The 2023 NFL Draft kicks off tonight in Kansas City, Missouri, and for many of us, it’s the pinnacle event of the NFL off-season. We’ve waited impatiently, toiling on the various mock-draft simulators, playing out scenarios from the mundane to the downright ridiculous. Twelve trades by one team? Go for it!
Finally, we’ve made it through the stretch between the Super Bowl and this glorious night. Sure, we have things like rookie minicamps, Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and teamwide minicamps in June. But, for the most part, this is the peak of the off-season. From here to training camp, it’s mostly quiet on the football front. Or, to borrow a turn of phrase from the late Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), we are about to enter “the long, dark tea time of the soul.”
So, why not send it off with one last hurrah?
Okay, enough theatrics.
This mock draft covers all 31 picks in the first round — sorry, not sorry, Miami. This is not me deciding what would be best for each team. This is my best guess, based on the rumors, gossip and chatter of the last three months, to determine what each team will actually do. This is my attempt to see through the smoke screens and to ignore what the talking heads in the media are saying to look at the draft through the eyes of scouts and — more importantly — the General Managers, whose very jobs revolve mostly around the next three days.
Without further ado.
#1 - Carolina Panthers: C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
As I said, the first step to understanding this mock draft is to forget about what the pundits are all saying. Alabama’s Bryce Young may have a higher ceiling than Stroud, but Stroud has the higher floor. The two are neck and neck, with Stroud being the better athlete by Young having slightly more polish. Both quarterbacks can make every throw. So, what separates them?
It literally comes down to that. Young is considerably shorter than the ideal NFL quarterback, and has a slight build. Stroud is five inches taller and sturdier. For a team like the Panthers, who have struggled for most of their existence to find long-term stability and sustained success at the quarterback position, it’s hard to imagine them not taking the safer of the two picks, given how close they are in all other areas.
#2 - Houston Texans: Jalen Carter, DL, Georgia
I had Bryce Young here until an 11th-hour do-over on the entire draft. The latest rumors out of Houston is they really don’t want to even have the second pick. I speculated at the end of last season that they would be content giving Davis Mills one more season, waiting yet again for a quarterback class that promises as it stands now to be better than this year. As the off-season wore on, it looked like they would go for a quarterback after all, but the rumblings now are they intend to not pick a passer with the second overall selection. In that case, Jalen Carter is a no-brainer. He can play literally anywhere on the defensive line, in any scheme. He’s one of the best defensive line prospects to come out in all the years I’ve been doing this. There will be many questions about his off-field decisions and actions, but at the end of the day, professional football is a business. There is always a point where talent will cancel out transgressions.
TRADE: Indianapolis gets pick #3; Arizona gets pick #4
This is an insurance trade for the Colts, who basically make the trade so that other teams like Tennessee don’t do it instead. It’s a no-brainer for both teams, as the Colts get their first franchise QB since Andrew Luck, and the Cardinals add another pick in the second round and give up literally nothing for it.
#3 - Indianapolis Colts: Will Levis, QB, Kentucky
The Colts’ love for Levis may be the worst-kept secret this off-season. Every time you turn around, their dots are being connected. Then, just when you think something has refuted it, some new rumor pops up saying this on-again, off-again relationship is on once more.
Levis was expected to be one of the top quarterbacks this year and, despite a rough season, here we are talking about him being drafted third overall. His struggles in 2022 were largely the product of a bad offensive line and a tough situation in general. His 2021 season was outstanding, and it’s likely no one has forgotten what he can do with a better team around him. He also just feels like a Colt. Maybe its the obvious Midwest connection.
#4 - Arizona Cardinals: Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern
Arizona has, without a doubt, the worst overall roster in the NFL. There’s not really any argument to be made to the contrary. To make things worse, their best player on each side of the ball are both actively trying to get out. So, when things are already so bad that you don’t even have to blow it up to start over, the best place to start is in the trenches. And there’s no one better for this particular situation than Skoronski, who can play both tackle and guard. That versatility will come in handy while the Cardinals try to find two sticks to rub together on the rest of the roster.
#5 - Seattle Seahawks: Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
The term “high floor” was pretty much tailor-made for Gonzalez, who is just plain good at every skill a defensive back needs. He can play man, he can play zone. He can play press, or he can play off. He can run with almost anyone, and he can tackle like he was giving lessons. He’s solid in run support. There may not be anything about his game that makes your heart beat rapidly, but there are also no holes to be poked in it. He may be the safest pick in the entire 2023 draft.
