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NFL Draft 2023: Defensive Player Position Rankings

Trenton Simpson, Clemson
 Defensive Line

1. Jalen Carter, Georgia -- On the football field, Jalen Carter checks just about every box. The 6'3", 315-pounder was a disruptive force in the middle for several years while at Georgia, crushing SEC competition with his mix of size, athleticism, and explosiveness. Even among a defensive line that included a former No. 1 overall pick (Travon Walker) and several other high draftees, Carter shone through as a formidable defender with a bright future. However, recent legal troubles and off-the-field concerns have threatened to hurt his draft stock. Carter pleaded no contest to charges of speeding and reckless driving in March, involved in a car accident that resulted in two deaths. It's certainly enough to make teams wary of the former Georgia Bulldog, but the reality is that talent can oftentimes outweigh any negatives. He has generational upside who I still view as a Top 5 prospect in this Draft. Simply watch him throw aside veteran Oregon offensive linemen Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu in this clip and tell me an NFL team isn't going to fall in love with this guy.

Projected Range: Early to mid-first round

2. Bryan Bresee, Clemson -- Formerly the No. 1 recruit in the country, Bryan Bresee broke onto the scene in a big way with Clemson as a true freshman. He earned Freshman All-American honors and took home the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year during the COVID-shortened 2020 season and looked like the next great Clemson defensive linemen. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to quite meet those expectations, mainly due to circumstances out of his control. He tore his ACL early on in 2021, limiting him to just four games and then had a tragic 2022, losing his sister to cancer. Considering the circumstances, it wasn't surprising that Bresee had underwhelming game tape this past fall, and reportedly was not in great shape. Although those factors have threatened to drop him out of the first round, I remain very high on the former blue-chipper. He's much more athletic than his physique would suggest and is a much better run defender than most give him credit for. If an NFL team can get him back on track, I believe he has potential to be one of the steals of this cycle.

Projected Range: Late first round to late second round

3. Myles Murphy, Clemson -- Myles Murphy came to Clemson at the same time as Bresee and while the former dealt with injuries, Murphy was a consistent three-year contributor for the Tigers. He earned Freshman All-American honors with Bresee in 2020 and built on it with two quality campaigns, including leading the team in sacks this past fall. He projects favorably to the NFL and has the versatility to fit in a number of schemes, although I'm not sure the upside is as high here as in others. Murphy feels more like a prospect that will come in and put together long, solid pro career but never reach beyond that. That shouldn't be a knock against him, as there's plenty to like about his skillset.

Projected Range: Early to late first round

4. Mazi Smith, Michigan -- Although he may have been overshadowed by Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo for a big chunk of his Michigan career, Mazi Smith offers plenty of value as a likely late first-rounder or early second-rounder. He's a big-bodied, active presence who won't get after it in the pass rush very often, but is an elite run defender. There are some who wonder if Smith will be an every-down defensive tackle at the next level, but I think he's much more than a rotational piece.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to late second round

5. Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame -- In my opinion, Isaiah Foskey was among the most underrated pass rushers we've seen in recent memory. Despite several very productive seasons at a brand name school, Foskey never quite got the national attention he deserved. As an NFL prospect, he provides a massive, long frame that can cause chaos for opposing defenses. He's not as fluid of an athlete as other top edge rushers, but feels like a safe bet to be productive at the next level. Considering most mocks now have him lasting deep into the second round, there's steal potential here.

Projected Range: Late first round to late second round

Sleeper: Siaki Ika, Baylor -- Although he won a National Title as a freshman with LSU back in 2019, most of Siaki Ika's playing time in college came during his final two seasons at Baylor. Under the coaching of Dave Aranda, Ika proved to be a powerful interior force who could eat blocks. At 6'3", 335 pounds, Ika is always going to project as a run stopper at the next level, but he is a lot quicker than he looks, and could occasionally create pressure for opposing backfields. Ika feels like the type of active linemen that every NFL team wants, and could end up being quite a steal if he does slide into the later rounds.

Projected Range: Late third round to late fifth round


1. Will Anderson Jr., Alabama -- It's rare we see a player come into college and dominate quite the way Will Anderson did the past three years. As an 18-year old, Anderson was ripping through opposing blockers as a true freshman to the tune of 10.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. The encore wasn't just impressive, it was one of the greatest defensive seasons in college football history, with Anderson notching 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss. Although his numbers dipped in 2022, Anderson is still my favorite player in this Draft and the player I would take No. 1 overall. It's not everyday you see a player with his blend of size and speed, and he's incredibly slippery off the edge. Whether it's at defensive end or at outside linebacker, I have little doubt that Anderson's pass rushing prowess will translate to the next level.

Projected Range: Early first round

2. Nolan Smith, Georgia -- Although his final season in Athens ended prematurely due to a torn pectoral, Nolan Smith still put together an impressive career with the Georgia Bulldogs. Smith played 46 games over a four-year career and proved to be a reliable, consistent defender off the edge. That type of experience should provide plenty of reason to feel good about the former Bulldog, even if it's a bit unclear what his position will be in the NFL. At 240 pounds, he's way smaller than others at this position, but his explosive first step and quickness have always been his strengths. You do wonder, if he does add weight in the pros, will it slow him down?

Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

3. Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech -- An athletic 6'6" pass rusher who excelled at Texas Tech, Tyree Wilson appears likely to land somewhere in the Top 10 later this week. He's proven he can play either defensive end or standup linebacker at a high level and despite an injury in November that cost him a big chunk of 2022, it hasn't negatively impacted his draft stock. That should tell you all you need to know about how high NFL teams are on Wilson, although medical red flags still could be a lingering concern come draft night.

Projected Range: Early to late first round

4. Trenton Simpson, Clemson -- After several seasons of success at Clemson, Trenton Simpson has made the unsurprising jump to the professional ranks. There appears to be a heavy split amongst NFL teams in their opinion on the inside linebacker; rumor is some view him as a first-round lock, while others have a second or third round grade on him. He is an interesting prospect, a bit undersized for the position who some think could play a linebacker/defensive back hybrid role at the next level. That type of versatility is a valuable asset for Simpson and there's no questioning his talent, but he's another guy whose production never quite matched his potential. I still think he offers plenty of value, especially if he lasts until Round 2 or 3, but there are questions here, too.

Projected Range: Late first round to early third round

5. Jack Campbell, Iowa -- Iowa may not boast the freakish athletes of other programs, but the Hawkeyes continue to churn out quality defenders. Next up is inside linebacker Jack Campbell, who many believe could be a late first-rounder on Thursday night. The 6'5", 250-pounder towers over just about every other inside 'backer in this Class, but still moves exceptionally well. But, it's his instincts that has always jumped out to me. He's an incredibly disciplined, well-coached defender who is always in the right spots. The overall ceiling may not be as high as others, but the types of intangibles he brings to the table shouldn't be overlooked.

Projected Range: Late first round to late second round

Sleeper: Andre Carter II, Army -- Will Anderson's dominance in 2021 received most of the national attention, but he wasn't the only edge rusher racking up sacks that season. Army's Andre Carter II notched 15.5 sacks and was nearly unstoppable in several contests, including multiple sack games against Georgia State, Ball State, and UMass. His play caught the eyes of NFL scouts, but Carter was a bit of a disappointment in 2022, with 3.5 sacks and eight TFL. Even so, I find him to be an intriguing prospect who is going to add a lot of weight to his 6'7" frame. He's a guy that will need time on an NFL roster to figure it out, and will have to refine his technique, but the growth potential is massive here. He's certainly worth a flier in the later rounds, particularly if he lasts past the fifth.

Projected Range: Late fourth round to early seventh round


1. Christian Gonzalez, Oregon -- I've been a big fan of Christian Gonzalez going back to his shortened freshman season with Colorado in 2020, and have no issue ranking him as the top corner prospect in this cycle. Gonzalez checks so many boxes; he's got good size, offers versatility, and is a fluid athlete with the ability to change directions instantly. Gonzalez also offers a nice body of work; even with the shortened 2020 season and the fact he spent just three years in college, he brings ample experience. I view Gonzalez as a Top 10 prospect in this Draft and the best available in a deep cornerback group.

Projected Range: Early to mid-first round

2. Devon Witherspoon, Illinois -- Although I rank Devon Witherspoon below Christian Gonzalez, this is more of a "1A" and "1B" scenario, rather than 1 vs. 2. Anybody who watched Illinois this year could tell that Witherspoon was a shutdown defender with a bright future. He improved steadily throughout his time in the collegiate ranks, and I think he's just scratching the surface of what he can be. Now, I do rank Witherspoon lower than Gonzalez because I do wonder about scheme fit. I'm not sure if the versatility is there with the Illini product, and he played in a system quite different than what I assume he will play in at the next level.

Projected Range: Mid to late first round

3. Joey Porter Jr., Penn State -- The son of Pittsburgh Steeler legend Joey Porter, Joey Porter Jr. will soon be playing on Sundays himself. The sturdy corner has long had potential, but had a tremendous 2022 campaign, which should help lock him in as a first-rounder. His size, at 6'3" with freakishly long arms, is what really stands out to you when viewing Porter as an NFL prospect, but he has been able to improve his consistency and take less risks as he's gotten older. He's a safe pick with a bright future who would be ranked even higher in most cornerback classes.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

4. Cam Smith, South Carolina -- Long considered a first-round possibility, Cam Smith appears to be trending more towards a Day Two selection at this point in the NFL Draft process. However, I think there's a lot of potential here with the former South Carolina Gamecock, even if there are notable weaknesses. For one, Smith is a proven playmaker, who made a living jumping routes and displaying impressive ball skills. He's not the most fluid athlete, but has tremendous closing speed and his length allows him to get in the way of passing lanes. At times, Smith's playmaking ability can get him in trouble, as he's been mistake prone and was often penalized at South Carolina. Whoever does choose to invest in him will be getting a player with loads of potential, but also a guy who will need plenty of work. 

