NFL Draft News & Analysis

2023 NFL Draft: The 11 biggest steals of the draft, including Jalen Carter, Christian Gonzalez and Jaxon Smith-Njigba

Kansas City, MO, USA; Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Seattle Seahawks twentieth overall in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

• The Eagles keep getting away with it: The Philadelphia Eagles did have to trade up to grab Jalen Carter, but the expectation was that they’d have to move up higher than one spot to land him. A future fourth-round pick is a small price to pay for arguably the cleanest on-field projection in this draft class.

• The Patriots grab a star at cornerback: Christian Gonzalez entered the first round as an expected top-10 pick. The New England Patriots were able to add a top-10 talent at a position of need after trading down and gaining additional draft capital. It’s difficult to categorize that as anything other than a win.

• The Lions get a steal in Brian Branch: The Detroit Lions may have reached for a few players early in the draft, but they get one of the better values of the first two days in Branch, the best nickel prospect in the draft class.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The 2023 NFL Draft was full of surprises — both good and bad. So with the dust nearly settled, we are going to focus on the good by detailing some of the biggest steals from the first three rounds.

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Day 1


PFF Big Board rank: 2

The Eagles did have to trade up to grab Carter, but the expectation was that they’d have to move up higher than one spot to land him. A future fourth-round pick is a small price to pay for arguably the cleanest on-field projection in this draft class.

Carter graded out above the 96th percentile among qualifying NCAA interior defensive linemen in PFF pass-rush grade and run-defense grade across his three seasons at Georgia. He has everything needed to be a dominant three-technique defensive tackle in Philadelphia’s defense, lining up alongside former Georgia teammates Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean.

The Eagles value continuously adding talent in the trenches. With Javon Hargrave leaving in addition to stalwarts Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham aging, this is a combination of blue-chip talent meeting need.


PFF Big Board rank: 5

There was a lot of smoke around Tennessee making a big jump for a quarterback, but it ended up staying put and landing a top-five player on PFF’s big board at a major position of need. The Titans finished the 2022 season with PFF’s lowest-graded tackle duo in pass protection. Skoronski should be given the opportunity to compete for one of the starting tackle jobs with offseason addition Andre Dillard and incumbent right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere.

Even if Skoronski’s 32 1/4-inch arms (seventh percentile at tackle) make him a better fit inside, adding a high-end starter at guard here is still a good outcome for Tennessee. Skoronski is coming off three consecutive seasons with at least 600 offensive snaps and a PFF grade of 80.0 at Northwestern.

He’s a high-floor, Day 1 starter who will improve their offensive line, regardless of where he ends up slotting in.


PFF Big Board rank: 12

Gonzalez entered the first round as an expected top-10 pick. The Patriots were able to add a top-10 talent at a position of need after trading down and gaining additional draft capital. It’s difficult to categorize that as anything other than a win.

The ball production (four interceptions and six pass breakups) finally came for Gonzalez in his final season at Oregon, and there are few cornerbacks who have come out in recent years with Gonzalez’ combination of size and movement skills. He can step in and execute any coverage scheme and is another key piece to the rebuild in New England’s secondary after parting ways with both Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson over the last few seasons.


PFF Big Board rank: 9

Runs at several other positions dropped the player who many considered to be the top wide receiver prospect in this year’s class into Seattle’s lap with their second first-round selection.

Smith-Njigba registered 0.8 PFF Wins Above Average (WAA) in a healthy 2021 season for Ohio State as a sophomore — highest of any Power-5 wide receiver. He doesn’t have elite top-end speed, but he has most everything else. Smith-Njigba should fit seamlessly alongside D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as the third option that they’ve missed over the last few years. There’s every reason to expect he can be an immediate contributor from the slot on a talented Seahawks offense.


PFF Big Board rank: 10

It’s becoming clear that you’re going to need a whole lot of offensive firepower to compete for a Super Bowl berth in the AFC. Buffalo realized that and made sure it jumped a potential tight end landing spot (Dallas) to secure the top tight end on the PFF big board (and No. 10 overall prospect).

Kincaid is a natural receiver who will win over the middle of the field and secure tight-window throws from Josh Allen in traffic. The Bills need secondary receiving options to step up behind Stefon Diggs in 2023. Kincaid gives them another option. He was one of the easier receiving projections in this class, regardless of position, and a strong value for Buffalo at the back end of the first round, even after the trade-up.


PFF Big Board rank: 13

They can’t keep getting away with this.

The Eagles add (another) stand out from the talent-laden Georgia defense, making an already dangerous defensive line even scarier. Smith is undersized, but he has the explosiveness (4.39s 40-yard dash and 42-inch vertical jump) an edge defender needs to win at under 240 pounds. He’s quick off the edge with good bend and has a strong track record of success against the run despite his size. No college edge defender graded out better against the run on a per-play basis than Smith over the last two seasons.

Smith made sense as a target for Philadelphia with its first pick at 10th overall. His addition to one of the deeper defensive line rotations, alongside Jalen Carter, is going to create a lot of headaches for opposing offensive lines in 2023.

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Day 2


PFF Big Board rank: 19

The Golden Domer’s wait finally ended in the second round, as the Raiders traded up to Pick 35 for one of the most polished prospects in the class. Mayer isn’t a gifted athlete by any means, but he checks every other box as a receiver and a blocker. He has a high-level football IQ and was the engine of the Notre Dame offense in 2022. Mayer was targeted more than any other tight end in the country this past season and earned an FBS-best 92.5 PFF grade in the process.


PFF Big Board rank: 15

The Lions have made several big “reaches” already in this draft based on PFF and consensus big boards, but they get one of the better values here with Branch. He’s the best nickel prospect in this draft class and one of the best tackling defensive backs since PFF began tracking college football in 2014 (2% missed tackle rate).


PFF Big Board rank: 30

Like the Giants just a few picks ago, this could have easily been the Bills’ first-round selection. A mountain of a man at the position, he can still move better than his size would suggest. After starting his career at Louisiana, he made the move to the SEC with ease, finishing 2022 with an 89.9 PFF run-blocking grade, which was the best in the Power Five last season.


PFF Big Board rank: 38

Downs was WR5 on both the PFF big board and the consensus big board but came off the board to Indianapolis as WR12. He is undersized, even for the slot, but he is one of the better underneath separators in this class and wins in contested situations over the middle of the field. Downs hauled in 13-of-18 contested targets for UNC in 2022.


PFF Big Board rank: 35

If the Giants had made this pick in the first round, nobody would have really batted an eye. He led all centers with a 92.3 PFF grade in 2022 and graded well both on zone and gap plays. He’s a big guy but can really move and was a four-year starter at Minnesota. Simply put, he is one of the best run-blockers at the position to enter the draft in recent years.

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