter was a linebacker, and Joey Porter Jr. is a cornerback. But one of the great parts of new draft cycles is finding new ways to feel extremely old and washed, and this year’s “Wait…that guy’s son is old enough to play in the NFL?!” player is Penn State’s Porter, a 6-foot-2 cornerback with length and multiple years of starting experience. Porter will have his fans during the 2023 draft cycle and there will be no doubting his NFL pedigree.

Gronk: Michael Mayer

Every year, it seems we have a new “Baby Gronk” emerge in the tight end class. I generally hate that moniker – Gronk is a one-of-a-kind tight end for his versatility as a receiver and as a blocker. But if one prospect deserves to bear Gronk’s name, it’s Mayer, the latest and greatest in a long line of tight ends from Notre Dame. Last season, Mayer set the school record for receiving yards (840) and receiving touchdowns (7) by a tight end, all while providing high-end blocking in the running game. Mayer’s a true combo tight end in a league that increasingly needs those players to emerge. He’ll be a first rounder, by my book.