2023 NFL Draft: What returning college players are the best pro prospects going into the 2022 season?
2023 NFL Draft Top Pro Prospects: Post-2022 NFL Draft
The NFL scouting process is always fluid, it’s always inexact, and it’s always going to come down to a big game here, a great performance there, and a big injury that could shake up the entire draft market.
And there’s always someone who comes out of the blue and goes from the “just a guy” category to a top ten overall must-have.
Even though trying to come up with the top 32 pro prospects – representing the potential first round NFL Draft talents – is hit-or-miss, one thing is certain when it comes to the 2023 version …
It’s going to get a LOT more attention than the 2022 draft.
2021 was an explosion of interest with five first round caliber quarterbacks to throw into the league’s star system, and while 2022 is loaded with excellent NFL prospects, it’s a whole different ball game when the skill guys are the stars.
It’s hard to get fired up about 2022 – a very, very good and deep draft – when the best quarterback prospects, the best running backs, the best pass rusher, the best tight end, and the best wide receiver are all eligible in 2023.
So who are those top pro prospects going into the 2022 college football season? The idea here is to create a starting point and a set of expectations, knowing that some of these are dead on, but at least a third of the early calls are WAY off.
And yes, there are at least 32 other prospects who could’ve made this list of the Top 32 Pro Prospects of 2023. We’ll adapt and adjust on the fly during the season.
C/OG Jarrett Patterson, Notre Dame
An offensive tackle who’s built like a guard but will work at center, he’s got 6-4, 307-pound size, excellent range, and of course, the versatility to fit on anyone’s line.
He’ll get to the NFL with four years of experience guiding an elite offensive front, and he should be ready for an NFL interior right out of the box. He might not be a road grader, but he doesn’t give up plays behind the line.
S Jordan Battle, Alabama
A terrific part of the great Alabama defense over the last few seasons, Battle could’ve been a great draft pick for the 2022 draft but chose to return for one more run.
The 6-1, 206-pound All-American made 87 tackles last season with three interceptions, taking two of them for scores including one in the SEC Championship win over Georgia. He’s a true strong safety with 4.5 speed, great range, and the veteran ability to take his game up a few notches.
LB Justin Flowe, Oregon
Can he stay healthy? The talent level of the 6-2, 235-pounder is undeniable, but he missed almost all of last year – after making 14 tackles with a recovered fumble in the opener against Fresno State – with a foot injury and missed almost all of 2020 hurt, too.
Quicker than fast, he’s not going to be a lightning sideline-to-sideline playmaker, but he’s not going to miss any tackles and should grow into a stat-sheet filler … if he can finally catch a break and stay on the field.
QB Cameron Ward, Washington State
Every once in a while I think I see a quarterback who’s ready to go from relative obscurity to NFL draft stardom. Who’s going to be the next Manziel, Cam, Burrow, or Pickett?
And usually I miss.
Nailed it on Lamar Jackson and Colin Kaepernick, I believe I’ll eventually be right on Davis Mills – although none of the three were top draft picks – and most recently I whiffed really, really hard on KJ Costello and QB-turned-tight end Tyree Jackson.
Welcome to the guy who might be the most interesting call in the 2023 NFL Draft if everything goes according to plan.
Recent Washington State quarterbacks get dinged because of inflated stats and a general lack of NFL tools – Gardner Minshew was able to overcome all of that to a certain extent. But Cameron Ward would’ve been an interesting pro prospect if he stayed at Incarnate Word.
So to put this weirdly, don’t let the monstrous numbers he’s about to put up blind you to just how good he really is.
The 6-3, 223-pound transfer threw 40 touchdowns and just seven picks – along with two rushing scores – in his two years as an FCS star. Now he gets his chance to show his skills at the big level.
CB Tre’vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU
The nephew of NFL Hall of Fame running back LaDanian Tomlinson isn’t all that big, but he can move and has the ball skills to be a nice stat-sheet filler at the next level.
