Who’s ready for another NFL draft with quarterback intrigue at the top? We lost a little bit of that last year, with Kenny Pickett the only passer who went in the first two rounds. Well, as you’ll see below in my first mock draft for the 2023 class, there’s sure to be plenty of buzz around these signal-callers.
With two rounds of the NFL playoffs down, the order for the top 27 picks is set. It’s a little bit different this year because the Dolphins were stripped of their first-round selection for tampering violations, which means there are only 31 picks in Round 1. The Bears have the No. 1 pick, while the Texans, Seahawks, Lions and Eagles have two first-rounders. Could we see a trade to the top of the board?
Let’s get into my early projections for the first round of April’s draft. I’m not going to project any trades here — it’s still a little bit early to assess which teams could move up and what it would take to get there. As I’ve said before, this is merely an exercise to show you all what I’m thinking three months out from the draft, based on my Big Board rankings and what I’m hearing from execs, scouts and coaches in the league. Everyone is now gearing up for the Senior Bowl next week and the combine in early March.
Here we go, starting with Chicago at No. 1. I’m going to use ESPN’s Football Power Index to project pick Nos. 28-31, and that model has the Chiefs beating the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Check out “SportsCenter Special: Mel Kiper’s NFL Mock Draft 1.0” at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2 on Wednesday, and you can see me and my pal Todd McShay going through all 31 picks.
Miller: All 20 first-round grades
Reid: How I see Round 1 shaking out
McShay’s rankings: Top 32 prospects
Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia
I thought long and hard about a trade here, with the Colts, Raiders and Panthers as the top candidates to move up for a quarterback. And if I’m Chicago general manager Ryan Poles and I can move down a few spots, add premium picks and still get my choice of the best defensive prospects, I’d make a deal. It takes two teams to make a trade, however, and that’s never a guarantee. For now, let’s stick with the Bears keeping this pick.
Chicago’s roster needs help from top to bottom, but its defense was particularly dreadful in 2022, ranking last in the league in sacks (20) and points allowed per game (27.2). It has to be D all the way for wherever the Bears make their selection. Carter, an explosive interior pass-rusher and run-stuffer, gets the nod over Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. on my Big Board. He’s the best player in this draft, a Day 1 starter in the middle of this defense.
C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Houston just fired coach Lovie Smith, and the franchise’s clear offseason priority has to be upgrading at the quarterback position. Davis Mills really struggled in his second season as the Texans’ offense was among the league’s worst in several statistical categories. With two top-12 picks in this draft, they have to get quality starters as they continue their rebuild.
I see Stroud as the best fit here as the Texans could get their pick of the top passers. He’s extremely accurate, can make every throw and has excellent touch at every level of the field. I usually don’t put much stock into a single game evaluation, but Stroud’s performance in the narrow loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals showed me something. He was spectacular against an elite defense, carving up the Bulldogs with his arm and using his legs to maneuver the pocket and find receivers. Houston still has several needs, but it should start with Stroud. I have Stroud just barely behind Will Levis (Kentucky) and Bryce Young (Alabama) in my rankings, but it’s going to be a close race through April.
Will Anderson Jr., DE/OLB, Alabama
New Arizona general manager Monti Ossenfort gets a premium pick to try to improve this roster, and he could luck into a Pro Bowl edge rusher right off the bat. Anderson was a tackle-for-loss machine in college — he had 54 over the past two seasons — and dominated offensive tackles in both the run and pass game. He was unblockable at times against SEC competition. For the Cardinals, who are losing the retired J.J. Watt, he could play some outside linebacker and move around the defense to create mismatches. This would be a home run pick for Ossenfort & Co.
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
The trades for Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan in back-to-back offseasons didn’t work out for general manager Chris Ballard, and now the Colts are starting over — again — at quarterback. Don’t they have to draft a signal-caller here (if they don’t trade up to get their preferred guy)? They have some intriguing talent on their roster, but as we’ve seen time and time in the NFL, nothing else matters if they don’t have their quarterback.