#6 - Detroit Lions: Tyree Wilson, EDGE, Texas Tech
Wilson is a physical specimen, at 6’6” and 275 pounds, who can toss collegiate tackles around like ragdolls. He can play in multiple fronts, whether he’s outside the tackle or over him, giving him a ton of versatility. The Lions, who had a resurgence of sorts with a new coach and a new quarterback in 2022, could immediately have one of the best defensive fronts in the NFC, bookended by Wilson and 2022 first-round pick Aidan Hutchinson.
#7 - Las Vegas Raiders: Calijah Kancey, DL, Pittsburgh
I love Kancey. Consider him the budget version of Aaron Donald, with a brutally explosive first step and a powerful upper body. He isn’t Donald, and probably never will be, but he’s built in a very similar mold, both in physical build and play style. He has the speed and power to rush from the edge on a situational basis, and has the explosion and agility to beat interior linemen off the snap and knife his way into the backfield.
#8 - Atlanta Falcons: Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois
Witherspoon is the most smothering man-coverage corner in this draft, hands down. If you had to pick one corner from this group to isolate against an opponent’s best receiver, it would be Witherspoon. Where he gets in trouble is being too aggressive. He also has a tendency to take bad angles in the open field, missing tackles when he has absolutely no business doing so. Those shortcoming aside, though, there is basically nothing else to complain about with Witherspoon. He’ll get you an untimely pass interference or defensive holding call now and then, but he’ll also shut down just about any receiver you can throw at him.
#9 - Chicago Bears: Paris Johnson, Jr, OT, Ohio State
When it comes to speed rushers, you won’t find a better pass-blocking left tackle than Johnson. He has exceptionally fast feet, a kick slide even few NFL veterans could replicate, and does a great job keeping speed rushers on the perimeter. He handles stunts with ease. The only flaw in his game is handling bull rushes, where his anchor isn’t the strongest, and his reset is often uneven and off-balance. Unlike some other offensive linemen, Johnson appears to play less with emotion and more as a technician. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but don’t expect to see him absolutely destroy a defender now and then like a lot of other linemen. He won’t wow you with a lot of pancake blocks, but he absolutely will not let you down, either.
#10 - Philadelphia Eagles: Will Anderson, Jr., Alabama
I’m not as high on Anderson as a lot of other people are, because I’ve seen him disappear against better opponents (see: Tennessee, 2022). However, the Eagles made it clear earlier this week that they really want a pass rusher at the top of the draft, and Anderson is absolutely a versatile tool. His biggest shortcomings are that he often looks like he doesn’t have a counterattack planned and gives up on a rush if his first move fails. He doesn’t play to the whistle most of the time, and can be seen jogging or even walking on run plays that don’t come right at him. But he has all the physical tools you could want and can be plugged into just about any defensive front. If you believe you can coach out bad habits, he could be a superstar.
#11 - Tennessee Titans: Bryce Young, Alabama
I never bought the media hype of teams like the Raiders or the Falcons looking for quarterbacks in this draft. The Raiders paid good money for Jimmy Garoppolo and the Falcons have yet to even see what they have in 2022 second-round pick Desmond Ridder. I expect, if Young makes it past Indianapolis, the Titans will sit tight and wait for Young to come to them.
As I said earlier, Young will struggle because of his height. Expect a lot of batted balls, as well as designed roll-outs to give him throwing lanes. If the offense is designed to minimize the height issues, he has the potential to be at least a top-half-of-the-league passer. Having Derrick Henry helps immensely, because Young excels in play-action.
#12 - Houston Texans: Darnell Wright, OT, Tennessee
A lot of people were probably expecting to see Anthony Richardson at this pick, but if all the scouts and GMs saw through Malik Willis last year, then it’s unlikely they will be as enamored with Richardson as the media are. You don’t draft projects in the first round, especially at quarterback.
Now, with that rant out of the way: this is a lot earlier than Wright was popularly expected to go even two weeks ago, but he has enjoyed a meteoric rise. The key here is that he is a natural right tackle, and the best one of those in the draft. Houston’s biggest hole in the line is at right tackle, so you can begin to see why I predicted this pick here. If you are rolling with Davis Mills, you need to get him protection and playmakers. That process begins here at the twelfth pick.
