The pre-draft hay is essentially in the barn. Big boards are crystalizing in war rooms across the NFL. Lying season is almost over. The 2023 NFL Draft is nigh!
But before the annual college marketplace officially opens Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET in Kansas City, Missouri, I must let my feelings be known.
Here are my strongest takes on the 2023 draft class, Schein Nine style.
1) Jalen Carter will go in the top six picks
There's no question Carter boasts immense football talent. Shoot, the Georgia defensive tackle could be the best player in this entire draft class. But there's also no question character concerns surround the 22-year-old who plead no contest to misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing. In a surreal scene at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, Carter was forced to briefly depart Indianapolis to face an arrest warrant back in Athens, Georgia, with the charges stemming from a car accident that killed Carter's Georgia teammate and a UGA recruiting analyst. Serious stuff. Then Carter showed up at the Bulldogs' pro day heavier than he'd been in Indy and apparently struggled to finish some field drills.
So, after beginning the evaluation process as a presumptive lock to be one of the first handful of players selected, Carter has become one of the biggest question marks of this draft. Will off-field concerns ultimately push him down the draft board?
Evaluated strictly though an on-field lens, Carter's undoubtedly one of the few truly elite prospects in this class. As my colleague Bucky Brooks wrote, Carter is an extra-large freak athlete with a disruptive presence. The All-American flashes a rare combination of explosive first-step quickness and heavy hands as a destructive run stopper/pocket pusher. This kind of player at a high-impact position typically goes in the top 10. And that's what I predict ultimately happens on Thursday night. In fact, I don't see him getting past two teams in the middle of the top 10.
Seattle and Detroit -- who own pick Nos. 5 and 6, respectively -- both have a second first-rounder, giving them flexibility to take a risk on a premium talent. And I believe the Seahawks and Lions each have the infrastructure to properly handle this situation. Pete Carroll is a gem of a coach, a spectacular motivator and a brilliant defensive mind. Seattle's head man has a long track record of guiding players with character concerns, real or perceived. The 'Hawks also need serious help on the defensive front, both in stopping the run and getting to the quarterback. Detroit's Dan Campbell is another head coach with infectious energy, the kind of leader young players listen to and feed off. And like Campbell, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn boasts over a decade of NFL playing experience. The three-time Pro Bowler knows what it takes to succeed in the league. Furthermore, the thought of Carter joining a defensive front featuring last year's No. 2 overall pick, Aidan Hutchinson -- as well as sixth-round steal James Houston -- must be highly enticing for Lions brass.
2) C.J. Stroud is QB2
The Stroud stock watch is driving me crazy. I don't want to hear about cognitive tests or the Manning Passing Academy or the track record of Ohio State quarterbacks in the pros or any other April nonsense. Let's get down to brass tacks ...
Bryce Young is the best quarterback in this draft. Draw a line. Stroud is No. 2. Draw another line. Then we can talk about everyone else at the position.
I think we see a bevy of quarterbacks go in Round 1 (more on that in a second), but Stroud is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. I believe he has the highest floor of any QB in this draft, Young included. Stroud's arm talent is undeniable, his ball placement pristine. He went 21-4 at the pressure cooker that is Ohio State while posting an 85:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And in his last game as a Buckeye, he shredded eventual national champion Georgia while showcasing the kind of off-schedule playmaking skeptics didn't think he was capable of.
At publishing, Young is the odds-on favorite to be Carolina's choice at No. 1 overall. Houston, which holds the No. 2 pick, doesn't have to select a quarterback. As I wrote last week, the Texans could give new head coach DeMeco Ryans a juicy piece for his defense or even look to trade out. But if they nab Stroud, that'd be an excellent pick. And if Houston doesn't pull that trigger, I imagine Indianapolis (picking fourth overall), Las Vegas (seventh) and Tennessee (11th) would all be quite interested, and rightfully so. Ignore the noise. Stroud's a stud.
3) Five QBs will be selected in Round 1
Back in early March, I felt a little bold hyping up Hendon Hooker. Now it seems like conventional wisdom. This is a highly intriguing quarterback class. A year after we saw just one QB selected within the first 73 picks, I expect five to come off the board on Thursday night alone. And heading into the draft, here is how I'd rank 'em:
- Bryce Young, Alabama: He's going No. 1 and he's going to be a star.
- C.J. Stroud, Ohio State: Like I wrote above, disregard all this last-minute nonsense. This is a truly gifted passer. Just ask Daniel Jeremiah.
- Anthony Richardson, Florida: The tools are mind-blowing, but he needs some time to marinate on an NFL roster. I love Seattle, Tennessee and Minnesota as potential fits.
- Hendon Hooker, Tennessee: Yep, I'm even more bullish on him today that I was back in March, now ranking him fourth in this group. If the Texans spend their first pick on defense, they could grab Hooker at No. 12. I'd love that. And I'd also be into him ending up in Tennessee, Washington or Minnesota.
