The 2023 NFL draft is in the books. And like every year, it taught us something about the league, vaulted some teams up a tier, and left us with a head-scratcher or two. Here are my main takeaways from 2023 draft weekend.
The rich are getting richer in Philadelphia.
The award for the best draft goes to the Philadelphia Eagles. Arguably the top prospect in the entire field fell to them at no. 9—Jalen Carter, defensive tackle from Georgia. The steal of the first round may have been fellow Georgia defender Nolan Smith, who was a projected top-10 pick but landed with the Eagles at no. 30. And then, at the top of Round 4, they got one of the best remaining players overall, cornerback Kelee Ringo, out of … wait, this can’t be right. Georgia?
The Eagles’ successful draft puts another feather in the now-crowded cap of general manager Howie Roseman, who turned a team that went 4-11-1 in 2020 into a Super Bowl competitor in just two short years. Roseman’s success this week has had plenty of NFL fans asking the question: How does he keep getting away with this? And I want to actually answer that.
There are a few contributing factors. First: The Eagles do not have size constraints for their positions that are as rigid as other teams’. Look at some of the running backs they’ve acquired in recent years: Donnel Pumphrey, Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott. Each is 5-foot-9 or shorter and weighs less than 205 pounds. Those backs are simply too small for other teams. Then there’s defensive back: the Eagles have drafted Zech McPhearson, K’von Wallace, and Avonte Maddox all in recent years—each with an arm length that’s in the 30th percentile or lower for their position group. (Ringo is 42nd percentile for arm length, but 24th for overall wingspan). Pass rusher: Haason Reddick and Smith are two of the lightest pass rushers in combine history.
It’s not that the Eagles search out these players—it’s that they don’t take them off the board over some of these measurables, which widens Philly’s options. This was clearly the case for Smith, a delightful athlete and impressive player who is undersized but has an otherwise flawless profile. Weighing in under 240 pounds took him off some boards. Not the Eagles’.
The Eagles’ other first-round pick was also off some boards, but for other reasons. The off-field concerns for Carter, who was arrested during the NFL combine on reckless driving charges, worried some teams at the top, as did his subsequent disappointing Pro Day performance. This isn’t necessarily a trend in Philadelphia, but it is a reason why the Eagles had the draft they did. The presence of key veterans along the defensive line, like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, as well as previous Georgia players like Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean, led Philly to believe it could support Carter as he continues to develop as a player and person.
Of course, the reason the Eagles have a bunch of Carter’s old teammates from Georgia is because, well, they’ve drafted a bunch of players from Georgia. The Eagles are the first team in the current draft format to take five defensive players from the same school in consecutive drafts.
The @Eagles are the 1st team in the Common Draft Era (1967) to select 5 defensive players from the same school over a 2-yr span @GeorgiaFootball. pic.twitter.com/SNTV45nKAF— Kevin Negandhi (@KevinNegandhi) April 29, 2023
Why does Roseman like all of these Georgia players? I don’t really know. In 2020 and 2021, he preferred Alabama stars—Roseman took Jalen Hurts, Landon Dickerson, and DeVonta Smith in consecutive drafts. Before that, there was a West Virginia run (Wendell Smallwood, Shelton Gibson, Rasul Douglas) and a Pac-12 run (Andre Dillard, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Davion Taylor). I’m not sure any of those “trends” rise above the level of just “noise.” But whatever Roseman is cooking now, one thing is certain: He thinks the current edge is with the national champion Bulldogs.
And fundamentally, that’s how Roseman keeps getting away with this: by chasing perceived edges and hammering them no matter what. When Roseman selected Hurts, he did so believing that the QB2 position mattered more than other teams realized; that the competitive advantage offered by a QB on a rookie contract was one of the biggest advantages an NFL team could have. In many ways he got lucky—most second-round quarterbacks don’t wind up being successful NFL players. But he was also right.
