The mystery starts at pick two, and I’m not sure I’m going to remove much of that here. But here we go with the annual exercise in futility, my only mock draft of the 31-pick first round.
1. CAROLINA: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama.
The number, rightfully, that has been an obsession for draftniks—and for teams—is 5-10. That’s Young’s height, and it says so much about the state of football in 2023 that an NFL team would have the audacity to make a 5-10 quarterback with an average NFL arm the first pick in the draft. I would counter by saying this number should be just as important: two. Young threw 380 passes in 12 games for Alabama last fall, and two were batted down or deflected at the line of scrimmage. The 6-6 Justin Herbert threw 699 passes last year, and had 23 batted down or deflected at the line. Every player is a risk, and the bust factor among quarterbacks is high, and Young, two inches shorter than Drew Brees and a half-inch shorter than Russell Wilson, told me at the Combine the height thing hasn’t gotten in the way during his young life. “I definitely didn’t shrink any time recently,” Young said. “I’m comfortable with myself. I’m confident in my abilities.” I think Carolina’s making the right call here. Young showed consistently on tape (and on the newly important S2 processing test) that his quick-twitch decision-making is the best in this QB class. He gets high marks for leadership and ability to shine under pressure. I understand those who would say it’s a reach by the Panthers, because he’ll be playing in the land of the giants every week. But Carolina needs a franchise quarterback. You don’t get to pick which year you’ll have the top pick or be able to trade for the top pick. It’s right here, right now for the Panthers, and Young is the best candidate for the pick. Carolina should attach the uber-positive and experienced Josh McCown, the new quarterbacks coach, to the hip of Young and get him ready to play opening day—a new day in the history of the Panthers.
2. HOUSTON: Tyree Wilson, edge rusher, Texas Tech.
I’ve gone back and forth, forth and back, on this pick and this slot. In the end, I think two things: One, GM Nick Caserio trained under Bill Belichick and learned that just because you have a crying need at a position, you don’t force yourself to choose a player you don’t love in order to fill that hole, because you may end up needing to fill the same hole again two years down the road. Two: The Texans might see Wilson filling the mold of Nick Bosa, a difference-making quick-twitch rusher, more than Will Anderson. Coach DeMeco Ryans loved the impact of Bosa in San Francisco and knows that, aside from quarterback, the hugest hole on his team is at pass-rusher. The rush depth chart for the Texans is putrid. But obviously this pick would be a vote against C.J. Stroud as much as a vote for Wilson. Things to watch for here: Is there a team, even with all the smoke about Stroud, that would want to trade up for him with Houston or Arizona? And would the Texans risk passing on a quarterback here or with their second pick in the round (12th)? Seems incredible to think Houston might exit the top 10 without a quarterback, flawed though they are. One other point to make here is that Anderson would win over Wilson—who also is recovering from a foot injury—in a vote of 31 GMs if the question was, Who’s the better pro prospect—Anderson or Wilson?
3. TENNESSEE (trade with Arizona): C.J. Stroud, quarterback, Ohio State.
How cool would it be if the two rookie GMs in the first round combined to shake it up? This trade and pick makes sense, but honestly, I have no idea if it’ll happen. It would serve Arizona’s purpose of getting significant draft capital—trading down eight spots for either a one next year or maybe three picks in the top 75 over this draft and 2024. And the Titans, who I hear have lost faith in Malik Willis, might be in a unique position here. Coach Mike Vrabel is tight with Ohio State coach Ryan Day. Vrabel will get the real about Stroud from Day, and I think that real will be mostly positive. And Vrabel will be a good coach for Stroud. That plus the fact that Ryan Tannehill would be able to give Stroud time to adjust to the pro game. One thing re: the sudden knocks about Stroud, which absolutely should not be ignored but absolutely should be put into perspective – This from one exec of a team, a winning team, that respects the S2 athlete-processing test that, per McGinn, had Stroud grade very low: “All of a sudden the S2 test is the Bible. Why? It’s a smart test. But how did the guy play? How was his tape?” I would like this deal for Tennessee, and for Arizona.
