The smell of impatience wafted over the early picks in the 2023 NFL Draft even before the Panthers decided last week they were getting the first choice at quarterback.
Carolina’s trade up from No. 9 to No. 1 sent a shockwave through the league because of both the ginormous haul shipped to the Bears and the timing. The deal occurred less than 72 hours before the unofficial start of free agency and just under seven weeks before the draft — the earliest a team has moved the No. 1 pick since at least 1978.
Panthers owner David Tepper has been overt about addressing his team’s long-running QB hole. His aggressive general manager, Scott Fitterer, checked that box — and perhaps set the tone for what’s to come …
Recency bias could be in play with the choice of Stroud over Bryce Young, as the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year rocked the combine with a wildly impressive passing display. There are also ongoing questions over whether teams are cool taking the 5-foot-10 Young if they consider other quarterbacks equally viable. This decision won’t come down to height, but rather the size of the decision-makers’ collective comfort with this massive decision.
Who goes No. 1? C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young or someone else?
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The Texans land a wizard in the pocket and a Heisman Trophy-winning face-of-the-franchise candidate. Perhaps there’s a world in which Houston waits on selecting a passer, knowing there are potential gems in the 2024 class, but all the losing with a lack of hope gets old. Pairing Young with first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans changes that.
Projected trade: Nos. 5, 52, 123 and a 2024 third-round pick to Arizona for No. 3
From the Seahawks’ perspective, Geno Smith’s new contract is about keeping a productive quarterback they know and taking advantage of a down NFC. The long haul is perhaps another story. While Smith leads the way, Richardson can hone his quarterbacking skills off-camera for a season with Seattle re-assessing things in 2024, knowing it can move off Smith’s contract in 2025.
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The two-spot move without surrendering a future first-round pick allows them to have their cake and eat it, too, while avoiding another team jumping them for Richardson.
Whether or not the Colts would be landing on their fourth QB choice, Levis represents Indianapolis’ first young building-block QB since Andrew Luck retired, and without parting with trade assets. The two-year starter at Kentucky with a self-described “cannon” for a right arm is the more immediate fit over the athletically stunning but raw Richardson. Should the Colts’ increasingly impatient owner Jim Irsay or general manager Chris Ballard disagree, perhaps they pursue a trade-up with the Cardinals — or call the Ravens about Lamar Jackson.
This QB-QB-QB-QB start allows the Cardinals to add picks and select arguably this year’s top prospect at 5, something that wouldn’t be in the cards if swapping 3 for 7 with Las Vegas. Anderson, an explosive pass rusher, finished with 34.5 sacks and 62 tackles for loss during his three seasons with the Crimson Tide.
Knowing the corner depth extends deep into the first round and that they have No. 18 as well means the Lions could take a more significant swing here and wait for a pass defender. Or they take a 6-foot-1 corner with 4.38 speed and impressive hops (41.5-inch vertical) who makes plays on the ball. That’s something a defense that ranked 30th in passing yards allowed last season desires.
Not the ideal board for a team that many see drafting a quarterback after releasing Derek Carr. Edge rusher isn’t a primary concern with Maxx Crosby around, but finding a tag-team partner remains a consideration after Chandler Jones’ unimpressive 2022 season. Wilson might go top five if the QB run doesn’t materialize.
Carter’s draft range is unclear following his arrest earlier this month. There’s no debating his pocket-collapsing talent and three-down potential. The Falcons need an upgrade next to Grady Jarrett and more push up front. Atlanta ranked last in the percentage of opponents’ passes resulting in sacks (3.7) in 2022, per TruMedia.
The fun (smart?) move would be going all-in on the ground game by taking Texas RB Bijan Robinson. The Bears could still snag a pass rusher here. Instead, they veer toward protecting quarterback Justin Fields with Skoronski, who played just 21 miles from Halas Hall in Evanston. Affixing the three-year starter at left tackle for the Wildcats and wide receiver D.J. Moore to this offense boosts Fields’ chances of a breakout passing season.
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The Eagles’ needs could shuffle depending on which of their high-priced players remain and which coveted free agents, such as DT Javon Hargrave, return. But they’ll likely lose one of their starting cornerbacks — free agent James Bradberry or Darius Slay ($26.1 million cap hit) — which slants the current thinking that way. Witherspoon skipped combine workouts and last week’s pro day because of a hamstring injury. He’ll have a solo workout on April 5 to confirm his impressive tape.
11. Tennessee Titans: Paris Johnson, OT, Ohio State
Significant upheaval on the Titans’ line means adding big men in front of Derrick Henry and, presumably, Ryan Tannehill. The good news is the board falls perfectly with Johnson, who has experience at left tackle and right guard.
There’s a best-player-available quality to this selection. No advanced degree in roster-building would be required to understand if the Texans provided their new quarterback with a potential WR1, which seems to be a mock draft constant. But viable WRs will be available on Day 2, while the list of pass rushers in the second and third rounds shrinks. Smith, a potential edge-rushing freak whom DeMeco Ryans would enjoy, ran a 4.39 40 and broad-jumped 10-foot-8 at 238 pounds at the combine.
The gap between Jones and Skoronski/Johnson feels greater when speaking with scouts or examining public big boards than it looks in most mock drafts, which often slot the trio in the 7 to 13 range. Regardless, the Jets have a tackle need, and adding a promising prospect here makes sense, regardless of who is under center.
