The NFL draft process is always an extended circus. Months of mock drafts, rankings, rumors, adjustments, and anonymous quotes. And yet every season, after all that work, we always end up at the exact same spot we’ve always been: sitting just hours out from the start of the proceedings, wondering … what, exactly, is about to happen?
This year is a perfect example. There hasn’t been this much chaos at the top of the draft since the Cleveland Browns shockingly selected Baker Mayfield with the first pick in 2018. We aren’t lined up for that level of surprise—Bryce Young will almost certainly be made a Carolina Panther with the first selection—but everything afterward? That’s up in the air.
Here are my big questions as we approach the first round of the 2023 NFL draft.
What are the Houston Texans up to?
This is the most crucial question of the draft right now. It’s a common draft trope to say “the draft starts at” whatever pick is the first pick that’s up in the air. But man, everything hinges on what the Texans do at 2. Let’s run through their options.
We’ll start with the obvious: The Texans should take a quarterback. With Davis Mills, Case Keenum, and E.J. Perry on their current depth chart, Houston has no serious options at the position. While the Texans were long connected to Young, who will be off the board with the Panthers’ first overall pick, they have the rest of the quarterback class to choose from. Their best-of-the-rest option seems to be Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, who is largely viewed as the QB2 in this class by the NFL.
Only, it seems the Texans don’t want to do that. Houston has been heavily connected to two defensive ends, Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. and Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson. Of course, if the Texans are not taking a quarterback with the second pick, then they will be receiving—and considering—trade offers as QB-needy teams with positions later in the draft (Colts at 4, Raiders at 7, Titans at 11, Patriots at 14) look to move up and get their guy.
But! The Texans have still been connected to quarterbacks like Levis … only, with the 12th pick (which they received from Cleveland as a result of the Deshaun Watson trade). With a small trade-up, the Texans could potentially get back in on the same quarterback class they pass on with the second pick. Which is crazy!
In a vacuum, the Texans’ options are already bananas. Stay at 2, move down from 2, move up from 12, get a quarterback, get a pass rusher. But let’s add some context. If they take an edge rusher at 2, that selection will have ripple effects. The league is pretty split on Anderson and Wilson—the Cardinals at 3, the Seahawks at 5, and the Lions at 6 may all be affected by which pass rusher stays on the board after the Texans pick at 2. And if the Texans do stay to take that edge rusher, now the third pick—which the Cardinals have desperately been trying to trade all draft cycle—becomes much more valuable, as teams look to hop the Colts at 4 and snag a quarterback.
I feel I’m stuck in the Charlie Day Pepe Silvia scene.
It’s impossible to figure out what the Cardinals will do at 3 until we know what the Texans will do at 2. Which means it’s impossible to really know who will trade up for a quarterback—and which one—until we know what the Texans will do at 2. The Texans have control over the entire weekend in what is a critical draft for GM Nick Caserio. High stakes, big stuff.
How far will Jalen Carter fall?
No prospect has been a bigger question mark this cycle than Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter. Figuring out where an elite defensive tackle will get taken is trouble enough—only a few top-tier talents, like Quinnen Williams (2019), Marcell Dareus (2011), and Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy (2010) have gone in the top five in the past 15 years. As an on-field talent, Carter is that caliber of a prospect.
But Carter’s pre-draft process has been troubled. On March 1, during the NFL combine, an arrest warrant was issued for Carter for reckless driving and racing. This warrant was connected to a car crash in January that killed multiple people associated with Georgia’s football program, including one of Carter’s teammates. Carter left the combine, went back to Georgia, was booked and released on bond, and returned to the combine. He also released a statement in which he said that “when all of the facts are known … I will be fully exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing.” The legal resolution to Carter’s arrest was a no-contest plea that resulted in 12 months of probation, a fine of $1,000, 80 months of community service, and a driving course. But that’s the legal process—not the NFL’s process.
Carter’s arrest provides some context to what have long been fuzzy rumors about his off-field character. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said in December (before the car racing accident, which was in January), “With Carter, there are some character issues. Does he get along with everybody, what’s he like to deal with in the locker room, those sorts of issues. … Carter is going to be a hot-button name when we talk about some of the intangible aspects of it.”
These concerns were not assuaged by Carter’s performance at the Georgia pro day, which was especially important for him because he missed the on-field testing in Indianapolis during the NFL combine. Carter added nine pounds in the two weeks between the combine and the pro day and reportedly could not finish his positional drills after cramping up.
