Two things were certain heading into the 2023 NFL draft: Bryce Young would be drafted No. 1 by the Carolina Panthers, and everything else would be chaos.
Check and check.
The other thing that’s certain now that the draft is over: The AFC South is at the dawn of a new era.
The Jacksonville Jaguars won the division in 2022 after back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2021 and 2022, but the other three teams made significant moves throughout the 2023 draft to close the gap.
The Houston Texans traded with the Arizona Cardinals to make back-to-back picks at No. 2 and No. 3, securing future leaders for first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans on both sides of the ball in Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. The Indianapolis Colts weren’t far behind, drafting Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson at No. 4 overall.
And as for the Tennessee Titans, first-year general manager Ran Carthon made a shrewd move to trade up and snag Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, widely projected to be a first-round pick, with the No. 33 overall selection.
Once alone in their post-rebuild success, the Jaguars look to have competition as the rest of the division adds foundational players.
Some other takeaways from three eventful days in Kansas City:
Quarterbacks bounce back
A year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Kenny Pickett as the lone first-round quarterback and the only one selected in the first 73 picks; but this time around, a stronger quarterback class rebounded in a big way. Led by Young (Panthers), three quarterbacks were taken in the first four picks including Ohio State’s Stroud (Texans) and Florida’s Richardson (Colts). Levis, projected by many draft prognosticators as a top-10 pick, fell to the second round, where he was scooped up by the Titans. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, who also attracted some late buzz as a possible first-rounder, went early in the third round to the Detroit Lions.
Through five rounds, a record 12 quarterbacks were selected — the most in the common draft era. Of those, five quarterbacks were from the SEC, matching a 1971 record for the most quarterbacks taken from the conference in a single NFL draft.
All told, 14 quarterbacks came off the board, more than the nine picked in 2022 but short of the seven-round record of 17 set in 2004.
Though the 2023 class was stronger than the year before, the 2024 class led by USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye is perceived to be even better.
Return of the running back
It turns out some NFL teams do think there’s value to drafting a running back in the first round. A year after no running backs were selected in the first round, two were taken in the first half of the first round, as Texas’ Bijan Robinson went No. 8 overall to the Atlanta Falcons, and Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs followed shortly after at No. 12 to the Lions. It marked the first time that two running backs were selected in the top 12 since Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette in 2017. Meanwhile, the first wide receiver didn’t come off the board until four in a row were taken from Nos. 20 to 23.
Though Robinson had only 19 receptions for 314 yards and two touchdowns to 1,580 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns last season, Atlanta coach Arthur Smith pointed to Robinson’s versatility in explaining the decision to draft him.
“His background, playing in the slot, was another big piece of it,” Smith told local media. “That’s intriguing. We feel he is an explosive weapon, a home run hitter however he gets the football in his hands.”
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Likewise, Gibbs’ versatility was behind the Lions’ decision to draft him at No. 12 after acquiring the pick from the Cardinals in a package that also included the No. 34 overall pick in exchange for the sixth overall pick. ESPN’s Draft Predictor gave more than a 99% chance that Gibbs would be on the board for the Lions’ No. 18 pick, but the organization made the unexpected decision to take him at No. 12.
“He’s bringing a value also in the passing game that’s a large, large value,” Lions running backs coach Scottie Montgomery said. “Then you add that to what he can do from a dynamic standpoint and in the run game, and at the end of the day, it is about value. It’s one of those situations where you looked at it and as [GM] Brad [Holmes] and [coach] Dan [Campbell] looked at it, there was a value that they saw in this young man. There was a value that they saw in him, and we made the decision to go get him.
“That value is on the player and what it can mean for our team. We placed a high value on what he could do for our team from an explosive standpoint, creating more ‘explosives,’ but not being limited to creating those explosives in the running game.”
