Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider turned in a surprise pick at No. 5 on Thursday. But Carroll explained his motive. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Behind the curtain: NFL teams reveal how and why of 2023 first-round picks

Even as media misfired and public debates raged about the first overall pick, Bryce Young was No. 1 on the Carolina Panthers’ draft board for more than two months.

C.J. Stroud went second to Houston, standing tall as the precise pocket passer his game film and production indicated and not withering under a barrage of published reports that he scored poorly on cognitive tests and led the Texans into a mindset of waiting for the QB Class of 2024.

Clarity and sanity arrived in hefty doses on Thursday night, bringing insight and hindsight to the mockery of the pre-draft buildup.

We clear the runway with a peek behind the curtain in how the decisions played out in draft rooms.

–Panthers paid price to get Bryce

There was one player the Panthers wanted in the 2023 NFL Draft more than any other. They rated Alabama quarterback Bryce Young as the No. 1 player in the class by a wide margin in pre-combine meetings more than a month before general manager Scott Fitterer executed a trade with the Chicago Bears to gain full control of the board.

“We’re watching film. Scouts are talking about Bryce Young,” Frank Reich said of his first draft meeting as Panthers head coach in February. “And basically, Scott proposes a question at the end of that meeting, like, ‘Hey, so, if we trade up, where’s our conviction?’ And it was unanimous with every guy in that room, starting from Scott on down, that Bryce was the guy. That was great for me to hear.”

Reich knew too, as soon as he logged a few video hours with the clicker watching Young execute the Crimson Tide offense without his frame — 5-foot-10 1/8, 204 pounds — causing issues.

“You just watched the tape. There’s a lot said about the size,” Reich said. “At the end of the day, there are a lot of factors that go into it. But we’re coaches; we’re scouts. We watched the tape. And when you watch the tape, Bryce Young is the best player.”

–Texans not passing, hammer gas pedal to take QB C.J. Stroud

Here’s the thing about negative stories before the draft: Motives aren’t crystal clear. But almost always, a reason can be gleaned for late-arriving negative tidbits cracking draft news cycles. This year, the topic became Stroud’s cognition test scores — the modern-day Wonderlic evaluation — which were debunked by creator and testing company S2 Cognition.

Here’s the other thing: Teams know everything about every player on their board. Area scouts, team security, position coaches, quality control coaches, head coaches, coordinators, personnel directors and general managers all pore over available information, investigate each player’s background and any skeletons that emerge for that player including family, friends and teammates.

By the end of the process, Houston had no problem at all with Stroud, who averaged an absurd 324 yards and 3.4 TD passes per game at Ohio State. He was 21-4 with the Buckeyes.

Texans general manager Nick Caserio attended multiple Ohio State games in person — the Buckeyes had three top-20 picks Thursday — and utilized his area scouts to run their own deep dive into each quarterback in this class.

Stroud helped solidify his pro projection and final draft grade by putting up 41 points against a salty and stubborn Georgia defense in a one-point CFP semifinal loss.

“I knew that if the Texans wanted me, they were going to go get me,” Stroud said. “I don’t care about the outside noise. Even after my playing days, I know I still won’t be perfect. But I’m going to make sure I work my tail off to do the right thing. And you have my word on that for sure.”

–Texans’ 2-step

With 1:30 on the clock and the Arizona Cardinals still interested in a trade partner, Caserio parted with one of his two first-round picks in 2024 and successfully worked a deal to become the first team to draft back-to-back in the top five since Washington selected LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels in 2000. Samuels was an All-American left tackle at Alabama, which transitions nicely into the player former Alabama linebacker and current Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans wanted more than any other in this draft: Crimson Tide outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr.

With 12 total picks, the Texans didn’t even blink or reference “value charts” while pursuing the top defensive player available.

Anderson had 10 sacks last season to finish second on Alabama’s career sacks list (34.5) and tackles for loss (62), trailing only Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas.

“It was an opportunity to get a player we thought very highly of. We knew he wasn’t going to last. We felt that adding him to our football team is something we wanted to do,” Caserio said.

Houston locked in on Anderson before last season, and the deal was sealed when Ryans arrived and felt like Anderson was the player they had to have in the 2023 draft. They met with Anderson three times since January.

Anderson knew the call was coming Thursday night, he just wasn’t sure when.

“The way they want to use me, it’s special. As a 9-technique, rushing off the edge, go get the quarterback,” Anderson said.

–Lucky for the Horseshoe

Indianapolis was chasing quarterbacks, in an order was crystal clear when owner Jim Irsay spoke to the need in a press conference setting in February.

Not many connected the dots between Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Colts general manager Chris Ballard, but perhaps they should have. Ballard is known as a scout who chases traits, and few prospects in this class have them at Richardson’s level. At 6-4, 244, he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and showed off a 37-inch vertical. Only 12 players in the history of the combine have run 4.43 at his weight.

These traits might not shout “quarterback.”

The knocks on Richardson are mostly factual and statistical analysis warranting context. Yes, he has only 13 career starts. But pointing to poor production is only valid when mixing in the footnote he played for multiple coaches and three offensive coordinators with vastly different plans at UF. He’s also the youngest of the prized quarterback prospects in this class.

We don’t yet know if he’s a passer. We know he’s a bull as a ballcarrier, part Cam Newton and elements of Daunte Culpepper.

Can you say potential?

A HR swing by Ballard and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen signals the joined belief they can get Richardson pointed skyward to reach his immense ceiling. Steichen was instrumental in the early success of Justin Herbert with the Chargers and critical to Jalen Hurts’ success with the Eagles.

Neither of those players ever reached 21.2 miles per hour on an 80-yard touchdown run in college.