The Eagles also constantly invest in offensive and defensive linemen, giving them another advantage in the trenches. The Eagles walked into this year’s draft with needs at safety, linebacker, and running back—the same positions where they’ve had needs for the last five seasons. Other general managers would have tried to fill those holes, yet the Eagles took a defensive tackle, defensive end, and offensive lineman to start the draft, because that’s where their edge is. That’s why they took Josh Sweat in the fourth round a year after taking Derek Barnett in the first—and now, Sweat’s the very starter holding Smith out of a starting job. It’s why Philly took Milton Williams in the third round in 2021, a pick that was famously debated by members of the Eagles front office, and now he and Carter will step into the roles left behind by Javon Hargrave and Ndamukong Suh. Jordan Mailata in Round 7, Jack Driscoll in Round 5, Landon Dickerson in Round 2, Cam Jurgens in Round 2, and Andre Dillard in Round 1 complete an entire starting offensive line; all were taken by the Eagles in the four drafts immediately preceding this one; and still, Philly took Tyler Steen in Round 3.
This is not a revolutionary approach. Neither is the willingness Roseman has to take on free agents and trades—Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, James Bradberry, Darius Slay, A.J. Brown, Rashaad Penny, D’Andre Swift—that other teams strangely shy away from. But Roseman is a risk-taker in a league full of rigid rule followers at general manager. He’s willing to take chances while other teams color within the lines. That’s why us outside observers—in the media and as fans—keep asking how he’s getting away with this; because he’s constantly updating his ways of thinking while other organizations get stuck in the mud.
It hasn’t always worked, of course. Roseman lost control of the front office in 2015 to Chip Kelly. The overwhelming majority of Eagles fans wanted Roseman ousted in 2020. His control over the Eagles’ football operations led to the eventual split with Super Bowl–winning coach Doug Pederson. Roseman is not a perfect GM, and just because he got Carter at no. 9, Nolan Smith at no. 30, and Kelee Ringo at no. 105 doesn’t mean his approach is perfect, either. But he has an approach, he’s seen it build multiple Super Bowl teams in recent years, and he’s going to stick with it through thicks and thins, lulls and swells, the natural upheaval of NFL seasons.
And when it hits? Boy, does it look pretty.
Chris Ballard is making the most of his second act.
Chris Ballard has always been a solid drafter. He takes big athletes with high football character, hands them over to the coaching staff, and watches them blossom in Indianapolis. That’s the story of key players from recent Colts seasons: Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Michael Pittman, Jelani Woods, and Braden Smith.
The issue with the Colts over Ballard’s tenure, though, has been his management of the quarterback position. The constant recycling of veteran passers has failed to give the Colts offense any consistency or clarity. They’ve just chased one-year fixes to what has always been a multiyear problem, wasting the great nucleus of young talent that Ballard assembled with his drafting in the late 2010s.
Now, they finally have their solution: Anthony Richardson. Richardson is a perfect pick for the Colts. He landed with an offensive coach that has found success with a mobile quarterback in the past—Shane Steichen, the ex–offensive coordinator for Hurts. He lands on a team that has solid skill-position players and offensive line play, critical bedrocks for a quarterback in need of development like Richardson. And Richardson brings excellent pocket management, something that the Colts’ quarterback carousel of Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, and Matt Ryan never had.
Richardson was just the start for Ballard. Even excluding the QB pick, the Colts had an excellent draft. They took big athletes in Julius Brents and Darius Rush at corner; Blake Freelend at tackle and Adetomiwa Adebawore at edge. But they also broke from their typical mold to nab a falling talent in former UNC receiver Josh Downs, a slippery slot separator who brings something distinctly new to their WR core.
I’ve been critical of Ballard for much of the last two years. He could have been fired with Frank Reich this season/offseason, and I would have understood the move. But with the selection of Richardson, and then a rock-solid draft to chase it, Ballard proved why owner Jim Irsay made the call to keep him—a call that will likely prove wise. If Richardson hits, and I think he will, a Ballard extension will soon follow.
The Falcons are building a bully-ball behemoth.