Both Robinson and Gibbs were surprise picks by their organizations because neither team was perceived as having a glaring need at the position. While the Falcons rushed for 2,718 yards in 2022 — the second most in franchise history — the Lions entered the NFL draft with a running back tandem of 2020 third-round pick D’Andre Swift and David Montgomery, who signed a three-year deal in the offseason. That didn’t stop either organization from pulling maverick moves and drafting a seemingly devalued position. The Lions dealt Swift to the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday to signal their new backfield direction.
“It’s a personal opinion,” Smith said of his choice of Robinson. “I think he is a valuable football player. The impact you can have on your team, that’s the value. The value, the impact he makes, does he help you win games? I mean, there are a lot of guys that can stuff the stat sheet. You can have a lot of receptions, and you are playing a lot of two-minute and getting your teeth kicked in. You can have a great year. You can have 90-something catches and feel really great, but what was your impact on winning? … The impact he has on winning is what we’re really fired up about.”
Fly Dawgs, fly
Eagles general manager — and University of Florida grad — Howie Roseman might have his alumni association membership revoked after the 2023 draft. Not only did the Eagles draft three Georgia players from the Bulldogs’ back-to-back national championship teams, Philadelphia also traded for Lions running back — and, of course, Georgia product — D’Andre Swift early Saturday afternoon.
The Athens lineage was indeed a consideration for the Eagles, according to Roseman.
“When we’re talking about chemistry, when you have guys who are new and coming in and they’re coming into a new environment, a new city, a new football team, now they know people,” Roseman told ESPN’s Rece Davis on Saturday. “They’re not uncertain; they can go to each other and say, ‘Tell me how this works, tell me about the city, where should I live, where should I go,’ a lot of the things that maybe we take for granted when we’re talking about the draft process. … That enhances the chemistry and the culture of our football team, maybe even gives you a head start on that process a little bit.”
Roseman started his run on Bulldogs early when he traded up to No. 9 to grab star defensive tackle Jalen Carter. Then, with the penultimate pick of the first round, the Eagles doubled up with edge rusher Nolan Smith. The Eagles completed the hat trick with cornerback Kelee Ringo in the fourth round. Philadelphia already had two Georgia products on its roster in the 2022 picks of linebacker Nakobe Dean and defensive tackle Jordan Davis. With this weekend’s additions, 6% of the Eagles’ roster played college football at UGA. Philadelphia is the first team in the common draft era to select five defensive players from the same school over a two-year span, per ESPN Stats & Information data.
“I’m sure I’m out of the Florida alumni association,” Roseman told Davis. “And to be fair, our offensive coordinator [ex-Gators OC Brian Johnson] came from the University of Florida, so we do still have some Gator connections.”
The Eagles, though, didn’t get every single Georgia product in the class. The Steelers snagged two in first-round offensive tackle Broderick Jones and fourth-round tight end Darnell Washington, while the Los Angeles Rams drafted a pair of their own Bulldogs: quarterback Stetson Bennett and offensive tackle Warren McClendon.
Ten Georgia players were selected, tied with Alabama for the most drafted players in 2023.
First-round franchise quarterbacks are so 2021. Finding the next starting signal-caller on Day 3 is so much cooler — at least this year. Call it the Brock Purdy effect. In 2022, Purdy went from Mr. Irrelevant to the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback in less than eight months. And after winning all five of his regular-season starts, Purdy helped his team to the NFC Championship Game. He is expected to compete with 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance and free agent addition Sam Darnold for the starting job following a lengthy recovery from a repair of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
After the 49ers’ unprecedented success with the final pick in last year’s draft, other teams are seemingly trying to capture their own piece of the late-round quarterback magic. Eleven quarterbacks were drafted on Day 3, including five in a 14-pick span in the fourth and fifth rounds. Fresno State’s Jake Haener, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett and Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell all went in the fourth round, while Houston’s Clayton Tune and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson were back-to-back selections in the fifth.