The worst thing you can say about a bad pro day performance is that the player was underprepared—and Carter was understandably underprepared, considering that he’d been arrested two weeks prior. But that’s the point. NFL teams prefer to draft football robots—guys who eat, drink, sleep, and breathe the sport and nothing but. The concern with Carter is that he’ll always carry off-field baggage, and that has the potential to affect his on-field performance.
Accordingly, Carter, once considered a candidate to go first overall, is expected to slip … kinda? His ceiling now seems to be the Seattle Seahawks’ fifth pick. FanDuel has Carter as a huge favorite to be selected fifth (-180) over the next-closest option (Anthony Richardson at +500), and that’s a recent development. Other teams that have been linked to Carter include the Bears at 9 and the Eagles at 10, who Carter himself said he believed would take him if he were still available.
So Carter won’t fall too far as a result of his shaky predraft process. But where exactly he’ll end up—and whether he’ll prove to be the impact player he was once believed to be—remains to be seen.
Who believes in Hendon Hooker?
As the draft process has trudged along, through the College Football Playoff and into the Senior Bowl, from the Senior Bowl to the NFL combine, from the combine to pro days, and now to the days ramping up to the draft, one story line has been consistent: The NFL loves Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. But even for a guy whom the league loves, a first-round price seems steep for a 25-year-old quarterback coming off an ACL injury. Yet that’s what we’re looking at.
Hooker is currently -145 on FanDuel Sportsbook to be a first-round selection. It is more likely than not that he’ll be picked in the top 31, but who will take him? That’s far less certain.
The Vikings have long been considered a dark horse to take a quarterback in this class, potentially moving up from the 23rd pick to do so. They have a veteran quarterback in Kirk Cousins with only a year left on his deal. The same is true of the Titans at 11 with Ryan Tannehill; the Lions, who have the 18th pick, have only two years left on Jared Goff’s deal. Even the Seahawks, who just extended Geno Smith, can get out of that contract after just one season—and they have the 20th selection in hand. The teams with veteran quarterbacks in place seem like nice Hooker landing spots, as he won’t need to rush back from ACL recovery to start early on—but they aren’t the only teams that may have their eyes on Hooker. Those pesky Texans, with all their chaos, have been connected to Hooker with the 12th pick by both Peter King and John McClain.
Will C.J. Stroud fall?
The excitement over Hooker comes with a cost—the potential fall of other quarterbacks. With Young at 1 and Levis presumably going somewhere high to some interested team, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Florida’s Anthony Richardson are left in the wind. Stroud, in particular, has had a tricky predraft process. Reports of a bad score on the S2 test (an increasingly popular cognitive test given during the predraft process) have explained Stroud’s falling stock. As longtime NFL writer Bob McGinn reported: “Stroud scored 18,” an executive said. “That is like red alert, red alert, you can’t take a guy like that. That is why I have Stroud as a bust. That in conjunction with the fact, name one Ohio State quarterback that’s ever done it in the league.”
The touchiness around Stroud doesn’t mean he won’t go early—remember, it takes only one team. But if any of the top quarterbacks have a surprising draft-day fall, I’d imagine it’d be Stroud.
How will the wide receivers shake out?
Last year, we had four receivers taken in the first 12 picks; this year, I think we’ll have none.
It isn’t even that bad of a wide receiver class. Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Zay Flowers are both expected to be first-round picks; TCU’s Quentin Johnston and USC’s Jordan Addison (the latter of whom was invited to the first round of the NFL draft) are also candidates to go in the top 31 picks. FanDuel currently sets the line for first-round wide receivers at 3.5.
The order of the wideouts and the teams? You tell me. Smith-Njigba has been the favorite to be the first off the board for a long time, and there are some connections to teams just outside the top 10: the Titans at 11, the Packers at 13, the Patriots at 14, and the Jets at 15. But it isn’t set in stone that Smith-Njigba will go first—there are pockets of hype for Flowers, Addison, and even Johnston, the only highly regarded big receiver in a class full of smaller slot types.
And the need for wide receiver is high once we start to get into the 20s. The Seahawks, Chargers, Ravens, and Vikings all could reasonably take a receiver in the first round—they own four picks in a row, with other receiver-needy teams in the Giants (25) and the Bills (27) right behind them. So many of those teams also need fast receivers—think about the Chargers’ lack of team speed, the Ravens’ lack of established talent, the Giants’ love for small, shifty wideouts.
The wide receiver class may be weaker than it’s been in years past, but the need is still there, and the class isn’t that strong overall. But nobody will tip their hand in a weak class for fear of losing their guy. It’s surprisingly tough to figure out what will happen at such a premium position as wide receiver.