An NFL mock draft constructed in January can only go so far in accurately predicting what will transpire in April. Even the full first-round order won’t be set until after the Super Bowl.
The pre-draft process – from the Senior Bowl to the scouting combine and pro days – will further shape the work already done by scouts and front offices. More importantly, however, is that team needs and assets will be radically restructured by free agency deals and trades.
Consider this, then, a snapshot of where things stand for teams with the regular season complete.
For the first time in the common draft era (starting in 1967), the Chicago Bears will hold the top overall pick. That and the Miami Dolphins’ lack of a first-round choice after being penalized for tampering are just two of the surprising wrinkles already evident this early in the process.
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Here’s a look at USA TODAY Sports’ first NFL mock draft for 2023, with the playoff teams’ order set by projected order of finish as well as record and strength of schedule:
Is it too early to project a trade? With Justin Fields having quelled many concerns from his rookie year and a slew of teams throughout the top 10 in need of a quarterback, Bears GM Ryan Poles could try to drum up a bidding war here. If Chicago stands pat, however, Anderson is more than deserving of the No. 1 slot. The Crimson Tide’s first two-time unanimous All-American would have had a compelling case to be the top selection in 2022 had he been eligible, and he’s drawn comparisons to Von Miller for his explosive pass-rush prowess. That package is no doubt enticing for a defense that tallied an NFL-worst 20 sacks this year – just 2 1/2 more than Anderson notched on his own in the 2021 campaign.
For most of the season, Houston looked like a sure thing to secure the No. 1 overall selection. Now, the Texans must grapple with whether to make a trade with Chicago or risk losing out on its top option. The clear choice should be Young, who might be the only player in this draft capable of elevating a franchise responsible for one-and-done coaches in consecutive years. A master of maneuvering the pocket, Young shows uncommon cool in the face of pressure. He’s by no means a sure thing, and his 6-0, 194-pound frame will be a sticking point for some. But Young marks the best chance for the Texans to jumpstart a rebuild that has been dormant for some time.
One year after its record-setting draft output, Georgia boasts another potential No. 1 pick to follow in Travon Walker’s footsteps. Carter was arguably the most dominant defender in college football last season when he routinely overpowered offensive linemen when not knifing past them. If he ends up available here, the Cardinals should count themselves lucky to find a disruptive force to pair with breakout defensive end Zach Allen.
A disastrous season bookended by humiliating results against the Texans looks like it could prompt the Colts to do what Chris Ballard has avoided for so long: take a swing on a young quarterback. Stroud might give an impatient group a shot at a relatively smooth transition, as the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist is a sharp distributor who repeatedly finds targets in favorable positions. Of course, even with Jonathan Taylor in tow, Stroud will have to demonstrate composure in the face of chaos early on, as the rest of the Colts’ offense is in rough shape.
Pete Carroll and Co. emerge from the Russell Wilson trade as a playoff outfit equipped with a top-five pick and an apparent answer at quarterback, so long as the team opts to bring back Geno Smith. And though last year’s class set a high bar for early contributors, Seattle is well positioned to fortify its defensive front. Murphy should be stout against the run from Day 1 with significant room for growth as a pass rusher, especially if the 6-5, 275-pounder can better translate his abundant athleticism into a finishing touch.
The moment of truth is coming for the Lions’ quarterback plans, as Detroit can no longer count on annual top-10 picks after narrowly missing out on the playoffs. If Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes have any concerns about Jared Goff, two picks in the first round and two more in the second provide ammo for a trade up the board. But changing gears might be hard to embrace after that 8-2 close to the season. If the Lions stay the course behind center, Bresee is a sensible option as a force in the middle who can amplify the havoc created by standout rookie Aidan Hutchinson.
Derek Carr’s late-season ouster as starter heightened intrigue about what’s next not only for the veteran signal-caller, but also the Raiders. While Las Vegas could roll the dice on a rookie quarterback, it seems like a stretch to do so on what would likely be the third or fourth passer chosen. An offensive line in disarray could get a lift from Skoronski, a well-rounded blocker who can thrive either as a tackle or guard.