The affinity for Richardson isn’t recent. Ballard said scout Morocco Brown sent him a text from Gainesville last August touting “the show I’m seeing right now,” and he was observing a 20-year-old Richardson at Florida’s practice. When Steichen arrived, he called Ballard early in his film breakdown of prospects to share what he was seeing with the Gators’ QB and sounded almost exactly like Brown did months before: “there’s not many guys that can do what Anthony Richardson can do.”

“He’s a pretty unique athlete and talent,” Ballard said Thursday.

–Hall of a DB

Troy Polamalu played for Pete Carroll at USC and was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Comparing any prospect to the Pro Football Hall of Fame safety sounds like sacrilege, even when it’s coming from Carroll.

But the parallels between Polamalu and Illinois All-American cornerback Devon Witherspoon are everywhere in Carroll’s trusted and thorough evaluation.

Pre-draft assessments of what the Seahawks might do in the first round almost always miss, so when GM John Schneider used his first top five pick since his Green Bay days on a feisty cornerback, not many saw it coming.

Carroll was finally able to spill a lovefest explanation on Thursday night.

“He’s a rare player,” Carroll said. “Since the years we’ve been here, we haven’t seen a guy like this. We have not drafted corners high just because we haven’t come across a guy of this makeup. It’s his athletic ability, it’s his speed, it’s his playmaking, it’s his mentality. I haven’t come across a guy like this in a long time. The last time I recognized this kind of makeup was back at USC when we had a guy that you guys may know. Troy Polamalu was a guy who had an extraordinary way about the way he played the game, and I saw this connection between what Devon does and how he looks at the game and how he approaches it that just knocked me out.”

Consider us KO’d, too.

–Bears down, and down

Chicago swapped out of the first overall pick in the deal with the Panthers that netted a No. 1 wide receiver, DJ Moore, and a spare first-round pick in 2024.

But when the Bears moved again, sliding from No. 9 to No. 10 in a trade with the Eagles that allowed Philadelphia to select Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, general manager Ryan Poles essentially passed on the top 10 players in the draft multiple times. Already, diehard Chicagoans are fearful the 2023 draft might be remembered for who the Bears didn’t draft.

“I won’t comment specifically on him, but character is always going to be important to us,” Poles said Thursday of passing on Carter, who some rated the No. 1 talent in the draft.

With the 10th pick, Poles, a former NFL offensive lineman, selected Tennessee right tackle Darnell Wright, a 6-6, 335-pound specimen who can also play the left side.

A four-year, 42-game starter, Wright and the Bears have been in close contact for months. He was identified by Alabama pass rusher and No. 3 pick Will Anderson Jr. as the toughest player he faced in college.

Wright played on the Senior Bowl roster of Chicago offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, met with the team’s brass at the scouting combine, visited Halas Hall on a “top 30 visit” and then cemented his status in a private workout attended by Poles and conducted by Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan.

Poles rarely attends private workouts. This was an exception, seeking conviction the day before Easter that Wright was the right choice. Before and after, Poles said he knew that session in Knoxville would be “a really big piece.”

“There’s a mental toughness that you have to have to play this game,” said Poles. “We brought him in deep water to see if he could swim or not, and he accepted the challenge and he showed us the grit and the mental toughness to be able to fight through fatigue and all those things that we look for.”

The plan was to get Wright comfortable on his “home turf” in Tennessee, then make him as uncomfortable as possible with tests of mental and physical endurance. They ran him to the whiteboard to challenge his ability to make calls if a QB or coach changes a call while a playclock ticked down, asked him to draw assignments — his and others — on plays he was given minutes earlier and articulate the basis for his answer. Then they did the same exercise on the field, moving reps faster as if in no-huddle without more than 10 seconds to recover. In between, he needed to decipher the call and verbally explain his assignment.

Lastly, they looked for body language and focus when the well-lathered Wright was ordered through a 10-minute conditioning test.

“He stayed aggressive, finished. Again, that attitude we’re looking for up front,” Poles said. “You’re always looking to be convicted about things, and that was the final box we were able to check and feel good about it.”

Wright recalls the individual workout that cemented his ticket to Chicago from a slightly different perspective.

“He kicked my ass, if we’re being honest,” Wright said. “He wanted to see what I was made of. It was hard, but I didn’t quit. I think he respected that. He put me through the ringer. We were out there working. He just wanted to see if I’d quit, and I wouldn’t quit.”

–Late and often

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is the coupon shopper of draft decision-makers, and he moved down a few spots again Thursday only to come away with Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, the top-ranked cornerback in the class on some boards. New England pocketed an extra fourth-round pick in the deal.

Gonzalez was there at No. 17 after director of scouting Eliot Wolf helped New England work the trade to move down with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who wanted Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones.

“I’d say overall there probably was some surprise that he lasted as long as he did,” Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said. “But we’ve got our players stacked the way we got them. We can’t predict what anybody else is going to do.”

Groh said meeting Gonzalez at the combine and getting more comfortable with him as a person during a “top 30” visit to Foxborough helped solidify his place on the team’s draft board. New England drafted four players from its top 30 list in 2022.

It didn’t hurt to have offensive line coach Adrian Klemm’s input on Gonzalez. Klemm was associate head coach at Oregon in 2022.

“You know you’re getting the truth on the player, good and bad,” Groh said of Klemm’s unique perspective. “There’s that comfort level. Coach Klemm was with Christian, call it eight months, so definitely a great resource.”

Including the 120th pick received from the Steelers on Thursday, the Patriots now have six picks between Nos. 46 and 135.

–Star stopper

Only 11 players were given first-round grades by the Dallas Cowboys, who passed on temptations to move up before a run of four consecutive wide receivers from Nos. 20-23.

