Football

NFL Draft review: Ranking the top teams’ draft classes

With the draft over and rookie mini-camps starting up, which teams should feel the most optimistic about their rookie classes?

Anthony Richardson is celebrating being drafted. He is holding his blue Indianapolis Colts jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

One week removed from the draft, and the dust has mostly settled. Lamar Jackson has officially re-signed with the Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles was cut by the Indianapolis Colts and the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill has dressed up as an Alpine pit crew member.

Now that the excitement has cooled, overreactions are less likely and rookie camps have started up, here’s a look at the top 12 draft classes in 2023.

Tier One Drafts

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals are in a tough position. Quarterback Kyler Murray is not expected to return until at least late in the 2023 season.

The team’s new front office did not draft or re-sign Murray. There is a high chance they choose to  move on to a new quarterback next year. For now, the roster is barren and Colt McCoy looks set to start.

With that in mind, the Cardinals did the best they could.

First-year general manager Monti Ossenfort started his first draft by trading down with the Houston Texans, dropping from third overall to 12th. The team picked up multiple future picks, including the Texans’ first-round pick next year. They then moved back up to pick No. 6 and took offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. out of Ohio State, a common choice for the top tackle in the class.

After starting out strong, the team picked up LSU edge rusher BJ Ojulari — an athletic, bendy pass rusher with a solid arsenal of moves for this point in his career in the second round – Syracuse cornerback Garrett Williams, an oft-injured but very talented player – and Stanford wide receiver Michael Wilson — one of a short list of wide receivers in this class who play to their large size.

Day 3 picks like Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe and Louisville cornerback Kei’Trel Clark offer intriguing potential as well.

Indianapolis Colts

I have long been a fan of Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson. He’s an unbelievable athlete and is a far more ready passer than he has received credit for being. While his selection and his fit in new head coach Shane Steichen’s offense immediately excite me, it’s hardly the only positive in the Colts’ class.

General manager Chris Ballard has shown a penchant for taking the most athletic prospects in a given draft class. He did not disappoint in that regard this year.

Relative Athletic Score is a metric which aggregates combine results into a single overall athleticism grade on a 0-10 scale. This year, North Carolina wide receiver Josh Downs was Indianapolis’ only pick in the first five rounds with an RAS of below 9. HIs score was 8.99, significantly dropped due to his small size.

These players aren’t just athletes, either.

Downs offers speed and separation underneath, as well as very impressive receiving skills. His skillset is not really something that existed on the Colts’ roster. Fellow Day 2 draftee, TCU cornerback Julius Brents, is a hyper-athletic, big cover corner with a lot of success in college and who fits Gus Bradley’s defensive system very well.

Northwestern defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore is an electric lineman who isn’t particularly polished right now but is already a struggle to handle due to his sheer quickness and ferocity. He was expected by most to be off the board by the mid-second round. The Colts picked him up in the fourth.

South Carolina cornerback Darius Rush has quick feet and good ball skills, although he hasn’t played the position for all that long. There’s room for him to grow but like the other players in this class, his ceiling is extremely high and his floor is as a solid special teams player.

BYU offensive lineman Blake Freeland might just be an athlete right now but is an enticing developmental prospect who won’t have to start immediately.

This class offers tons of potential and should be effective out of the gate as well. The Cardinals got more future value through their trades down, but this is one of my favorite classes when solely looking at the players.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Speaking of classes that just took great players, Omar Khan had a fantastic debut. Each of his first four picks saw first-round hype at some point in the offseason.

Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones has work to do with his hand placement, but he’s put promising plays on tape and is one of the best athletes at the position in the class. In a weak tackle class and with the Steelers’ current offensive line, Jones fills a need and should be a very solid player in the near future.

Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. felt like an inevitable pick. The son of the all-time great Steelers linebacker is a gifted corner in press man coverage. He’s not the most versatile player, but in the right system, he could be the best corner in this class.

Wisconsin defensive lineman Keeanu Benton is a very enticing prospect. He’s a gifted pass rusher despite often playing from nose tackle, which is normally a very difficult spot from which to generate pressure. Interior pressure is incredibly valuable, as it puts opposing quarterbacks in very difficult positions.