He’s going to be around a mid-4.4 runner – the blazing wheels aren’t quite there, and at just 5-9 and 177 pounds he’s not all that physical. However, he was in on 42 tackles last year with two picks and seven broken up passes after breaking up 13 passes as a sophomore. He knows how to get after the ball.
LB Jack Campbell, Iowa
After a monster year for a great Hawkeye defense, Campbell would’ve been a top 50 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Instead he’s back as a likely top 30 selection with his combination of size and tackling ability.
The 6-5, 243-pounder isn’t really a pass rusher or an edge prospect, but he’s got great range, makes big plays happen when the ball is in the air, and he hits everything.
He made 143 tackles on the season – he destroyed Minnesota with 17 stops and was all over the place in the bowl loss to Kentucky – and now if he adds a bit more flair in the backfield, he’ll blow up on draft charts.
EDGE BJ Ojulari, LSU
An interesting pass rushing option who might just be scratching the surface, he brings 4.5 speed with his 6-3, 245-pound size. He showed glimpses as a freshman, and then in a lost year for the team he cranked up 53 tackles with seven sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.
Consistency will be the key, and he needs to be more of an offense destroyer, but the measurables are there to develop into a high-riser in the draft process.
OT Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
A true technician, he’s a veteran who’s been great at handling the top Big Ten pass rushers and can be a solid run blocker on the move. He’s not as big as you might like – just 6-4 and 294 pounds – and he’s not a masher, but he’s an all-star blocker who’ll be looked at as a left tackle who can play any of the five spots up front.
He might not be a be-all-end-all NFL tackle prospect, but he’ll be seen as a ten-year pro somewhere on a line.
WR Kayshon Boutte, LSU
It’s been hard to see him as the Next Great LSU NFL Wide Receiver over the last two years considering the team’s problems, but … he’s the Next Great LSU NFL Wide Receiver.
The 6-0, 205-pounder has bulked up a bit and should be able to handle the physical defensive backs a bit better, or he can just blow past them with his 4.3 speed. He averaged 15 yards per catch on his 83 grabs over two years and should take his game up a few notches with a far more settled team situation.
EDGE Derick Hall, Auburn
The 6-3, 256-pound pass rusher beefed up a little bit over the last few years and should be even stronger against the run to go along with his burst. A true edge rusher, he could’ve been in the mix for the 2022 NFL Draft, and now he’s back and should up his profile.
He came up with 54 tackles with nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, but now he’s a marked man. It’s not just the NFL Draft spotlight and the preseason hype that’s coming, it’s the three-sack game against Alabama that everyone saw. Now he has to be more consistent.
CB Eli Ricks, Alabama
The lighting-fast great recruit for LSU made the switch over to Alabama, and now he has to produce.
Fine as a freshman with 20 tackles and four picks, he missed most of last year with a shoulder injury and now he’s fresh as a possible No. 1 corner for the Tide.
At 6-2 and 190 pounds he has the size along with 4.3 speed. Now he has to play, get through a few rough spots as he gets more work, and grow into the job. On tools and talent, though, he’s got NFL first round ability.
WR Jordan Addison, Transfer Portal
Someone had to be on the other end of all those passes.
Good in 2020 – before Kenny Pickett became first-round-draft-caliber-talent Kenny Pickett – with 60 catches, he was unstoppable last season with 100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 scores with a rushing touchdown.
Not all that big, the 6-0, 175-pounder isn’t going to shove anyone around. He’s also not really a blazer even though he averaged 16 yards per catch. He’s quicker than fast, slippery smooth, and always finds his way open.
OG Emil Ekiyor, Alabama
One, he’s very big and very versatile. Two, he’s going to get the Bama Bounce in the draft process because of what it takes to be a part of that offensive line and who he’ll have to go against in the SEC.
The 6-3, 307-pounder might not have the mammoth-freak size that Tide players normally have, but he’s a tough, compact blocker who can work at center if it doesn’t work out at guard.
Excellent over the last few years, he’s a solid pass protector with a good burst off the ball. This might be a tad high on the prospects list for a likely right guard, but he’ll be a longtime starter.
