Each year, every NFL general manager, scout and coach has a personal list of favorite prospects -- guys to pound the table for when the clock is ticking and a decision must be made about which player to invest precious draft capital in.
Well, I'm no different. With the 2023 NFL Draft just around the corner (April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri), here is my list of prospects I feel most passionately about. This exercise isn't all-encompassing, and it's not just limited to the most highly touted players. I've included likely Day 1 (Round 1), Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) and Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) picks here. There are others I would strongly advocate for, too, but I don't want to damage the draft-room table!
Twelve of the 13 players on last year's version of this list were drafted, and seven of the 13 started at least one game in 2022. Hopefully the players mentioned below can replicate -- if not exceed -- the success of last year's pound-the-table class!
If Hooker had not suffered an ACL tear last November, I have no doubt that he would be in the discussion for QB3 in this year’s draft, along with Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. Obviously, the injury was a setback, but he’s still in the first-round conversation. Some might point to his age -- he turned 25 in January -- as a negative, but let’s not overlook the fact that he’s going to be asked to lead a huddle full of grown men, perhaps very early in his NFL career. His age and maturity should work in his favor when that time comes, in my opinion. He handled a lot of responsibilities in the Tennessee offense, and I view him as the best deep-ball thrower in this year’s draft.
I know Vaughn’s size (5-foot-5, 179 pounds) will be part of the conversation in his evaluation, but he has already proven he can carry a heavy workload, handling 335 touches for Kansas State last season. He’s produced any time he’s had an opportunity during his football career. As former NFL scout Alonzo Highsmith advised me years ago, subscribe to the home-run hitter theory. If a prospect who doesn’t seem to measure up at first glance is playing at a high level once the game gets underway, look into his background. There’s a good chance he’s been exceeding expectations at every turn. Vaughn is that player.
Jones saw a massive jump in production last year, going from a 21-catch campaign with Iowa in 2021 to a 110-catch season with Purdue in 2022 after transferring. I know that spike might raise eyebrows, but Jones is no one-year wonder. He was the Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year with the Hawkeyes in 2021. The ability was always there. Purdue was able unleash that talent. He’s a good route runner with strong hands, and he can run (4.43-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine). He’ll be a great find for a team late on Day 2 or early on Day 3.
In a stacked tight end class, sometimes LaPorta is overlooked. I get it. His numbers last season (58-657-1) don’t jump off the page, but he certainly stood out to me when I watched his tape and saw him work out at the combine. He’s an easy mover, runs good routes and can make plays down the field. He will block at the line of scrimmage, too. Down the road, people will be wondering why he wasn’t picked earlier in the draft.
I had a chance to watch Bergeron, a Quebec native, at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, and I thought he improved every day against all-star competition. He was hitting moving targets in the open field, so I know he has the necessary agility. I’ve heard some talk of a potential move to guard at the next level, but I like him starting out as a tackle in the NFL. I think his best football is ahead of him. You had better believe I would be pounding the table for him on Day 2 of the draft.
Skoronski is a top-10 pick all day. He was raised in the game -- as has been well publicized, his grandfather, Bob, was a captain for Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the 1960s. I know Skoronski’s arm length (32 1/4 inches) isn’t ideal for a left tackle, but that’s the position he’d be playing for me until it’s proven that it’s not going to work on the blindside. Worst-case scenario, he becomes an All-Pro guard.
There is no question that Vorhees is a hard-nosed guy. Unfortunately, he sustained an ACL tear during his combine workout last month. In an incredible display of his toughness and grit, he participated in the bench press the next day in Indianapolis and put up the most reps of any 2023 combine participant (38) with only one leg on the ground. For that reason alone, I’m pounding the table for him. On top of that, he’s a good player! He might go lower than we initially expected because of the injury, but when he recovers, I expect him to be an NFL starter.
Now, I am not putting Tippmann in the same category as six-time Pro Bowler Jason Kelce, but I will say that the former Badger has some Kelce-like elements to his game, just in a taller package. One of his greatest gifts is the ability to bend. He can pull and hit his targets on the move. Travis Frederick, a center prospect from Wisconsin back in 2013, surprised by going in Round 1 a decade ago. Tippmann could do the same thing in 2023.
