Early NFL draft 2023 rankings: Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud lead QB resurgence
There should be more buzz around the passers in the 2023 NFL draft, but the early front-runner to be the No. 1 pick is a defensive standout.
The 2022 NFL draft should be a reminder that attempting to predict the outcome of the annual event a year ahead of time is a fool's errand.
At this time last year, Georgia's Travon Walker was a lightly used backup not in the discussion for the first round, much less the No. 1 overall pick. Breakout seasons from other Day 1 picks in Jameson Williams, Quay Walker and Jermaine Johnson II, among others, further highlighted the folly of trying to forecast one draft right as another ends.
But this year's group also featured talents who earned top draft billing after putting themselves on the radar a season or more ago, including Derek Stingley Jr., Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal. So while determining the exact outlook of a draft class this early might prove impossible, one can get a sense of the overall shape.
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With that in mind, here's our early NFL draft rankings for 2023:
1. Will Anderson, OLB/DE, Alabama
Walker, Thibodeaux and Aidan Hutchinson were widely seen as being a rung below the likes of Myles Garrett and other elite pass rushers from previous years. Anderson, however, appears to be well on his way to reaching that class and would likely have been the No. 1 pick this year had he been eligible. The 6-4, 243-pound edge rusher built a buzz almost as soon as he first took the field for the Crimson Tide, and he elevated his game in 2021 by recording 17½ sacks and 34½ tackles for loss, both tops in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Regardless of whether he is drafted ahead of the highest-ranked quarterbacks next year, Anderson is the most dominant player in college football and has the makings of a future All-Pro.
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2. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
Size questions will undoubtedly dog Young, who's listed at 6-0 and 194 pounds. But the Heisman Trophy winner demonstrated many of the traits that can help teams look beyond a passer's stature. Composed under pressure and consistent from the pocket, Young can be a rhythmic distributor while still showing the capacity to thrive outside of structure. His comfort attacking defenses downfield while still being judicious (only seven interceptions in 2021) underscores a pro-ready skill set.
3. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Proving himself a worthy successor to Justin Fields, Stroud stepped in as the Buckeyes' new starter and became the catalyst of the country's most prolific offense. At his best, the 6-3, 218-pound passer offers plenty of reason to believe he could be the first quarterback taken next April, as he thrives in the deep game. Where Stroud lags behind Young, however, is in his consistency, as his mechanics can be haphazard. Stroud also will have to answer for his processing skills given that his offense routinely yields easy targets for him to capitalize upon.
4. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
Smith-Njigba had already established himself as the Buckeyes' leading receiver ahead of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave before the Rose Bowl, but his 15-catch, 347-yard record performance with Ohio State's two first-round receivers having opted out of the game elevated him to a tier all his own. The 6-0, 198-pound target is a savvy route runner who is adept at creating separation, but he can nab contested catches with ease as well.
5. Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia
A defensive line that lost three first-round talents in Walker, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt somehow has more talent in the pipeline. Despite being part of a loaded rotation along Georgia's front, the 6-3, 310-pound Carter notched 8½ tackles for loss and was credited by the school with 30 quarterback hits, second only on the team to Walker's 32.
6. Bryan Bresee, DT, Clemson
A torn anterior cruciate ligament robbed the former No. 1 overall recruit of all but four games in his sophomore campaign. Expect the full breakout this fall, as the 6-5, 300-pounder is havoc waiting to happen thanks to his formidable strength and agility.
7. Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia
A pick-six to seal the Bulldogs' national title cemented Ringo's place in program history and announced him to a larger audience, but he has more to offer than just his biggest highlight. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, he has the build to smother receivers at the line of scrimmage and the long speed to stick to them downfield.
8. Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame
The latest tight end to be unfairly saddled with the "Baby Gronk" nickname, Mayer has still managed to make a name for himself with his abundant athleticism. In 2021, the 6-5, 241-pound target set school records for receptions (71) and touchdown catches (seven) by a tight end, and NFL teams will be tantalized by his ability to threaten defenses down the seam.
