NFL Draft News & Analysis

2023 NFL Draft Watch List: Defense

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) reacts after a stop against the LSU Tigers during the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

We took an early look at the offensive side of the ball for the potential 2023 NFL Draft class last week, and now we turn our attention to defense. Get ready for a ridiculously strong defensive tackle class compared to the past two years of relative duds at the position.

Interior Defender

Bryan Bresee, Clemson

The No. 1 overall recruit in the 2020 class, Bresee broke onto the scene with a monster freshman campaign in which he earned an 81.2 pass-rushing grade. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL only 152 snaps into his 2021 season, so we didn’t get a proper look at what he could do for an encore. He’s a long and powerful 6-foot-5, 300-pounder.

Byron Young, Alabama

Young just feels like the yearly Alabama defensive tackle who ends up drafted in Round 2. He’s only 292 pounds but is stout as can be against the run, posting an 88.8 grade in that regard as a junior last season.

Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

Kancey's listed size of 6-foot and 275 pounds isn't going to earn him many NFL fans. On a college football field, though, he has been nothing short of a problem. He racked up 38 pressures and recorded an 83.7 overall grade last season as a redshirt sophomore. 

 

Colby Wooden, Auburn

Wooden has an old-school 3-4 defensive end build at 6-foot-5 and 278 pounds. He can really get upfield as a pass-rusher and earned an 80.6 pass-rushing grade with 41 pressures last season. He could have declared and been a likely Day 2 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft but returned for his redshirt junior season to fill out and improve his stock.

Gervon Dexter, Florida

Dexter is a mammoth 6-foot-6, 303-pound nose tackle for the Gators. He’s got the kind of length that every NFL scheme is looking for. He was a full-time starter for the first time last season as a sophomore and flashed with a 75.8 pass-rushing grade.

Jalen Carter, Georgia

The current front-runner for DT1 in the 2023 class, Carter was the most impactful pass-rusher on Georgia's vaunted defense last season. He earned a 90.0 pass-rushing grade and racked up 34 pressures on 264 rushes. At 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, he can operate anywhere between the tackles.

Jaquelin Roy, LSU

Roy is yet another sophomore defensive tackle who has already established himself as an interior threat to opposing quarterbacks. He knows how to use his hands and possesses the kind of quick feet to make guards miss. He just needs to continue to improve his play strength at 6-foot-4 and 297 pounds. 

Siaki Ika, Baylor

There are no play strength concerns with the 6-foot-4, 350-pound Ika. He started his career at LSU before transferring after two years to Baylor, where he enjoyed a breakout 2021 campaign. At that size, he was utilized as a penetrator and still racked up 33 pressures. That’s quite the figure for a collegiate nose tackle. 

Edge Defender

Andre Carter II, Army

Carter is set to be Army's highest-drafted player since 1947. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, he was nothing short of unblockable last season en route to 15 sacks and a 93.4 pass-rushing grade. He’s got the size, length and athleticism to work his way into the first-round conversation with another big year as a redshirt junior in 2022.

BJ Ojulari, LSU

Ojulari is a bendy, undersized rusher who has all the traits to get to quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s already racked up 78 pressures through two seasons with the Tigers. At only 244 pounds, though, he needs to pack on more weight.

Derick Hall, Auburn

Hall is a twitched-up edge rusher who wins with pure get-off. He needs more moves and some counters, but his explosiveness will intrigue NFL teams. He earned 80.0-plus pass-rushing grades in each of the past two seasons.

Habakkuk Baldonado, Pittsburgh

Baldonado is the oldest of this bunch as he heads into his redshirt senior campaign with the Panthers, but he’s got tools in the NFL edge mold. He boasts a number of pass-rushing moves already and produced 48 pressures last season with them. He’s not quite as twitched-up as the top guys, but he can still win with his length.

Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame

Foskey is built in the Marcus Davenport bull-rusher mold. He has the kind of juice and length to continually collapse pockets. He took massive steps forward as a junior in that regard last season en route to an 80.7 overall grade, but there are more athletic tools to work with than even that production suggests.

Myles Murphy, Clemson

Murphy is a 6-foot-5, 275-pound specimen. He shocks offensive linemen on contact in a way you don’t often see from a true sophomore. Murphy is only scratching the surface and could easily play his way into being a top-10 draft pick in 2023.

Nick Herbig, Wisconsin

Herbig is another Wisconsin edge in the undersized, hybrid mold. He played outside at only 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds as a sophomore last season and dropped into coverage almost as much as he rushed the passer. At that size, he showed a natural feel for setting up offensive linemen and getting to opposing quarterbacks, earning a 91.4 pass-rushing grade.

Nolan Smith, Georgia

Smith was the top overall recruit in the 2019 class because of his — and stop me if you’ve heard this before about a Georgia defender — elite athleticism. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he is a lightning rod off the edge. He made massive strides as a true junior last season but would likely have still been on the outside looking in on the first round had he declared. He has top-10 tools and could play his way into that conversation with a better season as a pass-rusher in 2022.

Will Anderson Jr., Alabama

Anderson is EDGE1, and that shouldn't change anytime soon. He led college football with 81 pressures last season. While he could stand to pack on some mass to his 243-pound frame, Anderson has all the ability to succeed in the NFL at that size.