Head coach Mike McCarthy was behind the push to add more physical and powerful players in the trenches, and defensive tackle Mazi Smith’s game is all about both. The Michigan standout should step into a significant role immediately and help Dallas patch a defense that ranked 22nd in the NFL against the run (129 yards per game).

“I think we said it earlier, when Mike came in here he talked about building a bigger, stronger, faster football team,” vice president of player personnel Will McClay said. “We have continued to do that, and when you look at Mazi … teams run the football now and you see things change. You look at our division, he’s a guy that can stop that, a guy that adds value to our defense as well.”

–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media

Apr 27, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on stage after he was drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Young drafted No. 1, then Texans pull 2-3 punch

Quarterbacks and Texans were prevalent in the 2023 NFL Draft on Thursday, which began with Alabama QB Bryce Young going first overall to the Carolina Panthers.

Three of the top four picks were quarterbacks, and the Houston Texans shook up the first round by acquiring the No. 3 pick from the Arizona Cardinals. The move ushered in a new foundation for the rebuild in Houston under coach DeMeco Ryans. Arizona traded back up to No. 6 in a swap with the Detroit Lions, who moved to No. 12.

Young is the first Alabama player selected No. 1 since 1948 (Harry Gilmer) and the only Nick Saban-coached player to go first in the draft.

“It’s a dream come true,” Young said. “I can’t be more excited. I’m blessed to be a Panther.”

Houston followed suit. The Texans went with Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud with the second pick and used No. 3 on Alabama defensive end Will Anderson Jr.

Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon went fifth to the Seattle Seahawks, and the Cardinals took Stroud’s blindside protector and Buckeyes teammate Paris Johnson Jr. to play left tackle.

“I’m just here to work,” Johnson said. “When I heard Cardinals, it sent chills through my body. I wanted the Cardinals.”

Texas college products stepped onto the stage and out of the Texans’ Thursday shadow. Texas Tech defensive end Tyree Wilson went No. 7 to the Las Vegas Raiders, who were considered a prime landing spot for Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, before Texas running back Bijan Robinson was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.

The Super Bowl champion Eagles traded a fourth-round pick to move up one spot to No. 9 and drafted Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who will be paired with college teammate Jordan Davis on the dominant defensive front in Philadelphia. Some scouts felt Carter was the No. 1 player in the draft, but his no-contest plea to drag racing charges related to the death of a former teammate and university staffer amplified questions about his maturity and character.

“It’s a lot,” Carter said on stage of his emotions. “It’s time to work. The Eagles got the best player in the draft. Day 1 when I get there, it’s time to work.”

Philadelphia’s trade dropped the Bears, who entered February with the No. 1 pick in the draft, down one more spot before they selected Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright with the 10th pick. Wright could play right tackle or guard, helping bolster a Chicago offensive line that allowed Justin Fields to be sacked a league-high 55 times last season.

The well-traveled No. 12 pick that began with the Cleveland Browns, went to the Texans for Deshaun Watson and was traded to Arizona and then Detroit on Thursday night was a surprise second running back in the top 12, Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs.

The Steelers traded up to get Georgia left tackle Broderick Jones with the 14th overall pick in a run on blockers that included the Tennessee Titans adding Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski at No. 11. Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness went No. 13 to the Green Bay Packers.

–Field Level Media

Apr 27, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. walks the NFL Draft Red Carpet before the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Take 2: Texans acquire No. 3 pick, select DE Will Anderson Jr.

Three picks into the 2023 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans had already overhauled their roster.

The Texans selected Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the third pick in the draft on Thursday, giving the Crimson Tide two players among the top three picks.

Houston acquired the No. 3 pick from the Arizona Cardinals moments after selecting Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud with the second pick, becoming the third team in the common draft era (since 1967) to have two picks in the top three.

“It means they see how special I am,” Anderson said on the stage Thursday of what it means that the Texans moved up to draft him. “You won’t regret it.”

The Texans acquired the No. 3 pick and a fourth-rounder (No. 105 overall) from Arizona in exchange for Nos. 12 and 33, plus a first-rounder and third-rounder in 2024.

The last draft-day trade of a top-five pick was at No. 2 overall. In 2017, the Chicago Bears moved up one spot in a deal with the San Francisco 49ers to select North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

The 49ers received the third, 67th and 111 picks in the 2017 draft and what became the 70th pick in the 2018 draft. Trubisky led the Bears to one playoff appearance but has been on three NFL teams with a one-year stop in Buffalo. He’ll be a backup for the Steelers in 2023.

New Orleans acquired the 67th pick in 2017 from the 49ers and selected Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara.

The No. 3 pick was moved in a draft-day trade in 2013, when the Miami Dolphins moved up for Oregon pass rusher Dion Jordan. The Raiders received the 12th and 42nd picks from the Dolphins. Oakland (now Las Vegas) drafted Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden (No. 12) and Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson.

Head coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort loathe the term “rebuilding” to describe the state of the Cardinals, who lost nine of their final 10 games in 2022 and finished 4-13. The nosedive from 2021 NFC West division title (11-6) and playoff appearance to a top three draft pick resulted in a new braintrust leading the organization in January.

Pass rush was a stated need for the Cardinals. J.J. Watt retired after leading the team with 12.5 sacks last season and Zach Allen left to join the Denver Broncos in free agency. He was second on the roster with 5.5 sacks last season and accumulatively, the Cardinals were 27th in QB pressures according to Pro Football Focus.

Gannon ran the defense of the Philadelphia Eagles and prioritized the front four. The NFC champions in 2022 broke the record for sacks in a season, playoffs included, with 77 (69 in the regular season). Arizona had 76 total sacks in 34 regular-season games the past two seasons; 36 in 2022.

