On top of my usual quarterback scouting, I’ve been pouring over tape looking for any draft-eligible non-quarterbacks who catch the eye. Today I wanted to highlight a few names before going into my QB notes.
It is really, really hard to find legit first round prospects for 2023 but I do think there are players likely to be available on day two or three who can develop into key contributors at the next level.
I’ll produce a horizontal board soon, listing where I think certain players deserve to be graded. It’s very early, so things can still change.
Christopher Smith (S, Georgia)
A productive senior with five interceptions since the start of last season, Smith is an impressive player with starting potential at the next level. He absolutely flies to the ball with superb closing burst and a downfield, attacking mentality. You see him shift from deep coverage to the LOS in no time, shooting to the ball-carrier. He has terrific range on the back-end and can cover ground quickly to reach the sideline to support a cornerback or break on the ball. He has that ‘eraser’ style where he can give the quarterback a look where he feels confident he was a 1v1 on the outside — then he has the speed to react, run and play the ball. He’s generally in the right spot when he needs to be and his play recognition is top-notch. His stock will depend on how well he tests but he’s a very interesting free safety prospect who appears destined to be a starter in the NFL. Right now a second day grade appears reasonable.
Drew Sanders (LB, Arkansas)
This was a fun tape to watch. Sanders is basically a poor-man’s Micah Parsons. He carries a classic linebacker mentality and has punishing hits on tape, has shown he can work through traffic and flow to the ball-carrier and he looks fast and at ease in the Arkansas defense. He splits his time between traditional middle linebacker and edge rusher. Despite not having typical length for the role, you see plenty of quickness and agility. He can bend off the edge, straighten to the QB and he’s very effective as a situational rusher. Sanders also has a great get-off and that works off the edge. He also does a reasonable job to blitz the A-gap. That’s why I think there’s a bit of Parsons to his game. He can be a combo-linebacker who acts as a plus-rusher in certain situations. Parsons was a freakish athlete and Sanders won’t test anywhere near his level — but there’s still plenty to work with. So far in 2022 he has 6.5 sacks, 7.5 TFL’s four QB hurries, two forced fumbles and two PBU’s. So the production is incredible. He ran a 4.65 forty at SPARQ, jumped a 35 inch vertical and ran a 4.31 short shuttle. Sanders also diagnoses plays expertly. There’s clear evidence of him noticing a quick throw to the outside and then right off the snap, rushing straight to the ball-carrier. He’s rarely in the wrong position and does a good job competing along the front seven. He appears to have an old-school mentality with a modern-day profile. I do worry, however, if you try to make him a traditional linebacker whether he’ll be wasted. The team drafting him has to be creative. He transferred from Alabama and has a year of eligibility remaining so he might not declare. Depending on testing, he could be a top-50 type.
Nick Figueroa (DE, USC)
I was really surprised by Figueroa. He won’t be a high pick but he plays with an athleticism and intensity — combined with his size — that would make me want to take a shot at the next level. He’s big and physical, playing with a great motor. He has shown the ability to bend off the edge and straighten to the QB which is impressive given his frame. He has NFL size and he’s just a very active rusher — always moving, always churning the legs. Tackles never get a breather when he’s lining up against them. He plays to the whistle too. Figueroa has powerful hands and can jolt blockers backwards. He’s also a very capable bull-rusher and can drive his blocker inside to create stunt opportunities off the edge. He needs to finish better to get those sack numbers up but for me he’s a player who could be an intriguing project who plays his best football in the NFL.
Tuli Tuipulotu (DE, USC)
Sticking with USC, one of the hardest projections I’ve come across this year is Tuipulotu. Hailed by everyone as the heart and soul of the Trojans’ defense, there’s no denying he’s effective. In a down year for pass rushing in college football he leads the nation with seven sacks. He also has 12.5 TFL’s. I just can’t work out what he is. Tuipulotu is listed at 6-4 and 290lbs but he looks squatty to me — like he’s probably a little bit shorter and maybe doesn’t have great length. That would limit his ability to play defensive end in a 3-4 and he might have to kick inside. It’s not always easy to tell though — bring on the off-season measurements. His tape is a mix of highs and lows. There are plenty of plays where he gets flushed out and even pushed around a bit. Then there are plays where he wins through sheer effort to work to the quarterback and he’s shown an ability to make tackles miss with agility and quickness to bend the arc. His effort is good and I just wonder if he’s someone who could come in and provide a better fit in Seattle’s new scheme at DE and while he might be a bit hit and miss, he’ll flash enough to make an impact.