There’s a clear gap after the top three passers in this class, and the Colts don’t necessarily have to trade up to get one of them. In this scenario, they could take Young, a quick processor with an elite feel for the pocket and how to move around and locate his target. The 2021 Heisman Trophy winner doesn’t have a big frame, which some NFL scouts will downgrade him for because there aren’t many starting quarterbacks under 200 pounds. I love his tape, though, and I’d be willing to bet on his talent. Spread out the offense and watch him throw darts to Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce.
Will Levis, QB, Kentucky
Here we go, the third quarterback in the top five picks. Levis is going to be polarizing for the next few months. Turn on his tape, and you’re going to see some poor interceptions and questionable decisions. But you’re also going to see rockets that should have been caught and tight-window throws that no other passer in this class can make. There will be a general manager in the top 10 who sees Levis’ positives over the negatives. He also is ahead of the curve in learning a pro-style offense, because that’s what he played in for the Wildcats.
Kiper likes Will Levis’ upside
Mel Kiper Jr. discusses why he thinks Will Levis has all the tools to succeed as a QB in the NFL.
For the Seahawks, do they really think Geno Smith is their long-term answer? If so, they’re going to have to pay him before he hits free agency in March. If they franchise tag him, though, they could play him in 2023 as the bridge to Levis, who can take over after some seasoning as the backup. If Seattle gives Smith a big deal, it surely would be happy with Will Anderson Jr. or Jalen Carter here to help a defense that allowed 4.9 yards per carry, which ranked 27th in the league. Along with this pick from Denver that came in the Russell Wilson deal, it also has No. 20 overall to get help on that side of the ball.
Tyree Wilson, DE, Texas Tech
The Lions finished the season with eight wins in their final 10 games, but their explosive offense papered over massive holes on the other side of the ball. They ranked last in the league in yards per play allowed (6.2) and opposing QBR (55.9); they had issues defending the run and the pass. Wilson, the top true defensive end in this class, would help both. He can use his burst at the snap to beat offensive tackles on passing downs or use his 6-foot-6 frame to hold up against the run. An edge-rushing duo of Wilson and Aidan Hutchinson would be formidable, with surprise rookie James Houston working in on obvious passing downs.
Plus, if Detroit plays its cards right, it could use the No. 18 pick on a cornerback — this is a little too high to take one. And if you’re curious about the quarterback position, general manager Brad Holmes likely will take a close look at this class and weigh each passer against veteran Jared Goff, who had a stellar second half of the season. (This pick is from the Matthew Stafford swap with the Rams.) In this scenario, though, the top three are off the board.
Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern
The Raiders are a team to watch for a trade up for a quarterback, but they also might prefer a veteran — Tom Brady? — over a rookie to take over for Derek Carr in 2023. This is a veteran roster that could compete in the AFC West with the right guy under center. That guy also needs help along the offensive line, though; only left tackle Kolton Miller’s starting spot should be guaranteed going forward. Skoronski, who started 33 games at left tackle for the Wildcats, could move to guard or right tackle at the next level. He allowed just one sack in 2022. He’d be an instant starter for a new-look offense.
Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson
The Falcons had just 21 sacks this season, which ranked 31st in the league, and they were led by Grady Jarrett’s six. Veteran edge rusher Lorenzo Carter added four, while rookie second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie had 2.5. No other player had more than two. They have to get better along the front seven. That could start here with Murphy, a complete defender who had 17.5 sacks in three seasons at Clemson. He could even kick inside to tackle on passing downs.
