Skip to main content

The Nine Biggest NFL Draft Story Lines Heading into Combine Week

Bryce Young’s size makes him a risky bet, Anthony Richardson is tantalizing but scary, and a small number of players seem worthy of being first-round picks.

Every year banners go up around downtown Indianapolis with pictures of the draft class’s biggest prospects ahead of the scouting combine. One year, it was Jadeveon Clowney; a few years later, it was Myles Garrett—the sort of create-a-player types who embody, maybe even more so than the headlining quarterbacks, what this particular week in the Midwest is about.

But in 2023? Good luck finding them.

“I think one of the themes is there’s a lot of exceptions in this draft, like undersized players or guys that don’t check every box,” said NFL Network draft analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah early Sunday morning. “There’s a boatload of intriguing players, but there are very few Patrick Surtains, Sauce Gardners, Trevor Lawrences, Joe Burrows. There’s just not the slam-dunk guys that I thought we’ve had over the last few years.”

So if you’re a drive-by fan of draft season, this isn’t the year for you.

If you, on the other hand, are a hard-core fan who loves the intrigue and uncertainty of it all, then buckle up—because 2023 will have plenty of that.

This week, we’re doing our annual precombine draft-class primer to get you ready for the two months ahead, with help from my buddies Daniel Jeremiah and Todd McShay, ESPN’s chief draft analyst, as well as scouts from across the NFL. I love this time of year because of how it brings together the college and pro games, and because these things affect every team at some level. And this year there’s a lot to chew on, for sure.

It won’t be about how great one prospect is. Instead, it will be about how everyone is looking for answers: on Bryce Young’s size, Jalen Carter’s makeup, Will Anderson Jr.’s ceiling, Tyree Wilson’s room for development, Peter Skoronski’s best position. On Anthony Richardson, well, in general.

It’s all going to make for a really interesting run-up to late April in Kansas City.

“Thank goodness, we have some good quarterbacks,” McShay said Sunday afternoon. “There’s Will Anderson, Jalen Carter, Tyree, and after that ...”

After that, again, more questions.

With the help of DJ and McShay, we’ll try to bring you some answers here this morning.

Alabama QB Bryce Young warms up before a game.

Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, would be a slam-dunk No. 1 pick if not for his size.

By the time you read this, I’ll be in the air headed to Indy, and truly on to the 2023 season. And we will be in this week’s MMQB column as well, with …

• A deeper look at the spot the Packers find themselves in with Aaron Rodgers’s decision looming and potentially coming down very soon.

• How the Jets are approaching their pursuit of Derek Carr, and quarterbacks in general, and why the timing of movement at that position is key for them.

• Where the NFL lacks a middle ground financially for quarterbacks, and what it might mean for guys like Daniel Jones, Geno Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo.

• Why the Raiders might do things a little differently at the position.

That’s all in my Ten Takeaways. But we’re starting with the draft class, how it’s made up, and what we’ll be talking about between now and the end of April.

Maybe the best way to illustrate the dynamic and the complexion of this year’s group is to simply look at Young, the 2021 Heisman winner from Alabama, and boil his NFL evaluation down to a simple fact that no one seems to argue with.

Were Young 6'3" and 220 pounds, there’d be zero question who would go No. 1.

“If he was as big as Justin Fields, there’d be no discussion,” says one NFC exec. “Chicago would take him and move on from Justin.”

“You don’t even have to quote anybody on that,” says an AFC exec. “That’s exactly what it is. The size is just a major deal.”

“If Bryce Young was 6'3", 220,” Jeremiah says, “I would be talking about him like I talked about Burrow and Lawrence.”

“I love Bryce Young, I really do,” McShay says. “I know he’s 195 pounds; a really good friend of mine who’s a scout had him at 5'10½". But I met with him, I’ve talked to him. He’s special. He’s different. He has the poise, the presence in the pocket, the playmaking, everything else you want. I absolutely love Bryce Young. I would bet on him.”

In his next breath, McShay concedes, “If I’m a GM, I’m scared to death of drafting him.”

Bottom line, in a class full of exceptions, you have to make a big one to take Young that high. McShay sees “a smaller version of Patrick Mahomes” in Young. Others agreed the right comparison, because of Young’s size, instincts, accuracy, and football smarts, might be Drew Brees. Patriots OC Bill O’Brien (Bama’s OC the last two years) told any scout who’d listen over the last year that he sees Young as a unique player, person and prospect—and Alabama even scaled back on RPO concepts because Young was so advanced.

