2023 Big Board: Top 20 NFL prospects in college football
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
The dust has barely settled on the 2022 NFL Draft, yet scouts are already looking ahead to the incoming crop of talent, one boasting a much more inspiring class of quarterbacks and the latest wave of pro-ready pass-catchers and fearsome front-seven defenders.
While the quarterbacks will certainly be the story of the 2023 draft, Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. and Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter sit atop my initial Big Board, with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young getting the nod over Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud as the top signal-caller. While I see a slight drop-off from Young and Stroud to the next tier of passers, two others at the position make the cut below, which means that QBs make up a full fifth of the 20 players listed.
One might imagine that the stellar recent crops of edge rushers and pass-catchers left the cupboard bare in 2023, but that is certainly not the case. Anderson and Carter might have been the first players selected at their positions had either been eligible in 2022. And even after the wideout buffet known as the 2022 NFL Draft, receiver is rich once again, with three pass-catchers among the top 10.
At this point in past years, no one would have forecasted Travon Walker or Joe Burrow to be the No. 1 overall selections in their respective drafts. So don’t take this as a mock draft so much as an early summer watch list. With the entire 2022 season yet to be played, prospect stocks will obviously rise and fall.
But if the 2023 draft were to be held today, the draft-eligible players listed below would be my suggestions for the first picks off the board.
Statistics can be bent in all sorts of ways, but there is no denying Anderson’s dominance last season. He was the rare defender invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation and took home the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s top defender after collecting a staggering 17.5 sacks as part of 31 tackles for loss and 101 stops overall. As a pass rusher, Anderson incorporates a lightning-quick first-step, lateral agility to elude and powerful, active hands to rip himself free of would-be blockers.
His exceptional physical traits are complemented by a high-revving motor and surprisingly polished technique, given that he’s entering his third year at the college level. Ideally suited to rushing off the edge out of the two-point stance, Anderson has the look of a top-three draft lock and future NFL All-Pro.
2. Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia, 6-3, 310
One of the scariest thoughts for Georgia opponents this year is that even after the Bulldogs set an NFL record with 15 draft picks this spring — two of them defensive tackles taken in the first round — the best one in Athens is returning for the 2022 season. Carter doesn’t yet have the name recognition of former teammates Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, but he might wind up being selected higher than either of them next spring.
Shockingly quick off the ball for his frame and position, Carter routinely surprises opponents with his twitch and flexibility, batting past blockers to wreak havoc in the backfield. He has started just five combined games in two seasons at Georgia, yet he has 51 tackles, including 11.5 for loss, already on his résumé, as well as 3.5 sacks and three blocked kicks. He earned second-team All-SEC honors last season.
3. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama, 6-0, 194
Despite a slight frame that will always invite questions about durability, Young gets a slight nod over Stroud as QB1 entering the 2022 season simply because his lack of size is the only red flag on his tape. It is easy to venture into hyperbole when discussing the success Young enjoyed last year, including winning the Heisman Trophy and guiding Alabama back to a national title berth in his first year as starting quarterback. The statistics speak for themselves, as he completed just under 67% of his passes for an eye-popping 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions.
Despite his size, Young shows brilliant vision and accuracy to all levels of the field, as well as the confidence and clutch ability to attempt and complete high-pressure throws. He is already shockingly technically sound, and he brings a creative and improvisational element that makes him all the more difficult to defend.
4. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State, 6-2, 218
In most draft classes, Stroud would easily qualify as the No. 1 quarterback prospect, and I can’t argue too strongly against those who rank him higher than Young, especially given Stroud's more prototypical frame. As with Young, Stroud’s emergence as an absolute superstar in his first season as a starter was a staggering accomplishment, with the Ohio State signal-caller completing just under 72% of his passes for 4,435 yards and a 44-6 touchdown to interception ratio.
A pure pocket passer with remarkable accuracy on difficult deep and intermediate throws, Stroud capped his sophomore season in fine form, setting a Rose Bowl record with six touchdown tosses in a thrilling, come-from-behind 48-45 win over Utah.
5. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State, 6-0, 198
The pipeline of first-round NFL receivers from Columbus is still going strong, even after Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jameson Williams (who played at Alabama in 2021 after initially signing with the Buckeyes) made up a quarter of the top 12 picks in the 2022 draft. With all due respect to his former teammates, Smith-Njigba might be the most polished of the bunch.