OT Jaelyn Duncan, Maryland
It would’ve been interesting to see where he would’ve gone had he come out for the 2022 NFL Draft. He’d almost certainly have been selected in the top 50, and he might have been a fringe first rounder with his 6-6, 320-pound size and impressive quickness.
There’s versatility to his style – he could end up kicking inside if needed – but he’s an NFL left tackle who can rise up quickly with a huge 2022.
RB Sean Tucker, Syracuse
5-10, 220-pounds, track star speed. He’s going to quickly grow into a must-have first rounder if he can come up with a great junior year.
A legitimate threat to tear off a sub-4.3 when he gets timed for real at the combine, he’s just a sprinter playing football, right?
He carried the ball 20 or more times in seven games last season running for close to 1,500 yards and 12 scores. While he hasn’t been used enough as a receiver – just 20 catches last year – that’s partly because he’s in an offense that didn’t wing the ball around.
S Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame
Can the former Northwestern star be the new main main at safety for Notre Dame? He’s not as big as Kyle Hamilton, and he’s not the same sort of hitting force, but the 6-1, 192-pounder is a better ball hawker.
Extremely quick, Joseph was used a bit as a punt returner last year, picked off three passes and made 80 stops – he came up with six interceptions as a sophomore. He’s not a blazer, and he’s not a thumper, but he’s got great range and always finds his way around the ball.
DE Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame
The strength is there to occasionally work on the inside of the line depending on the situation, and the ability is there to work as an edge rusher. He’s got a full skill set and a lot to work with.
With 6-5, 260-pound size and pass rushing ability to use a combination of skills to get into the backfield, he works out just fine as an NFL defensive end.
He made 52 tackles with 11 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last year, coming into his own as one of the nation’s most consistent producers in the backfield. This was a bad year to come into the draft in a class loaded with high-end pass rushers, but he should be among the top targets in 2023.
TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
Yeah, we already did this with a Notre Dame tight end a few years ago who was supposed to be the prototype who dominated NFL defenses by creating major mismatch problems.
Cole Kmet might still be that for the Bears, but it hasn’t kicked in yet.
The 6-4, 251-pound Mayer isn’t going to blow past anyone at the next level, but he’s a terrific mid-range receiver who fights for the ball, keeps the chains moving, and can be more of a volume-catcher than Kmet.
Mayer made 71 grabs last year for 840 yards and seven scores. The world gushed over Kmet when he caught 43 passes for 515 yards and six touchdowns in 2019.
LB Trenton Simpson, Clemson
Really, really quick, the 6-3, 230-pound all-around playmaker turned in a good freshman season, was excellent as a sophomore, and now … look out.
He’s not the athlete Isaiah Simmons was for the Tigers, but he’s got a similar game with the upside to work well in pass coverage and be even scarier as a pass rusher.
He came up with six sacks and 12 tackles for loss with 64 stops in 2021, and now more of the big-play defensive workload will fall on his shoulders. He can handle it as he grows into a catch-all defensive game-wrecker of a prospect who’ll thrive at the next level.
QB DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson
This is the hedging-the-bet call among the top 2023 NFL Draft prospects.
If he continues to play like he did in 2021 – not all his fault in a bizarre year with nine touchdown passes and ten picks – he sticks around college, isn’t a lock to keep the starting gig, and possibly transfers.
He’s got to be a better, faster decision-maker and has to be far, far better at simply keeping the chains moving. On the flip side …
If he shows the confidence and decisiveness like he did against Notre Dame and Boston College in 2020, there’s a shot he turns out to be the quarterback surprise we’re all used to – like Joe Burrow and Kenny Pickett – albeit in a far different way.
On pure talent and measurables, he’s the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
He’s 6-4 and 250 pounds with a high-powered arm and the mobility to take off and be a business decision for defenders in the open field.
It’s all there, but first-things-first …
He has to keep the Clemson starting job.
OT Paris Johnson, Ohio State
Right frame, right skills, right talent level. And, as it turns out, the right versatility.
Ohio State had veterans on the offensive front, so it put its most talented offensive tackle at guard for most of last season to put the puzzle together with the best five blockers up front.
