You can feel the excitement in the air. College football preview magazines are hitting newsstands. Our own colleagues at ESPN are debating which teams are candidates for a national title run and who should be a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. Football season is just around the corner.
Fellow NFL draftniks know the start of college football is also the start of scouting season. Yes, we put in hours of work over the summer evaluating last year’s tape and getting rankings ready for the season, but much of that is simply prep work to begin watching prospects when the season kicks off.
What fun is all that summer prep without some predictions? And for me, there’s nothing better than a mock draft to evaluate team needs, player value and get a look at which position groups are strong and weak in the early stages of the 2023 NFL draft process.
Below is my first crack at projecting the top 32 picks, an extremely early evaluation based on 2021 tape, expected progression from prospects and expected NFL team needs. A lot should and will change once we get new information (from game tape to injuries) from each prospect. And with name, image and likeness (NIL) deals changing the landscape of college sports, it’s no longer a guarantee stars will leave early for the pros.
A few important notes before we get started: This Round 1 order is based on the 2023 projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index, which are different from what Todd McShay used on his early mock draft in May. Underclassmen in this projection are noted with an asterisk, and it includes the five first-round trades that have already been executed.
Will Anderson Jr., DE, Alabama*
Anderson is the unquestioned top player on my Big Board for next season. At 6-foot-4, 243 pounds, he has shades of Von Miller to his game. He’s not supersized like Joey or Nick Bosa or Chase Young in terms of his frame, but his quickness and power getting to the quarterback netted 17.5 sacks and 101 tackles last season.
Why not a quarterback for the Jets if they’re drafting No. 1 overall? Some teams might give up on quarterbacks early, but the Jets’ front office, led by general manager Joe Douglas, isn’t the type to panic. We’ve an seen example of this as the franchise has stood by left tackle Mekhi Becton after early struggles. Barring a complete unraveling by Zach Wilson — the No. 2 pick in 2021 who showed promise down the stretch last season — it’s unlikely the Jets would start over at quarterback.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State*
The Bears have not surrounded second-year quarterback Justin Fields with much in terms of a supporting cast, but that will change via free agency and the draft following the 2022 season, once they have more cap space. The electric Smith-Njigba left us with a statement game in the Rose Bowl when he caught 15 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns as the entire Utah defense failed to stop him. This would be the highest a wide receiver has been drafted since Calvin Johnson in 2007, but Smith-Njigba is the type of talent Fields needs.
Could the Bears go quarterback here? Again, it’s unlikely they would give up so soon, especially when Fields has so little around him this season. Chicago’s new regime has time to build this team, and it’s doubtful general manager Ryan Poles would have taken the job if he didn’t believe in Fields as a franchise quarterback.
Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia*
Some might argue for a quarterback to restart things in Houston — and we’ll have to see how second-year signal-caller Davis Mills plays after a promising first season — but it wouldn’t be a surprise for general manager Nick Caserio to give Mills more time to develop. Mills is on an inexpensive contract and has yet to play with much offensive support, and the Texans aren’t close to competing in the AFC South.
Carter was arguably the best prospect on Georgia’s national title team in 2021 when you talk to scouts and watch his disruptive ability as an inside or outside pass-rusher. He’s built (6-foot-3, 310 pounds) to produce from a 3-technique position and would make an instant impact in Houston.
Eli Ricks, CB, Alabama*
Ricks, who played two seasons at LSU before transferring to Alabama for the 2022 season, is as good as any cornerback prospect in the past few draft classes. At 6-foot-1, he has a big frame and a ball-hawk mentality. If he hits the ground running and takes another step in his play after working under Nick Saban at Alabama, a Thorpe Award and top-five pick are possible. Ricks was arrested in May on charges of speeding, driving without insurance and possession of marijuana, so he needs to handle his business off the field too.
C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State*
The first quarterback comes off the board later than expected based on the draft order here, and remember that I’m not projecting trades in this mock draft. Make no mistake, though: Stroud is worthy of the No. 1 pick. The second-year starter battled through early adversity last season before finishing with a dominant win over Utah in the Rose Bowl; he had 573 passing yards and six touchdowns.
Stroud has ideal size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and a huge arm that opens up defenses. NFL scouts want to see him use his legs more, but Stroud’s trajectory points to him being an early pick.
Check out some of the best plays from the top prospects in the 2023 NFL mock draft.
Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia*
With rookie first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett on the roster, the Steelers could look to improve in other places. Ringo had eight pass breakups and two interceptions on a loaded defense last season, and you might remember his clinching pick-six in the title game. If the 6-foot-2 corner can make plays without 10 future NFL starters around him, his coverage ability and physical traits will put him in the running for CB1 in this class.
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama*
The Panthers passed on taking a quarterback in Round 1 in April and instead drafted Matt Corral in the third round, but they should remain in the hunt for a long-term option at the position. Young, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, doesn’t have prototypical NFL size — he’s listed at 6-foot, 194 pounds — but he plays the position like a point guard with great field vision, touch and anticipation. Size will be the ultimate question for scouts, but Young enters the season in the conversation for QB1.