K.J. Henry (DE, Clemson)
Of all Clemson’s big name defenders, Henry is the one who has impressed me the most this year. He’s an electric edge rusher — so quick and sudden. He can bend brilliantly to round tackles. His initial burst and quickness puts blockers on the back-foot immediately. As an outside linebacker prospect, he has shown the ability to drop in coverage. Henry has always had massive potential as a former five-star recruit but it’s taken a long time for it to shine through. His stat line (one sack, 4.5 TFL’s) isn’t impressive either — yet on tape he just shows up time and time again. He’s more impressive than Myles Murphy for me. According to people in the know, he’s also the emotional leader of Clemson’s defensive unit. He’s more potential than proven production and his NFL future will require some projection. That said, for me he’s firmly in the second round conversation and if he can get those production numbers up and have a great Senior Bowl, he could even sneak into round one.
Mazi Smith (DT, Michigan)
It’s not often you get a fun-factor from watching a 326lbs nose tackle but Smith is quite the watch. You wouldn’t be able to guess his size watching tape because he has a quickness to his game that is unnatural. He also has a terrific swim move and he can create consistent penetration into the backfield even if the sack numbers (only half a sack so far) aren’t there. He also absorbs plenty of double-teams and while he can get pushed back at times (and certainly isn’t the great wall that Jarran Reed was at Alabama) he also has the ability to plant an anchor. He’s a very active player — not a game-wrecker but potentially a plus starter. He was top of Bruce Feldman’s ‘freaks list’ for 2022 and can reportedly jump a 33 inch vertical and a 9-5 broad jump. He’s been clocked running a 4.41 short shuttle and a 6.95 three cone. If he repeats those times at the combine, he will likely be a first round pick.
Jake Bobo (WR, UCLA)
Bobo is likely to be a day three pick depending on how he tests but my advice would be to find a way to get him. He’s 6-5, 215lbs and just such a fluid route runner. He is so precise with his movement, his subtle change-of-direction deceives cornerbacks and he understands how and where to settle down in zone to provide an outlet. Bobo consistently catches the ball away from his body with great technique. He’s an ideal safety valve who can be a third down conversion machine. He also has the size to be a red zone dynamo. He’s shown evidence of quickness and the ability to make people miss — even if his movements are a little bit rigid and certainly I wouldn’t expect amazing agility testing. Another thing he has are long vines for arms that help him high-point the ball to win 1v1’s. Is he quick enough for Seattle, given their need for speed? I don’t care. I think he’ll be a player who is consistent and productive as a third option. UCLA’s triplets of Bobo, Zach Charbonnet and Dorian Thompson-Robinson are all going to provide great value in the draft.
Zay Flowers (WR, Boston College)
Now this was an exciting watch. Flowers’ change of direction is absolutely incredible. It’s like watching a formula one car darting in and out of a chicane. He’s just so sudden and flashes electrifying cuts and the ability to break and create easy separation. With the ball in his hands he’s also creative and very capable of making multiple defenders miss. He’s a joy to watch. He’s also competitive with the ball in the air despite his diminutive size (5-10, 172lbs). He has special qualities. His ability to go through the gears and change direction is unique, I can’t recall seeing anything like this before. He should secure a day two grade with the potential to go higher.
Jaelyn Duncan (T/G, Maryland)
He’s playing left tackle for the Terrapins but he bends at the waist, doesn’t have natural knee flexion to drop and sit and he looks like a player who would benefit from kicking inside. Against Purdue at the weekend he was beat badly off the edge by an impressive sophomore pass rusher. You do see snaps where the feet and hands don’t work together. However, when he gets into position well — he’s athletic enough to stick once he locks-on. His kick-slide is very good and with his size he’s difficult to manoeuvre. Put him at left guard and let him come off the ball and drive at people. Use his athleticism to pull at guard and get up into space at the second level, rather than asking him to mirror elite speed off the edge. I’m not sure we’ll see Seattle’s O-line at its best until they have converted tackles at guard like the Rams use. For me Duncan looks like a day two option.