With T.J. Watt and fourth-round pick Nick Herbig likely to rush from wide alignments (when Herbig doesn’t play off-ball) and Alex Highsmith coming off a productive season, their jobs will be made easier by Benton pushing quarterbacks back from their marks and into the Steelers’ pass rushers’ paths.

Georgia tight end Darnell Washington was one of my favorite prospects in the draft class. He’s a dominant blocker with one of the most ridiculous athletic profiles in NFL history. He’s raw as a receiver but offers immediate value up the seams and after the catch and will have time to develop behind current starter Pat Freiermuth. He dropped due to knee issues but is reportedly expected to be able to have a long career.

Purdue cornerback Cory Trice is a player I wasn’t particularly familiar with before this week. He’s a tall, athletic corner with very good movement skills. I cannot comprehend how he was available so late — I thought he’d be off the board by Day 2 but if healthy should easily outperform his seventh-round selection.

Tier Two Drafts

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati didn’t come into the draft with the most picks in the class or have early picks in any round, but they made fantastic use of what they had.

Clemson edge rusher Myles Murphy was consistently in EDGE3 conversations — they took him 29th overall. He projects as a solid rotational edge behind Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson in his rookie year but could allow the team to save $15 million after this year by cutting or trading Hendrickson.

Michigan cornerback DJ Turner is a lightning quick corner with good coverage skills who will instantly improve the team’s secondary. Alabama safety Jordan Battle is a proven, competent prospect who offers more hope at a shaky position group.

Purdue wide receiver Charlie Jones and Illinois running back Chase Brown offer an opportunity to offload more expensive players at their positions in the near future, with Tyler Boyd on the last year of his deal and Joe Mixon an enticing post-June 1 cap casualty.

The Bengals’ draft added considerable talent while preempting future positions of need. It’s not as star-studded as the drafts in tier one, but the team managed its weekend very wisely.

Seattle Seahawks

Much of the Seahawks’ draft success came on Day 1, but it’s such a strong first round that they’re high on the rankings anyway.

Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon is a departure from the Seahawks’ traditional mold at cornerback, being only 5 foot 11, but he’s a tenacious tackler with remarkable coverage skills. He will get immediate playing time, whether that comes opposite Tariq Woolen or in the slot.

Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the top wide receiver in this draft class and while it was a weak draft for the position, Smith-Njigba is still an enticing prospect.

His lack of top-end speed means he will likely never be a particularly productive deep threat, but his route running and hands are so strong that it’s hard to imagine a world in which Smith-Njigba doesn’t succeed.

Smith-Njigba will slot in behind Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf and could contend for a 1,000-yard season right away with those two pulling coverage away from him.

Auburn edge rusher Derick Hall and Michigan defensive lineman Mike Morris both fill positions of need. I don’t think Hall was the best edge rusher on the board when Seattle picked him, but he’s a solid player against both the run and the pass and the Seahawks need help sooner rather than later. Morris should be a decent contributor in year one due to the Seahawks’ lack of players available at his size to help stop the run.

I don’t necessarily agree with the Seahawks taking a running back in the second round for consecutive years, but UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet should be a very fun player alongside last year’s second rounder, Kenneth Walker II. After Rashaad Penny and Travis Homer left in free agency, adding bodies at running back was a must.

Las Vegas Raiders

After years of bad drafts, the Raiders seem to have finally succeeded. It’s rare to get a value pick at seventh overall, but with late whispers that Texas Tech edge rusher Tyree Wilson could go in the top three, the Raiders seem to have managed it.

Wilson is slow to react to the snap and doesn’t have much polish right now, but he’s extremely athletic and has a ridiculous wingspan. He’ll be competent but limited out of the gate. With development, Wilson can be one of the best edge rushers in the league. He’ll have good mentors with Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones starting ahead of him.