Purdy is far from the first late-round quarterback to have success in the NFL; you might’ve heard the name Tom Brady once or twice. But more than one-third of NFL teams took Day 3 swings on the position this year. Some made significant reaches to add quarterback depth, including the Green Bay Packers drafting Penn State product Sean Clifford in the fifth round. The first quarterback added to the Green Bay roster in the post-Aaron Rodgers era, Clifford — who wasn’t invited to the NFL combine — went much higher than projected. He will compete to back up starting quarterback Jordan Love, who is three months younger than Clifford, though both are 24.
BYU quarterback Jaren Hall was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings at No. 164 overall, especially notable after the team opted not to give starter Kirk Cousins another one-year extension this offseason. Stanford’s Tanner McKee was the lone sixth-round quarterback, and TCU quarterback Max Duggan wrapped up the class in the seventh.
Beginners’ luck for new GMs?
Three general managers ran their first NFL drafts this weekend: Tennessee’s Ran Carthon, Arizona’s Monti Ossenfort and Pittsburgh’s Omar Khan. Ossenfort’s draft got off to a rocky start after a self-reported tampering violation just before the Panthers went on the clock with the first pick. Because the team had impermissible contact with first-year coach Jonathan Gannon while he was with the Eagles, the team lost 28 spots in the third round.
But Ossenfort shook it off and was aggressive from the jump, first trading the No. 3 overall pick to the Texans then moving back up to No. 6 overall to snag offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr., a favorite of quarterback Kyler Murray. Ossenfort also put out notice that the team doesn’t anticipate trading wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and the GM filled a glaring need at outside linebacker by grabbing BJ Ojulari in the second round.
Over at the Titans’ headquarters, Carthon overlooked some significant needs by not drafting a wide receiver until the seventh round and not adding any corners, but he might come away with the value pick of the draft by trading up to get Kentucky quarterback Will Levis in the second round. After selecting versatile offensive lineman Peter Skoronski in the first round, Carthon got the No. 33 overall pick from the Cardinals in exchange for the 41st and 72nd overall picks this year and a 2024 third-rounder.
Levis joins Malik Willis as another backup to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is 34 years old and finished last season on injured reserve. Willis, a third-round pick last year, went 1-2 in three starts and finished the year completing 50% of his passes with 276 passing yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions.
And in Pittsburgh, Khan methodically filled all of the Steelers’ major needs, first trading up three spots to draft Georgia tackle Broderick Jones at No. 14 then adding legacy cornerback Joey Porter Jr. with No. 32. And after initially losing his fourth-round pick to move up for Jones, Khan got it back in a trade with the Panthers and landed defensive tackle Keeanu Benton and Georgia tight end Darnell Washington with Carolina’s picks.
Tight end uprising
It’s good to be a tight end in 2023. With the position taking on increasingly large and versatile roles in college offenses, tight ends were a popular pick in the early rounds. The Buffalo Bills took the first tight end, Utah’s Dalton Kincaid, with the No. 25 overall pick, kicking off a historic run at the position. Nine tight ends were selected in the first two days, the most in the first three rounds of the draft since 1967. Five tight ends came off the board in the second round alone, tied for the most of any position in the 2023 second round. Don’t expect this to be an anomaly, either. The NFL takes its cues from college football, and since 2009, the percentage of targets to tight ends in the FBS has steadily increased from 9.6% between 2009 and 2014 to 14.3% in the 2022 season.
Big draft for the Big Ten
The SEC is dead; long live the SEC. Just kidding. The SEC is still producing more NFL talent than any other conference, but the gap is shrinking between the giants and the rest of the Power 5. Though the SEC still led all conferences with 31 selections in the first three rounds, the Big Ten led the way with 20 players taken in the first two rounds — the most ever from the conference in the first two rounds. The Steelers are among fans of the conference, picking up four Big Ten defenders in their first six picks in CB Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State), DT Keeanu Benton (Wisconsin), LB Nick Herbig (Wisconsin) and CB Cory Trice Jr. (Purdue).