4. INDIANAPOLIS: Will Levis, quarterback, Kentucky.
I don’t believe the Colts will trade to two, so let’s put a kibosh on that. This one has risen up over the last week or so, and I’ve heard so much here that I’m not sure at all what to believe. Seems way too high for Levis, and I will not be stunned if Roger Goodell announces Anthony Richardson here. Levis’ IQ and football IQ are both strong, and that appeals to the Colts. He’s a favorite of the Mannings, and that appeals to the Colts (though an overrated factor in the public’s mind). And the Colts, it seems, have to pick Levis or Richardson to get off the quarterback-a-year merry-go-round. It wouldn’t surprise me if coach Shane Steichen leaned Richardson and used Gardner Minshew or Nick Foles as the 2023 interim while getting Richardson ready for 2024. This will be an interesting pivot point of the draft, and Levis going here would leave Seattle and Detroit smiling widely at picks five and six.
5. SEATTLE: Jalen Carter, defensive tackle, Georgia.
If it falls this way, I think it’d be a tough call—Jalen Carter or Will Anderson, the cleanest player in the draft, or long-term QB prospect Anthony Richardson, or the best cornerback in the draft, Devon Witherspoon. They’re all cleaner than Carter. But one of the things I like about the way Seattle does business is the Seahawks view their business model as being designed to handle all kinds of players, the model citizens and those with checkered pasts. They don’t shy away from very talented players because of sketchy resumes; they figure their coaching staff and behind-the-scenes player-development staff will find a way to put players in the best position to win. This is GM John Schneider’s 14th draft in Seattle, and he’s never had a top-five pick. The bonus for Schneider is he also picks at 20—and only four times has he had a top-20 pick. Such is the reign of success for Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll. I don’t discount the impact of the last problem defensive tackle the Seahawks drafted—Malik McDowell early in the second round of 2017. He never played a down for the Seahawks after having a host of off-field problems. And the red flags around Carter certainly are notable. Two other things, as a person with a team that’s done a lot of work on Carter told me: Seattle defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt will be firm and demanding with Carter; he’s an old-school coach who won’t take passive effort. And Seattle is the franchise that gets Carter furthest away from his comfort zones—Athens, Ga., and his hometown of Apopka, Fla. Apopka to Seattle: 3,073 miles. This is a bit of a roll of the dice. If it happens, you know Schneider’s done a ton of homework on Carter.
6. DETROIT: Will Anderson, edge rusher, Alabama.
Well now. How about the Lions getting the top edge-rush prospects (on many boards) in two successive drafts—Aidan Hutchinson and Anderson? Most interesting quote from a GM in the market for an edge rusher: “Tyree Wilson’s a swing for the fences. Will Anderson’s a solid double.” This pick also fits the Lions—right now—because of the gambling suspensions they were hit with last week. It’s a tough call here, with cornerback also being a long-term need and every corner left on the board—including Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, who’s the kind of uber-physical hitter who’d fit in well with the tough-guy coaching staff of Dan Campbell. But Anderson’s a solid, positive pick, another brick in the wall for GM Brad Holmes in his attempt to build a division champion, and more, in no-longer-woebegone Detroit.
7. LAS VEGAS: Devon Witherspoon, cornerback, Illinois.
I never saw the Raiders as eager QB-seekers in this draft after signing Jimmy Garoppolo. Though I’m not certain they won’t go QB, I think GM Dave Ziegler views his roster as having more important needs. Ziegler and coach Josh McDaniels, I believe, would relish this scenario, with every corner and every offensive lineman on the board still—two position groups that must be addressed in this draft. Witherspoon is a tenacious and versatile player, and that versatility drives him to the top of the cornerback class. He’s played outside corner and slot corner, and he’s played man and zone. He was the best tackler on Illinois’ defense in 2022. On a corner-needy defense, it’d be a surprise if Witherspoon wasn’t a day-one starter.
8. ATLANTA: Bijan Robinson, running back, Texas.
This is too high to pick Robinson, of course. I do know the Falcons really want to trade down, and I do know they like Robinson (who doesn’t?) because he’s the best running back in the draft and has the rare ability to segue into receiver mode with great hands and strong slot capabilities. Of course they’d want to trade down, because taking Robinson at eight would be leaving draft capital on the table. But if they take Robinson, here or lower, imagine the investment in young offensive weapons if this comes true. Round one, fourth pick, 2021: tight end Kyle Pitts … Round one, eighth pick, 2022: wide receiver Drake London … Round one, eighth pick, 2023: running back/slot receiver Bijan Robinson. Add 1,000-yard rookie running back Tyler Allgeier from the fifth round in 2022, tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency this year, and maybe one more profitable year from runner/receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson and tell me—would there be a team in the NFC South that’s better in in-prime offensive weaponry than Atlanta?