- Will Levis, Kentucky: I loved Josh Allen and Justin Herbert in their respective draft classes, but the more I study this traitsy signal-caller, the more he scares me. The bad turnovers, the inexplicable misfires -- it's concerning, especially given that Levis spent five years in college and turns 24 this summer. He's a first-round lock -- and some recent chatter has him going as high as No. 2 overall. I just don't see him being that caliber a prospect.
4) I love Will Anderson Jr.
Tyree Wilson is getting a lot of buzz of late, and understandably so -- I dig the Texas Tech product as a long, powerful QB hunter. But I think people are overthinking things here, judging by the burgeoning debate about this draft's top edge rusher. It's Will Anderson Jr. It's always been Will Anderson Jr. DJ knows it. So does Bucky. Eric Edholm has him as the top overall prospect in the class. Bravo, cohorts -- great minds think alike!
Anderson is a pass-rushing genius with a great work ethic who thrived under Nick Saban at Alabama. The guy racked up 34.5 sacks in three seasons, wrecking offenses across the SEC. No need to overcomplicate this. He'd be great for Houston, Arizona, Seattle or Detroit.
5) I love Devon Witherspoon
This cat just makes plays at corner. I love his alpha-dog mentality and quick-twitch athleticism. He's not as long as Christian Gonzalez or Joey Porter Jr., but here's what he is: The best cornerback in this draft. A true tone-setter who fears no man, shirks no assignment. In a passing league, that matters.
I think Witherspoon would be an ideal selection for the Raiders at No. 7.
6) No elite receivers in this class, but I'd take four in the first round
No, there's no Ja'Marr Chase in this class. I'd be shocked to see a receiver go in the top 10. But that doesn't mean this WR crop is devoid of talent. Here are my top four at the position, all of whom can make a big 2023 impact:
- Zay Flowers, Boston College: My top dog at the position is a speedster and electric playmaker. The Patriots, Giants and Chargers could all use this kind of weapon.
- Jordan Addison, USC: The guy helped make Kenny Pickett a first-round pick in 2021 and then helped Caleb Williams win the Heisman Trophy in 2022. I don't want to hear anything about this smooth route-runner's stock slipping.
- Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State: With stellar agility and polish, JSN will make a fan base very happy when he comes off the board in the middle of Round 1.
- Quentin Johnston, TCU: The 6-foot-3, 208-pounder has been falling out of Round 1 mocks of late. If he doesn't go Thursday night, he'll be a second-round steal.
And speaking of steals ...
7) Jonathan Mingo is officially my 2023 George Pickens
Last year in this space, I namechecked George Pickens. The Georgia product didn't come off the board until midway through Round 2, but he immediately made his presence felt in Pittsburgh, catching 52 balls for 801 yards and four touchdowns -- and recording numerous highlight-reel catches along the way. I think this year's Pickens could be another big-bodied receiver from the SEC.
Jonathan Mingo has the hands and the body to follow in the Ole Miss-to-NFL footsteps of A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf. In a wide receiver class that's short on size, Mingo checked in at 6-2 and 220 pounds in Indianapolis, then put on quite an athletic display in the 40-yard dash (4.46 seconds), vertical leap (39.5 inches), broad jump (10-foot-9) and bench press (22 reps). Now he's one of the hottest names late in the process.
If Mingo goes in Round 2, it's a steal. And if a team takes him in Round 1, I'll stand up and applaud the move.
8) Peter Skoronski is best O-line bet
A technically sound left tackle out of Northwestern with suboptimal length, leading some to project him as a guard in the NFL? Hmmm ... Sounds familiar. How'd Rashawn Slater end up transitioning to the league? Oh, that's right -- he was a rookie Pro Bowler, deftly manning Justin Herbert's blind side.
Skoronski was an absolute rock for the Wildcats as a three-year starter at left tackle, but his 32 1/4-inch arms concern some folks. Not me! In a draft that lacks truly elite tackle prospects, Skoronski is my guy. I think he could step in and play right away for the Patriots, Jets, Falcons, Texans and Raiders, among others. If he has to start off at guard -- in order for a team to gets its best five on the field -- so be it. But these eyes see a polished LT.
9) Two running backs are Round 1 worthy
Contrary to popular opinion these days, I have no problem with taking a running back in the first round. If a ball carrier is special and can step in and make an immediate impact, it can drive an offense -- or take a contender to another level. All that said, I typically think the best RB prospects should be considered in the back half of Round 1. But as I wrote last week, Bijan Robinson is no typical RB prospect -- he's worthy of a top-10 pick. The Texas product is the best non-QB in this offensive prospect crop. I support Atlanta grabbing him at No. 8 or Philadelphia turning in the card at No. 10. (Can you imagine how frightening Philly's offense would be with Bijan joining Jalen Hurts in the backfield?) Teams like the Patriots, Chargers, Lions and Cowboys should be very interested in him on Thursday night, too. And he's not the only back in this class worth a first-round pick!
Do NOT sleep on Jahmyr Gibbs. He was incredible last year at Alabama after spending his first two years as a stud at Georgia Tech. He's an all-purpose weapon with gamebreaking speed. What if the Eagles take him at the end of Round 1 (in the event they don't grab Robinson at No. 10)? Buffalo, Cincinnati and Dallas would also be prime landing spots for this home run hitter.