• Chicago Bears WR Chase Claypool: With Claypool and Darnell Mooney in a contract year, could the Bears look to get a headstart on replacing either of them?
• Minnesota Vikings EDGE Za'Darius Smith: If a coveted edge defender falls to Minnesota at No. 23, it could open the door for Smith's trade request to be granted.
• Houston Texans RB Dameon Pierce: Pierce is not going anywhere, but his role may diminish if the Texans draft a running back.
Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins
The NFL draft is the epitome of dreams being fulfilled, with roughly 260 young players accomplishing the goal of playing professional football. Every transaction has an opportunity cost in this sport, however, and early draft picks can shake up depth charts league-wide.
Some veterans may be at risk of losing a roster spot, while others may lose their spot on the depth chart. And some may just no longer be a priority to extend or re-sign after a rookie is added at their position.
Here, we take a look at 20 players who fall into one of these categories around the league, now just two weeks away from the 2023 NFL Draft.
T Mekhi Becton, New York Jets
Coming off another season-ending injury, Becton has posted photos on social media looking like he’s ready for a bounce-back 2023 campaign. Whether he gets the chance to earn a starting tackle job remains to be seen, but the odds would be greatly reduced if the Jets elect to take a tackle with their first-round pick at No. 13 overall.
Becton’s rookie season was extremely promising, as he earned a 74.4 overall grade and a 76.0 pass-blocking grade on roughly 700 snaps.
G Cesar Ruiz, New Orleans Saints
Ruiz ended the 2022 season on injured reserve with a foot injury, and the Saints are now three weeks away from his fifth-year option decision. Before that decision comes on May 1, New Orleans could add a guard in the first round of the draft at No. 29 overall. Ruiz has yet to earn a 60.0-plus overall grade through three seasons and arguably hasn’t done enough to justify the Saints exercising his $14.175 million fifth-year option for 2024, which would mean 2023 becomes a contract year for him.
This year's rookie guard class is not perceived to be very strong, though Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence is viewed by many as a potential first-rounder. He has been commonly mocked to New Orleans, where he could hold up well in pass protection and excel with a heavy dose of gap scheme rushes.
T Dan Moore Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers
Moore has undoubtedly outperformed his draft slot after being selected in the back half of the fourth round in 2021, logging more than 1,000 snaps in each of his first two seasons. That said, his 85 quarterback pressures and 19 quarterback hits allowed over his first two seasons lead the NFL — and not in a good way.
Pittsburgh, sitting at No. 17 overall and receiving the No. 32 overall pick from Chicago, appears to be in a good position to land one of the top tackles in the class at either pick.
C Lloyd Cushenberry III, Denver Broncos
The Broncos don’t have a lot of draft capital at their disposal, but the end of the 2022 season for Cushenberry casts a lot of doubt on his future as a starter. He was placed on injured reserve in early November and missed the rest of the year but told reporters after the season that he was fully healthy and could have returned to the field for several games down the stretch.
Denver dealt with a ton of injuries in 2022, and teams are allowed to return only eight players off injured reserve each season, but the decision to keep Cushenberry on injured reserve is notable nonetheless. The Broncos aren’t on the clock until Pick Nos. 67 and 68, and while they may still try to address a more premium position, it could also make sense to take one of the top available interior offensive linemen.
WR D.J. Chark Jr., Carolina Panthers
After playing on a one-year, $10 million flier with the Detroit Lions in 2022, Chark signed a one-year deal for half of that in Carolina.
Over Chark’s last six weeks in Detroit at full health, he put up strong numbers:
- 73.8 receiving grade
- 388 receiving yds (17th)
- 10 explosive receptions (12th)
- 18.5 yards per route (5th)
If he can sustain a full season with similar production, which will be entirely possible especially if Carolina doesn’t add a receiver with its second-round pick at No. 39 overall, he could be in for a major payday in a year.
WR Chase Claypool, Chicago Bears
Claypool was moved at the trade deadline for the Chicago Bears‘ second-round pick, which ended up as the No. 32 overall selection. Over seven weeks to close out the season in Chicago, Claypool recorded just 14 receptions on 28 targets for 140 yards, earning a 61.7 receiving grade. An adjustment period while learning a new playbook is understandable, and getting a full offseason to develop chemistry with quarterback Justin Fields could go a long way, but 2023 looks to be a major prove-it year for the wideout.
With Claypool and Darnell Mooney both entering contract years, and with the Bears acquiring a highly-paid wide receiver in D.J. Moore via their trade down to No. 9 overall with the Carolina Panthers, could they look to replace one or both of them in 2024 with a draft pick this year?
TE Irv Smith Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati made several attempts to address the tight end position after Hayden Hurst departed in free agency for the Carolina Panthers, ultimately landing on the high-upside Irv Smith Jr. on a one-year flier.