Michael Mayer was the most popular pick for TE1. Somehow, he was the third tight end off the board. He’s a good-but-not-great athlete, a brilliant route runner and a competent blocker. He may have the best hands out of every player in the draft. The team traded Darren Waller in the offseason, but Mayer will provide Jimmy Garoppolo with a strong safety net.

Alabama defensive tackle Byron Young should start early, as the Raiders lack talent at three-technique defensive tackle. Maryland cornerback Jakorian Bennett is a fantastic athlete and is decent in coverage. He should compete for playing time outside in a weak secondary.

Georgia safety Christopher Smith was worth the late pick they spent on him, as he was very effective in college but tested worse than his tape would have suggested. He’s light and not the best against the run but could be a solid addition in three-safety looks.

Chicago Bears

The first move Ryan Poles made after being hired was signing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. The signing fell through after Ogunjobi failed his physical, but it clearly showed the Bears’ priorities. Head coach Matt Eberflus’ defense was strongest in Indianapolis when he had both Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner on the interior. The team clearly wants to recreate that success.

After a sorry showing last year, the Bears put a clear priority on improving their interior defensive line in the draft, taking Florida nose tackle Gervon Dexter and South Carolina defensive tackle Zacch Pickens in the second and third rounds, respectively. Both will likely earn early playing time for last year’s second worst run defense in the league.

First-round pick Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright is a slightly tougher projection to the NFL than most prospects due to the offense the team ran — quarterback Hendon Hooker rarely took full dropbacks and rarely scrambled unless he already planned to do so — but has shown pass blocking prowess and strong run blocking.

He’s a valuable addition to last year’s subpar offensive line and should help Justin Fields develop further.

Miami cornerback Tyrique Stevenson is a solid addition following then-rookie Kyler Gordon’s struggles last year. If both look good this year, Chicago could let Jaylon Johnson walk in free agency. If only one looks good, the defense will still be significantly improved.

Texas running back Roschon Johnson was electric when on the field, he just sat behind eighth overall pick Bijan Robinson. Johnson and Khalil Herbert should be an exciting duo in the backfield.

Cincinnati wide receiver Tyler Scott is a very fast deep threat with potential as a route runner. I was shocked he dropped to the late fourth. Scott offers an immediate injection of speed as a rotational receiver and, if he develops well, could allow the team to move on from Darnell Mooney at the end of his rookie contract.

Oregon Linebacker Noah Sewell is an athletic marvel without much polish at the linebacker position yet. I trust Matt Eberflus with linebackers, as he has a storied history coaching the position. If he develops Sewell well, he could be part of a very fun trio alongside Jack Sanborn and Tremaine Edmunds.

Tier Three Drafts

Miami Dolphins

Miami had just four picks in this year’s draft due to both trades and punishments handed down by the league. In those four picks, they got impressive value, however.

South Carolina cornerback Cam Smith is a talented corner who dropped in the draft process but was initially regarded as a probable first-round pick and as possibly the first corner off the board. He’s athletic and has good length which allows him to play outside.

The Dolphins added Jalen Ramsey to a secondary which already had Xavien Howard, but Howard has started to fall off and, with how Ramsey was used in Los Angeles, I would not be surprised to see him playing primarily in the slot, leaving Smith to start outside as a rookie.

Texas A&M running back Devon Achane is one of my favorite fits in this draft. The blazing-fast back — Achane ran a 4.26 40-yard dash at the combine — is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball and Mike McDaniel is more than capable of getting him into space.

There are very few receivers in this draft class who play to their large frames. Stanford’s Elijah Higgins — 6 foot 3, 235 pounds — is one of them. He’s hardly polished, but he’ll have plenty of room to work with when he gets on the field due to how much attention Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle attract.

The Dolphins’ final pick, Ryan Hayes, is unlikely to start, but three contributors in four picks is very impressive value.

Denver Broncos

Like the Dolphins, the Broncos had very few picks to work with. Also like the Dolphins, they made the most of what they had. Oklahoma wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. is a solid receiver prospect with good route running ability who could allow the team to move on from one of their many highly paid players at the position.

Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders provides further versatility to a confusing linebacking/pass rushing corps.