–Field Level Media

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) and Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith (4) run a drill during UGA Pro Day in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

News Joshua L Jones

2023 NFL Draft: Top 5 prospects by position

Ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, Field Level Media draft analysts ranked the top five prospects at every position.

Quarterback
1. Bryce Young, Alabama
2. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
3. Anthony Richardson, Florida
4. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
5. Will Levis, Kentucky

Running back
1. Bijan Robinson, Texas
2. Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama
3. Zach Charbonnet, UCLA
4. Tyjae Spears, Tulane
5. Devon Achane, Texas A&M

Wide receiver
1. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
2. Quentin Johnston, TCU
3. Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee
4. Jordan Addison, USC
5. Zay Flowers, Boston College

Tight end
1. Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
2. Dalton Kincaid, Utah
3. Darnell Washington, Georgia
4. Sam LaPorta, Iowa
5. Luke Musgrave, Oregon State

Offensive line
1. OT Paris Johnson, Ohio State
2. OT Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
3. OG O’Cyrus Torrence, Florida
3. OT Broderick Jones, Georgia
5. OT Darnell Wright, Tennessee

Defensive line
1. DE Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
2. DT Jalen Carter, Georgia
3. DE Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech
4. DE Lukas Van Ness, Iowa
5. DE Myles Murphy, Clemson
5. DT Bryan Bresee, Clemson

Linebacker
1. Nolan Smith, Georgia
2. Jack Campbell, Iowa
3. Drew Sanders, Arkansas
4. Trenton Simpson, Clemson
5. Henry To’oTo’o, Alabama

Cornerback
1. Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
2. Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
3. Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
4. Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State
5. Kelee Ringo, Georgia

Safety
1. Brian Branch, Alabama
2. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
3. Sydney Brown, Illinois
4. JL Skinner, Boise State
5. Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State

–Field Level Media

Mar 23, 2023; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  Quarterback Bryce Young uses balls to help him loosen up during Pro Day at Hank Crisp Indoor Practice Facility on the campus of the University of Alabama. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News

Ncaa Football University Of Alabama Pro Day

QBs, uncertainty at the top bring drama to 2023 NFL Draft

Quarterbacks are the storyline entering the 2023 NFL Draft and atypical uncertainty at the top adds a layer of drama for the festivities in Kansas City on Thursday.

Carolina has been on the clock unofficially since executing a trade for the No. 1 pick with the Chicago Bears in March. The Panthers flooded pro day workouts of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the draft class and dined with each of the four passers thought to be worthy of consideration in the top 10.

“There is consensus,” Panthers head coach Frank Reich said of Carolina’s front office, coaching staff and ownership agreeing on which QB will be No. 1.

Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer are reportedly leaning toward Alabama’s Bryce Young over Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson.

Media reports have purported each of those four to be in the mix in the top two picks since the scouting combine wrapped up in March.

As per annual tradition, teams are clamoring for the franchise centerpiece at the position with the Houston Texans (picks No. 2, 12), Indianapolis Colts (No. 4), Seattle Seahawks (No. 5), Detroit Lions (No. 6), Las Vegas Raiders (No. 7) and Atlanta Falcons (No. 8) in line to potentially draft a player at the position as their long-term solution.

Arizona owns the No. 3 pick and last year committed to Kyler Murray with a five-year extension that sets up the Cardinals with the option to wheel and deal to move down, or select one of the top defensive players: Alabama defensive end Will Anderson, Texas Tech defensive end Tyree Wilson or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

“If a trade makes sense and it’s the right decision for our team at the time, then we’ll do it,” said Cardinals GM Monti Ossenfort, who took over the post from Steve Keim in January.

Recent history shows a warning label for teams certain this draft is the first step in a QB turnaround. Quarterbacks were drafted with the top three picks in 2021, when Trevor Lawrence went first to the Jaguars followed by Zach Wilson (Jets) and Trey Lance (49ers). Lawrence led Jacksonville to the playoffs last season, but Wilson and Lance are viewed as backups on their current team depth chart after failing to nail down the No. 1 job.

In 2021, 2018 and 2011, quarterbacks flavored the first round with at least four picks used on quarterbacks in the top 15.

Young would be the third first-round pick drafted out of Alabama since the Miami Dolphins started the run by selecting Tua Tagovailoa (fifth overall) in 2020.

If the Panthers pull a surprise, the Texans would likely consider Young with the second pick. New head coach DeMeco Ryans played at Alabama and general manager Nick Caserio was an undersized college quarterback before breaking into scouting with the New England Patriots.

Young’s size — 5 foot 10, and he weighed 204 at the combine — isn’t near the prototype or accepted standard in the NFL. Fitterer insists he doesn’t care about height, weight or hand size as much as media types might imply. Fitterer was a member of the Seahawks’ scouting staff when Seattle used a third-round pick on a 5-foot-11 quarterback from Wisconsin who turned out alright by franchise standards.

“When Russell Wilson came out, he had three balls batted down his senior year; Bryce had two,” Fitterer said. “It doesn’t seem to be an issue. When you grow up a shorter quarterback, you learn how to evolve your game and adapt and see the field, and he’s done that.”

Carter deals with no questions about his size. The enormous defensive tackle has light feet, quickness and rare power on the move, a package that helped elevate his status during his junior season with the Bulldogs. But off-the-field questions about maturity and accountability were amplified in February when an arrest warrant for drag racing caused him to leave the scouting combine.

Carter entered a “no contest” plea to charges related to the incident that involved the fatal crash of a teammate and Georgia staffer on Jan. 15. He also showed up to his pro day nine pounds heavier than his combine weight and opted out of multiple drills.

Seattle and Detroit, who both have multiple first-round picks Thursday, are rumored to be the two teams most likely to roll the dice on Carter’s upside.