Will Levis, QB, Kentucky
Levis might no longer be a sleeper as he has entered the household conversation this summer. He has many fans in the NFL, thanks to his size (6-foot-3, 232 pounds), arm strength and gunslinger style of play. Of the top three quarterbacks, he might have the most well-rounded skill set as a thrower, scrambler and designed runner. Levis has to cut down on interceptions — he had 13 last season — but his 33 total touchdowns, including nine on the ground, have evaluators intrigued to see another season.
Jaren Hall, QB, BYU*
There is a lot of projection involved with a mock draft almost a year out from the real thing, but it shouldn’t be out of the question that Hall makes the leap into the top-10 discussion. He has big-play ability stacked on a 6-foot-1 frame and can produce with a whip-strong right arm or shifty mobility. His 20 touchdown passes to five interceptions point to his accuracy and smart decision-making. The Seahawks need a quarterback with Russell Wilson now in Denver, and they are a candidate to watch for a potential trade up.
Jaren Hall throws a stellar 41-yard pass to Keanu Hill for the BYU touchdown.
Tyler Van Dyke, QB, Miami*
The new Giants regime didn’t draft Daniel Jones in the top 10 in 2019 and declined his fifth-year option, which means he’s likely in his final season in New York. That puts the Giants back in the quarterback market.
The 6-foot-4 Van Dyke flashed in nine starts last season (25 touchdown passes, six interceptions), and he could be even better in 2022 because of the staff and roster new coach Mario Cristobal has assembled. Van Dyke has the arm strength and mobility to become a star.
Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas*
Yes, Mel Kiper, I’m putting a running back in the top 15, but this one deserves it. Robinson is a game-changer with fantastic contact balance, power and speed, and he can even make plays in the passing game. He had 1,422 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns last season. He is a throwback to a player such as Curtis Martin or a souped-up Matt Forte. For a Dolphins team that wants to be a contender in the AFC East, Robinson represents a clear-cut answer to a problem that has existed for far too long.
Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern*
Will Carson Wentz make it to Year 2 as the Commanders’ quarterback, or will he be on the move again in 2023? If he plays well and avoids another late-season collapse, they can focus on a long-term rebuild of the offensive line. Skoronski has turned heads since he took over for 2021 first-rounder Rashawn Slater at left tackle for the Wildcats. Although slightly undersized at 6-foot-4, 294 pounds, he has the technique and agility teams fall in love with at the position.
Andre Carter II, DE, Army
It has been a long time since we’ve talked about a service-academy player in the draft, but Carter is a three-down menace to offenses. With a 6-foot-7 frame, he’s long, powerful and savvy in space. Don’t be shocked if he becomes the first Army player selected in the first round since 1947, two years after World War II ended. With 15.5 sacks last season to go with length and power, he has lived up to the hype so far.
Jordan Addison, WR, USC*
Another receiver for Tennessee? The Titans traded wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Eagles in April and used the first-round pick they got in return on Treylon Burks, but Burks struggled in offseason practices. He could still star as a rookie, but this team must keep improving its pass-catchers around quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The versatile Addison, who won the Biletnikoff Award at Pitt last season, transferred to USC, where he should become young signal-caller Caleb Williams‘ go-to weapon in Lincoln Riley’s explosive offense.
Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame*
The tight end with the nickname “Baby Gronk” goes to a perfect situation, where he’ll team up with Joe Burrow and three outstanding wide receivers (Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins) to form the AFC’s best skill position group. The 6-foot-4, 251-pound Mayer is a throwback player who is a true in-line tight end prospect. Rob Gronkowski is the popular comp, but Mayer plays a lot like the Lions’ T.J. Hockenson, who was the No. 8 overall pick in 2019.
Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson*
Take a quick look at the Eagles’ defensive end depth chart and it’s easy to see the position becoming the top need next offseason. Murphy anchored the Clemson defensive line in 2021 with seven sacks while bouncing between end and tackle. With Bryan Bresee returning from injury, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Murphy should see more action at end this season. He has a chance to dominate with his quickness off the edge.
Bryan Bresee, DT, Clemson*
Bresee is returning from a torn left ACL suffered last September, but the flashes he has shown and his pedigree as a former top recruit should have scouts excited. He had four sacks and a forced fumble as a freshman in 2020. A return to form could push Bresee all the way into the top 10, though he has to prove he can return to his stellar level of play.
Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU*
Let’s get quarterback Mac Jones some help in New England. Boutte had 38 catches last season, but coach Brian Kelly should usher in a more pro-style offense for the Tigers, in turn boosting Boutte’s numbers. At 6-foot, 190 pounds, his size and speed remind me some of Philadelphia’s DeVonta Smith, who was the No. 10 pick in 2021. Boutte needs the on-field production to propel himself up draft boards in the same way Smith did when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2020.
Cam Smith, CB, South Carolina*
A big, 6-foot-1 cornerback with elite ball skills, Smith had 11 pass breakups and three interceptions last season. He’s also a willing and able tackler (41 total tackles). Ricks and Ringo get the most hype, but Smith might be the most well-rounded cornerback in the nation. For the Eagles, this is about putting premium capital to inject youth into their secondary.