9. CHICAGO: Paris Johnson Jr., tackle, Ohio State.
If you’re GM Ryan Poles, you’ve solved a few problems already with offseason acquisitions at receiver (D.J. Moore) and linebacker (T.J. Edwards, Tremaine Edmunds) and guard (Nate Davis). This is the next one—the rock at tackle Poles hopes Johnson can be. Johnson’s stock rose this offseason and he should be immediate help for a line that allowed an unacceptable 58 sacks last year.
10. PHILADELPHIA: Nolan Smith, edge rusher, Georgia.
Came very close to giving the Eagles Peter Skoronski here, but two things happened Sunday. A GM who’s always smart when I do this exercise told me he knew the Eagles love Smith. And someone else told me Skoronski’s very likely to play guard, and check out where the Eagles have drafted starting guards, or guards-to-be. Okay. Cam Jurgens, Landon Dickerson, Isaac Seumalo went 51st, 37th and 79th overall, respectively. And then I looked at the ages of the Eagles’ four most prominent ends or edge players: Brandon Graham, Haason Reddick, Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat average 29 years, 7 months old as of September. Okay. I talked myself into a 238-pound edge player who runs a 4.39 40-yard dash.
11. ARIZONA (trade with Tennessee): Christian Gonzalez, cornerback, Oregon.
Word of caution here: If I kept the Cards at three, I would have roiled the first round. I’d have given them Paris Johnson, the Ohio State tackle, and not edge rusher Will Anderson. Anyway … with Gonzalez, the Cards get the current NFL prototype corner for the big receivers running roughshod over defenses. Gonzalez is 6-1 ½, runs a 4.38 40-yard dash, and played two years at Colorado and one at Oregon before leaving Eugene early for the draft. Pro scouts think he’s fluid, tenacious and could stand to add bulk to tackle better. Now, Arizona needs quality volume out of this draft, with the neediest roster in the league and some of the best players wanting to abandon ship. Not-so-fun fact for GM Monti Ossenfort and new coach Jonathan Gannon: The Cards were the NFC’s top seed entering week 14 in 2021. Since then, they’ve got the worst winning percentage in the NFL, playoffs included (Arizona 5-18, .217; Chicago 5-17, .227; Houston 5-16-1, .238). So Ossenfort’s goal must be to improve the overall talent. I think an important thing for the Cardinals is to be willing to take a lesser deal than the trade chart says if it means bringing in one or two more picks in the first three rounds.
12. HOUSTON: Hendon Hooker, quarterback, Tennessee.
Guess which AFC South team has been doing work on Hooker in the last week or so? A clue: It’s the team that’s passing on C.J. Stroud. Houston has a surplus of picks and no long-term quarterback, and the Texans simply couldn’t come out of having seven picks in the top 50 of the ’22 and ’23 drafts without one of them being a quarterback. Imagine the draft actually falls this way. The AFC South would have four quarterbacks picked in the top 12 (Trevor Lawrence, Stroud, Levis, Hooker) of recent drafts, and all under 26. For the Texans, DeMeco Ryans prided himself on adding teachers to his coaching staff, and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik and QB coach Jerrod Johnson will be assigned their most important student, as he rehabs for part or most of this season from a 2022 ACL injury, if this pick goes down.
13. N.Y. JETS: Broderick Jones, tackle, Georgia.
I’m pretty lukewarm here. Mekhi Becton has played one of the last 34 games for the Jets, and they don’t know what they have in him after three seasons. The Jets need a rock-solid long-term starter here, and Jones was not a starter at Georgia until his last of three seasons in Athens. He can play either tackle, but I’d ask this: Would the Jets be better suited with the more experienced Darnell Wright of Tennessee (27 starts at right tackle, 13 at left tackle, two at right guard)? Wright did not allow a sack in 13 games at right tackle last year, including a standout game against Will Anderson and Alabama. This will be a comparison to watch over the next few years: Jones versus Wright.