One of the most popular mock draft matches is fans and analysts linking Cincinnati to a top tight end, with self-proclaimed Bengals fan Michael Mayer of Notre Dame a common selection. The Bengals run as much 11 personnel as any team in the NFL and figure to continue with that trend in 2023, so the second tight end in Cincinnati may not get on the field as much as they could elsewhere.
Smith could be a starter on an elite offense or a depth piece behind an exciting young prospect, depending on how the draft goes.
WR Josh Palmer, Los Angeles Chargers
The 2021 third-rounder is entering the pivotal third season of his rookie contract and has proven to be a valuable contributor thus far, stepping up in a major way for stretches of 2022 when teammates Keenan Allen and Mike Williams were out or clearly less than 100% healthy. Over a five-game sample in the middle of the season, Palmer led all wide receivers in snaps, was tied for fifth in receptions and was tied for ninth in missed tackles forced. However, when the receiving corps was at full strength, Palmer was a less consistent contributor.
If the Chargers add a wide receiver in the first round, which has been a popular connection, it’s not as if Palmer will be off the team or out of the rotation. However, a big third season before becoming extension eligible could be huge compared to being relegated to the fourth wide receiver role.
WR Van Jefferson, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have reportedly considered trading wide receiver Allen Robinson II, but so far those efforts have been to no avail. If Robinson does stick around, Jefferson is likely entrenched as the third wide receiver to start the year. While the Rams don’t have a first-round pick, they do have Nos. 36, 69 and 77 at their disposal. With Jefferson coming off an injury to start the 2022 season and entering a contract year, plus the continued attempts to move Robinson, Los Angeles may look to add a receiver on Day 2.
Once healthy, Jefferson earned a very respectable 72.0 receiving grade from Week 10 through the end of the 2022 season with multiple receptions in every game, though none with more than three.
If the Rams hypothetically traded Robinson and didn’t address wide receiver, Jefferson would have a huge opportunity to produce heading into free agency. The former second-round pick's target opportunity in 2023 could end up on either extreme.
WR Kendrick Bourne, New England Patriots
Bourne had a phenomenal first season in New England and then, for whatever reason, got buried on the depth chart before Year 2. He set career highs across the board in 2021, with a 75.2 receiving grade, 55 receptions and 800 yards. Bourne’s 14.6 yards per reception ranked 26th among wide receivers, his 7.2 yards after the catch per reception ranked seventh and his 96.5% catch rate on throws deemed “catchable” ranked fourth.
Fast-forward to 2022. He didn't get many snaps or consistent looks and is still on a depth chart loaded with receiving options, even if none are particularly great. If New England adds another pass catcher, as the team did when trading up in the second round of 2022 for Tyquan Thornton, Bourne could be headed elsewhere for what could be a larger role.
RB Rachaad White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
White carved out a larger and larger role in the Buccaneers' offense as the season went on, eventually supplanting Leonard Fournette as the lead back for stretches. He’s not going to completely disappear from this offense, but the draft could determine whether he’s a three-down workhorse like Fournette was or one member of a committee.
White’s 50 receptions in his rookie season were tied for the fourth most of any rookie running back over the past five seasons, but his 129 carries rank 28th over the same span. Could Tampa Bay view him as more of a third-down back with rushing upside, adding an early-down rusher to complement him?
RB Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans
The same logic with Rachaad White applies here. Pierce is not going anywhere, but can he be a focal point of the offense with more usage on passing downs or be the early-down burner with a very small role in passing situations?
The Houston Texans have frequently been linked to Texas phenom running back Bijan Robinson, with their pick at No. 12 overall right around the range a lot of draft prognosticators expect him to come off the board. That would be fatal to Pierce’s usage, but a less aggressive move on a Day 2 option could still make an impact.
RB Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
After pushing for a trade and being held out of a few games around the trade deadline last year, Akers returned and quietly finished out the last month of the season on a tear. Over Weeks 15-18, Akers’ 90.1 rushing grade led the NFL and his nine explosive rushes tied for the fifth most.
Now entering a contract year, Akers could perhaps carry forward the momentum and play his best football before hitting the market. On the flip side, the 2023 NFL Draft is frequently touted as having a ton of depth at the running back position. The Rams have eight draft picks from No. 167 through No. 251, where they could perhaps land one of the many expected Day 3 gems at the position.
RB Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah told reporters this week that conversations are “ongoing” with Cook and his representatives, as well as with edge defender Za’Darius Smith and his camp (more on Smith below) ahead of the 2023 season.
Minnesota moved on from a handful of notable veterans and also negotiated a rather substantial pay cut with safety Harrison Smith already this offseason, with Cook looking like the next player they’d like to work out a new deal with. Fellow NFC North running back Aaron Jones agreed to slash $5 million of his 2023 salary, and the Vikings may be looking for a similar concession from Cook, who is owed $10.4 million in 2023.
