The jet lag from Sunday’s flight home from the 2022 NFL draft in Las Vegas has barely worn off, but I’m already digging in on the 2023 class. I’m that excited about this group. After only one quarterback was selected in the first 73 picks this year, we could see a handful in the first round next April. There are also truly special prospects on the defensive side of the ball, and I think we could see five-plus receivers in Round 1 yet again. So let’s project the early scope of the first round.
Now, this is an extremely early prediction. I haven’t spent much time with the 2023 class’ tape yet, and a lot of this is based on what I’ve seen while watching prospects in person over the past two seasons and early buzz around the league. Expect big changes between now and next April. My 2022 way-too-early mock, for example, featured 10 prospects who ultimately were first-rounders and predicted five top-10 picks — but eight players listed ultimately didn’t enter the draft, and 14 others weren’t selected in Round 1. It’s still 12 months out, and we have a full college season and a long pre-draft process ahead.
Then there is the draft order, which I did not decide. We opted to project the order using the inverse of Super Bowl odds from Caesars Sportsbook, though we broke some ties and tweaked the end of the order to ensure seven teams from each conference in the playoffs. That puts Houston on the clock to get things going in Round 1.
Note: Underclassmen are noted with an asterisk. Traded picks are shown below as well.
C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State*
The Texans believe in quarterback Davis Mills, but if they actually end up picking No. 1 next April, something went terribly awry for Mills during his sophomore season. Stroud has a big arm, completing 71.9% of his passes for 4,435 yards, 44 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 2021. The third-year sophomore has only 12 career starts, though, so all eyes will be on him this season.
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama*
Detroit wisely focused on the rest of its roster last week, but it will likely have to find its franchise quarterback in 2023 and has a prime chance to do so at No. 2 with Young still on the board. A former five-star recruit, Young is only 6-foot but has solid accuracy and plenty of mobility in the pocket. And he clearly has chemistry with receiver Jameson Williams, one of the Lions’ first-round picks this year, considering nearly a third of Young’s 4,872 passing yards in 2021 went Williams’ way. Jared Goff’s dead money dips to just $10 million next offseason, making the Lions’ QB easier to move on from.
Will Anderson Jr., DE, Alabama*
Anderson is probably the best player in the 2023 draft class and is here at No. 3 only because the teams picking at Nos. 1 and 2 need quarterbacks. The 6-foot-4, 243-pounder is a special player with elite traits and great burst to the quarterback. He led the nation in sacks (17.5), tackles for loss (34.5) and pressures (79) last year. Pairing Anderson with Jermaine Johnson II (a first-rounder this year) could give New York one of the least expensive yet best overall edge tandems in the NFL.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State*
If you don’t know the name yet, go watch some Rose Bowl highlights. Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for 347 yards (a bowl game record) and three touchdowns in Ohio State’s win against Utah — putting him over 1,600 receiving yards for the season. It’s very possible he is a better prospect than Garrett Wilson or Chris Olave, who both just went in the top 11 picks. The Jags signed Christian Kirk and Zay Jones in March, but they still need a true WR1 for Trevor Lawrence. JSN can be that guy.
Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia*
Another Georgia defender? The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder is extremely disruptive and would help shore up Atlanta’s run defense while providing a pass-rush spark from the interior. And yes, Grady Jarrett just signed an extension, but he will be 30 years old when the draft comes back around. Carter is the best player available here and a difference-maker.
As for quarterback, it’s a very possible direction for the Falcons. But Stroud and Young are off the board, and I get the sense that they would like to develop Desmond Ridder and give him a chance if there isn’t another clear and obvious upgrade on the table.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida*
The Panthers, however, should start scouting the 2023 signal-callers. I’m not so sure they view Matt Corral as a long-term option, and Sam Darnold will be off the books after this season. Plus, Carolina could have a new regime in place, especially if it’s picking this early again. Now, Richardson is a huge projection — the 6-foot-4, 236-pound passer played in just eight games and started once last year — and has some turnover issues. But he’s extremely talented and poised for a breakout season in his first as a full-time starter.