Atlanta is another team with questions at quarterback, as rookie third-rounder Desmond Ridder flashed at times at the end of the season. He’s not a lock to be the Week 1 starter, though I expect the organization to do deep evaluations on this draft class and bring in another player to compete with him. For now, however, Murphy is too good to pass up.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida
Let’s get this out of the way now: I wouldn’t play Richardson in Year 1. He needs time to develop. He’s not an NFL-ready thrower. But he is an awesome talent, a raw quarterback in a 6-foot-4 frame who would be one of the league’s most electrifying runners as soon as he steps on the field. His size and physical tools cannot be taught, and NFL coaches will want to work with him and try to take him to the next level. Richardson completed just 53.8% of his passes in 2022 — he has a long ways to go with his mechanics. Again, though, he has a high ceiling if a coaching staff can help him get there.
Why Mel Kiper Jr. thinks Anthony Richardson needs time to develop
Mel Kiper Jr. shares why any team prepared to draft Florida QB Anthony Richardson needs to give him time to develop.
In this scenario, the rebuilding Panthers would need to sign a bridge quarterback — how about bringing back impending free agent Sam Darnold? — so that Richardson can sit on the sidelines and soak in everything. Carolina still needs a head coach, but it also has extra second-, third- and fifth-round picks from the Christian McCaffrey trade to try to improve this roster.
Calijah Kancey, DT, Pitt
The Eagles, one of the NFL’s four best teams, gained this first-rounder from New Orleans last year, and now they have a chance to add a premium prospect to their loaded roster. They don’t have many current needs, but they do have several decisions to make in free agency, including whether to bring back defensive linemen Fletcher Cox, Robert Quinn, Brandon Graham and Javon Hargrave. Let’s use this pick to help them get younger.
Kancey’s 2022 tape is extremely impressive, and I moved him way up my Big Board. He wreaked havoc the past two seasons, racking up 13.5 sacks when lined up as a defensive tackle, the most in the country. At 6-foot, 280 pounds, he’s undersized, but so was former Pitt tackle Aaron Donald. (To be clear, he’s not Donald, but he’s still pretty good.) We know Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman invests heavily in the D-line, and Kancey would fit next to 2022 first-rounder Jordan Davis.
Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Ohio State
The Tennessee offense was a mess this season, which resulted in the firing of coordinator Todd Downing. General manager Jon Robinson also was let go, and you have to think Robinson’s inability to get the offensive line up to par contributed to it. Longtime left tackle Taylor Lewan has played just 20 games over the past three seasons and could be an offseason cap casualty. There might be an opening on the left side. Johnson played guard for the Buckeyes in 2021 but moved to left tackle in 2022, and he was tremendous. He will be a plug-and-play starter in the top 15 picks.
Lukas Van Ness, DL, Iowa
I gave the Texans their quarterback of the future with the No. 2 pick, and general manager Nick Caserio should go with the best prospect on his board with this selection, which was acquired in the Deshaun Watson trade. Don’t get picky and try to plug a hole — this roster has to improve in several spots. Van Ness is a versatile and productive defender who made an impact at end and tackle for the Hawkeyes, even as he never actually started a game. He had 13.5 sacks over the past two seasons, 9.5 from the interior and four from the edge. NFL teams covet that sort of positional flexibility. He would get lots of early snaps for Houston.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
I thought about an offensive lineman here, but let’s instead reunite my top-ranked receiver in this class with my top-ranked receiver in the 2022 class. The Jets picked Garrett Wilson at No. 10 last April, and he had 83 catches for 1,103 yards as a rookie. But for the Buckeyes in 2021, it was his teammate Smith-Njigba who was their top wideout, as he put up 1,606 yards, doing damage mostly out of the slot. After an injury-plagued 2022 in which he caught just five passes, however, there are big questions about his health — he had a nagging hamstring injury — headed into the draft.
I’m a big fan of Smith-Njigba, and I think he could be a star in the right situation. New York likely will have a new starting quarterback in 2023, and that passer will have to get support around him. This offense has a chance to be much improved. The Jets had a stellar draft last year; Smith-Njigba would be a great start for this one. And yes, I know, this makes back-to-back top-15 picks on receivers for the Jets, but Smith-Njigba is worth it because of what he and Wilson can do together.
Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois
Will the Patriots bring back free-agent corner Jonathan Jones? That could determine what Bill Belichick & Co. do here, because this is a strong cornerback class in the back half of Round 1. There could be a run on defensive backs in the 20s. Witherspoon is my top-ranked corner, a long and physical player who shut down an entire side of the field for the Fighting Illini. He also is not afraid to stick his head in and make a tackle.
Outside of corner, New England could target offensive line or wide receiver with this pick to try to support quarterback Mac Jones, who struggled in Year 2.
Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame
Why not a tight end here — regardless of whether Aaron Rodgers is back as the quarterback? Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis are free agents, and this is a major hole on the roster. The tight end class is really good this year, with Mayer atop my board. He is a complete player who put up 809 yards and 67 catches with nine touchdowns in 2022. He can stretch the middle of the field and run past linebackers on seam routes. The only downside is that he doesn’t have super-long arms, but he’s ahead of the game as a pass-catcher. Green Bay could also use younger talent in the front seven.
Broderick Jones, OT, Georgia
Here’s yet another team with quarterback issues, as the Commanders traded for Carson Wentz last offseason (which cost them their third-rounder this year) but turned back to Taylor Heinicke down the stretch. Neither is likely to be their Week 1 starter; I wonder if they will be players in the veteran-signal-caller market and bring in someone to compete with rookie Sam Howell. No matter who is playing quarterback, though, they have to improve along the offensive line. Jones is a 310-pound mauler who didn’t allow a single sack as the Bulldogs’ left tackle in 2022. I wouldn’t be shocked if he went in the top 10.
Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
Like father, like son in Pittsburgh? The Steelers drafted linebacker Joey Porter in the third round in 1999, and they have a need for his son in 2023. Porter is an aggressive 6-foot-2 corner who was a three-year starter for the Nittany Lions. He picked off just one pass in his career, but he had 11 pass breakups in 2022, so he gets his hands on the football when it’s headed in his direction. The Steelers likely will be hoping one of the top offensive tackles drops to them, and they could also target a defensive tackle.
Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Remember when I mentioned earlier that the Lions have cornerback issues? Well, hopefully at least Lions fans were reading. Jeff Okudah flashed the talent that made him the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, but he was still inconsistent, and there’s no surefire starter on the other side of the field. Gonzalez was a lockdown defender at Colorado before transferring to Oregon last year, where he picked off four passes and improved every week. He’s going to test really well at the combine in March too. This pick makes too much sense for a Detroit defense that badly needs an infusion of young talent in the secondary.
Keion White, DL, Georgia Tech
The Bucs could be in for an offseason of change, depending on what the NFL’s greatest quarterback decides. We already know they’ll have a new-look offense with coordinator Byron Leftwich getting fired. And even with concerns along the offensive line, I’m looking at the end spot in Todd Bowles’ 3-4 defense as their top need with Akiem Hicks and William Gholston both hitting the free agent market. Yes, 2022 second-rounder Logan Hall will get snaps on one side next season, but if they can add a starter here, why not do it?
White dominated at Old Dominion before he transferred to Georgia Tech in 2021. He missed most of that season with an ankle injury but had a dominant 2022, with 7.5 sacks and 57 total tackles. He’s another inside-outside lineman who would bring some interior pass-rush ability to Tampa. White will be at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, next week, and I know scouts are excited to see him up close.
Byron Young, DE/LB, Tennessee
We’re back with another Seattle pick here after I projected general manager John Schneider to take a quarterback at No. 5. Let’s focus on the defense. The Seahawks struggled against the run this season, and we know coach Pete Carroll loves toolsy edge defenders. L.J. Collier didn’t work out in Round 1 in 2019, but Darrell Taylor, a Round 2 pick in 2020, is coming off a breakout 9.5-sack season. Bruce Irvin made his way back to the team in 2022 too.
Byron Young shares journey to become Vols’ defensive standout
Tennessee LB Byron Young shares his unconventional journey from a job at Dollar General to being a game-changer on the Vols’ defense.