Ventrell Miller (LB, Florida)
Miller has really impressed me so far this season. I’m not sure he’s going to blow anyone away with his testing (he was a former three-star recruit) but his play has been consistent, effective and he holds Florida’s defense together. He’s also a warrior. He broke his foot against Kentucky and missed the USF game — a contest where Florida’s defense was consistently gashed in the running game (giving up 286 rushing yards). He’s taken pain-killing injections ever since, padded up and things have improved greatly. The Seahawks have repeatedly sought great athletes at linebacker and have focused on speed, agility testing and explosive traits as a priority. Miller isn’t going to run particularly fast or jump high. He might not have the athleticism to be effective at the next level. But what he does is fill gaps, run to ball carriers, play his heart out, do his job and the Seahawks need a lot more of that on defense.
Let’s be realistic about Hendon Hooker
He got a lot of publicity over the weekend after a win against a transitioning, bad LSU. His performance was a mixed bag and some issues (inconsistent accuracy, propensity to miss easy throws while also providing highlight moments) showed up again.
He started the game feeling his way into things with some WR screens. With LSU playing a sloppy first quarter, the Vols didn’t have to exert too much energy to race to a 13-0 lead.
Then with 14:45 left in the first half, he threw a wonderful pass for a long touchdown. It was a beautiful throw, one of the prettiest of the season so far, to the left corner of the end zone. He lobbed it from the 50-yard line with precision and ideal touch and velocity to get in behind two LSU defensive backs and allow the receiver to run right under it. It was a fantastic play and a strong indication of what he’s capable of.
But then there were the issues that haven’t really been discussed this week amid all of the hype.
He didn’t recognise a blitz with 9:51 remaining in the first half, was absolutely hammered sitting in the pocket and fumbled. Tennessee were fortunate a running back reacted quickest to retrieve the ball.
On his next series Hooker then threw two wayward, inaccurate WR screens for incompletions that should be bread and butter throws. He then missed over the middle on 3rd and 10.
In the next series he missed again on another throw down the seam, forcing Tennessee to resort to the WR screens again to try and re-establish some rhythm. Yet the struggles continued. He had a wide open receiver by the left sideline, double-clutched, then threw late and high and missed his target badly. On 2nd and 10 with 15 seconds in the first half remaining, his receiver settled down at the marker needed to get a field goal. I paused the screen and the nearest defender is 10 yards away. All Hooker has to do is throw softly in the general area of his wide open target. Instead he throws badly behind and it’s incomplete. It’s a horrendous throw.
He made amends on his next pass and they got their field goal —- but you can see where I’m coming from with these inaccurate passes.
Hooker started the second half with a nice QB draw for a big gain, then followed up with a touchdown pass on a slant after the covering LSU defender fell over.
He then had an awful fumble deep in his own half on another QB draw where he was loose with the football. Again, the Vols were tremendously lucky that one of their players recovered it. On 3rd and 11, he threw into thick coverage and was fortunate the pass was knocked away rather than picked off.
Overall nothing about this performance changed by opinion of Hooker. LSU were disgustingly poor and he made some good plays, one great play and also had some ugly moments. I still think he’s a player to be drafted in the third or fourth round range to develop and possibly use as a plus backup, rather than someone I’d expect to start in the NFL. He faces Alabama next which should be interesting.
Same old, same old from C.J. Stroud
Statistically people will think Stroud had a major performance against Michigan State. He finished 21/26 for 361 yards and six touchdowns (plus one interception). Yet the same positives and negatives showed up yet again against MSU and their horror show of a defense.
On the positive side — he had a sensational third and long throw downfield, launching off his back-foot and off-platform with no balance, dropping it beautifully into a bucket for an inch-perfect, incredible throw that leaves your jaw dropped. It’s just sensational touch and accuracy.
He also had a couple of really well executed back-shoulder throws for touchdowns to the front corner of the end zone. He seems to like those.
On the negative side — you continue to see the intermediate accuracy issues. He had a horrible miscommunication on his second series leading to a pick-six. Most of the touchdowns were easy against a useless defense.
It’s impossible to deny Stroud’s talent and potential. He can make magic happen. There’s also so much he has to learn and he has to complement the spectacular with the basics. He needs to do the little things well and learn how to properly read coverages, manage an offense, make adjustments and execute with greater consistency — all without the supporting cast he has at Ohio State.
He will go early because of the talent but he’s far harder to project than Will Levis and for that reason, probably ends up being the second quarterback taken.