Big people win football games. At least, that’s what Falcons head coach Arthur Smith believes. This offseason, the Falcons added wide receiver Mack Hollins to an already supersized pass-catcher room that features Drake London and Kyle Pitts; they extended both guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary to firm up the foundation of their running game. And that running game thrived last year, no matter who toted the rock: receiver-convert Cordarrelle Patterson or late-round rookies Caleb Huntley and Tyler Allgeier.
Yet the Falcons still drafted a running back in Round 1, spending the no. 8 pick on Texas back Bijan Robinson. There are unquestionably issues of positional value with this selection—early-drafted running backs don’t necessarily predict team running game success, nor do they outperform their later-drafted counterparts. But the move does put one of the most talented running backs in the NFL in one of the best running games in the league. And it slots Robinson in the role that Derrick Henry dominated when he played under Smith in Tennessee. It’s not hard to see how this works. The Falcons are running smashmouth football in an era when defenses aren’t built to withstand it.
Plus, after doubling down on offensive line by taking guard Matthew Bergeron in the second round, the Falcons have created an offensive nucleus that should be able to support second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder as he continues to develop. I think the Falcons offense will take a big leap this year even if Ridder is shaky—and while they’re still a year away defensively, they made great selections in Noted Big Person Zach Harrison and Very Small but Talented Person Clark Phillips III.
Atlanta has an identity. It has tons of offensive talent now, and if I were making the odds at a sportsbook, I’d put the Falcons down as the favorite to win the NFC South.
I have no idea what the Patriots are doing.
I don’t really know what the Patriots want to do offensively. I also, based on this draft class, don’t really know what Bill Belichick wants to achieve in these post–Tom Brady years in New England.
Despite already having an established top center in David Andrews (who will be 31 by Week 1, although interior offensive linemen can play good ball well into their 30s), a successful rookie guard in Cole Strange, and one of the league’s best young guards in Michael Onwenu, the Patriots spent three picks on guards in this draft—and they paused their guard run only to take a placekicker in the fourth round, whom they then chased with a punter in the sixth round. Sure?
None of this is inherently un-Belichickian. Jake Andrews and Sidy Sow were identified as pre-draft Patriot fits given their testing and power, and Belichick has previously taken a fifth-round kicker (Justin Rohrwasser in 2020) and punter (Jake Bailey in 2019).
But why aren’t the Patriots acting out of character? They should be! The character established in long-ago Belichick drafts worked when Brady was in the building, but the Pats haven’t won a playoff game in four years. Their free-agent spending spree from a few years back didn’t work—Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, and Jakobi Meyers are all out of the building. Their Matt-Patricia-as-offensive-coordinator experiment, shockingly, bore no fruit. And the team is clearly reeling from a success perspective—yet it played this draft as if it were business as usual.
I like a few of the Pats’ picks. Marte Mapu and Keion White are two prototypically Patriots-ish players, and there’s no better system to oversee their development. Christian Gonzalez is a stud and, unlike almost every other New England pick this week, may actually start in Week 1. Kayshon Boutte, a late-round receiver from LSU, has real talent. But it is impossible to look at the Patriots roster after yet another offseason of middle-tier additions and ho-hum drafting and feel like they are anything more than what they have been recently: a middle-tier AFC team who will hope to sneak into the playoffs, only to be quickly ousted by a real contender.
The wide receiver class isn’t as bad as advertised.
I’m a big believer that there will never be a bad wide receiver class again. There’s just too much talent at the position, too many skilled players finding opportunities in successful college offenses, for us to ever have a group that disappoints.
This year’s class seemed like it could, and I understand the argument. The first wide receiver off the board was Jaxon Smith-Njigba at no. 20—which feels extremely late relative to recent classes. But it isn’t. In 2019—a class draft that featured Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin—the first wide receiver taken was Marquise Brown at no. 25. The year before? D.J. Moore at no. 24. That class delivered Moore, Calvin Ridley, Christian Kirk, and Courtland Sutton.
How about volume? There were four first-round receivers in this year’s class and 14 total in the first three rounds. Last year was six and 17; the year before that, five and 15; the year before that, six and 17. That was the 2020 class, which was considered a loaded wide receiver class.