#13 - Green Bay Packers: Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
If this pick happens, it’s basically the grand send-off to former Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was of course traded to the Jets on Tuesday. After not drafting a wide receiver high for years, this pick is almost comically insulting. Still, it’s the right pick for the Packers, who need to give presumed starting quarterback Jordan Love as much of a fighting chance as possible. Smith-Njigba is to the receiving corps what Christian Gonzalez is to the defensive secondary: the safest possible pick. He’s not going to make a lot of game-breaking plays, but he is a route-running magician and has outstanding hands.
#14 - New England Patriots: Nolan Smith, EDGE, Georgia
This is such a Bill Belichick pick. Smith isn’t flashy, he just goes out and does his job with fine attention to detail and expert execution. Those are hallmarks of a Belichick-led team. There’s really not a lot to say here — the Patriots need edge rushers, and Smith is as snug of a fit as you will find for their defense. He even has the speed to play off the ball situationally.
#15 - New York Jets: Broderick Jones, OT, Georgia
This pick was as inevitable as it is perfect. The Jets are making an enormous investment in the next 2 to 3 years with Aaron Rodgers, and they need to improve at both tackle spots. Jones lives up to his Bulldog pedigree, playing with an angry edge. He’s a well-rounded pass protector who moves well, has a high degree of athleticism and is a strong run blocker, too. He was my preferred pick all along for the Steelers, but he is going to be an excellent fit for the Jets if they take him here.
#16 - Washington Commanders: Dalton Kincaid, TE, Utah
This is less about filling a need — even though it does — and more about the board falling into a somewhat unfavorable look for the Commanders. While they could have gone with a cornerback here, they are in need of an upgrade at tight end, and Kincaid is an absolute playmaker. With Sam Howell being named the starter, but with precious little playing time under his belt as a rookie in 2022, having more options for him will be a huge help. Kincaid has some of the best hands you will ever see for a tight end and plays with great speed and explosion. He’s undersized at just 6’3”, but he plays a lot bigger in the receiving game.
#17 - Pittsburgh Steelers: Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland
While I would have preferred one of the top offensive tackles, there will be other options at the top of round two, so I’m not heartbroken that the draft fell this way up to pick #17. The Steelers are also in need of a top-tier cornerback, and Deonte Banks fits the bill. While he didn’t win many accolades, he is technically very strong in both man and zone coverage, is the best tackling corner in this draft and does a fantastic job mirroring receivers all the way down the field. He is supremely athletic, running a blistering 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and he is aggressive in run support. His biggest flaws are around his downfield technique, where he sometimes fails to get his head around to the ball in time. This has led to a few pass interference flags. He’s a lot like Ike Taylor in build, play style and instincts — even, unfortunately, in his lack of ball production.
#18 - Detroit Lions: Drew Sanders, LB, Arkansas
Sanders is one of those guys who I have rated much higher than most of the talking heads. He reminds me of (a much smaller) T.J. Watt in how high his motor is wound at all times. He flies around the field, with ample speed to go sideline to sideline, and has very good coverage skills. He has lined up all over, but excels in the box. If you ever want to find him on the field, just locate the ball. He’ll be right there by it, every down.
#19 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Myles Murphy, EDGE, Clemson
Admittedly, this isn’t a terribly “sexy” pick. Murphy has been consistent, if unspectacular, as a pass rusher. He may already be close to his ceiling, as he didn’t really improve much over the last several years. Still, the Buccaneers are in need of an improvement in their pass rush, and with Murphy, you absolutely know what you are going to get. There’s more than a little bit to remind you of Bud Dupree, build-wise, but Murphy is considerably more polished than Dupree was when he was drafted. Less chiseled, but more refined, if you catch my drift.
#20 - Seattle Seahawks: Zay Flowers, WR, Boston College
Oh boy, do I love this kid. He’s certainly more of a long-term risk than Smith-Njigba, but ho-lee-cow, is this ever kid a touchdown waiting to happen every time he touches the ball. Lots of speed, the shiftiness and agility of a puma, and very good (but not great) hands — more on that in a moment.
Flowers is also incredibly versatile, having lined up just about everywhere but in the press box. He’s flown under the radar due to his somewhat diminutive size, but he’s got the potential to be an absolute weapon.
Okay, about the hands. On film, he’s made some of the most absurd catches you’ll see, this side of George Pickens. But then he has that occasional mental lapse and drops an easy one. He’s not as maddening as Nate Washington was — Washington made the tough catches look easy, and the easy catches look impossible — but he’s going to have a dumb drop now and then.