Henry To’oTo’o, ILB, Alabama
The middle of the Baltimore defense could use a spark, and Alabama’s fast, instinctive To’o To’o could be perfect for that role. At 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, he’s a little lean, but his speed and instincts make him a threat in the run and pass games, as seen by his 111 tackles, four sacks and two passes defensed during his first year in the Crimson Tide scheme.
Josh Downs, WR, North Carolina*
How much longer will Adam Thielen be the running mate to Justin Jefferson? It might be time to start building out the wide receiver room, and Downs has the quickness and hands to be that guy. He’s not the biggest wideout (5-foot-10, 180 pounds), but he had 101 catches for over 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns last season, with all but one of his receptions coming when he was lined up in the slot. He’d be a great fit with Jefferson.
Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Ohio State*
We’re still waiting for the Cardinals to build an offensive line that can keep Kyler Murray upright. This would be a step in the right direction. Johnson is a former top high school recruit who spent last season at guard. He’ll kick out to tackle in 2022, and scouts believe he has the potential to develop into a starting NFL left tackle.
Isaiah Foskey, OLB, Notre Dame
The Texans grabbed elite defensive tackle Jalen Carter earlier in this projection and now get him a running mate in the talented all-around end Foskey. At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, Foskey has a true 4-3 defensive end body but could still stand up and play in space because of his quickness. With 11 sacks and a whopping six forced fumbles last season, his numbers match his physical tools.
Habakkuk Baldonado, DE, Pitt
Even after drafting George Karlaftis in the first round in April, Kansas City could use another end with the future of Frank Clark in question. Baldonado is one of my favorite under-the-radar prospects, and I’m projecting a big year for him in 2022. He had nine sacks and a forced fumble last season.
Trenton Simpson, ILB, Clemson*
Simpson is a speedy outside linebacker with three-down ability as a run-stuffer, cover man and blitzer off the edge, which is exactly what the Seahawks need to continue a rebuild on defense. Simpson, one of three Clemson defenders in this mock draft, had 65 total tackles and six sacks last season. If he continues to thrive under a new scheme with defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin, he has the traits to be an early pick.
Antonio Johnson, DB, Texas A&M*
Predicting what Tampa will do almost a year out is impossible without knowing if it will be rebuilding or reloading for another run with quarterback Tom Brady. Either way, one strength of this team during the Super Bowl run in 2020 was a young secondary that attacked offenses. Coach Todd Bowles could invest in the defensive backfield, and the versatile Johnson is exactly the kind of player Bowles has liked in his career. Johnson was Texas A&M’s second-leading tackler (79) last season, and he also had a sack and an interception.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida*
Richardson has received considerable hype this summer thanks to his big-time arm strength, mobility and 6-foot-4 frame. This is all a projection, however, as he has thrown 64 passes for the Gators — and six of those were interceptions. Richardson has the tools, but we have to see the production this season. If he puts it all together under coach Billy Napier, he could push himself way up the board.
Jermaine Burton, WR, Alabama*
Burton is another transfer who is expected to star in 2022, as the former Georgia wideout could emerge as WR1 for Bryce Young in a pass-first offense at Alabama. He averaged 17 yards per catch and had eight touchdowns over the past two seasons. Watch his output soar for the Crimson Tide. Detroit, meanwhile, could pair Burton with former Bama star Jameson Williams, whom the Lions traded up for in Round 1 in April.
Siaki Ika, DT, Baylor*
If you watched the Chargers in 2022, you know how important it is that their defense improves against the run. Ika would boost the interior immediately. The 6-foot-4, 350-pound tackle is an anchor in the middle, and he also has enough quickness to make an impact as a pass-rusher (he had four sacks in 2021). He’s not quite on the Jordan Davis level of speed and physical traits for a big man, but his NFL usage could be similar.
Noah Sewell, ILB, Oregon*
Sewell’s play at Oregon has been amazing to watch as he developed into a true three-down defender. The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder has elite size to go along with great quickness and processing speed. And we can’t forget to mention his versatility. As is becoming so important, he’s as good rushing the quarterback as he is playing in coverage.
Felix Anudike-Uzomah, DE, Kansas State*
Here’s a name to file away for when the games start in September. Anudike-Uzomah pops off the tape and should be a first-team All-Big 12 candidate. With 11 sacks last season, the 6-foot-3, 252-pound end has the quickness and agility to play standing up, but he has flashed the power to play from a three-point stance. If you’re looking for an edge rusher who could shoot up draft boards, Anudike-Uzomah is a player to watch.
Layden Robinson, G, Texas A&M*
Let’s be honest: The Bills don’t have many needs on a Super Bowl-caliber roster. One area in which there could be a future opening is along the interior of the offensive line. Robinson is the top interior prospect in this class. A second-team All-SEC player in 2021, his dominance in the run game could make him the Bills’ Week 1 starter at right guard in 2023.