The NFL is back, folks. Week 1 is already underway with Thursday’s season opener between the Lions and Chiefs; and wouldn’t you know, a former USC standout scored the first touchdown of the 2023 season. But, we’ll get to Amon-Ra St. Brown and his … intriguing celebration a little later in my rankings. USC boasts 26 alumni on current active NFL rosters this season, and many are set to play significant roles on contending teams. So, for any USC supporters that may not be thrilled with their team’s outlook for the upcoming year (looking at you, Rams fans), here are plenty of guys that you can root for this season.
This is now year four of my annual rankings, and, remember it’s players I’m excited and/or curious to watch, not necessarily the best players. That being said, you’re quite welcome to take a look at my past rankings (2022, 2021 and 2020) if you feel inclined to get mad at my bad takes, and I’ll also provide my ranking from last year for each player listed below (sorry, Uchenna Nwosu). Finally, here is a handy-dandy list of every former USC football player currently in the NFL, including those on practice squads and IR, as well as the guys that unfortunately didn’t make my prestigious list.
Alright, let’s get into it.
10. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, New England Patriots (No. 4)
After posting a bounce-back 2022 season with Kansas City, Smith-Schuster now heads to New England. He grabbed 78 receptions for 933 yards, his highest yardage total since his 2018 Pro Bowl season with the Steelers. One issue: Mac Jones isn’t Patrick Mahomes. The third-year New England quarterback has some OK weapons around Smith-Schuster, including Devante Parker and Hunter Henry, but the Patriots could still really use a true No. 1 receiver. I’m not sure that will be JuJu, but he’s shown potential to be that guy in the past.
9. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys (Not Ranked)
An eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time AP First-Team All-Pro, Smith was one of the top offensive tackles of the 2010s. However, Smith has battled various injuries this decade, as he played just six games combined in the 2020 and 2022 seasons and missed six games in 2021 as well. Nevertheless, at age 32, the former top-10 pick has shown he can still produce at a top level when he’s on the field. The Cowboys have one of the most talented rosters in the league, including on their offensive line, but Smith’s availability is an important key for their success.
8. Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts (No. 1)
After successfully predicting a big year in 2021, I was disappointed by Pittman last season, who was atop my 2022 rankings. As the Colts’ top pass-catching option, I thought Pittman would continue to ascend into a top-10 receiver in the league (that didn’t happen), but it also wasn’t really his fault. I mean, did you see the combination of Matt Ryan, Nick Foles and Sam Ehlinger last season? Now, rookie Anthony Richardson will be throwing the passes, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Pittman meshes with the recent No. 4 overall pick.
7. Tuli Tuipulotu, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers (NR)
Tuipulotu’s 13.5 sacks in his final year at USC earned him 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors and a second-round selection in this year’s draft by the Chargers. While he’s behind two of the best pass rushers in the NFL on the depth chart — Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack — Tuipulotu can still put up big numbers right away across them when he rotates in. The big key for the rookie, though, will be helping fix an abysmal Chargers run defense if they want to be a contender this season.
6. Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, New York Jets (No. 8)
The former first-rounder heads into his third year as perhaps the Jets’ most trusted offensive lineman. It appears that Vera-Tucker will remain at right guard to start the season, but given some question marks at both tackle spots, we might see him move around throughout the year, as he did at USC. Oh, and I should probably mention the guy he’s protecting now. Aaron Rodgers will be taking snaps in New York, and with him comes much higher expectations.
5. Uchenna Nwosu, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks (NR)
I’m just going to say that leaving Nwosu off my rankings last year inspired him to have a career year last season in Seattle. In fact, he should probably thank me for motivating him on his way to earning a three-year extension worth up to $59 million this past offseason. Nwosu set career highs in 2022 in numerous statistics, including sacks (9.5), forced fumbles (three) and quarterback hits (26). Now, as the Seahawks seek to return to the playoffs, Nwosu will be a major factor in repeating and perhaps improving on last season’s success as a team.
4. Jordan Addison, WR, Minnesota Vikings (NR)
Another rookie that made a major impact for USC at this time last year, Addison comes into a fantastic situation in Minnesota as the No. 23 overall pick. After all, who wouldn’t want to run routes across from Justin Jefferson? It’s pretty much a death sentence to not put two defenders on Jefferson, meaning lots of open space for Addison to enjoy. As long as Kirk Cousins is willing to push the ball downfield, Addison could be one of the most productive rookies in the league in this potent Vikings offense.
3. Drake London, WR, Atlanta Falcons (No. 3)
Yet another receiver on this list, London looks to improve on a solid debut season in Atlanta. There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about London’s progress, too, especially given who will be throwing him passes this season. In Marcus Mariota’s 13 starts for the Falcons last year, London averaged about 3.6 receptions and 41 yards per game. After the bye week, when Desmond Ridder took over for the final four games, London’s numbers went up to over six catches and 83 yards per game. With Ridder also going into his second year, keep an eye on this young duo to take a step forward this season.
2. Talanoa Hufanga, S, and Drake Jackson, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers (No. 7/No. 9)
Alright, fine, I’m cheating a bit here, and yes, it’s largely because of my 49ers fandom.
That being said, the San Francisco defense was incredible last season, in large part due to Hufanga’s breakout year. When he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, I wasn’t super high on Hufanga, despite his impressive play at USC. Gladly, he’s proved me wrong, though, as his instincts have vaulted him into the NFL’s Top 100 players.
Meanwhile, Jackson heads into his second year surrounded by tons of playmakers in red and gold, including the guy above. The former second-rounder — considered a first-round talent by many — now will start alongside Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa on a vaunted 49ers defensive line.
If Hufanga can repeat his play from last season and Jackson can successfully rush the passer while on easy mode, San Francisco should continue to be an elite defense in 2023 thanks to these two former Trojans.
1. Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions (No. 2)
I mentioned him (and his Key and Peele tribute?) earlier, and it’s only appropriate that he takes the top spot on this list after Thursday’s touchdown catch to open the NFL season. Since the second half of his rookie year in 2021, St. Brown has been a legitimate top-10 receiver in the league thanks in part to a huge target share. He’s a major reason why Lions fans are probably as optimistic as they’ve ever been, and the former fourth-round pick seems well on his way to cementing himself in that top 10 at the receiver position.