14. NEW ENGLAND: Peter Skoronski, tackle/guard, Northwestern.
Skoronski could be a plug-and-play guard wherever he goes. I considered him for the Eagles, replacing the departed Isaac Seumalo. Skoronski started 33 games at left tackle for Northwestern and was a unanimous first-team all-American. But his arm length is about three inches short for ideal NFL tackle size, so the Patriots could move him inside. If I’m New England, I’m thrilled Skoronski lasted this long, and I grab him to start a decade for the franchise somewhere on the line.
15. GREEN BAY: Dalton Kincaid, tight end, Utah.
When you’re in the middle of the first round, and the best position group of the entire draft is tight end, and your projected incumbent tight end on the roster is named Josiah Deguara, and you need a tight end to troll the middle of the field for a new quarterback who is a first-year NFL starter, and you’ve got a guy who started 35 college games and scored 35 touchdowns, well, I think this is a pretty good option for Jordan Love and the Packers.
16. WASHINGTON: Brian Branch, safety, Alabama.
The Commanders could eschew a front-seven player like edge rusher Lukas Van Ness, or the best receiver in the class in Jaxon Smith-Njigba, because their needs are not pronounced in either spot. A safety in the middle of the first round doesn’t seem logical, but this safety will be the kind of versatile player a defense needs on all three downs.
17. PITTSBURGH: Jaxon Smith-Njigba, wide receiver, Ohio State.
This is about where the receivers will start getting picked, and I’d be surprised if the Steelers weren’t seriously considering one to pair long-term with George Pickens. Corner’s another position the Steelers could favor here, and watch for Maryland’s Deonte Banks if that’s the call.
18. DETROIT: Deonte Banks, cornerback, Maryland.
Storyline I would urge you NOT to buy: With the gambling suspension of Jameson Williams, look for the Lions to consider seriously a dive into the receiver market here. Nope. Once the Lions found out the ban would be for six weeks, they figured they wouldn’t upset their draft plans and take a wideout early. After jettisoning Jeff Okudah to Atlanta pre-draft, the rising Banks is a strong candidate here.
19. TAMPA BAY: Darnell Wright, tackle, Tennessee.
The Bucs need young replenishments all over the field. This is probably a year too early for a quarterback, so getting a tackle to pair for the next few years with Tristan Wirfs makes sense for GM Jason Licht.
20. SEATTLE: Zay Flowers, wide receiver, Boston College.
Flowers is a popular player on the pre-draft circuit. His 200 catches for a toothless offensive team at BC, and the fact that he stayed at the program for four years despite having options elsewhere in the portal makes Flowers even more desirable. Position versatility helps too.
21. L.A. CHARGERS: Jordan Addison, wide receiver, USC.
The East Coast kid strayed from his comfort zone in 2022, transferring to USC after winning the Biletnikoff Award (best receiver in college football) at Pitt in 2021, catching 100 balls. Then, with a ton of attention on him at USC, he caught 59 balls in a totally different offense. Mentally and physically tough, and versatile; played 60 percent in the slot and the rest outside in three college seasons.
22. BALTIMORE: Emmanuel Forbes, cornerback, Mississippi State.
I’ve thought receiver for the last month, even after Odell Beckham Jr. signed with the Ravens. But Forbes is the imperfect candidate in a wholly imperfect draft, and I think he’s going in the first round. There is so much to like with the 6-0 ¾, 168-pound corner, the most productive defensive back in this draft. The only thing not to like is his rail-thin physique. But how about missing one of 37 college games with injury, returning six interceptions for touchdowns (an NCAA record), and having 30 interceptions in his past six seasons (16 in high school, 14 in college)? You want this man on your team. The Ravens would figure out how to maximize his instinctive play.
23. MINNESOTA: Anthony Richardson, quarterback, Florida.
Easily could go earlier—as high as four to Indianapolis. But the Vikings would be an intriguing spot for the raw Richardson. Kirk Cousins has one playoff win in five Vikings seasons. The math is not in Cousins’ favor. This is year six. He’ll have made $185 million as a Viking, and will be seeking $45 million-plus to re-sign after this season to be sure, guaranteed. Who would be surprised if the Vikings wanted to start fresh in 2024 if this is another one of those years?