Now, with Nicholas Petit-Frere gone, Jackson can move to the left tackle job on the other side of the massive Dawand Jones to give the Buckeyes the best tackle combination in college football.
At 6-6 and 315 pounds, the one-time super-recruit – even for Ohio State – should dominate as he grows into the likely first tackle off the board next year.
EDGE Nolan Smith, Georgia
A true tweener who’ll find a home somewhere on someone’s NFL defense, he’s a 6-3, 235-pound linebacker with the size and toughness to play inside, but with a pass rusher’s mentality and burst on the outside.
He’s an edge rusher who came up with 3.5 sacks, ten tackles for loss, and 56 tackles for the national championship defense, but this year he might be a bigger Nakobe Dean and be one of the new standouts.
DT Bryan Bresee, Clemson
Even ahead of the star quarterbacks, a 100% fully healthy Bresee might be No. 1 on this list.
The ultra-quick 6-5, 300-pound superstar recruit for the Tigers showed glimpses of greatness as a true freshman, making 23 tackles with four sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Just when it looked like he was about to bust out as a sophomore, he suffered a torn ACL three games in and missed the rest of the season.
When he’s right, he’s got a freakish combination of size, strength, and quickness off the ball. He still has to put it all together, but the talent is there to be a franchise part of a defensive front as a too-quick tackle or bulky end.
LB Noah Sewell, Oregon
Inside linebackers who can hit might not get a whole lot of respect in the draft process if they’re not blazers who run around like guided missiles, but every coach wants a thumper who can be a backstop against the run.
No, the younger brother of Detroit Lion offense tackle Penei isn’t going to fly around from the outside, but at 6-3 and 251 pounds he’s got the ideal bulk auto dominate inside the hashmarks.
No, he’s not slow – he’ll time around a 4.8ish, if not a little better – and yes, he can be okay in short-range pass coverage, but his job is to tackle everyone and be the quarterback of a D. He made 114 stops last year with four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss.
CB Kelee Ringo, Georgia
You have to be able to move if even Georgia people think you’re fast.
Already a great prospect with his 6-2, 205-pound size and ball skills, he’s a 4.3 blazer who grew into the job last season with 34 tackles, eight broken up passes, and two interceptions highlighted by a very, very, very big pick-six to seal the national title against Alabama.
Everyone will have to look beyond the stats – no one’s going to throw at him – and he still needs more time logged in, but if you’re looking for what a prototype NFL corner looks like, here he is.
RB Bijan Robinson, Texas
The position might be devalued, and you don’t win Super Bowls because of your running back in the modern day NFL, Robinson is just the sort of talent who can stand out above the pack.
The superstar recruit busted out last season – 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns averaging close to six yards per carry – before getting hurt late in the year, and now the hype will be off the charts as the best back in college football going into the 2022 season.
The 6-0, 221-pounder is tough, has excellent vision, and has no problem cranking up the home run when he gets into the open field. He can catch – 26 grabs last season – and he could do a whole lot more if that’s a bigger part of the attack.
Speed is overrated for workhorse backs, but he’s not going to test all that fast. Don’t worry about it and just give him the ball.
DT Jalen Carter, Georgia
It was impossible to stand out among all the star power of the national championship Georgia defense, and it’s going to be unfair to compare him to Jordan Davis as an all-time college anchor and leader, but Carter is an NFL defensive tackle with the upside to dominate the interior.
He’s not massive, but he’s an ultra-quick 6-3, 310-pounds with the strength to hold up well against the run. Yeah, it helped that Davis occupied ten blockers and let everyone else work, and Carter isn’t necessarily going to be a true anchor, but he’ll make a whole lot of plays behind the line.
DE Myles Murphy, Clemson
Alabama’s Will Anderson might have been drafted ahead of all the other edge rushers in the 2022 NFL Draft. Myles Murphy might have been drafted higher, too.