Young, another prospect who will be at the Senior Bowl, is intriguing. At 6-3, 245 pounds, he fits the mold of what Carroll wants from a front-seven defender, and he has some pass-rush upside. He had seven sacks and 13.5 total tackles for loss in 2022, showing off advanced moves. The Seahawks knocked their 2022 class out of the park, and a home run in 2023 could set them up for another long run of success.
Tuli Tuipulotu, DT, USC
Here’s what I wrote in my first mock draft of last year’s cycle: “The Chargers again struggled against the run in 2021, an issue that has plagued them for years. Just go back to their 2018 divisional round playoff game against the Patriots, when they were dominated up front. They allowed 4.8 yards per carry this season, which ranked 28th in the NFL.”
How are we back here again? L.A. allowed an even worse 5.4 yards per carry this season, which ranked last in the league. It also allowed 5.9 yards per play, which ranked 29th. This is a massive issue. General manager Tom Telesco has taken offensive linemen in the first round in back-to-back drafts, so this could be where he targets a big guy on defense. Tuipulotu played mostly on the edge for the Trojans and racked up 13.5 sacks last season, 8.5 of which came when he was lined up at end. At 290 pounds, though, he fits in L.A.’s 3-4 scheme as a big end who can help in the run game and take some pressure off Joey Bosa.
Quinton Johnston, WR, TCU
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is out, and quarterback Lamar Jackson’s future with the team is uncertain after he and the team haven’t been able to agree to a new contract. Coach John Harbaugh isn’t used to this sort of chaos. Still, I think Jackson will be back — potentially on the franchise tag — in which case he needs someone to catch passes. Baltimore still hasn’t gotten its receiving corps right; it ranked last in the league in receiving yards by wideouts (1,517). Rashod Bateman, a first-rounder in 2021 who has struggled with injuries, has just three touchdowns in 18 career games.
Johnston could help the Ravens stretch the field. He averaged 17.8 yards per catch for the Horned Frogs this season. At 6-4, he’s still developing as a route runner, and he’s a physical mismatch once he gets his body into defensive backs and leaps for the ball. Jackson could use Johnston’s length in the red zone.
Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State
Veteran Patrick Peterson was the Vikings’ top corner this season, but he’s a free agent, and even if the team brings him back, it should start thinking about the future in the secondary. Safety Lewis Cine, Minnesota’s first-rounder last April, played just two defensive snaps before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season. He should make a full recovery, but can the Vikings improve on the outside too? Whoever takes over for fired coordinator Ed Donatell needs options. Forbes was an interception magnet for the Bulldogs; he had 14 over three seasons, including six in 2022. He gave up a few big plays, but he has tremendous potential as a cover corner.
Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland
How about those Jaguars? After an AFC South title in 2022, shouldn’t they be the early favorites to win it again? General manager Trent Baalke did a nice job filling holes last offseason, but the pass rush still was mediocre, the off-ball linebackers struggled badly in coverage and there’s an open corner spot opposite Tyson Campbell. With a strong cornerback class in this draft, Baalke & Co. could target Banks, a man-coverage defender with exceptional physical tools. He could rise as we get closer to the draft once NFL teams see him test at the combine. And yes, this makes five cornerbacks off the board in Round 1.
Jordan Addison, WR, USC
Here’s another team that took a big jump in 2022, as quarterback Daniel Jones took care of the football and the defense played just well enough to keep the Giants in games. Jones’ breakout came with one of the least impressive wide receiver corps in the league, especially as Kenny Golladay has not lived up to his massive free agent contract. Can general manager Joe Schoen get Jones — a free agent who is likely to return — a No. 1 wideout?
Addison put up huge numbers at Pitt in 2021 before dealing with some injuries at USC, and he has the versatility to play outside or in the slot. He just knows how to get open. New York also will get back rookie second-rounder Wan’Dale Robinson, who flashed before tearing an ACL. I like what the Giants are building, but they have to give Jones some help.
Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
This just makes sense, right? Team owner Jerry Jones loves star running backs, going back to his days of drafting Emmitt Smith in Round 1 in 1990, and he repeatedly has said Ezekiel Elliott is the Cowboys’ most important player. Well, Elliott could be a salary-cap casualty this offseason, and Tony Pollard — who made the Pro Bowl this season — broke his left leg in the divisional round and is a free agent. Could Jones and the Cowboys start over and take Robinson, the best back in this class, here? Robinson also is a great pass-catcher, so he’s more than just a between-the-tackles runner. He could also take some of the pressure off quarterback Dak Prescott.
Derick Hall, DE/OLB, Auburn
The Bills have one of the league’s best rosters, but they could lose a few defenders in free agency, including Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds and Shaq Lawson. They need to restock in this draft. And even though Buffalo has used first- or second-round picks on Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham and AJ Epenesa in the past three drafts, its depth on the edge has to get better. That’s why I see Hall, who had 15.5 sacks over the past two seasons, as a stellar fit on Day 1. He could turn into a steal here.
On the other side of the ball, I almost went with offensive tackle Cody Mauch (North Dakota State), who could play guard early in his career before becoming the team’s long-term left tackle. Guard O’Cyrus Torrence (Florida) could be another option.
Reminder: These last four picks are based on projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index, so please take all complaints elsewhere.
Dalton Kincaid, TE, Utah
Hayden Hurst had a decent bounce-back season after signing in Cincinnati, but he’s hitting the free agent market again this offseason. The Bengals need to find a long-term tight end target for quarterback Joe Burrow. Even with Hurst, the offense ranked 29th in receiving yards by tight ends (556). Adding a big red-zone target is a way for it to level up.
Utah cashes in the flea-flicker for a 29-yard TD
Cameron Rising airs it out to Dalton Kincaid for the touchdown to put the Utes on the board first.
Both Kincaid and Luke Musgrave (Oregon State) have a chance to be Round 1 picks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few teams preferred one of them over Michael Mayer (Notre Dame) as the top-ranked tight end in this class. Kincaid had 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons, while Musgrave was in line for a breakout before he suffered a knee injury in October that prematurely ended his season. Kincaid has more speed, but Musgrave’s size (6-6, 250 pounds) and upside intrigues NFL scouts. Cincinnati would upgrade with either player here.
Isaiah Foskey, DE/OLB, Notre Dame
Denver traded away prime picks to get quarterback Russell Wilson last offseason, and it got back this one after dealing Bradley Chubb to the Dolphins before the deadline at midseason. Suddenly, when you look at this depth chart, there’s no Chubb or Von Miller exploding off the edge, even though defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero did a great job with what he had this season. Because it’s a little too late in Round 1 to find a surefire offensive line starter, I like what Foskey would bring to the Broncos. He had 22 sacks and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons, and at 265 pounds, he could play in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme at the next level.
Brian Branch, S, Alabama
Philadelphia made a preseason trade to acquire safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, but he had such a great season that he might be too expensive for the Eagles to bring back. In that case, this pick is the best like-for-like replacement — Branch can play as a slot corner or a deep center fielder, filling Gardner-Johnson’s shoes. Branch is my top-ranked safety, but he’ll be a cornerback on some teams’ boards. I projected the Eagles to add a defensive tackle with the No. 10 pick, and injecting this defense with young talent should be their offseason priority.
Zay Flowers, WR, Boston College
Kansas City redid its wide receiver corps last offseason, but it might have to do another overhaul in 2023. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had a resurgent season, and Mecole Hardman are both free agents. Could they supplement what they have with this pick? I’m a huge fan of Flowers, who caught 200 passes in his college career. He’s polished and shifty, shaking cornerbacks from all over the field to get open.
I almost went with speedster Jalin Hyatt (Tennessee), who is a better deep threat, but Flowers is more ready to contribute early. Hyatt had 15 touchdowns and averaged 18.9 yards per catch for the Volunteers in 2022.