Projected Range: Early second round to late third round

5. Deonte Banks, Maryland -- A strong pre-Draft process has vaulted Deonte Banks from a likely second or third-rounder into first round consideration. NFL teams love his blazing speed and feel like he can be a real difference-maker on the back-end with his tools. With that being said, lack of discipline was a problem for Banks at Maryland and he has to learn how to use that speed effectively. Receivers have learned to use double moves against him, and there were times when he was burned down the field more than he should have been. Banks dealt with injuries and a shortened COVID campaign that hampered his development slightly, but could still have a bright future ahead of him.

Projected Range: Late first round to late second round

Sleeper: Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU -- The uncle of TCU and NFL legend LaDainian Tomlinson, Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson lived up to the family name with an impressive career in Fort Worth. He was a three-time All-American and won the Jim Thorpe Award this past fall, helping lead the Horned Frogs to a National Championship Game appearance. After measuring in at 5'8", 178 pounds at the Combine, it's no surprise that NFL teams are a bit wary about his size and fit in a pro defense. Yet, I still think he has a bright future ahead of him as a nickel back in the NFL, an explosive athlete with a proven pedigree. He's one of the better corners in this Class in terms of run support and should be able to be an asset to any pro team.

Projected Range: Early third round to late fourth round


1. Brian Branch, Alabama -- In one of the weaker safety classes I can recall, Brian Branch takes the cake as the best available. That shouldn't come off as a knock against the Tide defender, who appears to be a first-round lock. He's the latest in a long line of Alabama defensive backs who put together impressive careers in Tuscaloosa and will be earning millions on Sundays. We've seen past Alabama defenders who may be more athletic than Branch, but he's about as good of a tackler as you'll find at this level. He's got NFL-level instincts, a nose for the ball, and could realistically play either nickel or safety in the pros. It feels like a safe bet to assume Branch will land somewhere in the first round.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

2. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M -- It's difficult to know how to categorize Antonio Johnson, whether he's a corner or safety at the next level. It feels like his physique and play style lends itself to end up being a safety, but there's some thought he could move around as needed. He put together an extremely impressive career in College Station, even though he dealt with injuries in 2022. A relatively underwhelming showing at the Combine has threatened to drop him, but he makes up for it with refined fundamentals and fabulous instincts. Another guy who feels like he doesn't have superstar upside, but is going to have a long, productive NFL career.

Projected Range: Early second round to early third round

3. Daniel Scott, California -- Although I believe this safety group is weak this year, I've become a big fan of Daniel Scott. He was the unsung hero on a stingy Cal defense and also made his presence felt on special teams. He followed it up with a nice pre-Draft process that showcased nice speed, a well-rounded game, and a fundamentally sound football player. The biggest weakness for Scott as a prospect isn't even necessarily a fault of his own, but the ageism of the Draft process. He will be a 25-year old rookie next fall, and spent six years in Berkeley. The reality is that his ceiling is capped in comparison to others, although I still believe he's worth a flier. 

Projected Range: Late fourth round to early seventh round

4. Jordan Battle, Alabama -- Much like his fellow defensive backfield mate, Brian Branch, Jordan Battle doesn't jump out at you the way past Alabama defensive backs have. He's never going to be the most athletic player on the field or make a game-changing interception. But, what he does bring to the table is plenty of experience and a proven piece in pass coverage. Battle played a bunch of snaps with the Tide and proved to be a reliable, consistent force on the back-end. He also showed the ability to come up and make plays when needed, and can be used creatively. It's unclear whether he will end up being a starter at the next level, but he's well worth a selection in the middle rounds.

Projected Range: Late second round to late fourth round

5. Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame -- Few players broke out during the shortened 2020 season quite like Brandon Joseph, who was playing for Northwestern at the time. He picked off six passes as a true freshman, playing a key role in helping guide the Wildcats to the Big Ten Championship Game. He followed that up with a pair of steady seasons, one more with the Wildcats and then one with Notre Dame. But, as an NFL prospect, his lack of top-end speed and inconsistent tackling make him a likely middle round selection. The ball-hawking ability is always an important asset to have and Joseph can also help out on special teams, but it's hard to get overly excited about him with some of the flaws. 

Projected Range: Early fourth round to early sixth round

Sleeper: Marte Mapu, Sacramento State -- Marte Mapu isn't your typical NFL Draft prospect in a lot of ways. For one, it's not often we see players from Sacramento State getting much attention at this point in the process. Second, Mapu has a fascinating physique, at 6'3" and weighing in at 215 pounds. There's some who feel that Mapu would be more natural at linebacker and his ability to make plays in run support seems to bail that out. But, he will need to put on weight if that is going to be the case and he could be a real asset in coverage with his skillset. Either way, the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year is going to find some way to make an impact in the NFL.

Projected Range: Early fourth round to late sixth round

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