The problem is none of that is going to create a precedent for a player of Young’s size, stature and athletic profile making it long term as an NFL star at his position. Betting on Young, as McShay said he would, is betting that he is a total outlier. And his frame is as big an issue as his height, with the fact that he got hurt last year on a simple tackle only raising the concern of how he’ll hold up physically in the pros.

So what he weighs in at in Indy—and it sounds like he’s closing in on 200 pounds—will be scrutinized, for sure, with the likelihood being that he won’t work out at the combine. And that he’ll probably give us our biggest early headlines of the draft cycle.

With that in mind, that’s how we’ll break down the rest of the class for you over the next couple thousand words, giving you headlines that I think everyone will soon be chewing on.

Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud will likely be picked in the top five of the NFL draft.

Will the version of Stroud we saw in the Peach Bowl be the one we see in the NFL?

Headline No. 1: Teams will be projecting with all the quarterbacks.

Odds are the two who’ll go after Young will be, in some order, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis. Both have their strengths. Both have their flaws.

With Stroud, physically, what you want is there. He’s smart. He sees the field well. He’s incredibly accurate and throws with phenomenal touch. The bigger question will be whether what we saw in the playoff semifinal against Georgia (Stroud’s showcasing mobility in and out of the pocket, creativity, playmaking ability and toughness) was a sign of the quarterback turning the corner, or just a flash of stardom that’ll be difficult to replicate.

As for Levis, there’s a lot to like physically and leadership-wise, but the production on the field doesn’t match that of Young or Stroud—nor does what he’s put on tape, which only adds to questions of why he couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford at Penn State and why his game was so adversely affected by Kentucky losing Liam Coen as its OC.

“Will Levis is the toughest dude. He’s Braveheart. He’ll fight through anything,” McShay says. “He had a terrible line and a running back that was suspended for four games. He’s got the strongest arm of the first three quarterbacks—Anthony’s is the strongest of them all. But Will’s extremely talented. … He has to get somewhere where there’s really good coaching.

“There isn’t a lunch lady that would say a negative thing about him; he’s worshiped at Kentucky. Leadership, toughness, character, everything you look for in a quarterback. But there’s a wide range of opinions. … On the road, I talked to one GM who said he was really worried Will would be Carson Wentz, because he plays like a linebacker and might not physically hold up. Five days later, the next GM said he may be Josh Allen.”

Speaking of that …

Headline No. 2: Florida QB Anthony Richardson is the draft’s most interesting man.

Of course, every raw, physical specimen now gets compared to Allen. It’s happening with Levis, just like, yup, it’s happening with Richardson.

The difference is that, with each of these quarterbacks, as we said, you’re projecting. But with Richardson, you’re really projecting.

“If you look at all these guys as having risks, I think of them as they’re all kind of lottery tickets, and if you pay the same price for all these lottery tickets, if his hits, you have the biggest payout,” says Jeremiah. “You gotta be able to redshirt him, I think, and you gotta have really good developers in place. But I’ve talked to a couple teams that aren’t the QB[-needy] teams, so they’re more straight-up honest with you, and they’re like, We want him as the second guy because we know the risk-reward could be so huge.”

“He’s absolutely the most interesting player in the draft,” says McShay. “I promise you it’s driving me crazy, watching Utah tape, then a disaster against Kentucky, he’s 6'4", 234 pounds, rifle for an arm, mobile as can be, all the potential in the world and a really good guy that you want to root for, that everyone in the building loves. … A good guy, the most physically talented, but he’s not ready. He’s just not there yet.”

Which is to say, the tape is mostly tantalizing, but also pretty scary—as is the case with Young, but for different reasons. With Young, again, it’s his size. With Richardson, it’s the obviousness of how far he has to go.

“Everybody watches the Utah game—this guy’s top five!” says one AFC exec. “Well, yeah, they ran three plays. Let’s not get it twisted. He’s running boot and he’s taking off if it’s not there. It’s just not real football.”

With that taken into account, those in Gainesville love Richardson as a person (“a great guy,” McShay says), and it’s easier to bet on someone like that. And the hope would be, like the Bills’ was with Allen, that you could eventually throw Richardson into the fire and allow for his athletic/playmaking ability to buy him time to develop other parts of his game—which is feasible because there is so much of it.

Headline No. 3: The top-end group in this year’s draft is flawed and small.

Taking the quarterbacks out of it, there’s a consensus that Georgia DT Jalen Carter, Alabama edge Will Anderson Jr. and Texas Tech edge Tyree Wilson are in the first tier. Jeremiah put Northwestern OT Peter Skoronski, Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon and Texas RB Bijan Robinson in his top group with them. McShay had those six, plus Clemson edge Myles Murphy. I talked to one team that didn’t have Robinson or Witherspoon in the group, but did have Clemson DT Bryan Bresee and Iowa edge Lukas Van Ness.

