We finally made it through the end of the 2023 NFL draft, and there was certainly no shortage of surprises; however, if there was one constant, it’s that the SEC would show out.
The SEC had the most players drafted with 62 total selections, followed by the Big Ten with 55 players and the Big 12 with 30 players. Alabama and Georgia led all schools with 10 players drafted from each team. Speaking of Georgia, its defense has been dominating the field and draft board the past couple years. Over the 2023 and 2022 drafts, 13 defensive players have been selected from Georgia, and five of them have been drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.
After covering these players over the past three to five years and talking to college coaches, our CFB reporters break down some of the week’s most interesting selections.
Based on covering these players last year, who was your favorite first-round pick?
Ryan McGee: The Houston Texans needed to find starters on both sides of the ball and all they did was grab the No. 1B-ranked QB on everyone’s lists in C.J. Stroud and then fifteen minutes later grabbed a defender who I believe was the nation’s best college football player in 2022, Will Anderson, via a sneaky trade up. They could have immediately closed their laptops and gone to bed for the rest of the weekend and still received an “A” for their efforts. Are they going to win the AFC South this fall? No. Will they be in position to win it more often than not over the following years? Probably, thanks to last Thursday night.
Blake Baumgartner: How can you not like what the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles did Thursday night? Howie Roseman and Nick Sirianni don’t appear to be content with losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. They moved up one spot with the Bears to select possibly the best player in the draft in Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter — worth the risk at No. 9 for a team with a well-established hierarchy in the locker room — and watched Carter’s teammate, linebacker Nolan Smith, fall into their lap with their second first-round pick (No. 30). Both Carter and Smith bring a championship foundation and should be Day 1 starters for a defense that permitted 301.5 YPG in 2022 (second in the NFL). The Athens, Georgia, to Philadelphia (defensive tackle Jordan Davis, linebacker Nakobe Dean, Carter, Smith and defensive back Kelee Ringo) pipeline continues.
Harry Lyles Jr.: After Geno Smith had a career year last season, the Seattle Seahawks got him another playmaker in the first round in Jaxon Smith-Njigba, somebody who was considered one of the best wide receivers in college football going into 2022. Put Smith-Njigba and his route-running ability and ball-tracking skills alongside DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and the Seahawks immediately have one of the best receiving corps in pro football. Especially if Smith-Njigba turns out as well as his running mates from 2021 did in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
Adam Rittenberg: The wide receivers went later in this draft, and several could be looked at as major steals. Boston College‘s Zay Flowers is electric and productive, and he would fit in just about anywhere. Baltimore was wise to add him in the wake of its mega contract for quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens clearly need more reliable receivers to build around Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews in an offense now under the direction of Todd Monken. Flowers thrived at BC despite different coordinators and quarterbacks. He passed up more NIL money elsewhere to remain with the Eagles in 2022, and finished with career highs in receptions (78), receiving yards (1,077) and receiving touchdowns (12). He’s a great pickup for the Ravens and Jackson.
David Hale: The New England Patriots invested some draft capital in both a punter and a kicker — the type of draft a rookie fantasy football owner makes — but it’s hard to argue the Patriots didn’t find some serious first-round value in landing Oregon corner Christian Gonzalez. At 6-foot-1, Gonzalez has the size to match up with anyone, but his quickness, versatility and ability to track the ball make him genuinely special. That he fell all the way to the 17th pick — after two smaller corners, Devon Witherspoon and Emmanuel Forbes — was either a stroke of brilliance by the Seahawks and Commanders or a stroke of luck for New England. Gonzalez fits an immediate need and should be a huge boost to the Pats’ secondary in 2023, with legitimate rookie of the year potential. Worst-case scenario, he adds depth to a unit that needed it, and has all the tools to develop into one of the league’s most physical corners in years to come.
Chris Low: There never should have been a debate (and teams are prone to overthinking it way too much), but the Carolina Panthers got it right with the No. 1 pick. Bryce Young immediately changes that franchise’s trajectory. He’s ready to be the starting quarterback from Day 1 and a difference-maker from Day 1. It’s never completely smooth sailing for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, but Young’s ability to make plays under duress and find open receivers no matter how many defenders are breathing down his neck are what make him so special. His uncanny feel in the pocket will serve him well at the next level, and while everybody wants to talk about his lack of size, go turn on the tape from the past two seasons and watch him carve apart defenses and do it without seemingly breaking a sweat.
Paolo Uggetti: I know taking running backs in the first round, let alone the top 10, is not en vogue, but Bijan Robinson is not just any running back. Robinson is easily one of the best prospects at the position in recent years, and the Atlanta Falcons are getting a dynamic player who will impact their team right away out of the backfield and as a receiver, too. For the third year in a row, the Falcons have taken a playmaker with a high ceiling following the selection of wide receiver Drake London last year and Kyle Pitts the year before. Atlanta is slowly building a really intriguing offense with a potential for plenty of explosive plays. Now if they could only find a franchise quarterback …
Who was the biggest steal of the draft?
Baumgartner: I wasn’t sure where Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed was going to go. The Green Bay Packers nabbed him midway through the second round, over the likes of Rashee Rice (SMU), Marvin Mims (Oklahoma), Jalin Hyatt (Tennessee) and Cedric Tillman (Tennessee). Alongside high school and college teammate Payton Thorne, Reed showed what he was capable of during an 11-win season for the Spartans in 2021 (59 receptions for 1,026 yards, 10 TDs and two punt returns for scores). Injuries limited him a bit last fall (55 catches for 636 yards, five TDs), but he’s electric when he has the ball in his hands and has a knack for coming down with 50-50 balls, despite his 6-foot, 190-pound frame. He will provide Jordan Love a dynamic playmaker on the outside as the remake of Green Bay’s offense commences.