Zach Harrison, Ohio State

Harrison is a long and explosive 6-foot-6, 272-pounder who is only just starting to learn how to tap into his physical tools. He’s a touch stiff at that size and far more of a linear athlete, which limits his effectiveness at getting to the edge. Still, that’s the profile of a bull-rusher in the NFL.

Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington

Speaking of bull-rushers, Tupuola-Fetui was hands-down the best in this class in that regard back in 2020. In that coronavirus-shortened season, he earned a 91.8 pass-rushing grade. Unfortunately, he tore his Achilles last offseason, which limited him to only 130 snaps in 2021. He enters his redshirt senior year with only 514 snaps to his name.

Linebacker

DeMarvion Overshown, Texas

Overshown is a former safety who still too often plays with the physicality of one. But you can’t coach his length at 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds. He presents a unique coverage weapon even though his 30.4 grade against the run last year is why he returned for his redshirt senior season.

Mohamoud Diabate, Florida

Diabate has the kind of high-end athleticism the NFL will covet — but none of the production. Last season, he didn’t notch a single interception or pass breakup and managed only 25 stops. His most impressive reps come as a pass-rusher, leading to 19 pressures last season.

Noah Sewell, Oregon

Sewell is the biggest hitter in the country and packs quite the wallop coming into blocks. It will be interesting to see how the NFL values the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder's game due to his middling coverage prowess.

Owen Pappoe, Auburn

Pappoe may be the fastest returning linebacker in all of college football. He moves like a cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds. He just now needs to play with the physicality of a linebacker as a senior.

Trenton Simpson, Clemson

The early frontrunner for LB1, Simpson already flashed an all-around game as a true sophomore. He needs to keep filling out his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame, but there’s little in the way of play strength concerns on his tape. Last year, he racked up seven sacks and 13 hits in Brent Venables' blitz-heavy scheme. 

Troy Brown, Central Michigan

You won’t find a returning college linebacker who can match Brown’s career production. The three-year starter for the Chippewas has earned quality grades every single year, headlined by an 87.5 overall mark last season. He’s going to get knocked for his size (6-foot-2, 218 pounds), but he consistently plays bigger than that.

Cornerback

Cam Smith, South Carolina

Smith picked up right where Jaycee Horn left off for the Gamecocks last season. The 6-foot-1, 187-pound cornerback picked off three passes, broke up nine more and finished with an 89.7 coverage grade. 

Clark Phillips III, Utah

Phillips is undersized, but don’t tell him that. He competes on the outside snap after snap for the Utes at only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds. He earned a 76.4 coverage grade as a sophomore last season and got considerably better as the campaign wore on.

Eli Ricks, Alabama

Ricks was the best true freshman corner in the country back in 2020 after allowing only 13 catches on 28 targets for 237 yards. He’s a long, 6-foot-2 cornerback who has some questions about his speed. He transferred to Alabama this offseason and is slated to start for the Crimson Tide.

Kelee Ringo, Georgia

Ringo earned his first starting action as a redshirt freshman last year and didn’t disappoint. He sealed Georgia’s national championship win with a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. He’s a massive cornerback at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, and he allowed just a 40.7% completion percentage in coverage last year. 

Kris Abrams-Draine, Missouri

In his first year after switching from wide receiver to cornerback, Abrams-Draine was a revelation playing all over for the Tigers' defense. The redshirt freshman picked off three passes and broke up nine more while splitting his time between the slot and outside.

Noah Daniels, TCU

Daniels has been on NFL radars for seemingly forever, but no prospect on this list has been plagued by a worse string of injuries. He came back to TCU this fall for his sixth college season, although he's managed only 510 career snaps despite playing since 2018.

Tony Grimes, North Carolina

Grimes was the former No. 1 cornerback recruit before he reclassified because of the coronavirus and came to North Carolina early. In his two seasons for the Tar Heels, he’s allowed only 40 catches on 80 targets for 524 yards.  

Safety

Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M

Johnson filled the slot role in Texas A&M’s defense as a sophomore last season, but he can be so much more than that in the NFL. He’s an ultra-long defensive back at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds with legit closing burst. He earned an 89.5 run-defense grade and an 88.7 coverage grade last season because of his work around the ball.

Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame

Joseph consistently seems to be in the right place at the right time, and it’s not by accident. He picked off nine passes across 21 games in the past two seasons at Northwestern. He’s looking to fill Kyle Hamilton’s shoes for the Irish this fall and hopefully up his draft stock next spring, as well.

Jalen Catalon, Arkansas

Catalon could have been a Day 2 pick in 2022 had he not suffered a shoulder injury that ended his redshirt sophomore season early in 2021. He’s a missile at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds with the ability to lay the wood as well as anyone in the draft class.

Jordan Battle, Alabama

Battle possesses some of the best size in the safety class at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. He’s been seeing time ever since his true freshman season at Alabama in 2019, considerably improving on his overall grade each year. Range will be his question mark to answer in 2022.

Malachi Moore, Alabama

Moore is yet another former true freshman starter on defense under Nick Saban. He earned an 82.1 coverage grade in his first season in 2020 while manning the slot. However, his ball production took a step back this past season, with him notching only one combined pick and pass breakup.

Rashad Torrence II, Florida

Torrence is a spark plug in the middle of Florida’s defense at 6-foot and 205 pounds. He’s willing to mix it up and has played a very versatile role for the Gators. Of his 803 snaps last year, 210 came from the box, 386 in a deep alignment and 196 from the slot.

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