Flowers will be a great complement in the slot to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. In a year or two, this could be the best receiving corps in the NFL.
#21 - Los Angeles Chargers: Joey Porter, Jr., CB, Penn State
Throughout the entirety of this draft season, I’ve had one pervasive thought about Porter: if his dad was an insurance salesman in Indiana, rather than a former All-Pro linebacker, would we hold his son in quite so high of regard?
Don’t get me wrong, JPJ has been a lockdown corner in press man coverage. Next to Witherspoon, he’s the best out here in man coverage, especially on deep routes. But he has a few maddening traits, like easily biting on double moves and head fakes. Okay, everyone does it from time to time. But, probably due to his long, lanky build that is otherwise an enormous asset to a perimeter DB, he lacks the agility to recover quickly, and the closing speed to make up for the mistake. He’s been very fortunate on several occasions to have been beaten, but then the quarterback tossed a bad pass downfield. He’s good bordering on great 95 percent of the time, but as a pro, the 5 percent he struggles with will end up as daggers.
All of that said, this is a good fit. If you need a little more of a nudge, just salivate over this thought: the son of Joey Porter lining up on the same side of the ball as the son of Asante Samuel.
#22 - Baltimore Ravens: Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
This one is an obvious choice at this point in the draft, especially given the uncertainty the Ravens have on offense. At the time of this writing, there is speculation the Ravens could be on the verge of both signing DeAndre Hopkins and locking down Lamar Jackson for the next several years, but let’s look at it as if they aren’t. In that case, they should turn to the defense to limit how many points potential starting quarterback Tyler Huntley would need to score. Returning their pass rush to greatness would be an obvious start, and McDonald is a great choice to do just that. He had a somewhat down year in 2022, but had 24 sacks in 2020 and 2021 combined.
I originally had Hendon Hooker here, and I believe that’s still possible. Hooker is the player the Ravens likely wanted out of Lamar Jackson — I know I’m going to catch heat for that statement, even from Steelers fans, but let me explain. Hooker excels at all the things Jackson is inconsistent with: short- and medium accuracy, reading developing plays, and staying put in the pocket to finish the called play instead of constantly pulling down the ball and running. Hooker isn’t quite the same athlete, but he’s a more polished passer coming out of college than Jackson was — and is, for that matter.
#23 - Minnesota Vikings: Hendon Hooker
Speaking of Hooker.
Here’s the scenario: Kirk Cousins’ dreadful, fully-guaranteed deal finally ends after the 2023 season. He’ll be 35 years old. Kudos to him for turning what was supposed to be a backup job to Robert Griffin III into an incredibly lucrative career, given his middling talent level, but it’s hard to picture the Vikings re-upping. There are some people who would be beating the table for Anthony Richardson here, but I reiterate my previous statement: you don’t draft big-project quarterbacks in round one. Hendon Hooker may end up with the best career of the four quarterbacks I’ve projected so far — he has that high of a ceiling. Having a chance to sit for an entire year behind a longtime veteran like Cousins is ideal for him.
#24 - Jacksonville Jaguars: O’Cyrus Torrence, G, Florida
The first time I ran my mock, I had the Jaguars trading up with the Packers at #15 for Brian Branch. With that costing even more now, and with how the board shook out this time around, it made sense for the Jaguars to stand pat and wait for what came to them. In the end, Branch wasn’t even the selection I went with.
Torrence has some really good game film. He’s the quintessential guard, with a thick body, and pretty good straight-line athleticism. His lack of lateral agility means he will pretty much always be an interior OL, and that’s okay. He’s a really doggone good one.
For as good as his game film is, his Senior Bowl showing is what really launched him into the first round. He, along with center John-Michael Schmitz, spent the week absolutely abusing everyone who dared challenge them. Jacksonville has a hole to fill at guard, so this pick just made a ton of sense.
#25 - New York Giants: Brian Branch, S, Alabama
Aaaaand speaking of Brian Branch.
The Giants are in need of talent at both safety positions, and Branch is able to play both. He’s about 15 pounds too light to be a full-time box safety at the NFL level, but he can do it in a pinch, and has enough range to be a solid deep safety, as well. But where he may really shine is as the nickel corner, where the Giants are in desperate need of help. He’s physical, has a high football IQ and has excellent coverage skills. On third and medium-to-long, having someone to cover the slot who can redirect the route or disrupt the timing is priceless.