“Yeah, he came in and he did a nice job,” Lions general manager Brad Holmes said. “Yeah, again, it’s always case-by-case. (He) came in, enjoyed our time with him, he did a nice job. I’ll say, even after we had our visit, I felt better on him.”

Just 31 picks will be made Thursday during the first round, a result of the Miami Dolphins losing their pick as punishment for owner Stephen Ross tampering with coach and quarterback candidates who were under contract.

As a result of past trades, four other teams don’t have a first-round pick in the draft: the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams.

–Field Level Media

Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Devon Witherspoon (31) was a zero-star recruit out of high school. Will he be the first DB drafted in 2023? Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

NFL draft position series: Defensive backs

Cover men are in high demand, and the ability of defensive backs to counter multifaceted offenses has never been more coveted.

Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon and Alabama safety Brian Branch are consensus top-15 players in the 2023 class, but depth is far better at corner, where eye-of-beholder applications based on scheme bump the value of Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr.

Multiple defensive backs were selected in the top 10 in three consecutive drafts. The first corner off the board in 2022, Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner, landed with the New York Jets and turned in an All-Pro, Defensive Rookie of the Year season.

Here’s a look at this year’s cream of the crop in the secondary.

1. Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois
Projected Pick: 6

If prospects were ranked based solely on their competitive grade, Witherspoon has a case to be No. 1. At 5-11, 184, he hits with a sting and clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash showing he’s got more in his bag than will. His raw technique is a result of being newer to the game, having logged just two seasons of high school football and starting fulltime two seasons at Illinois. A worker bee with a prove-it mentality, teams might worry about his physique (170-pound range at U of I) and below-average bulk, but only until they invest in enough film to see he’s never limited by his frame.

2. Brian Branch, S, Alabama
Projected Pick: 15

With apologies to Gonzalez supporters, we’re giving a slight value edge to Branch as a hybrid or flex defensive back.

Training under Nick Saban for defensive backs might be akin to a writing group with Hemingway or Sailing 101 with Magellan. Branch can do a little bit of everything and serve as a spare cornerback in big nickel or dime defense to bring versatility to schemes but is at his best in the middle of the field or in the slot. He’s quick but not a blazer running straight-line angles over the top. Like Witherspoon, Branch isn’t huge and teams that want primitive sledgehammers at safety might opt to pass and look to Boise State’s 6-4, 210-pounder JL Skinner.

3. Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Projected Pick: 10

There are a half-dozen cornerbacks with 4.3 40-yard dash times likely to be selected in the top 100 picks. Gonzalez separates himself from all but Georgia’s Kelee Ringo (one of our top underrated CB prospects in this draft) with arm length, height, age (not yet 21) and that 41.5-inch vertical. Recruited as a safety and attended Colorado first, he developed rapidly into a cover man opponents didn’t test with the Ducks. His combination of skills equates to shutdown potential. Gonzalez has the natural tools to erase most of his youthful mistakes in coverage. Only two serious and meaningful questions are left for GMs: Will he tackle consistently and can he add strength to fill out a wiry frame?

4. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
Projected Pick: 17

Loquacious QB hunter Joey Porter, feared pass rusher formerly of the Steelers, Dolphins and Cardinals, raised one lean, mean defensive back to the surprise of absolutely no one. Dad might now be “gramps,” but the little Porter is clamps. He’s 6-2, 195 and defends receivers in coverage as if they swiped his cell phone. A jam at the line is guaranteed — Porter has the length of a pass rusher, a confirmed wingspan of more than 80 inches — and closing speed to be used in blitz packages or convert to safety. He steers speed receivers off of the route plan consistently and was part of the reason he became difficult for quarterbacks to challenge as they moved to secondary reads. When he gets beat, Porter tends to grab or fall behind too far to recover, raising open doubt regarding his feet in zone schemes.

5. Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State
Projected Pick: 19

There are too many almosts in the scouting report for Forbes to be considered much higher than No. 20 overall. He’s almost 6-1, almost 170 pounds and almost too fast and feisty to still be on the board in the second round. Teams and schemes that covet nickel cornerbacks will be most attracted to Forbes because of his ball skills and rare speed. He covers 10 yards in 1.47 seconds and 40 in 4.36 and had 14 career interceptions (six in 2022) in three seasons with 34 starts at Mississippi State. Not scared or intimidated, he also had five picks as a true freshman starter in the SEC. He’s also hard to hide in the running game. Atypical arm length for his height is the only thing that might keep Forbes alive in head-on collisions with big NFL running backs.

SECOND-ROUND TARGETS
6. Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia: Repeating our belief Ringo is a first-round talent, he’s a cookie-cutter fit for a few teams who’ll value that the 20-year-old is already an elite athlete but needs pro coaching to meet his immense ceiling.

7. Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland: A starter since his true freshman season, Banks has track speed and isn’t shy on muscle, but will he catch it? Just one interception since 2019.

8. Antonio Johnson, S, Texas A&M: Box safety with a linebacker mentality, Johnson held up covering the flat and as a slot defender for the Aggies.

9. Jordan Battle, S, Alabama: Bigger and more physical than his teammate and tandem safety Brian Branch, Battle is more awareness, brains and instincts. Can be physical and won’t get you beat.

10. Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah: Playmaker in HS as a receiver and defensive back was a top recruit and nearly went to Ohio State. Three-year starter (31 games) at Utah is entering NFL after junior season. The 184-pounder was the top bench press performer at the combine (18 reps of 225), 2022 team captain for the Utes and returned two of his Pac-12 best six interceptions last season for TDs.

–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) is the right choice at No. 1. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

NFL draft position series: Quarterbacks

For the 27th time since 1967, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft will be a quarterback. Which one, the Carolina Panthers aren’t quite ready to say.