Carter rose to prominence in 2021, when he posted a school-record 15.5 sacks and became a national sensation. The production declined last season (3.5 sacks), but I still believe in him. Carter is active with his hands, and he can drop into coverage if asked to do so. He’s going to need to get stronger to succeed at the next level, but give him a year or two in an NFL strength and conditioning program and watch him reap the benefits. He’s a bit of a project right now, but I think a patient team will be rewarded for its investment on Day 3 of the draft.
I am rooting for this young man, who has faced a great deal of adversity in his career. Bresee arrived at Clemson as one of the top recruits in the nation and was a first-team All-ACC selection as a true freshman. He was limited to four games the next year due to an ACL tear, but still earned third-team all-conference honors for the Tigers. Tragically, he lost his younger sister, Ella, to brain cancer in September 2022, and Bresee was sidelined by a kidney infection later in the season. He still managed to play in 10 games last year and was a second-team All-ACC pick. We know he is extremely talented, and I fully expect that talent to shine when he gets to the NFL, likely as a first-round pick.
I was surprised Brooks didn’t receive an invite to the combine. He recorded 46 tackles for loss in 52 games played for Bowling Green, and he had a terrific week at the Senior Bowl. I expect him to play three-technique in the NFL, where he’ll provide good interior pass rush and play the run really well. Don’t sleep on him sneaking into Day 2 of the draft.
As we all know, inside linebackers aren’t valued like they used to be in the pros. However, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Moore when I watched him on tape. He clearly has a nose for the football, bouncing back from a knee injury suffered in 2021 to post a career-high 15 tackles for loss last season. The guy can diagnose and go make something happen. He’s not a household name, but I think he can flat-out play. Don’t count him out of becoming an NFL starter down the road.
Mapu played his college ball at the FCS level, but underestimate him at your own risk. He helped lead Sacramento State to its first ever undefeated regular season under Troy Taylor, who was hired as Stanford’s head coach in December. He’s a hybrid player (safety/linebacker) who is fast and always around the ball. He came to the Senior Bowl and did not look out of place against a higher level of competition. The big question for NFL decision-makers is figuring out where they want to play Mapu. He’s played safety, but he’ll most likely be asked to add some weight and play Will linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
Allow me to introduce you to a tackling machine. Tulane won the American Athletic Conference title last season and put an exclamation point on a big year with a win over USC in the Cotton Bowl. Williams made 17 tackles in that game, taking home Defensive MVP honors. He was just all over the field. He’s a terrific run-chase-hit player who finishes plays. Any team in the market for an off-ball linebacker on Day 3 of the draft should be pounding the table for the former Green Wave star.
We’ve heard a lot about Hodges-Tomlinson’s lack of size (5-8, 178), but when I watch him play, I see a guy who is sticky in coverage and battles every receiver he comes across. He makes life very difficult on pass-catchers and earned the Jim Thorpe Award (top college DB) for his efforts last season. He reminds me of Nickell Robey-Coleman, who dealt with similar questions about size early in his career and has gone on to play in the NFL for a decade. Also, it never hurts when your uncle is a Pro Football Hall of Famer and has helped train you. I expect Hodges-Tomlinson to be a late Day 2 or early Day 3 pick and make his living in the slot.
Brown was a first-team All-Big Ten selection after picking off six passes for Illinois last season, and then he took charge at the Senior Bowl. He had the defense down cold when he hit the field in Mobile, Alabama, and made sure his teammates were lined up properly. Then he executed once the ball was snapped. He might have to wait until Day 3 to hear his name called, but I see a starting job in the NFL in his future. His brother, Chase, is going to be drafted, as well.
This one’s personal! I know Swoboda -- he played high school basketball with my son. Their team won a state championship for Windermere Prep in Florida, and Swoboda was the sixth man on that squad. He was an all-district performer in football, too, and went on to play his college ball at Virginia. He was a starter for the Cavaliers in 2020 and 2021 before transferring close to home for his final college season, earning first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors at UCF in 2022. At 6-9, 319 pounds, he definitely stands out in a crowd. He earned an invitation to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in January, and he has a chance to be a right tackle in the league.