Jordan Addison, WR, Pittsburgh*
Addison entered the transfer portal, so where he’ll be suiting up this season is still up in the air. He was among the best receivers in college football last season with 100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 trips to the end zone. The Bears opted to wait until Round 3 to draft a receiver (Velus Jones Jr.) and still need a legitimate outside starter opposite Darnell Mooney.
Will Levis, QB, Kentucky
The Giants didn’t pick up Daniel Jones’ fifth-year option, which leaves the QB seat up for grabs next season. Levis needs to find more consistency, but he has a live arm and a big 6-foot-3, 232-pound frame. He has thrived in the quick game at Kentucky, with a lot of run-pass options and screen-type stuff, but there are some Josh Allen-like traits here for new Giants coach Brian Daboll. Oh, and Levis connected with receiver Wan’Dale Robinson — whom the Giants drafted in Round 2 this year — 104 times last season.
Mel Kiper Jr. breaks down which players teams should keep their eye on for the 2023 NFL draft.
Tyler Van Dyke, QB, Miami*
Van Dyke didn’t consistently play like a first-rounder in nine starts last season, but the 6-foot-4, 224-pounder has the talent of a future franchise passer. The third-year sophomore just needs to take the next step this year. Seattle GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll seem to still legitimately like Drew Lock’s potential as an NFL starter, but if the Seahawks have another disappointing season and another top-10 pick, they could be in the market for an upgrade.
Eli Ricks, CB, Alabama*
After a four-interception freshman year at LSU, Ricks missed most of 2021 with an injured shoulder and then transferred to Alabama. He’s a smooth press corner who can take away an opponent’s No. 1 receiver. The Commanders’ top two corners — William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller — are both under contract for only two more years, and the team’s pass defense has struggled, so adding a playmaker on the outside makes a lot of sense. One more note here: Ricks was arrested on Monday for speeding and possession of marijuana.
Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Ohio State*
Only the Dolphins had a worse pass block win rate than the Steelers last season (48.8%), and I don’t think Pittsburgh did enough to fix the line. When it decides to turn the offense’s keys over to new quarterback Kenny Pickett, the protection has to be there. Johnson has 13 career starts (all at right guard) and allowed only one sack last season. He will slide outside to left tackle this year.
Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia*
I thought Philadelphia might look at a cornerback in Round 1 this year, but the long-term spot opposite Darius Slay remains open — and Slay is currently primed to hit free agency in 2024. Ringo broke up eight passes and picked off two in 2021 as part of the dominant Bulldogs defense. One of those interceptions was a memorable one in the College Football Playoff national title game.
Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern*
Skoronski already has a lot of experience (21 starts), and the 6-foot-4, 294-pound lineman has the makings of a future franchise tackle, as long as he tacks on more weight. Las Vegas needs another bookend for the line opposite Kolton Miller.
Bryan Bresee, DT, Clemson*
The Vikings had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last season and didn’t draft a defensive tackle this year, and Dalvin Tomlinson is entering the final year of his contract. Bresee suffered a torn ACL in September, but he’s primed to return for a big 2022 campaign.
Noah Sewell, ILB, Oregon*
The brother of 2021 first-rounder Penei Sewell, Noah Sewell can impact multiple areas of the game. The 6-foot-3, 251-pound linebacker had 110 tackles, four sacks and six pass breakups last season. And the Patriots are still looking for a leader in the middle of their defense.
Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson*
The Dolphins tied for fifth in sacks last season and just re-signed Emmanuel Ogbah, but Murphy would be another playmaker off the edge who can get home on opposing QBs. He has 11.5 sacks over two seasons at Clemson and looks like a future impact player at the next level.
Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame*
Mayer finished his sophomore season with 71 catches (third among tight ends) and 840 receiving yards (fourth). He has tremendous 6-foot-4, 251-pound size and good hands. The Titans would love a playmaking tight end like Mayer for quarterback Ryan Tannehill — or Malik Willis, should the Titans make that move going into 2023.
Derick Hall, DE, Auburn
Hall broke out in 2021, recording nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss in his first season as a full-time starter. Will he take another step in 2022? The Colts are coming off a 33-sack season, and while they traded for Yannick Ngakoue and should see more from Kwity Paye in his second year, you can never have enough productive pass-rushers.
Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas*
Zero running backs were taken in Round 1 this year, but I expect we’ll return to seeing at least one come off the board on Day 1 next April. After going cornerback earlier, Philly could look to spark the run game here. At 6-foot and 214 pounds, Robinson is a unique talent both as a runner and receiver. He piled up 1,127 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season, but he also caught 26 passes for 295 yards and four more scores. Miles Sanders is entering the final year of his current deal, and the Eagles played their best football last season when they leaned on the run.
Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah*
Phillips is already a two-year starter, and he broke up 12 passes last season. Arizona’s cornerback room has holes, and that’s before factoring in that Byron Murphy Jr. is entering the final year of his contract.
Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU*
Everyone loved the Ravens’ 2022 draft, but remember that they traded away Marquise Brown, leaving Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay as their top two wide receivers. Boutte is a top-15-caliber prospect who had nine touchdown catches in six games last year before a leg injury ended his season.
Trenton Simpson, ILB, Clemson*
The Bengals drafted a pair of versatile defensive backs in the first two rounds this year, and they spent on the offensive line in free agency. If the fixes prove effective, one area they could instead look at in 2023 is linebacker. Simpson had 63 tackles and six sacks last season, and he can drop in coverage.
BJ Ojulari, DE, LSU*
We already got Houston a quarterback, so how about a high-end edge rusher for new coach Lovie Smith’s defense? I love Ojulari’s burst and bend off the edge.
Henry To’oTo’o, ILB, Alabama
The Cowboys just used a fifth-rounder on linebacker Damone Clark, who will miss 2022 because of a back injury but should be ready to roll in 2023. Even so, adding another top-flight linebacker could help free up Micah Parsons in a more versatile role in which he thrives. To’oTo’o made 106 tackles last season.
Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State*
At 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, Porter has size on the outside and some versatility, though he has only one career interception. I like the upside of defensive backs Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen, midround picks for Seattle this year, but the Seahawks really need a potential star to improve this pass D.
Zion Nelson, OT, Miami*
I actually had Nelson in my way-too-early mock this time last year, and he’s back again after opting to return to Miami. Nelson has 33 starts and could be the answer opposite Rashawn Slater on the Chargers’ offensive line.
Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama*
Gibbs was a hidden gem at Georgia Tech, and now I expect him to explode onto the national stage after transferring to Alabama. His pass-catching ability out of the backfield will get a lot of attention. Pairing Gibbs with Chase Edmonds (Myles Gaskin and Raheem Mostert are under contract for only 2022) would give Miami a very strong rushing attack.
Tony Grimes, CB, UNC*
Grimes has 6-foot-1 size and good speed, and he broke up seven passes last season. A duo of Grimes and Jeff Okudah should help turn things around for Detroit’s lackluster pass defense.
Emil Ekiyor Jr., G, Alabama
We’ll see how Green Bay’s moves at wide receiver play out; if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can’t find a reliable target this year, the Packers might be looking for a first-round pass-catcher next April. Another way to help Rodgers? Drafting Ekiyor, a versatile lineman with 28 starts under his belt.
Nolan Smith, OLB, Georgia
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound defender’s sack production isn’t overwhelming (3.5 in 2021 and 8.5 over three seasons), but he forced three fumbles last year and has a lot of upside. I’m excited to see what he can do in 2022 with much of the Georgia defense heading to the NFL. Smith could help the Chiefs keep the AFC West’s talented quarterbacks in check.
Josh Downs, WR, UNC*
Downs is an explosive route runner who caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards last season and excelled after the catch. He’d be dangerous in Tampa Bay’s offense. Also keep an eye on the QB situation here; the Buccaneers could potentially turn to Kyle Trask or sign a free agent if Tom Brady retires after the 2022 season, but they could also focus on the draft class for a replacement.
Marvin Mims, WR, Oklahoma*
Another year, another loaded wide receiver class. Mims is undersized at 5-foot-11 and 177 pounds, and he hasn’t caught more than 37 passes in a season. But his 22.0 yards per reception ranked third in the nation last season, and he’d be yet another target for quarterback Josh Allen.