General manager Scott Fitterer, groomed under John Schneider and the Seahawks’ scouting department when third-round pick Russell Wilson proved to be solid gold in relative draft terms, has been down the road before in Carolina, too.

Fitterer is under orders from Panthers’ ownership to find the franchise quarterback by any means possible. He swung a trade with the Chicago Bears in March to move up from the No. 9 spot to be “able to control it from the top.”

Until the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Travon Walker No. 1 in 2022, a four-year run of quarterbacks at the top produced mixed results. Trevor Lawrence (2021, Jaguars) and Joe Burrow (2020, Bengals) are already playoff quarterbacks — Burrow a Super Bowl runner-up with two AFC Championship game appearances — and Kyler Murray (2019, Cardinals) and Baker Mayfield (2018, Browns) have also been to the postseason but with less consistent results. Mayfield had a layover in Carolina last season in a trade with the Browns and begins a tour with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2023 representing his fourth stop since the end of the 2021 season.

The Panthers aren’t the only team thirsty for a fixture at the position. The Houston Texans (No. 2, No. 12), Indianapolis Colts (No. 4), Seattle Seahawks (5), Detroit Lions (6), Las Vegas Raiders (7) and Atlanta Falcons (8) all hosting top quarterback prospects in this class and could take a swing at replenishing the depth chart in the first round.

There have been five drafts in which four quarterbacks were chosen within the top 15 selections, including 2021 and 2018.

With demand as high as ever, here’s a review of the 2023 draft supply at quarterback:

1. Bryce Young, Alabama

Projected Pick: 1

Power Points: Young’s size and weight (5-10 1/8, 204 pounds) invite durability questions even without an injury history because he’s a far cry from the prototype at the NFL’s most important and challenging position. While there are exceptions, there are also injury incidences with each of the most prominent “small” quarterbacks, from Murray (torn ACL in 2022), Mayfield (multiple injuries in 2020, 2021) or retired Drew Brees (separated shoulder) that might give a team pause. But Wilson, who measured half an inch taller than Murray at 5-10 5/8, has never had a major injury and Mike Vick’s playing style at 6-0, 199 pounds was a hazard.

Young missed one of his possible 37 career games at Alabama (2022, sprained shoulder).

Scouts love the mental makeup that helps Young thrive. He already carries himself like a professional and the type of posterboy personality and humble leadership team ownership and fan bases can firmly stand behind.

Groomed for success at California’s high school quarterback factory — Mater Dei HS in Pasadena, which produced Matt Barkley and Matt Leinart plus current Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown — Alabama coach Nick Saban called him an “all-time leader” and his college production speaks in exclamatory terms: Young had 80 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions as Crimson Tide quarterback, and he left Tuscaloosa as a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion.

Last Word: He’s not the only QB in the 2023 draft, but he’s definitely the one.

2. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Projected Pick: 4

Precision decision: Another California kid, Coleridge Bernard (C.J.) Stroud IV nearly rode a late rise on the recruiting circuit to Georgia, where he could’ve dramatically shifted the Stetson Bennett storybook ride in Athens. He had clipboard duty behind Justin Fields as a redshirt in 2020 and then was a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, claiming the silver football for tossing 85 total touchdowns and 12 interceptions and completing an insane 69.4 percent of his 830 pass attempts. Bigger than Young but by no means bulky at 6-3, 210, Stroud looks like a wide receiver in street clothes but also missed just one college game (shoulder).

His right arm is more of a precision tool than a cannon, but he can make all the throws. There’s a poetry to Stroud’s dropback and release and his ability to parachute the ball over coverage down the field and place it on the target in traffic stands as the eye-catching NFL QB trait that gets him drafted. He bears no similarity to Fields as an athlete in or around the pocket and speed rarely shows up with defenders in pursuit. Potent as a sniper in the pocket, Stroud won 21 games in 25 starts in two seasons and had better per-game averages than Burrow (LSU record 305.9 yards, 2.8 TD passes per game) with 324.9 and 3.4.

Last Word: An incomplete quarterback, but Stroud stands out as the best pure passer in this class.

3. Anthony Richardson, Florida
Projected Pick: 7

Delta, Bravo: Deciphering whether Richardson is the second coming of Cam Newton or an athlete with superhuman arm strength brings the inexact science of scouting under the microscope. All of the positives are scintillating. He’s bigger than most linebackers and faster than many wide receivers at 6-4, 245 with a 4.43 40 time. Testing ball speed on short and long throws is John Elway-like, and the right coaching staff couldn’t help but picture the man child in a Jalen Hurts-type role operating a system revolving around RPOs. A believable follow-me personality who takes ownership of his inconsistency at Florida, there’s a maturation and humility to Richardson balanced by the open desire to collaborate and yearning to improve. Teammates will follow Richardson.

Then there’s the tiny devil on every general manager’s shoulder poking the play button on his 33 percent completion night at Florida State or perhaps a skidding 5-yard pass with a receiver running clean on a 10-yard crosser. Less production means more projection, a hope for the best type of proposition filed under make-a-wish items that cost GMs jobs. Three games into the 2022 season, Richardson had five interceptions before his first TD pass (41 of 77). There’s a strong argument he failed his two stiffest tests of NFL-readiness in starts against pro-prospect packed Georgia that were borderline disastrous.

2022 (42-20 L)
— 18 comp 37 att 271 yards 48.6 comp % 1 TD 0 INT 78 long 3 sacked 11 rushes 19 yards 1.7 avg 0 TDs 14 long

2021
— (34-7 L)
— 12 comp 20 att 82 yards 60.0 comp % 0 TD 2 INT 18 long 2 sacked 12 rushes 26 yards 2.2 avg 0 TDs 9 long

In fairness, Young wasn’t his best vs. Georgia in a second game facing the Bulldogs in 2021: four sacks, two interceptions but 369 yards in the 33-18 national championship game defeat. He carved up the same defense in the SEC title game (four total TDs, 421 yards passing, zero sacks and no picks) five weeks prior.