What they all agreed on was that the elite class is low on numbers this year and that once you get out of the top 10, it may seem like players are being drafted too high. And that theme continues through the first round—one team I talked to had just 15 first-round grades in the class at this stage.

“Looking at it,” McShay says, “I have 14 guys I legitimately feel like are first-rounders.”

“To me, the difference between pick 12 and pick 40 is not much,” Jeremiah adds. “Get to that point, and it's just preference.”

Which sets up an interesting test case at a devalued position.

Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson (5) celebrates after a touchdown against the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

Robinson will be the latest test case on how teams value running backs in the modern NFL.

Headline No. 4: Robinson will be a bellwether for RB value in 2023.

It’s easy to explain Robinson—no one has much bad to say about the Texas junior, really in any way at all.

“Bijan is Saquon [Barkley], in my opinion,” McShay says. “And not just physically. Also character-wise, the way he lights up a room. His ability to force missed tackles, and then also pass protect, and catch out of the backfield, and then he walks into a room and steals the show and it’s like, What else do you want? Saquon was the exact same way, and now that he’s healthy, you see it.”

“If you say the most polarizing and intriguing player is Richardson, I would say the most consistently graded player, the most consistent evaluation of the entire draft is Bijan,” says Jeremiah. “As a player, I think he carries less risk than anybody. He’s my fourth player; I think he’s elite. I think everybody you talk to shares the exact same opinion, and then when the conversation shifts to Where do you think he's going to go? … nobody has any idea.”

The reason is because of the way his position has been devalued.

When I asked how Robinson compares to Barkley or Zeke Elliott, two similarly versatile big backs who were drafted in the top five, Jeremiah said the Longhorns star is absolutely on their level. And maybe he will go top five. But he could just as easily slip to 20, with so many teams leery of spending any sort of high-end capital, be it money or a top pick, on a tailback.

And so Robinson should give us a very real look at how the position is being handled by NFL teams in 2023 versus where it was in ’16 (Elliott’s draft year) or ’18 (Barkley’s). To a lesser degree, Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, who’s drawn constant Alvin Kamara comps, should give us similar insight—especially given there’s so much depth at tailback in this year’s group, which lends to common thinking that teams can fill the position later in the draft.

As for that depth, McShay says that in the crowded mix below the consensus top two, he’s got Texas A&M’s Devon Achane as the best name/value, while Jeremiah pointed to Ole Miss’s Zach Evans and Auburn’s Tank Bigsby as potential NFL starters who, like Chiefs rookie Isiah Pacheco, could slide well into Day 3 (though probably not as deep into it as Pacheco did).

Headline No. 5: Speaking of strong position groups, this could be a historic tight end class.

McShay says he has five tight ends in his top 50, which is unheard of, and Jeremiah’s view of the group may be even stronger than McShay’s.

“I’ve never seen a tight end group this deep,” says Jeremiah. “Even just from a personal standpoint, my order’s changed just from the last few weeks. The more I’ve watched, I’ve moved guys around a bit, individually. Talking to teams around the league, they’ll have them in all different orders. The one thing that I’m curious about is because there’s just so many of them, I wonder if it pushes them all down.”

The thinking there being, of course, that you might find quality well into Day 2, rather than having to spend a first-round pick, but that doesn’t diminish the first-round level of play that does exist in this pool of players. And for Jeremiah, at least, the list starts with Utah star Dalton Kincaid, whose one knock is that he turns 24 in October. (He won’t work out in Indy due to a foot injury.) The USC tape alone was enough to trump that for DJ.

Watch the NFL Combine: February streaming schedule here.

“I was watching the tape of all the targets, of all of his targets, and I literally thought I must’ve dozed off because I was like, There’s no way this game is still going,” he says. “How many freaking catches does this guy have in this game? Like, can you just stop him?”

Meanwhile, McShay has stuck to his guns on Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, who was the consensus top tight end coming into the season and, for one reason or another, has slipped in the minds of some folks.

“I don’t know why,” McShay says. “Maybe it’s because he’s not the fastest guy. To me, he looks a lot like Gronk [Rob Gronkowski]—his run after catch, how physical he is; he’s a grown man.”

Then, there’s Oregon State’s hyperathletic Luke Musgrave, who starred at the Senior Bowl after missing much of the 2022 season with injury, and Georgia’s supersized Darnell Washington and … yeah, there’s a lot of potential here.

Headline No. 6: That said, edge rusher is probably still the draft’s best position.