Nik Bonitto was an interesting but very light edge rusher prospect last year who has played more off-ball due to his weight. Baron Browning seems to be transitioning to the edge, where he has been incredibly effective, but the team has tried playing him off-ball too.

Sanders is a more experienced player off-ball than either Browning or Bonitto and has the pass rush chops to move to the edge when needed.

Riley Moss could start this year, with fellow former Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia now on the Bears. Both Boise State’s JL Skinner and Oregon’s Alex Forsyth are likely to only be depth players.

Managing to find three probable starters in five picks is impressive value, but I can’t justify putting the Broncos higher because of the lack of high-potential players and the lack of total players in the class.

Dallas Cowboys

I was surprised to see how many people disliked the Cowboys’ draft. It did what it needed to do and added quite a few talented players.

Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith is a stout run defender, which will be important if the Cowboys want to beat the Eagles in the division next year. He also shows potential in the pass game despite playing nose tackle.

Michigan tight end Luke Schoonmaker is older than most prospects in the class but a gifted athlete and decent route runner. He will at least be an early contributor and may start as a rookie, following the departure of Dalton Schultz.

Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown is a flawed prospect who misses far too many tackles, but he has good instincts, is a very rangy player and can cover better than most linebackers in the class. He will push for immediate playing time.

Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn is a heartwarming selection — Vaughn’s father made the phone call informing him he was a Cowboy — but he’s also a talented back with good vision and receiving ability. He’s tiny, but tiny backs have had success before, as the Cowboys know all too well from their encounters with Darren Sproles.

Houston Texans

This may be low for many, but I can’t condone the draft capital given up by the Texans to draft Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. He’s a fantastic player, but I can’t shake the feeling that next year’s first rounder, the 34th overall pick this year and a third rounder would’ve been better used filling out the roster instead of finding one top-end guy.

That said, the Texans picked some fantastic players.

Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud is a remarkably accurate quarterback who could easily become a fringe top-10 player at the position within two years. Anderson is the best edge prospect in the class whose only consistent knock was that he probably won’t wind up being a top-10 player all-time at the position.

Houston wide receiver Tank Dell scares me, as he’s listed at 5 foot 8, 165 pounds, but he’s one of the shiftiest players in this draft class and can create separation in the blink of an eye. If he can stay healthy, Dell should be a very exciting weapon alongside last year’s picks, Nico Collins and John Metchie III. Iowa State wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson, who I did not expect to be available in the sixth round, should also contribute.

Alabama’s Henry To’oTo’o is an intriguing linebacker prospect whose instincts I didn’t love but was easily worth a fifth-round dart throw. I like him more than I liked his teammate Christian Harris, who the Texans took in the third round last year.

New England Patriots

Yes, I know. They took a kicker in the third round. I don’t like that either, but much of the rest of their draft was strong.

The Patriots traded down from 14th overall, yet still managed to pick up the draft’s top corner prospect, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has already shown impressive development, is one of the best athletes at the position and is an incredibly sticky player in coverage. Taking him in the teens is impressive value; trading down and accumulating picks before doing so is even more impressive.

Georgia Tech’s Keion White is an older prospect than ideal for a developmental edge rusher, but he can play both inside and outside and is a brilliant athlete. At the very least, he should be a solid contributor. The selection of linebacker Marte Mapu has been denigrated, especially by Patriots fans. It shouldn’t be. Mapu is a rangy player with good instincts and coverage ability who should see the field early. If he went to a higher profile school than Sacramento State, this would’ve been a more popular pick.

UCLA guard Atonio Mafi is a mauler who needs development, but should have time to improve early in his career, with Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu still likely to start inside. Either Strange or Onwenu could likely kick outside to tackle if Mafi develops quickly.

LSU wide receiver Kayshon Boutte was worth a dart throw from the Patriots. He fell down draft boards after an injury-riddled year and a bad combine but entered the year as a first-round prospect. He didn’t look like himself last year, but if Bill O’Brien and the rest of the Patriots’ offensive coaching staff can coax him back to his former glory, he will significantly improve the team’s receiving corps.