When considering a “bust” factor, scouts arguing Richardson isn’t ready, might never be the total package, or needs years of training could be proven correct.

Counterpoint: What if he hits the NFL runway with all of the unicorn athlete natural tools, bundled promise and drive displayed over the past year and takes flight?

He’s just 20 years old and started only 13 games in college. Scouting buzzwords — potential and upside — are insufficient to properly emphasize the reach of Richardson’s ceiling as an NFL quarterback.

Last Word: One GM, likely in the top 10, stakes his job — and perhaps his head coach’s, too — on the educated and researched, convicted and cross-examined opinion that Richardson’s undeniable elite athleticism and potential accumulatively equal not only starter material, but star status. And he might be right.

–Best of the Rest

4. Will Levis, Kentucky
Projected Pick: 11
Only two starts and a redshirt season at Penn State pushed Levis to Kentucky, where he became a team captain because somehow his Wildcats teammates forgave his sinful indulgence of mayonnaise in his coffee (just once, he says). Quirky, confident and built for the part of pro quarterback, Levis lands in the NFL at more of a developmental stage facing the same type of test and steep expectations and learning curve that sat former first-rounders Jake Locker (Titans), Christian Ponder (Vikings) and Josh Rosen (Cardinals) on their rears. There are some similarities to Ryan Tannehill and Carson Wentz, untamed athletes who’ve experienced highs and lows in multiple stops in the pros after being drafted too high. To that end, Levis was under constant pressure from the pass rush at UK (nearly 30 percent of his pass-play snaps in 2022), a fault not entirely his own, and there are other signs he’ll need a high number of reps before stepping into a starting role.

5. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Projected Pick: 18
Barring a torn ACL 11 games into his sixth college season and relatively advanced age (25), the former Virginia Tech quarterback might have been in the conversation as the top arm in the ’23 class. There are some decision-makers who believe he’ll be the best of the bunch. For Hooker to take off, he’ll need a built-to-suit offensive system and patience as he returns to health and evolves to a pro scheme.

–Second- and Third-Day Shopping List

6. Jake Haener, Fresno State
7. Aidan O’Connell, Purdue
8. Clayton Tune, Houston
9. Tanner McKee, Stanford
10. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA

–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media

Nov 12, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Miami Hurricanes cornerback Tyrique Stevenson (2) intercepts a pass against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second half at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

2023 NFL Draft: Buy-now prospects not getting enough attention

All of the names at the top of the draft are household variety by now, but there is star power beyond Bryce Young, Will Anderson Jr. and Bijan Robinson.

Scouting departments work diligently in the buildup to draft day to protect their favorite underappreciated and underrated prospects from stirring up attention.

Here are our picks for players with impact potential who might not be prominent on the public radar until they take off on the field.

Jake Haener, QB, Fresno State
Because he’s 5-11 and doesn’t run in the 4.4s, Haener won’t get a lot of attention. A gamer by every definition, he has a strong, accurate arm and quick release without showcasing any truly elite traits. An underdog backup who will be embraced by teammates and be capable of winning games, if not start the dreaded QB controversy with the type of play fans generally embrace.

Nick Hampton, OLB, Appalachian State
Hampton is unlikely to be a first-round pick due to his limitations as a scheme fit, but for a team looking for a 3-4 outside linebacker who can rush the passer, he’s a perfect match. He may be slender, but he’s an elite athlete with bend, balance and body control to go with special speed and a finely tuned pass-rush plan.

Andrei Iosivas, WR, Princeton
All-Ivy League in track and the conference leader in receiving in 2022, Iosivas had 16 career TD catches and has potential as a red-zone target. At 6-3, he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and posted a 39-inch vertical at the combine.

Marte Mapu, OLB-S, Sacramento State
He’s 6-3, 220 and has a nose for the ball with seven career interceptions. But even as the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, he also arrives largely untested and coming back from a torn pectoral muscle in February. Some of the same questions followed Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn into the NFL, but he’s been more than solid for the Carolina Panthers since being drafted in the second round (64th overall) in 2020.

Luke Musgrave, TE, Oregon State
Athletic freak with legitimate 4.5 speed, Musgrave was studied closely by scouts after missing most of his senior season due to injury. He showed at the Senior Bowl there’s plenty of reason to expect him to make noise in the NFL.

Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Miami
Once a top Georgia recruit, Stevenson could be viewed as a safety by some teams because of a lack of polished technique that will be exposed by more precise route runners. At cornerback, has the size and speed to take off if he responds to NFL coaching.

Tuli Tuipulotu, DT/DE, USC
A stand-up rusher for the Trojans with first-step quickness to win off the edge, he lacks agility and bend and isn’t quite big enough to hold up as an interior lineman. In the right scheme, there’s potential for serious production.

Felix Anudike-Uzomah, DE, Kansas State
With no true “wow” moments on his game tape, the limited buzz is understandable. But consistency can’t be understated. He’s a sturdy run defender who uses his hands efficiently, plays with leverage and knows how to work through blocks.

–Field Level Media

Dec 31, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) and defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) celebrate after a victory against Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2022 Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

2023 NFL Draft: Red flag alerts

No stone unturned would undersell the level of detail teams uncover on prospects in the year leading up to their draft eligibility.

NFL front offices use their scouting staffs and security details to become prospect investigators during the evaluation process.

As one general manager put it, “We know about your first girlfriend and your last girlfriend, if you were a good teammate, love the game and what you eat for breakfast.”