The seemingly poor quality of this year’s wide receiver class was greatly exaggerated. The league was very happy to draft these guys right about where they usually draft wide receivers (without any top-five or top-15 picks, but that’s a small valley in the greater landscape of this position). And this class really seemed lackluster only because of all the noise around big receiver contracts and trades last offseason. In reality, it’s a solid group: Smith-Njigba, Zay Flowers, and Jordan Addison—all first-rounders—look to be in line for big volume in their respective offenses. Jayden Reed found an incredible home in Green Bay in the second round; Rashee Rice will have a ton of opportunity in the league’s best passing offense with Patrick Mahomes; Cedric Tillman is a perfect fit on the Browns’ receiving core. This, like every wide receiver class to come for the rest of time, is a great group.
Brock Purdyification has hit the NFL draft—or has it?
I’ve been thinking about this Tom Pelissero tweet a lot.
It’s not hard to see the Brock Purdy effect here: Quarterbacks are flying off the board, so if there’s one you like, go get him. https://t.co/GWZ57V6EiV— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) April 29, 2023
I am not of the opinion that Brock Purdy should have an effect on the NFL draft; heck, I’m not totally sold that he should have had an effect on the 49ers’ quarterback plans. But I get it.
Purdy was the last pick of the 2022 NFL draft. The 49ers did not believe they were going to start Purdy at any point in his rookie season. If you had told John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan before Week 1 of last season that they were going to lose the NFC championship game in part because Purdy got hurt, they would have had so many questions, they wouldn’t have known where to start. The Purdy experience in San Francisco has been absolutely stunning, and that’s why we talk about it with such frequency and disbelief. It was—and still is—crazy.
Crazy is not a thing to chase in the NFL draft. And I don’t think the Packers were doing that when they spent a top-150 pick on a quarterback (Sean Clifford) that was otherwise graded as a priority free agent. Nor do I think the plethora of early day-three quarterbacks—seven were selected in Rounds 4 and 5 combined—tells us anything about day-three quarterbacks. Rather, I think it tells us something about the idea of day-two quarterbacks.
Hurts was drafted on day two. When he was taken, those who criticized the pick (me at the absolute forefront) had a myriad of reasons to do so. One of the big ones was the history of second-round quarterbacks. Day two is typically the range for developmental starters—the spot where you take passers who weren’t clear day-one talents, but otherwise had something to them. And the history of those picks is really shaky.
This week's draft tweet:— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) April 11, 2022
If you have a 2nd-round grade on a QB, you are saying there is almost no chance of him amounting to anything in the NFL pic.twitter.com/xzgGJMHQnY
For a second-round quarterback to be a second-round quarterback, he has to have been unworthy of the trade-up price to get into the first round and secure the fifth-year option—that critical, final year of cost-controlled play afforded only to first-round picks. Take Will Levis as an example. The Kentucky quarterback falling into no-fifth-year-option territory was as strong of a referendum on how the league viewed Levis as his fall out of the top 10. Even if the Titans tried to trade up into the first round, they couldn’t have tried that hard.
Now, the hit rate on second-round quarterbacks isn’t much worse than that of second-rounders at other positions, but the value of hitting on a second-round quarterback is dramatically less than hitting on a second-round receiver. You can read an excellent Pro Football Focus piece diving into the math here. And accordingly, if that second-round quarterback is not all that enticing, why take him there, when you can wait until day three and take an almost equal swing? Accordingly, we get to Rounds 4 and 5, and the quarterbacks start flying off the board.
The long and the short of it is this: There is no way to game the quarterback system in the NFL draft. It sure would be nice if the S2 cognition test solved quarterback evaluation for us, but it won’t. It would be great if all of the middle-round quarterbacks were mobile and great leaders like Hurts, but there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. If you want to get that key young quarterback, you have to do one of two things: draft one super early, or get extremely lucky developing one. Those teams swinging for the second option? They’re doing it now in Rounds 4 and 5 instead of 2 and 3, and rightfully so.