2023 NFL Draft: Trevor Sikkema's top 5 players at each defensive position

Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell reacts after making a tackle against South Dakota State during a NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Iowavssdsu 20220903 Bh

• Witherspoon, Gonzalez, Banks make up top three CBs: It's an overall strong cornerback class that could have eight players taken in the first two rounds.

• Jack Campbell stakes his claim to LB1 title: He’s a true off-ball linebacker with plenty of experience and earned an elite 91.9 overall grade this past season.

• Will Anderson Jr., Nolan Smith headline edge class: The consensus top edge rusher is Anderson, while Smith may come as a surprise in the top two.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

After putting together my top five players at each offensive position, we now flip sides to show you my top five players at every defensive position for the 2023 NFL Draft

EDGE RUSHER

  1. Will Anderson Jr., Alabama 
  2. Nolan Smith, Georgia
  3. Myles Murphy, Clemson
  4. Lukas Van Ness, Iowa
  5. BJ Ojulari, LSU

The lack of a pass-rush plan is a common theme for the 2023 edge defender group, but the potential is there. Will Anderson Jr. is clearly the top edge player in this class. Though he won primarily off athleticism at the college level, he did it better than any player in the country en route to 207 career pressures (55 more than the next defender).

Nolan Smith didn’t get the chance to truly pin his ears back and get after passers as much as a 99th-percentile athlete should, but he comes into the NFL as a stout run defender with a high ceiling if he can master some of those speed-rush moves.

Myles Murphy and Lukas Van Ness are both big, powerful athletes who still need some refinement in their pass-rush moves and hand technique to be consistent backfield disruptors at the next level.

As for Ojulari, he edges out players such as Tyree Wilson, Will McDonald IV and Felix Anudike-Uzomah due to how experienced he already is as a pass rusher. He’s a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker type only, but one who wins consistently with great burst out of his stance, fantastic hand usage and a strong array of pass-rush moves and counters.


INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE

  1. Jalen Carter, Georgia
  2. Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh
  3. Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin
  4. Bryan Bresee, Clemson
  5. Mazi Smith, Michigan

Unless Carter is off teams’ boards entirely due to off-field concerns, he’s without question the top player in this class, earning an elite overall grade in 2022 and bringing top-tier pass-rush potential.

Kancey is a rare combination of size and speed, but not in the best way; he’s a sub-5th-percentile interior defender in height, weight and arm length but a 95th-plus-percentile athlete for the position. He’ll have to join a team with a lot of beef around him for him to just be a one-gap defender.

Benton has one of the highest floors in a class seemingly featuring many low ones. He’s a stout run defender who has blossomed into a good pass rusher.

Bresee and Smith are two more interior players who possess intriguing athletic upside, and they should still be top-60 selections, even as the fourth- and fifth-ranked players on this list. 


LINEBACKERS

  1. Jack Campbell, Iowa
  2. Drew Sanders, Arkansas
  3. Trenton Simpson, Clemson
  4. Daiyan Henley, Washington State
  5. Dorian Williams, Tulane

This is an interesting linebacker class. It feels like there are more hybrid players than ever before. You have former safeties turned linebackers, edge rushers turned linebackers and even some wide receivers turned linebackers. There just aren’t a lot of staple off-ball linebackers in this class, but that’s why I have Jack Campbell as the top player. He’s a true off-ball linebacker with plenty of experience and earned an elite 91.9 overall grade this past season.

Drew Sanders is a former edge rusher who made the transition to off-ball linebacker this past season and was able to showcase good length and athleticism, not to mention natural pass-rushing ability when asked to collapse the pocket. His tackling reliability and coverage instincts need work, but that was to be expected with it being his first year at the position.

Simpson and Henley bring alluring athleticism to the position. Simpson is a fantastic click-and-close player with great sideline-to-sideline speed. If his drafting team lets him play free and play downhill, he’ll be a productive player. Henley is on the lighter side for a box defender but holds up decently well and brings a ton of speed on defense.

The last man in this top five, Williams, is a player who needs to better anticipate where the ball is going, but once he improves there he has the speed to fire to that spot. Though smaller, he is one of those true off-ball linebackers who is comfortable between the tackles. 


CORNERBACKS

  1. Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
  2. Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
  3. Deonte Banks, Maryland
  4. Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
  5. Clark Phillips III, Utah

This is a really strong cornerback class, one that could see eight players taken in the first two rounds. At the top, Devon Witherspoon was my favorite tape watch of any position in this year’s class. He is a feisty, explosive man-coverage cornerback who doesn't back down from any challenge. His strength, speed and agility in press coverage are top-class.

Christian Gonzalez won’t be far behind Witherspoon on my big board. He is more than 6 feet tall, almost 200 pounds and as smooth of an athlete as you’ll find for a player that big. He’s a scheme-versatile outside cornerback who is destined for the top half of the first round.

Deonte Banks and Joey Porter Jr. also thrive in press-man coverage. Porter measured in at the combine with some of the longest arms the event has ever seen at the position, and Banks tested like a first-round athlete. Some consistency concerns exist for both, but when the technique is right, they can be blankets in coverage.

Phillips is one of the players who I’m betting on to succeed in the NFL despite his size limitations. His 5-foot-9 height and 29 1/4-inch arms mean he’s likely going to have to find a home in the slot, but he still has some of the best instincts in the class, especially when it comes to making plays on the ball.


SAFETIES

  1. Brian Branch, Alabama 
  2. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
  3. Jordan Battle, Alabama
  4. Jartavius Martin, Illinois
  5. Sydney Brown, Illinois

It’s a down safety class in terms of traditional roles, but there are still plenty of good football players here. That blending of position tags starts at the top, where Brian Branch is one of the most reliable slot defenders in the class. Behind him, we have Antonio Johnson, whose 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame makes him a chess-piece type of defender when playing in the slot against bigger receivers and tight ends.

Jordan Battle is probably the best “pure” safety in the class as an experienced box defender who has good instincts for coverage and reliability in run defense (though limited a bit with flexibility and change of direction).

Jartavius Martin was one of the best athletes at the combine, recording 98th and 95th percentile vertical and broad jumps, respectively. He earned a 73.2 overall grade while playing 431 snaps in the slot in 2022.

Sydney Brown is another versatile defender whose best usage at Illinois was as a roaming box defender. He had a great feel for where the ball was going when aligned at the linebacker level. He’s one of those players who can find reps at slot, at strong safety or even next to the linebackers. 

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