NFL Draft News & Analysis

Top 15 2023 NFL Draft prospect performances from college football bowl season

Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) runs away from the pocket to throw a touchdown pass to Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. (18), not in photo, against Georgia Bulldogs during the first quarter of the Peach Bowl in the College Football Playoff semifinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Osu22uga Kwr 16 Syndication The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud: He showed against top-ranked Georgia that he can carry the weight of the offense on his own.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young: The junior showed in the Sugar Bowl why he’s the current favorite to be the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston: The junior dominated against No. 2 Michigan and is the top wide receiver in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins

While many top prospects opted out of bowl games, there were still plenty who boosted their stock during the contests.

Here are the 15 best performances by 2023 NFL Draft prospects in bowl season.

1. QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State Buckeyes

When evaluating quarterbacks for the next level, it’s important to note whether they’re a shooter or a scorer. It’s an analogy coined by FOX Sports and NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, and it’s very helpful when evaluating Stroud.

For nearly his entire career, Stroud has been an excellent shooter. He’s lights-out when everything around him is perfect. When asked to create on his own, though, he can get into trouble. Heading into the semifinal against Georgia, Stroud was one of the Power Five’s 15 worst quarterbacks under pressure in both grade (34.0) and turnover-worthy play rate (7.8%).

Against the Bulldogs, Stroud was a bona fide bucket-getter. His 77.6 passing grade and two big-time throws under duress were both career highs.

That performance showed that Stroud could create on his own, likely cementing him as a top-five pick come April.

2. QB Bryce Young, Alabama Crimson Tide

Stroud wasn’t the only top quarterback prospect who excelled in bowl season.

Bryce Young surprised many when he announced that he’d be playing in the Sugar Bowl, as most top prospects opt out of non-playoff bowl games. And not only did PFF’s top prospect in the 2023 NFL draft suit up, he dominated.

Against ninth-ranked Kansas State, Young threw five touchdowns and no interceptions while making three big-time throws. The junior’s 90.2 passing grade ranked fourth among Power Five quarterbacks in bowl games.

3. WR Quentin Johnston, TCU Horned Frogs

Quentin Johnston showed why PFF considers him the best wide receiver prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft.

The junior was TCU’s passing offense against second-ranked Michigan in the College Football Playoff semifinal. His 163 receiving yards made up 72.4% of the Horned Frogs’ passing yardage in the game. Eighty-three of those yards came after contact, which led all FBS receivers in bowl games.

4. S Brian Branch, Alabama Crimson Tide

Like Bryce Young, Brian Branch didn’t need to play in the Sugar Bowl. He was already a top-15 prospect on PFF’s big board.

Also like Young, he suited up and put an exclamation point on his career against Kansas State. The junior’s three tackles for loss or no gain were tied for fourth among all defenders in bowl games. Branch also recorded a sack, an interception and a forced incompletion for an all-around dominant performance.

He’s the best safety prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft.

5. DI Kobie Turner, Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Kobie Turner dominated in his first season playing in the FBS. The former Richmond walk-on earned a 92.2 grade this season, which trailed only Georgia’s Jalen Carter among Power Five interior defensive linemen.

Turner’s 90.4 grade in bowl season led all FBS interior defensive linemen, as did his 90.8 pass-rushing grade. Against Missouri in the Gasparilla Bowl, the redshirt senior racked up six pressures, which was tied for the most among FBS interior defensive linemen in bowl games. Turner is currently the No. 60 prospect on PFF’s 2023 big board

6. RB Tyjae SpearsTulane Green Wave

Tulane’s Cotton Bowl victory over No. 10 USC was the first New Year’s Six bowl win for the Green Wave since 1938.

The biggest reason for that historic win was Tyjae Spears. The junior’s four rushing touchdowns were two more than any other player in bowl season. His 137 yards after contact trailed only Frank Gore Jr., as did his 12.1 yards per attempt. Spears is a fourth-round prospect on PFF’s big board.

7. EDGE Karl Brooks, Bowling Green Falcons

Karl Brooks burst onto the scene this season with a 93.0 grade that led all FBS edge defenders.

Against New Mexico State in the Quick Lane Bowl, the senior posted a 43.5% pass-rush win rate that led all defenders in bowl season. Brooks is currently a third-round prospect on PFF’s 2023 big board.

8. S Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State Nittany Lions

Ji’Ayir Brown won Defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, and for good reason.

On only seven pass-rushing snaps, the redshirt senior tallied five pressures and two sacks, both of which led all safeties in bowl games. He also intercepted a pass and allowed only one catch for five yards against eighth-ranked Utah, good for a 16.7 passer rating when targeted. Brown is currently rated as a fifth-round prospect by PFF.

9. OT Graham Barton, Duke Blue Devils

Graham Barton was one of the best offensive tackles in the country this season. He’s one of only two FBS tackles with 85.0-plus grades as both a pass protector and a run blocker (more on the other one later).

Against UCF in the Military Bowl, the junior didn’t allow a pressure on 31 pass-blocking snaps. His 79.6 run-blocking grade also ranked third among Power Five tackles in bowl games. Barton is currently a top-75 prospect on PFF’s big board.

10. DI Jer’Zhan Newton, Illinois Fighting Illini

Jer’Zhan Newton’s 91.7 run-defense grade this season trailed only Kobie Turner among Power Five interior defensive linemen.

His 90.0 run-defense grade against No. 22 Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl led that same group by nearly five points in bowl season. PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner currently views Newton as a late Day 2 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

11. RB Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama Crimson Tide

Jahmyr Gibbs is arguably the most well-rounded running back in the country. Since last season, he’s the only FBS running back with 90.0-plus rushing and receiving grades.

Against No. 9 Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl, Gibbs’ 90.3 receiving grade led the bowl season among all FBS running backs by over 12 points. The junior caught both of his targets for 66 yards and a touchdown. Gibbs is the fourth-best running back prospect on PFF’s big board.

12. OT Blake Freeland, BYU Cougars

Joining Graham Barton as the lone FBS tackles to have 85.0-plus pass-blocking and run-blocking grades this season was BYU’s Blake Freeland.

Against SMU in the New Mexico Bowl, Freeland didn’t let up any pressure. Freeland is a top-50 prospect on PFF’s big board

13. DI Mazi Smith, Michigan Wolverines

Entering this season, Mazi Smith garnered significant hype as the top player on Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List,” which ranks the top freak athletes in college football.

The senior earned a season-high 80.7 grade against third-ranked TCU in the College Football Playoff semifinal. He had two stops in the run game and forced a fumble that he recovered. Smith is a top-75 prospect on PFF’s big board.

14. EDGE Laiatu Latu, UCLA Bruins

Laiatu Latu has been one of the best comeback stories in college football.

He missed the past two seasons while at Washington due to a neck injury. After transferring to UCLA, the redshirt junior’s 88.8 grade ranked third among Power Five edge defenders this season. Latu's 11 pressures against Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl led all FBS defenders in bowl games. He’s currently a third-round prospect on PFF’s big board.

15. CB Jakorian Bennett, Maryland Terrapins

Jakorian Bennett’s 80.5 grade in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl ranked fourth among Power Five cornerbacks in bowl games.

The senior allowed just a 1.7 passer rating when targeted against No. 23 North Carolina State. He gave up only one catch on five targets while forcing an incompletion and coming down with the game-sealing interception. Bennett is currently a fifth-round prospect on PFF’s big board.

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