Anderson is an outside linebacker/edge rusher, but the 6-5, 275-pound Murphy fits in more NFL schemes in a variety of ways. Ultra-quick off the ball and with the power to hold up against the run, he’s got the full skill set.
He’s not quite the explosive athlete and player the Anderson is, but he’s ultra-consistent and will hold up far better as a true defensive end who can also be used like an edge rusher.
QB Bryce Young, Alabama
That’s the only reason why Bryce Young isn’t No. 1 on this list, and even at 6-0, 194 – anecdotally and unscientifically, that even seems generous standing next to him – he should probably be in the top spot.
He can run, but he doesn’t do it. Consider that a major positive in the way he plays – he’s smart enough to know that guys his size can’t take a pounding, so he gets the ball in the hands of his guys. He doesn’t have a cannon, but the arm strength is fine, and then there’s what might be his best attribute – his demeanor.
Absolutely unflappable, he had a rough game against Auburn, and then he pulled the season out of the fire – and won the Heisman – with one late clutch drive.
He was missing parts and lost Jameson Williams in the national championship, but he still managed to throw for 369 yards even though he had no help and had Georgia Bulldogs jumping on his head all game long.
And then there’s Bryce Young being Bryce Young. Again, anecdotally, he’s a great guy, players want to play for him, and he’s not going to bring any sort of sort of big-timer’s attitude to a locker room.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
What does it say that Ohio State sent two of the best wide receivers in the 2022 NFL Draft, and they’re not as good as the guy who’s still around?
Garrett Wilson was the veteran alpha among the star targets, and Chris Olave was the silky-smooth playmaker, but it was Smith-Njigba who was considered the most talented of the group even before he did that in the Rose Bowl.
You always want to take one monster performance with a grain of salt, but the entire Utah defense knew what was coming with Wilson and Olave sitting out, and it still couldn’t stop the 15-catch, 347-yard, three-touchdown day. That was hardly a one-off – even with the other guys around, he caught 45 passes over the final four game of the regular season.
He’s not massive at 6-0, 198 pounds and he doesn’t have anywhere near the warp wheels of Olave and Wilson – he’s likely going to come in at a sluggish 4.5ish in the 40 – but blow that off considering everything else he is as a talent.
QB CJ Stroud, Ohio State
With the 6-3, 218-pound size, a calm demeanor in key situations, and with just enough mobility to get by, he’s got the look, the attitude, and the arm to be ready right away to be a high-powered next-level franchise passer.
And now for the big issue – the Ohio State quarterback thing.
Buckeye quarterbacks have been less than stellar at the NFL level considering the production and hype coming out of college – Justin Fields might be the one to change that – and there’s a reason. Ohio State’s wide receivers are unbelievable, the team’s talent level is high enough to put passers in great positions, and …
Stroud might just be the one – if it’s not Fields – to not just shake that, but to also become a superstar. It doesn’t matter how good the parts around you are, you don’t hit 72% of your passes if you’re not doing something right.
No, he’s not Fields as a runner, but – with all due respect considering the tragic loss – he’s far more agile than Dwayne Haskins was. The tools are all there, the command is fine, and yeah, he worked with NFL receivers at Ohio State.
He’s going to work with NFL receivers in the NFL, too.
EDGE Will Anderson, Alabama
It’s hard to argue too much with Bryce Young winning the 2021 Heisman Trophy, but it’s also hard to argue too much with anyone who thinks Will Anderson was the best player in college football.
The 6-4, 243-pound pass rushing terror came up with 101 tackles, 17.5 sacks, and 33.5 tackles for loss with a tremendous blend of speed, power, and consistency.
He might have been held in check in the national championship game, but Georgia’s attention paid to him opened up everything else for the Bama defense.
How good of a prospect is he? The star power at the very top of the 2022 NFL Draft was with the edge rushers, and Anderson still probably goes ahead of Aidan Hutchinson, Travon Walker, Jermaine Johnson, and Kayvon Thibodeaux.
The only real knock is his his size. He’s not as bulky as some might like with a maxed out frame, and he’s a true tweener of a pass rusher, but he’s the game-wrecker every NFL team is looking for.