Rittenberg: The Pittsburgh Steelers typically know what they’re doing on draft weekend, and came through again with some excellent choices, including Georgia tight end Darnell Washington in the third round and Wisconsin linebacker Nick Herbig in the fourth. Washington is a massive man at 6-7 and 264 pounds, and he will aid the Steelers both in blocking and pass-catching. Imagine Washington and Pat Freiermuth terrorizing defenses in the red zone. Herbig was relentless and productive with the Badgers, leading the team in sacks in each of the past two seasons, and recording 30 tackles for loss. He will once again team with second-round pick Keeanu Benton, giving the Steelers a tandem from one of college football’s perennially elite defenses.
Hale: Well, I’m an Eagles fan, and they landed arguably the draft’s top talent in Jalen Carter at No. 9, a legitimate top-10 talent in Nolan Smith at No. 30, a guy who jumps off the tape at safety in Sydney Brown in the third round and a corner many thought would be a first-rounder this time last year in Kelee Ringo in the fourth round. Who’s the biggest steal of the bunch? Why bother debating. The Eagles got value at nearly every pick, so even if one or two ultimately fail to live up to their potential, it’s essentially impossible to argue with the decision to invest in them.
Low: Centers are typically drafted lower than they should be, but seeing Michigan‘s Olusegun Oluwatimi slip to the fifth round was surprising — but great news for the Seahawks that they could wait that long to get their center of the future. The 6-3, 310-pound Oluwatimi will play 10 years in the NFL and be a fixture in the middle of that Seattle offensive line. He played on college football’s best offensive line last season and won the Outland Trophy as the top interior lineman in college football and the Rimington Award as the top center. He has played in three different systems (Air Force, Virginia and Michigan) and will develop rapidly into a top-tier NFL center.
Uggetti: Maybe it’s the fact that I had a front row seat to watch USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu last season and got to see how he seemed to always find his way in the backfield pressuring a quarterback on his way to 13.5 sacks and an All-American season. Maybe it’s that Tuipulotu should slide in seamlessly into a defense that already features Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack and impact their unit right away. Either way, this pick wasn’t just a great fit for both the former Trojan and the Los Angeles Chargers, but it has the chance to be a real steal in the long run.
What was your biggest surprise?
McGee: Every winter I receive calls from my NFL friends, met in various press boxes and pro days over the years, to ask about guys I’ve seen play a lot that perhaps they have not, and every winter there’s always a name that keeps coming up and the line of questioning around him totally catches me off guard. This year that guy was Nolan Smith. I was asked, “How tall is he really?” and “How hurt was he really?” My response was always, “Ask Spencer Rattler, Hendon Hooker, Anthony Richardson and Bryce Young.” So, with those March questions in mind, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he fell all the way to the end of the first round. Just as I won’t be surprised when yet another NFC East QB falls all the way to the turf wrapped in Smith’s arms.
Lyles: The Lions selecting Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell stood out to me at pick No. 18. I don’t know that anybody had him as a first-round pick, but given what we know about Dan Campbell and the attitude and energy he brings, Campbell is his kind of player. I asked Kirk Ferentz about Campbell’s place among the players he has coached in his two decades at Iowa prior to the Music City Bowl against Kentucky, and he told me, “You can’t get better than Jack Campbell … everything he does is exceptional.” Much like his new head coach in Detroit, he brings incredible energy, is going to uplift everybody around him, and give you everything he’s got every single day. Despite the surprise as to the order in which Campbell was picked, it feels like he landed in the absolute right spot.
Rittenberg: The reaction to Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness going at No. 13 from Big Ten coaches I talked to this weekend suggests the Packers reached a bit. Green Bay has done well with defensive players from the Big Ten, and Van Ness clearly has upside as a pass-rusher, recording 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons. But he also played on a defense filled with reliable standouts, including Campbell, third-round draft pick Riley Moss, fellow linemen Noah Shannon and Joe Evans, and others. He won’t have the same security with the Packers’ defense, which struggled for much of the 2022 season. Green Bay could have added defensive backs Christian Gonzalez or Emmanuel Forbes, or an interior force like Calijah Kancey. They took a bit of a gamble on Van Ness. We’ll see if it pays off.
Low: Let’s say I’m surprised in a good way that Pitt‘s Kancey was selected among the top 20 picks at No. 19. At 281 pounds, he might not be the prototypical defensive tackle in the NFL, but he plays a lot bigger and more powerful than his listed weight. He’s a terrific run-stopper, and once he gets his hands on you, it’s usually over. He had 27 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Kancey’s speed (he had the fastest 40-yard dash time for a defensive tackle at the NFL combine since 2006) could allow the Bucs to get creative with him. Either way, good for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for valuing production over measurables and grabbing Kancey with their first-round pick.
Hale: Stetson Bennett never needs to play a snap in the NFL for his reputation to be fully established. He could easily call it a career, retire to his hometown in South Georgia, open a few car dealerships and never pay for a meal in the state again. And yet, here he is, a fourth-round draft pick with a real shot to learn behind a fellow Bulldog in Matthew Stafford with the Los Angeles Rams. Two years ago, no one thought Bennett could be a championship QB. A year ago, he won his first title but still seemed to be facing impossible odds as an NFL prospect. Who wants to bet against him doing something special with the Rams now, too?