Interviews at the Senior Bowl, Scouting Combine and other campus visits or phone calls with teams serve as tools to compile a complete profile of every player on the draft board for all 32 clubs.

In some cases, these details complete a puzzle that leads to an owner or front office deciding to remove a player from their draft board.

Below are players with “red flags,” or known off-field markers teams are weighing before the April 27 draft.

1. Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia: Reports of teams questioning Carter’s maturity percolated before a very public exit from the combine to turn himself in to police who secured an arrest warrant for the misdemeanor charge of reckless driving and racing following his involvement in the January 2023 fatal car accident resulting in the deaths of Georgia teammate Devin Willock and team staffer Chandler LeCroy. Carter pleaded no contest. He agreed to a deal with 12-month probation, a $1,000 fine, 80 hours of community service and the mandatory completion of a driving course. Teams will do their own work to determine Carter’s culpability, evaluate his maturation and decide if he can become a professional. The other piece of the picture is clear-cut: Carter is arguably the best defensive player in the class, virtually unblockable and a disruptive and dynamic talent who has only one year of starting experience.

2. Stetson Bennett IV, QB, Georgia: No denying Bennett’s underdog story and success on the field deserves the headline attention it garnered, but NFL teams aren’t easily swayed by media attention. Recent reports indicate some teams have given Bennett a grade outside of the seven rounds in the draft. But his resume is clouded by a poor pre-draft process. He turned down an invitation to the Senior Bowl and soon after was arrested for public intoxication. The 25-year-old might have won over some with his senior season and generally showing remorse at the combine, but questionable off-field decision-making is a death knell for quarterbacks.

3. Brenton Cox, DE, Florida: Booted from the Georgia program heading into the 2019 season, Cox performed admirably on the field at Florida. But his off-field issues resurfaced in Gainesville and he was again sent packing. He has draftable talent but faces questions from scouts likely to take Cox off the board or place him on a very short leash in prove-it mode.

4. Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU: Boutte stayed put prior to the 2022 season despite rampant rumors he was entering the transfer portal. He again went against reports that implied he’d be back for his senior season and swiftly reversed course to enter the draft. Teams will want explanations and could have additional reservations after his 2021 injury seemed to limit him in 2022.

5. Mazi Smith, DT, Michigan: Smith was a team captain at Michigan and multiple coaches in and around the program vouch for his approach, but an October arrest for carrying a firearm without a license will have teams digging. He was not suspended, the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, and best case for his NFL chances is apologizing for the one-off incident and not allowing it to spark a pattern of poor behavior.

–Field Level Media

rkansas Razorbacks linebacker Drew Sanders (42) tackles Liberty Flames quarterback Johnathan Bennett (11) in the second quarter at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

On the clock: San Francisco 49ers draft preview

The 49ers can’t fully sort out their 2023 quarterback situation until Brock Purdy’s recovery from elbow surgery is further along. If the undrafted Purdy isn’t progressing, former first-round pick Trey Lance could regain the starting gig while Sam Darnold will be in reserve.

Purdy injured the arm in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that left the 49ers one win shy of the Super Bowl. If the 49ers draft a quarterback in the third round of the NFL draft, that will be a tipoff that team brass is concerned about Purdy’s passing wing.

San Francisco bolstered the defensive line by signing tackle Javon Hargrave (formerly of the Eagles) in free agency. The 49ers will certainly be looking for more talent for the defensive front as general manager John Lynch felt the quality of the line dropped off last season despite end Nick Bosa (NFL-high 18.5 sacks) having a sensational season.

But there won’t be any big splash forthcoming on draft day as the 49ers will be spectators for most of the first three rounds. They will experience a brief busy spell late in the third and hit another gear for the final three rounds.

San Francisco received a league-high seven compensatory picks to bring its total count to 11. Lynch is just fine with the setup.

“Not sure I’d be thrilled about having a bunch of early picks,” Lynch said. “It feels like there’s not much differentiation from the top guys to the middle guys, there’s a lot of good players.”

Barring a trade, the 49ers’ first action will come with three choices in four picks — Nos. 99, 101 and 102.

The defensive backfield as well as receiver and offensive line will be among the targets.

TEAM NEEDS
1. S: Jimmie Ward departed in free agency and the 49ers figure to use one of their three third-round choices on a safety. Ohio State’s Ronnie Hickman and Illinois’ Jartavius Martin could be possibilities.

2: OL: Tackle Mike McClinchey departed to the Denver Broncos as a free agent and San Francisco signed C-G Jon Feliciano and T Matt Pryor. Adding a couple more linemen during the festivities appears to be a safe bet.

3: RB: Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell are a fine 1-2 combo if they stay healthy. Fifth-round possibilities could include Illinois’ Chase Brown, East Carolina’s Keaton Mitchell and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim.

2023 DRAFT PICKS
Round Pick (Overall)
3. 36 (99) compensatory
3. 38 (101) compensatory
3. 39 (102) compensatory
5. 20 (155)
5. 29 (164)
5. 38 (173) compensatory
6. 39 (216) compensatory
7. 5 (222)
7. 30 (247)
7. 36 (253) compensatory
7. 38 (255) compensatory

BEST FITS
1. CB Cam Smith, South Carolina: A big-bodied cornerback with safety traits, Smith would be the BPA (best player available) target if the 49ers find him on the board in the third round.

2. LB Drew Sanders, Arkansas: Former Alabama linebacker would be a versatile chess piece given experience rushing the passer and combination of speed and instincts.

3. OL Nick Broeker, Ole Miss: Has played tackle and guard and likely lands inside due to limited length. Athletic and versatile Day 3 pick.

–Field Level Media