24. JACKSONVILLE: Lukas Van Ness, edge rusher, Iowa.
The interesting thing when considering a pick for the Jags is that they’ve got a good roster, maybe the best all-around in the AFC South. There’s no urgent need. Tight end Michael Mayer’s a strong consideration here, but Doug Pederson seems to have unlocked the potential of Evan Engram, so I’m going with a player GM Trent Baalke will like because of his fierce competitiveness and pass-rush traits. Odd career. He started zero games at Iowa but played the most snaps of any outside rusher in the last two years.
25. N.Y. GIANTS: Michael Mayer, tight end, Notre Dame.
Six years ago, the Giants took tight end Evan Engram 23rd overall, and Engram never matched the lofty draft status. In Mayer, New York hopes to find a consistent weapon for Daniel Jones—to pair with Darren Waller at first, then to shine when Waller, entering his age-31 season, is done. Mayer, of course, could go higher—anywhere from 15 to 24. The Giants would be comfortable with a corner if Joey Porter Jr. or Deonte Banks is there, a wideout if Jordan Addison or another outside receiver is there, and maybe even an interior lineman. It’s a longshot, but the talent of Bijan Robinson or Jahmyr Gibbs also might tempt GM Joe Schoen, with the long-term uncertainty of Saquon Barkley hanging over the franchise. I’d love to go receiver here. But adding Isaiah Hodgins, Wan’Dale Robinson (slot) and Parris Campbell in the last year makes receiver still a group of need but not a must-pick here. Interesting thing about Mayer is the book on him: He caught at least one pass in every one of his 36 games at Notre Dame, is the all-time leading tight end in receptions in the rich tradition of Irish football, might be a better blocker than pass-catcher, and missed just one game (groin strain) due to injury in three years. Daniel Jones could use a security blanket in the short and intermediate areas, and Waller and Mayer would give him two.
26. DALLAS: Joey Porter Jr., cornerback, Penn State.
When the offseason began, I expected Porter—son the of the ferocious former Steeler linebacker—to go somewhere in the teens, latest. But some evaluators think he’s not the physical presence his size (6-2 ½, 193 pounds) would portend, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he fell out of the first round.
27. BUFFALO: Josh Downs, wide receiver, North Carolina.
Getting picked ahead of Quentin Johnston of TCU and Jalin Hyatt of Tennessee would be an upset, and I can’t predict with certainty this happens. But I know the Bills like him, and scouts think he can be a day-one starter in the slot, which would fit with Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis outside. Imagine this production over the last two seasons in a per-game average: 8.1 receptions, 98.5 yards, 0.7 TDs. That’ll play in a Buffalo offense that fizzled toward the end of the 2022 season.
28. CINCINNATI: Luke Musgrave, tight end, Oregon State.
Odd in such a great class for tight ends that a guy with 1.4 catches per game in his college career, with just 633 yards receiving and two receiving touchdowns in four seasons, would be a first-round candidate. Musgrave excelled at the Senior Bowl and has been a popular pre-draft riser.
29. NEW ORLEANS: Myles Murphy, defensive end, Clemson.
Thought this was cool in Jeff Legwold’s annual rankings of the top 100 players entering the draft: 8) Bryce Young; 9) Myles Murphy. “One of the best effort players in the draft,” one GM said.
30. PHILADELPHIA: Jahmyr Gibbs, running back, Alabama.
Might not be just the poor man’s Bijan Robinson. With 195 touches in his one year at Alabama, Gibbs averaged 6.1 yards per rush and 10.1 yards per catch, never fumbling. As good as Robinson was as a collegian, Gibbs has a few teams in this draft that liked him over Robinson for the NFL.
31. KANSAS CITY: O’Cyrus Torrence, guard, Florida.
Andy Reid always wants to take care of both lines, and with Joe Thuney entering his age-31 season, the best guard in the class makes sense here. If you consider Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski a tackle/guard, that’s what Torrence is: the top guard in this class. At 330 pounds, he’s got the reach and wingspan of a tackle, and just ask Jalen Carter his toughest foe this year. I bet he says Torrence.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column