6. Nolan Smith, OLB, Georgia, 6-2, 235
The pipeline of exceptional defensive prospects out of Athens is running full force with Smith — a consensus five-star recruit whom some viewed as the No. 1 overall prep talent in 2020 — returning to the Bulldogs for another bite at a national championship. While smaller, Smith profiles similarly to Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was drafted No. 5 by the Giants, and offers greater strength and commitment against the run than his frame might suggest.
When he times the snap correctly, Smith possesses the quickness to wreak havoc as an edge rusher as well, but he’s no one-trick pony, demonstrating exceptional overall athleticism that allows him to play in space against the run and in coverage and will help him shine during workouts. He is Georgia’s leading returning tackler (56), including behind the line of scrimmage (nine), and those numbers should jump significantly in 2022.
Addison won the Biletnikoff Award last season as Kenny Pickett’s primary target at Pitt, leading the country with 17 receiving touchdowns and finishing fourth overall with 1,593 yards on a cool 100 receptions. As incredible as it sounds, Addison might actually improve upon those numbers in 2022, after he took advantage of the NCAA’s transfer portal to sign with USC. He'll be the featured target in Lincoln Riley’s explosive offense.
Addison lacks the frame scouts would prefer, but the former Panther is cat-quick off the line of scrimmage and can shake his own shadow downfield, creating the kind of consistent separation that will endear him to his new quarterback, Caleb Williams, who followed Riley from Oklahoma. Along with exceptional nimbleness, Addison boasts terrific body control, hand-eye coordination and sticky fingers, making him a virtual vacuum with the ball in the air.
Given that he missed most of last season due to a torn ACL and has played in just 15 college games, listing Bresee (bruh-ZEE) this high this early is pretty bold. But the flashes are ultra-bright with Bresee, who signed with Clemson as the top-rated overall prep prospect, according to some recruiting sites.
A big man, Bresee is blessed with a rare combination of explosive power and flexibility to both strong-arm and slither his way through the line of scrimmage.
Given that teams rarely invest premium picks in off-ball linebackers, Sewell isn’t likely to join his older brother, Penei — the Detroit Lions’ pick at No. 7 overall in 2021 — as a top-10 selection, but his size, strength and closing speed are impressive.
Although his prototypical frame suggests that Sewell is a traditional two-down battering ram against the run, he’s also quite agile and possesses long arms, which help him shed would-be blockers quickly, lasso ball carriers seemingly outside of his reach and break up passes.
Scouts have kept their eyes on Boutte (rhymes with "bouquet") since he emerged as a true freshman star for the talent-rich Tigers two years ago. He took his game to another level this past season, hauling in nine touchdowns on just 38 grabs.
Shifty with explosive speed, body control and the tracking skills of an MLB center fielder, Boutte is an undeniable talent. He is facing a difficult adjustment, though, given that LSU will use a different offense under new coach Brian Kelly and given that Boutte missed much of the spring in a walking boot following two right ankle surgeries.
After missing games each of the past two seasons, Smith needs to convince the NFL that he has the durability to warrant an early pick, but there is no question that he possesses the talent. Smith allowed 15 receptions all season in 2021 and recorded nearly as many pass breakups, leading the Gamecocks with 14 (11 deflections and three interceptions).
He is a graceful, bounding athlete who does a terrific job locating and making a play on the football, showing excellent hand-eye coordination to punch it out — or pick it off as evidenced by his five interceptions in just 19 games the past two seasons.
Scouts can check an awful lot of boxes with Levis, who is a talented, quick-triggered passer and tough runner with an NFL-ready frame and game. A grad transfer who started two games in three years at Penn State, Levis exploded onto the SEC scene last year, scoring 33 touchdowns overall.
Scouts want to see if he can build upon his debut, as there is no doubt that he was aided a year ago by an all-star cast around him in Lexington. Four critical members of the offense Levis excelled in last year are now in the NFL, including offensive coordinator Liam Coen, now in the same role for the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, as well as offensive linemen Luke Fortner (Jaguars) and Darian Kinnard (Chiefs) and receiver Wan’Dale Robinson (Giants).
For the first time in eight years, a running back was not selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, but Robinson will likely start a new run in 2023. Going against the grain is nothing new for Robinson, whose excellent blend of vision, stutter-step balance and roller-skates for feet have helped him glide for a staggering 7.2 yards per touch, with 21 touchdowns in 19 games so far at the college level.
14. Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Ohio State, 6-6, 315
A former blue-chip recruit who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year at right guard, Johnson has the unenviable (but potentially lucrative) job of protecting the blindside of a Heisman candidate, guaranteeing that he will be one of the most scrutinized blockers in the country this season. Even stuck inside last season, Johnson’s initial and redirective quickness were apparent. That mobility, as well as his long arms and balance, project nicely outside … and to the NFL.
15. Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia, 6-2, 205
Yet another Bulldog and former five-star recruit, Ringo guaranteed that he will always be revered at Georgia by sealing the national championship game victory over Alabama with a fourth-quarter interception and 79-yard return for a touchdown. His placement here, however, is more a reflection of a stellar first season as a starter and his exciting upside than acknowledgement of one critical play.
Ringo boasts rare size for cornerback yet is a graceful mover, accelerating smoothly and changing directions fluidly. He plays up to his size as a run defender, showing physicality, reliable open-field tackling skills and good hand-eye coordination as he broke up eight passes last season.
With a frame and game that draw comparisons to longtime NFL star Chandler Jones, Foskey is a realistic candidate to join his former Notre Dame teammate Kyle Hamilton as the Irish defense’s second consecutive first-round selection. That has not been accomplished in South Bend since Bryant Young (49ers) and defensive backs Jeff Burris (Bills) and Tom Carter (Washington) were selected in the 1993 and '94 drafts, respectively.
Foskey is a long-levered edge rusher who generates impressive speed around the arc and takes full advantage of his long arms and active hands to punch the ball out, forcing an NCAA-leading six fumbles last season to go with 10 sacks and 9.5 more tackles for loss.
The man affectionately called "ZTF" is one of the real wild cards of the 2022 college football season. Two seasons ago, Tupuola-Fetui was a breakout superstar, racking up a staggering seven sacks in just three games in Washington’s COVID-shortened season prior to a torn Achilles tendon that limited him to two games last season.
While undeniably quick and powerful, Tupuola-Fetui still has some "Tasmanian Devil" to his play, rushing upfield and wreaking havoc without a clear plan and too often losing sight of the ball. With some fine-tuning, however, he has a chance to return this season as one of the most dominant edge rushers in college football.
With Georgia and Alabama generating the bulk of the attention inside and outside of SEC country, Hooker did not receive as much buzz as his breakout senior season warranted. The grad transfer from Virginia Tech tossed an eye-popping 31 touchdowns against just three interceptions in his debut season in the mighty conference.
Hooker was undeniably aided by head coach Josh Heupel’s up-tempo, spread attack, but his accuracy, mobility and willingness to make throws to all levels of the field will translate well to the NFL.
For the past several years, locating the top cornerback in the pass-happy Pac-12 was as simple as checking the Washington depth chart, but Kelly looks poised to steal the crown in 2022. He’s entering his fourth season as a starter, having earned all-conference recognition each of the past two years, including after he led the league with 12 passes defensed (10 breakups, two interceptions) last season.
Kelly really made a name for himself in a one-on-one showdown against first-round pick Drake London and USC a year ago, helping spark an upset over the Trojans with a career-high four pass breakups, including an interception that he returned 31 yards for a touchdown.
20. Jaxson Kirkland, OT, Washington, 6-6, 310
For just the fourth time since the turn of the century, three offensive tackles (Ikem Ekwonu, Evan Neal and Charles Cross) were selected among the top 10 picks in this spring’s draft, leaving the cupboard a bit bare at the position for 2023. Fortunately for the OT-needy, Kirkland was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA following his decision to back out of the 2022 draft (after initially declaring) to undergo surgery on his right ankle.
Kirkland, still just 23 years old, has started 38 games for the Huskies, having begun his career at right guard before earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors at left tackle the past two seasons. Although he is built more like a big tight end than a tackle, Kirkland possesses the length, strength, athleticism and nastiness to remain at the blindside in the NFL.
10 who just missed the cut: Zach Harrison, Edge, Ohio State; Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame; Tanner McKee, QB, Stanford; Tyler Van Dyke, QB, Miami; Ryan Hayes, OL, Michigan; Brenton Cox Jr., OLB, Florida; Zach Charbonnet, RB, UCLA; Ali Gaye, Edge, LSU; Joey Porter, CB, Penn State; Jammie Robinson, FS, Florida State
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.