Anthony Richardson shows off his potential again
Florida’s quarterback again flashed insane physical talent in the win against Missouri. He had a huge run on 4th and 2 to set up a crucial touchdown. He also had an outstanding thrown on the run for a touchdown.
That said, he also stuttered in the first half and had another interception later on (although I think it was a little bit unlucky this time).
I just can’t get out of my head that if Richardson gets time and is developed properly, he could be a superstar. I don’t know if he’ll declare this year but he might be Seattle’s best bet for someone they can realistically get to — then redshirt — and feel good about the long-term investment and upside.
If Levis is destined to be the top pick and if Stroud joins him in the top-three — you’re going to find it hard to move up. Re-signing Geno Smith and selecting Richardson wouldn’t be a bad plan and could set the team up for the long term at the most important position.
BYU’s Jaren Hall sees slump continue
He started the Notre Dame game with an interception on the first snap. Hall feels the pressure and for some reason the ball just comes out fluttering. A total duck and an easy interception.
With 13:04 left in the first half he stared down his receiver to the right hand side, throws an inaccurate pass behind the intended target and it’s a dropped interception that would’ve been a pick six. Awful.
He then takes a horrendous safety in his own end zone. He needed to get rid of the ball and do something other than just stand there waiting to get hit.
Hall finished the first half with eight passing yards.
His first two touchdowns were easy — a red zone conversion to a wide open receiver and a blown coverage.
He had a cice throw to Kody Epps late in the game over the middle — showing good anticipation and placement. He also suffered from a couple of drops that should’ve had DPI flags before each receiver was given a chance to fail to make the catch.
Generally speaking though he was just off for most of the night. Even on a wide open pass in the third quarter, he somehow managed to throw behind his target. In the last two outings Hall has looked nothing like the player who started the season so well. Next he faces Arkansas. He needs a big game there because his stock is slipping.
Tyler Van Dyke has a bounce-back game
Watching the Miami vs North Carolina game made me quite angry. What Mario Cristobal has done to TVD — even in a productive performance — is staggering. He is a shadow of the player we saw at the end of last season.
I say that even after he went 42/57 for 496 yards and three touchdowns. He started really jittery — as we’ve seen a few times. His timing and accuracy was off, he looked nervous. Last season he looked like the man — he came out throwing, dominated opponents and exuded confidence. Cristobal has made him a quivering wreck.
Thankfully he snapped out of it just enough for some of the old magic to return. Some of the typical seam throws and mid-range passes he’s so good at started to connect with accuracy and touch.
He had an amazing touchdown under pressure right before half-time. With a defensive tackle draped all over him, clinging to his leg, he had the strength and wherewithal to somehow get a throw off and find a receiver in the end zone. A magical, creative play.
TVD was virtually flawless on third downs all night and his third touchdown was nicely thrown with lots of flight. He drove the ball into tight windows and he looked a bit more like the 2021 version.
That said — to me it would still be best for him to transfer at the end of the season and go somewhere better in 2023. My shout is still Kentucky to replace Will Levis. Van Dyke has the talent and the ability — but he’s playing in a horrible, conservative offense for a coach who is developing a reputation for making good QB’s underperform.
They’ve also lost three games in a row.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson delivers again
For all the talk about Hendon Hooker and Michael Penix Jr — DTR doesn’t get anywhere near the same attention. Why?
He is playing brilliantly and leading UCLA to an undefeated run stretching into last season.
This was another top performance against Utah. He looks in complete control of the offense. He’s throwing accurately and on time. His arm strength is good and allows him to make plays around the field. When he needs to make a play with his legs he can. He’s showing to be a fantastic point guard.
The only blotch on his copy-book was a late pick-six which was poorly thrown. I have no idea why they were throwing anyway — there were seconds left and the game was won. Run the ball, run down the clock. What were they doing?
Even so — he finished 18/23 for 299 yards and four touchdowns with a QBR of 94.9. He also ran a touchdown in from short range. I also liked his fire on the sideline in this game. He’s leading this team superbly.
I think he’s brilliant and well worth considering in the middle rounds.
I don’t have a problem with drafting a couple of quarterbacks in 2023 — a high pick and a later pick. I’d even be open to adding Taulia Tagovailoa as an UDFA too. It’s a deep class and you might as well take a few shots to find the eventual successor to Geno Smith.
Speaking of Smith, if you missed this earlier, check it out…
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