9. Eli Ricks, CB, Alabama
A third-team All-American as a freshman for LSU in 2020, Ricks was one of the most notable players to enter the transfer portal within the last year. In landing at Alabama, the 6-2, 195-pound cornerback seems to have found the perfect space to relaunch his career after a shoulder injury prematurely ended his sophomore campaign.
10. Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU
While his season-ending ankle injury that would later require two surgeries was one of several ailments that sent the Tigers' season sideways, Boutte still managed to reel in nine touchdown catches in six games. Few players can match the 6-0, 190-pound pass catcher's explosiveness as a deep target and a threat after the catch.
11. Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
How high can a running back be taken in the current NFL landscape? Five years after Saquon Barkley went No. 2 overall, Robinson could be a fascinating case study. With a rare blend of power, contact balance and breakaway speed in addition to extensive value in the passing game, the 6-0, 221-pound ball carrier is a big-play threat from anywhere on the field. But Robinson will still face questions of how heavy of an investment a devalued position warrants.
12. Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson
When Bresee went down for the season, Murphy stepped up, recording six of his seven sacks in the Tigers' final six games. At 6-5 and 275 pounds, he already is an elite run stopper.
13. Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah
Things seemed to click somewhere midway through last season for Phillips, who finished the campaign strong with marquee performances in the Pac-12 Championship Game and Rose Bowl. Already a sticky coverage presence with the closing speed to make plays on the ball, Phillips could take another massive step in his development this season.
14. Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Ohio State
In what looks to be a down year for offensive tackles, the top option might be a player who started at guard last year. The 6-6, 315-pound Johnson is taking over for 2022 third-round pick Nicholas Petit-Frere on the blind side, and a strong campaign should set him up to be an early pick.
15. Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama
In transferring from Georgia Tech to Alabama, Gibbs positioned himself to be one of college football's breakout stars this season. An all-purpose threat who tallied 1,211 yards from scrimmage last year, Gibbs already has had his praises sung by Nick Saban, who touted the back's burst and receiving skills after Alabama's spring game.
16. Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern
Much like Rashawn Slater, the Los Angeles Chargers' first-round pick who preceded Skoronski at left tackle, the 6-4, 294-pounder has established himself as one of college football's most efficient and consistent blockers despite lacking prototypical size for the position. The grandson of former Green Bay Packers great Bob Skoronski is no slouch athletically, however, with the footwork and flexibility to keep top pass rushers at bay.
17. Jordan Addison, WR, Pittsburgh
The Biletnikoff Award winner was a major catalyst behind Kenny Pickett's standout season, as Addison's big-play ability (FBS-high 33 receptions of 20-plus yards) fueled the Panthers' attack. The 6-0, 175-pound target was going to be counted on to keep the offense operating at a high level with Pickett and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple both moving on, but recent reports indicated Addison would explore a transfer.
18. Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson
Versatile enough to handle a wide assortment of assignments, the 6-3, 230-pound Simpson should be coveted by NFL teams eager to utilize his attacking style. Playing behind Bresee and Murphy likely will create even more playmaking opportunities for him in 2022.
19. Noah Sewell, LB, Oregon
The youngest brother of Detroit Lions second-year offensive tackle Penei Sewell is built to take down ball carriers rather than open holes for them. Noah Sewell has already shown a knack for blowing up plays behind the line of scrimmage as a blitzer, and he could flourish under Dan Lanning, the former Georgia defensive coordinator and new Oregon coach.
20. Spencer Rattler, QB, South Carolina
After Young and Stroud, the quarterback outlook for next year's class is murky. There's a horde of promising passers who still have something to prove, starting with Florida's Anthony Richardson, Kentucky's Will Levis, Boston College's Phil Jurkovec, Miami's Tyler Van Dyke and Stanford's Tanner McKee, among others. Rattler's inclusion in this list is also rooted in his potential more than his performance, as his missteps last season after being arguably the most touted quarterback for the 2022 class led to his benching at Oklahoma and eventual transfer to South Carolina. Still, if he can get back on track in his development, Rattler exhibits the rapid release, astonishing arm strength and playmaking ability outside the pocket that can help refurbish his draft stock.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.