#26 - Dallas Cowboys: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
Come on, we all know Jerry can’t help himself. He just let Zeke Elliott walk. Tony Pollard is playing 2023 on a franchise-tag deal. Jerry Jones loves himself a great running back, and Robinson is that guy.
When you watch him play, you see a weird combination of Le’veon Bell’s patient, ballet-like movements behind the line, combined with Ladanian Tomlinson’s one-cut-and-hit-the-afterburners style. In fact, Robinson has been quoted as saying he modeled his game partly on Tomlinson, so it makes sense.
I don’t like taking running backs in the first round but, much like Najee Harris, it’s sometimes easy to understand why someone else might do it with certain guys. Robinson has elite feet, vision and balance through contact. This was probably the easiest pick in the whole draft to make.
#27 - Buffalo Bills: Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa
Okay, maybe this was the easiest pick to make.
With the loss of Tremaine Edmunds in free agency, the Bills had a gaping hole torn in their defense. Campbell isn’t as explosive as Edmunds, but if the moniker of “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” has ever fit someone, it’s Campbell.
He’s not the hardest hitter, but he hits hard. He’s not the best cover linebacker, but he covers very well. He’s not the most nimble in traffic, but he glides through it anyway. Watching his film, you see an incredibly polished linebacker who just looks like a pro already. He’s the definition of high floor, but he may not be terribly far from his ceiling, either. But there’s nothing wrong with that if he’s already playing at a pro level, right?
#28 - Cincinnati Bengals: Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame
This is absolutely not a splash pick, but when your season has ended at either Super Bowl (‘21) or the AFC Championship (‘22) the last two seasons, you don’t really need splash. In this case, much like the Bills one pick prior, the Bengals are replenishing at a position where they just lost a key offensive contributor in Hayden Hurst. Again, given the state of the board, this just made perfect sense.
Think of Mayer as very much another Jason Witten. He plays the game hard, and with supreme aggression, but always within his own control. He can block, he can catch. If Dalton Kincaid wasn’t such a WOW type of player at the position, Mayer would have been the consensus TE1 in this draft. Again, much like the Campbell selection, this is a very workman-like selection, and you know exactly what you are getting with Mayer. The best part is, you’re going to love what you get with Mayer. Unless you’re a reader here at Behind the Steel Curtain; then you’ll probably loathe this pairing.
#29 - New Orleans Saints: Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State
Forbes is one of best man-cover guys you will find in this draft, behind only Joey Porter, Jr. and Devon Witherspoon. So why is he all the way down at 29 when almost every team in this draft could use an upgrade at corner?
Simple: he weighs 166 pounds. To put that in perspective, there are just five cornerbacks in the NFL under 180 pounds, and the smallest of all of them is 175 pounds. That puts Forbes nine pounds smaller than the current smallest guy at his position. Nine pounds may not seem like a lot until you consider the average corner is actually closer to 190 pounds. Suddenly, that nine pounds becomes 24 pounds — almost 15 percent of total body weight — that Forbes is giving up to his fellow corners. When he lines up in press man against, oh, I dunno...DK Metcalf? Yeah.
On top of that, while Forbes is a very willing tackler, he’s not necessarily a very good one. Mostly, that comes down to his lack of mass, and he either gets driven backward, or he becomes a drag-down tackler. Either way, he’s giving up plus-yards on the end of plays.
But still, those coverage skills are eye-popping, so someone will take a chance on him at the tail end of round 1 or early in round 2.
#30 - Philadelphia Eagles: Josh Downs, North Carolina
There isn’t a whole lot here to say besides, “the rich just get richer.” Downs is an excellent slot receiver, and the Eagles have two excellent perimeter receivers with adequate size. It makes good sense for them to fill what is really the only actual hole on their entire, league-leading roster. Downs does that, with great route running, an almost inhuman ability to get separation in tight spaces, and enough speed to be dangerous after the catch.
#31 - Kansas City Chiefs: Quentin Johnston, TCU
Johnston was waaaaaay up at WR1 on most media big boards for several months due to his freakish size and length. He’s 6’4” with arms for days, so he has a catch radius that could be measured in counties.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have blazing speed, and he has had some significant problems with drops. When you put all that together, it’s not WR1 anymore. In fact, the main reason he’s even off the board in the first round is because the Chiefs could really use someone else on the perimeter who can make contested catches. Johnston will definitely do that. Just don’t send him over the middle, because he has a tendency to turtle when an impact is incoming, despite his size advantage over almost any defensive back.