It feels like projecting any wide receiver to the Patriots places a curse on the incoming pass-catcher. Therefore, fingers crossed for Smith-Njigba, who flourished in the agility drills in Indianapolis and would join a team known for productive slot threats. New England will need more at wide receiver if free agent Jakobi Meyers moves on.
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Yes, the Packers don’t take wide receivers in the first round. That’s why this spot originally had Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer as an upgrade/possible replacement for free agent Robert Tonyan. But Green Bay can dip into the TE depth in later rounds. Here, the Packers take a playmaker who had 100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 TDs with Kenny Pickett at Pitt in 2021 before transferring to USC.
Projected trade: Nos. 31, 63, 134, 217 and 2024 fourth to Washington for Nos. 16 and 150
The Chiefs’ front office unearthed viable help throughout the 2022 draft and might determine they want as many turns at bat as possible. But in this case, Kansas City moves some of its 11 selections in this year’s draft for a physical specimen who aced the combine before a drop-off among edge rushers later in the round.
The legacy angle is cool, but the Steelers wouldn’t grab the son of a former star just for headlines. Porter Jr.’s stock might not be as close to Gonzalez and Witherspoon as some assume, per some talent evaluators, but he’ll fit the bill for teams wanting an aggressive press corner.
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18. Detroit Lions: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
Multiple scouts told The Athletic last week they don’t see a dynamic runner such as Robinson slipping outside the first 15 picks despite the devaluing of the position. But there isn’t an obvious team that’s a running back away from contending in that range unless the Eagles dropped from 10. The Lions are run-oriented and might lose free agent Jamaal Williams. Adding Robinson to D’Andre Swift and their other playmakers could take the offense to contender level.
Choosing for the Buccaneers in the post-Tom Brady era would be easier if we knew whether the plan is more of a rebuild or a retool. Addressing the offensive line works either way, and Tampa Bay released starting left tackle Donovan Smith. Tristan Wirfs could be a candidate to move to the left side, opening a spot for Wright on the right, where he was excellent in 2022.
The Seahawks waited on fortifying their pass rush — and possibly replacing free agent Poona Ford — by passing on Jalen Carter. Here, they still land a front-seven prospect whom some mocks have in the top 10.
More help for quarterback Justin Herbert. I debated going with the hulking Darnell Washington as a de facto sixth offensive lineman but instead chose Mayer, the best all-around tight end in the draft. However, all three levels of the Chargers’ defense need help, and this pick could reflect that concern, depending on how L.A. handles free agency.
Cornerback is probably the right call here with Marcus Peters entering free agency and Baltimore’s public fondness for the incoming class. But of course, there is always a receiver need in Charm City. The 6-foot-3 Johnston, the top-rated WR on some boards, is available, and solid corners will be gettable on Day 2, so the Ravens give new coordinator Todd Monken (and maybe QB Lamar Jackson) a new toy.
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Allowing the third-most net passing yards per attempt is one statistical example of why the Vikings’ secondary requires a talent infusion. Banks, a physical 6-foot, 197-pound corner, strengthened his first-round hopes with an all-time athletic showing at the combine, including a 4.35 in the 40 and a 42-inch vertical.
Branch is a plug-and-play prospect with leadership skills and strong instincts. The 6-foot, 190-pounder ran a meh 4.58 40, which might knock him outside the top 20 picks and into the waiting arms of the emerging Jaguars.
Having kept their starting quarterback and running back, the Giants now look for help at a position that required plenty of coaching up last season. The 5-foot-9, 182-pound Flowers makes up for his limited size with exquisite route-running and competitiveness.
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26. Dallas Cowboys: Austin Kincaid, TE, Utah
The temptation to trade up for Robinson and consider releasing Ezekiel Elliott crossed my mind often. But here’s an opportunity to replace free agent Dalton Schultz with the tight end some analysts rank first in this year’s class.
The Bills have more immediate concerns at wide receiver, and Florida guard O’Cyrus Torrence is enticing. But Buffalo’s four leading defensive tackles will be free agents by 2024, including Jordan Phillips this year. Though undersized for the position, Kancey drew attention with Pitt (14.5 sacks over the past two seasons) and at the combine after running a 4.67 40-yard dash, the fastest time for a DT since 2006.
Only Patrick Mahomes ranks definitively ahead of Joe Burrow in any credible quarterback rankings, but keeping the Bengals’ leading man upright remains a problem. Harrison’s ability to play on either the left or the right side gives Cincinnati a chance to use him immediately while seeing if left tackle Jonah Williams can cut back on sacks allowed.
Signing quarterback Derek Carr tackled the Saints’ primary concern. Now they can find a lineman to help tackle ball carriers after New Orleans allowed 130.5 yards on the ground per game in 2022.
Keeping Brandon Graham bolsters Philly’s chances of defending its NFC title, but the deal was for just one year and the Eagles’ D-line is filled with free agents, all in their 30s. It won’t be surprising if a team picking in the teens falls for the bendy and versatile White’s potential.
31. Washington Commanders (from Kansas City): O’Cyrus Torrence, G, Florida
Last year, the Commanders’ first-round trade down netted wideout Jahan Dotson, running back Brian Robinson and potential 2023 starting quarterback Sam Howell. With cornerbacks Gonzalez and Witherspoon and three offensive tackles off the board at 16, Washington goes for a repeat with a more considerable drop. The OL revamping is coming, and the Commanders have options here with the massive but raw Ohio State tackle Dawand Jones or a mauling interior lineman in Torrence.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: Stacy Revere and Justin Casterline / Getty Images)