While $2 million of Cook’s 2023 salary became guaranteed earlier this offseason, there’s a strong possibility that guarantee contains offset language, meaning Minnesota would not owe that money if Cook makes at least $2 million elsewhere, which he certainly would — even on a weak running back free-agent market.
Minnesota likely won’t use the No. 23 overall pick on a running back, and the team might not even make the pick at all, with trading down likely very enticing considering their limited draft capital. The Vikings could add a player later on to pair with Alexander Mattison in the backfield. Cook’s future in Minnesota may be impacted by how the draft ultimately plays out.
EDGE Darrell Taylor, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks used an early second-round pick on Minnesota edge defender Boye Mafe in last year’s draft and have continued to overhaul their defensive line in free agency this offseason. With Uchenna Nwosu the clear top option after a strong 2022 season, what if the Seahawks are sitting at No. 5 overall and a player like Will Anderson Jr. or Tyree Wilson falls to them? Will they be too good to pass up, thus pushing Taylor down the depth chart?
Taylor had a strong year as a pass rusher in 2022, earning a 74.0 grade with 9.5 sacks, but the sack number is a bit misleading considering he had just 27 total pressures on a sub-10% pressure rate. Nevertheless, rushing the passer isn’t the issue, but back-to-back run defense grades in the 40.0s could perhaps diminish his role if a first-rounder is added to the rotation. If not, he could continue to build on a promising career after dealing with an injury as a rookie.
EDGE Za’Darius Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Smith asked for a trade very early in the offseason after dramatically outperforming the contract he signed in 2022, but thus far the team has not entertained the idea. Minnesota did, however, add free agent edge defender Marcus Davenport on a one-year, $13 million contract — a big splash of their offseason in a quiet market at the position.
If Minnesota has a prospect they like fall to them at No. 23 overall, could they go ahead and get much younger at the position and grant Smith his wish to play elsewhere? Smith won’t return a major draft pick haul, especially if he’s looking for new money, which seems to be the case, but the Vikings have just five total selections and may take any extra ammo they can get while also clearing his money off their somewhat bloated books.
CB Michael Jackson, Seattle Seahawks
Jackson was solid starting opposite rookie Tariq Woolen in 2022 and re-signed with the team as an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, but there’s no question Seattle could upgrade at the position and potentially have a loaded secondary from top to bottom.
With their own first-round pick sitting at No. 20 overall, the Seahawks seem to be in the middle of the range where the second tier of cornerbacks should be flying off the board.
CB Kristian Fulton, Tennessee Titans
Fulton is entering the final year of his rookie contract and has shown flashes here and there when healthy, but he has yet to earn a 70.0-plus coverage grade or reach 750 snaps played in a season. With 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley struggling even more in terms of health and quality of play, perhaps Fulton’s starting spot is safe entering 2023, with the Titans' only notable free-agent cornerback signing being Sean Murphy-Bunting on a one-year, $3.5 million deal.
However, it’s also possible that Tennessee takes a cornerback early for the fourth year in a row after seemingly hitting on Auburn’s Roger McCreary with the No. 35 overall pick last year. Their picks at Nos. 11 and 41 are both interesting spots to target the position. The Titans have thrown a ton of draft and free-agent resources at cornerback over the past several years, so they may not shy away from taking yet another swing.
CB Emmanuel Moseley, Detroit Lions
In a weird way, the trade of former No. 3 overall pick cornerback Jeff Okudah from the Detroit Lions to the Atlanta Falcons has us viewing the No. 2 cornerback job in Detroit as more under threat than before. There are two elite prospects in Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon who would make a ton of sense for Detroit at No. 6 overall, and they would likely pose more of a threat to Moseley’s starting job than Okudah ever was going to.
Moseley’s one-year deal signed this offseason was for a very respectable $6 million, and before his ACL injury early in 2022 he looked like an ascending player, but Gonzalez and Witherspoon may simply be too good to pass up.
CB Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears
There is no question that, when healthy, Jaylon Johnson can be a lockdown outside cornerback in this league; just ask Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Johnson is a physical, in-your-face press cornerback who primarily patrols the right side of the defense, with most X wide receivers lining up to the left of their quarterbacks. Johnson’s 18.4% forced incompletion rate when lined up in press coverage over his first three seasons ranks 15th among cornerbacks. With more consistency and health, he can be a cornerstone of a secondary.
Johnson isn’t going anywhere before 2023, and this isn’t to suggest a draft pick would be taking his spot. The use of an early pick by Chicago on a cornerback may more so be a signal as to whether they view Johnson in their long-term plans or are prepared to entertain life without him in 2024.