Anderson, Wilson, Murphy and Van Ness are the headliners, but there are more where that came from. Jeremiah’s got a fresh top 50 coming out Monday, and he reports there’ll be a staggering 10 edge rushers on it.

“There’ll be good ones there in the second round,” says Jeremiah. “I mean, we’ll see if Felix Anudike-Uzomah from Kansas State, if he gets to the second round, but he’s a really good player. He’s been a good player for two years. Him and [Iowa State’s] Will McDonald, two guys from the Big 12, actually, I really like that should be there.”

Add in a really solid crew of defensive tackles, headed by Carter and buoyed by players like Alabama’s Byron Young later on, and this is a good year to be looking for D-linemen.

“Defensive line is the strongest group,” says an AFC exec. “There are just an absolute ton of guys to work through there.”

Headline No. 7: Two places you might not find a ton of help: safety and center.

At the former, Alabama’s Brian Branch is really solid, and probably a mid- to late first-rounder, but he is like Michigan’s Daxton Hill was last year: more of a slot corner in college with the versatility to play back at safety. And after Branch, one team said, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the next safety not go until the fourth round.

At the latter spot, Wisconsin’s Joe Tippmann and TCU G/C Steve Avila are among those whose names were raised, but there isn’t much of a sure thing there. And while we’re on the linemen …

Headline No. 8: Skoronski may be the safest pick in the draft.

Because Skoronski may be a shade under 6'4" and lacks great length, there is question as to whether he’ll play left tackle in the pros—his old teammate Rashawn Slater faced similar questions two years ago before being taken by the Chargers. But few doubt his ability to assimilate quickly into a really good pro, be it at guard or tackle. And so if you take him in the top 10, you may not be over the moon about it, but you’ll probably come away satisfied.

“High, high floor,” says DJ. “Worse-case scenario, you’re going to get a really good guard.”

And because of that, he’s a little different than Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr., Tennessee’s Broderick Jones, Maryland’s Jaelyn Duncan or Oklahoma’s Anton Harrison, whom McShay raised as guys whose tape isn’t quite what Skoronski’s was but have considerable upside.

Headline No. 9: One of the biggest stories, for McShay and Jeremiah, is who isn’t in the draft.

That starts, first, with two guys who aren’t yet eligible: USC QB Caleb Williams and North Carolina QB Drake Maye.

“The two guys next year would be the top two guys in this year’s class,” says one NFC exec, who already took the time to start studying them to contrast them with the 2023 QBs.

“I would say it’s not even debatable,” Jeremiah adds. “I mean, I’ve seen enough of both those kids. … Both those guys are very special players.”

“Caleb, he’d be the first pick in this draft,” McShay says, “and a trade up would be warranted if Chicago didn’t want him.”

Which, ultimately, could well cause a team or two in the top 10 to wait to take a quarterback next year, with a lot of hold-the-fort type veterans available in free agency next year. So that could affect the 2023 draft, for sure.

Then there’s a potential trend that could impact business going forward—brought to life by the decisions that Florida State edge Jared Verse and Penn State OT Olu Fashanu made to stay in school, despite the fact that they, unlike Williams and Maye, were eligible to declare for the draft.

“I can’t remember a year where you’ve had a potential top-10 pick left tackle and a potential top-10 edge rusher who both went back to school,” Jeremiah says. “I think you’re seeing a couple factors [play into that] in this draft. One is COVID, in terms of people losing some development time. You have the extra COVID year, so you get the older player. And then you have NIL, which I think is going to be able to hold some kids in college. I actually think in the long run that’s great for everybody.

“It’s great for the kid to continue to develop, great for the college to hold onto good players, then for the NFL to get more reliable players and a longer opportunity to evaluate them.”

While we’re there, it’s also worth mentioning that the after effects of COVID-19 are still there with the number of older players, like Kincaid and Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker (whom DJ loves, as the likely fifth quarterback to go), in the class.

So that’s where we are with two months to go.

Things, of course, will look markedly different once we get there. For one, a lot of people believe we’ll have a new team picking first, with franchises seeing it as a likelihood that the Bears will wind up moving the first pick. For another, the quarterbacking landscape should look significantly different a month from now, after the dust settles on the veteran market.

“The veteran quarterback movement, that changes the whole draft,” Jeremiah says. “What happens with [Derek] Carr and [Aaron] Rodgers? And then Lamar Jackson is kind of the wild card. That changes the whole makeup of the draft.”

And, of course, it’ll add to the intrigue in what already should be a year that’s less predictable and more volatile than most through the entirety of the first round.

So, again, maybe we don’t have the stars we’ve had other years going into the combine.

But guess what? That may make the next couple of months even more fun.