To borrow a phrase from the NFL, this is the draft’s “acclimatization period” — a time to start learning about college football’s top prospects, because we’ll be talking about most of them for the next nine months. If you’ve been following along with Dane Brugler’s super-early 2023 mock or his position-by-position preseason rankings, you’re off to a good start.
Between now and April, our team of draft experts — Brugler, Nick Baumgardner, Diante Lee and Nate Tice (and, on occasion, NFL Draft editor Chris Burke) — will dive deep into all the details of the 2023 prospect pool. For the time being, a few weeks out from the college football season, we’re just getting going.
And we’ll begin here, with this simple question:
Which NFL Draft prospect(s) are you most excited to track this season?
Brugler: The first name that popped into my head for this question was Kentucky quarterback Will Levis. With his size, athleticism and arm talent, he checks a lot of boxes — and he put promising play on tape last season in his first year as a starter.
Levis lost his top receiver (Wan’Dale Robinson, drafted No. 43 by the Giants) and play caller (Liam Coen, now the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator), so clear on-field improvement over last season shouldn’t be assumed. However, all the talent is there for him to become a top-10 pick and NFL starter if his decision-making and anticipation of him continue to develop as a senior. Kentucky travels to Gainesville in Week 2 for a showdown with Florida, which will be a great early test for a quarterback with lofty expectations.
Tice: It’s hard to pick just one of the “other” quarterbacks that isn’t CJ Stroud or Bryce Young, and I am with Dane in keeping a close eye on how Levis progresses this season. The group of Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke, Stanford’s Tanner McKee or Florida’s Anthony Richardson has me extremely excited to see what growth those prospects can etch to their names in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Especially Richardson. In 2021, he was used mostly as a quarterback gadget, with just a few games in which he received extended run behind center for the Gators. He is more of an idea than a fully fleshed-out player at this point. How he develops his size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), athleticism and big arm into becoming a more consistent and polished quarterback will be interesting to watch. Richardson is as raw as he can be, but he has all the tools and traits teams want out of their quarterbacks.
Burke: Since we’re talking quarterbacks, this is as good a spot as any to give a nod to their targets — the wide receivers. The 2023 WR class has a couple of absolute studs up top, in Ohio State’s Jaxson Smith-Njigba (do the Buckeyes ever run out of playmakers?) and LSU’s Kayshon Boutte. But I’m curious to see how a couple of other potential top-40 picks, Jordan Addison and Josh Downs, handle losing their QBs.
Addison, subject of a contentious transfer from Pittsburgh to USC this offseason, racked up 100 catches, 17 touchdowns and nearly 1,600 yards with Kenny Pickett slinging him the ball; Downs had 101 grabs — and better than 1,300 yards — as Sam Howell’s favorite receiver. I’m already rather fond of Addison’s game, in particular, because of how advanced he is as a route runner.
Brugler: One other prospect I’ll be tracking closely is Ohio State junior Paris Johnson Jr., as he makes the move from guard to left tackle for one of the country’s best offenses. Johnson is a fluid athlete for a 6-6, 315-pounder, and should thrive at his more natural blindside position, but his technique and timing are still a work in progress. I find it tough to get excited about this year’s offensive tackle draft class, but Johnson is one of the few draft-eligible tackles with legit first-round potential.
Baumgardner: This is an interesting OT class, as Dane noted. The list of potential first-rounders isn’t massive, but another Big Ten tackle who finds a way to make it work — and will face similar questions as his Wildcats predecessor — is Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski. Big-time Rashawn Slater vibes all over the place, from the movement skills in space to measurements that might make him a guard for some teams in the NFL. Skoronski also played center in high school, so the versatility is there.
As was the case with Slater, Skoronski’s OT length isn’t ideal. But his feet from him, athletic recovery and overall great football sense are hard to ignore. It’s also in his blood, as his grandfather, Bob Skoronski, was a tackle for Vince Lombardi’s Packers dynasty through the 1960s. The 6-4 Skoronski is up to 315 pounds (per a source, he played last season at around 318, despite what Northwestern’s roster said). And he’ll get to show scouts what he has, once again, against a Big Ten schedule that includes dates with Ohio State and Penn State.
A close runner-up is Notre Dame edge defender Isaiah Foskey. Foskey has everything he needs to be a star: Burst, length, lateral quickness and the type of movement skills that are n’t always seen by guys his size from him (6-5, 260). Look for Marcus Freeman and company to get creative with him this year. There is a lot to like.
Read: After the 2021 campaign, Kirby Smart can sell me on just about any interior defensive lineman to wear red, black and white. The next one through the Georgia pipeline needs no advocacy beyond his own film, and that’s the sensational DT Jalen Carter. Carter has been one of the guys UGA coaches and media have been telling the football world to wait for him, and his time in the rotation last season justified the excitement.
He’s another 300-plus-pound, sub-5-second 40-yard-dash player who bullies guards and centers with his get-off and violent hands. He also brings some refinement to that violence and a natural feel for interior pass rushing — something Georgia couldn’t consistently generate with its front four last season. Despite playing behind a pair of first-round talents at his position, and in front of three NFL-caliber linebackers who blitzed on nearly every snap, Carter tallied a combined 11.5 sacks and tackles for loss.
The runway is clear for Carter to step into his own, and I expect him to put significant distance between himself and the rest of his position group in this draft class.
Burke: Another name I’ll toss out on the defensive side is Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell. I’ve covered his brother of him, Penei, in Detroit, and by all accounts Noah has a similar work ethic and aggressive mentality — the latter is pretty evident on his tape of him. Being an off-ball linebacker might limit his draft ceiling, but he plays an all-around game.
Tice: I just want to see what Alabama’s Will Anderson will be doing to poor college offensive tackles in his last season before hearing his name called (very, very early) by an NFL team in 2023. There could be some wildly entertaining horror films being recorded on Saturdays in Tuscaloosa this fall.
OK, it’s your turn. Who’s the 2023 draft prospect we should be talking about more? Which soon-to-be-star are you itching to see come September? Let us know in the comments.
(Top photo: Jordan Prather/USA Today)