Fans will see some unfamiliar sights in the early rounds of the 2023 N.F.L. draft. From middle-schooler size receivers to tight ends built like comic book supervillains to prospects already halfway to earning their AARP cards, this year’s draft class reflects a tipping point in on-field strategies and N.F.L. priorities, as well as the rules that govern how the N.C.A.A. does business.
Here are a couple of trends that will become apparent when Commissioner Roger Goodell starts calling names during the first round on April 27 in Kansas City, Mo.
Action Figure Cornerbacks
The cornerbacks available are so big, athletic and impressive that it’s a wonder anyone caught a pass on an autumn Saturday last year.
Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State), son of the former All-Pro linebacker, stands at over 6-foot-2 and ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Christian Gonzalez (Oregon) stands 6-foot-1 and ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds. Kelee Ringo (Georgia) measured 6-foot-2, 207 pounds and ran a 4.36-second sprint.
Even the lower tiers of draft boards feature plenty of cornerbacks who are not just tall but physical, ultra-confident and downright graceful.
“You may be starting to see some of the Legion of Boom effect,” said Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, a pre-draft event for top college talent. Nagy was previously a Seattle Seahawks scout during the team’s Super Bowl heyday, back-to-back trips in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and said the success of Richard Sherman and the Seahawks’ defense of the 2010s may have inspired the most gifted all-around Pop Warner-level athletes to want to play cornerback — or inspired their coaches to place them at that position.
Whatever the cause, the 2023 draft class is overflowing with cornerback talent.
“I think we’re going to see corners go early in round one, go late in round one, go early in round two and just keep going throughout the draft,” said Erik Galko, director of operations for the East-West Shrine Bowl, one of several pre-draft events that serve as job expos for N.F.L. prospects. “You don’t want to pass on guys like this.”
There are tiny, extra-speedy receivers in every draft class, but the top of the board this year is loaded with prospects who appear to be a few breakfast buffets too light for the junior varsity.
Wide-open offensive styles like the Air Raid make it possible for lighter receivers to thrive at the college level, and N.F.L. coaches are adopting similar tactics to prevent featherweight receivers from getting flattened by the nearest burly defender.
“We’ve always had these types of human beings who were 175 pounds, really twitchy and explosive, but N.F.L. and college teams said they couldn’t use them,” Galko said. “College offenses are now less likely to rule guys out who can provide explosive plays.”
Among the projected first- or second-round picks, Jalin Hyatt (Tennessee) weighed in at 176 pounds at the scouting combine, Jordan Addison (Southern California) at 173, and Josh Downs (North Carolina) at 171. Farther down the draft board, Nathaniel Dell, nicknamed Tank, (Houston) weighs just 165 pounds, roughly the equivalent of a typical offensive line’s DoorDash order.
The N.F.L. may be more willing than ever to take chances on 175-pound receivers, but most teams still prefer swift and sturdy 200-pounders. There just appears to be a temporary shortage of quality college receivers in the Ja’Marr Chase mold.
“If there were more talented bigger guys at the top, those are the guys who would get drafted,” Nagy said.
Colossal Tight Ends
Georgia tight end Darnell Washington’s highlight montages look like poorly rendered computer-generated imagery: at 6-foot-7 and 264 pounds, Washington does not appear to occupy the same physical space as the defenders who almost unrealistically bounce off him.
Washington is one of many stunning athletes in this year’s tight end class. Luke Musgrave (Oregon State), who measures 6-foot-6 and 253 pounds, produced jaw-dropping workout results at the combine. Farther down the draft board, there is Zach Kuntz (Old Dominion), a former high school hurdler who stands at 6-foot-7 and has a 40-inch vertical jump.
In the past, N.F.L. teams sometimes tried to convert college basketball players into tight ends in their quest for height and athleticism at the position. Despite high-profile successes like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, however, most moonlighting power forwards could not block well enough to stay on the field.
College football programs are now providing many more N.B.A.-sized tight ends whose blocking skills range from adequate (Musgrave and Kuntz) to a defender has just been run over by a corn thresher (Washington).
“We’re seeing so many of these guys that we are getting numb,” Galko said. “We’re losing sight of how freaky this is.”
The rugged, snarling, somewhat lead-footed linebacker of the 1980s is now practically an endangered species. Defenses, both college and professional, have little use for a player type that is likely to get dusted by a running back or tight end in pass coverage, no matter how menacingly he growls.
The 2023 draft class, however, features several highly regarded linebackers, headlined by Drew Sanders (Arkansas), Trenton Simpson (Clemson), Jack Campbell (Iowa) and Henry To’oTo’o (Alabama). These defenders may look a little like Mike Singletary or Harry Carson, but they are really the spiritual descendants of Troy Polamalu.
“Bigger safeties are now moving down to linebacker,” said Mike Rittelmann, the director of scouting for the College Gridiron Showcase. “They can play zone coverage and be comfortable. They can fill the run gaps without getting washed out.”
In the past, such beefed-up safeties might max out around 225 pounds. This year, Sanders and Simpson each weighed in at 235 pounds, and Campbell at 249.
With so many big, versatile linebackers available in the draft, Nagy believes that leadership and communication skills will be the ultimate separator: College schemes remain relatively simple, but N.F.L. coaches need linebackers who can bark out on-field instructions and adjustments.
“There’s going to be a shelf,” Nagy said. “There will be a group of guys who can play all three downs and are doing great in interviews who will be drafted in early rounds. Then you are going to drop down to fifth- and sixth-rounders who can play in a pinch.”
While quarterbacks Bryce Young (Alabama), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State), Anthony Richardson (Florida) and Will Levis (Kentucky) are expected to be drafted early in the first round, Hendon Hooker (Tennessee) is generally relegated to a second tier.
Hooker was born in January 1998, making him 25 years old: seven months older than the Philadelphia Eagles’ fourth-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hooker is the most prominent of many top prospects in this draft class who played five or even six college seasons.
Some N.F.L. teams still have age restrictions or flag older prospects like Levis, 23, and Hooker as special cases, but they may need to adjust those parameters given all the factors lengthening college players’ careers. Many took advantage of the extra year of eligibility they received from the N.C.A.A. because of the coronavirus pandemic. Collegiate superstars at major programs can now earn significant money through name, image and likeness deals, while lesser-known prospects who might have turned pro early because of financial hardship can now make enough money to stay in school.
But the N.F.L. may not like that: Most teams prefer their prospects with as much youth and upside as possible.
“I think age is going to be a surprisingly big factor in the 2023 draft,” Galko said.
He added: “It’s like an amplifier for concerns: If you came from a scheme that doesn’t correlate to the N.F.L. and you’re older, that’s an issue. If you’re injured, that’s also an issue.”
Hooker, in particular, could be affected by all three issues: Experts love his game film and intangibles, but he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at the end of last season and played in an up-tempo, bombs-away offense at Tennessee. Hooker may still be drafted in the first round — he is a quarterback, after all — but teams might downgrade position players like Georgia Tech defensive lineman Keion White, 24, whose college career began in 2017, or North Dakota State offensive tackle Cody Mauch, 24, who first appeared in college games in 2018.
Nagy disagrees. “I think the league has softened that a little bit. The mind-set of teams is that if they can get two contracts out of a player, that’s great. Anything beyond that is gravy.”
Rittelmann’s pre-draft event caters to late-round prospects, so he works with many athletes for whom the N.F.L. is no certainty and another year of education could make a huge difference. “N.I.L. has been great for the college community,” he said. “It gives athletes another opportunity to figure out what’s best for them.”
After all, there are more important matters in life than the N.F.L. draft.