While going into Year 3 of a regime with a third-round quarterback might seem risky, Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot might be content to entrust the reins to Desmond Ridder – or at least stave off using a high selection on a passer. Instead, the shrewd move might be using that premium pick to bolster a pass rush that generated just 21 sacks. The 6-6, 275-pound Wilson can punish blockers whether operating inside or on the edge, though he’ll need to prove he can consistently beat opposing offensive linemen at the next level with his speed.
A trade into the top five might be necessary for owner David Tepper to land the franchise quarterback he’s so sorely sought during his tenure. In this scenario, however, the Panthers still grab one of the draft’s most intriguing passers. NFL teams don’t overlook anyone who blends a 6-3, 232-pound frame with superlative arm strength and running ability, so Levis’ rise is hardly surprising. But his underdevelopment when operating from the pocket leaves significant questions about how he can handle the next step. For the Panthers, however, that’s still an offering that’s too good to turn down.
Deferred gratification paid off for Philadelphia, which parlayed last year’s multi-pick swap with the Saints into a top-10 pick this April. Quite a reward might be waiting for them in Ringo, a 6-2, 205-pound coverage ace with the unique physical profile to handle modern receivers. Taking him could help ease the blow if another team swoops in on James Bradberry in free agency.
Jon Robinson’s midseason firing has to be a harbinger of a more widespread shake-up for a franchise that just a year ago was the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs. No matter the form or extent of the rebuild, significant work needs to be done to a crumbling offensive front, especially if the team dumps longtime left tackle Taylor Lewan in a cost-saving move. An astute run blocker with the athleticism to become a top-flight pass protector, Johnson should be an attractive building block for fellow former Buckeye Mike Vrabel.
Houston can’t expect for Bryce Young – or any other quarterback – to single-handedly save an offense that ranked 31st with just 17 points per game. Enter Johnston, a 6-4, 215-pound burner who’s equally comfortable hauling in deep bombs as he is evading defenders after slants.
Injuries were the catalyst for several of the Jets’ five quarterback changes, but it was untenable play behind center – primarily from second-year signal-caller Zach Wilson – that sunk Gang Green’s once-promising season. A young core might give New York the flexibility to pursue a quick-fix veteran solution, so the Jets can turn their attention to another area of concern with this pick. Jones, an ascendant talent still finding his way at left tackle after his first year as a full-time starter, could provide some long-term stability after Mekhi Becton’s fractured kneecap necessitated last August’s signing of 37-year-old Duane Brown.
New England’s offensive woes won’t be resolved merely by the arrival of one figure, be it a coach or a player, and Belichick’s historical aversion to first-round receivers should be noted. But leading receiver Jakobi Meyers is poised to be a free agent, and it’s unclear how much can be expected of second-rounder Tyquan Thornton in Year 2. At 6-0 and 175 pounds, Addison doesn’t look the part of a first-round pass catcher, but his savvy working every level of the field could help him catch Belichick’s eye.
No, it’s not a first-round pass catcher for Aaron Rodgers or his eventual successor. The 6-0, 193-pound Branch isn’t as flashy as some of his more highly touted Crimson Tide peers in this draft, but whether in coverage or run support, he has a knack for finding the ball. The Packers’ future at safety is unclear with Adrian Amos and Rudy Ford no longer under contract, and Branch’s versatility would be an asset to the defense regardless of who returns.
In its quest to find a quarterback, Washington’s brain trust does what its passers can’t: repeatedly throw darts. Richardson, however, might represent one of the wildest gambles of all. A dazzling deep thrower with a rare blend of speed and power as a runner, the 6-4, 232-pound quarterback is a singular prospect in any draft class. But that’s also partly due to his maddening inconsistency as a passer, leaving him very much an unknown entity at this point in his career. Starting him anytime soon would be a massive risk for any NFL franchise, but would that really scare off the Commanders given their current outlook?
There might be a few things to iron out in this potential marriage, as the elder Porter served as an assistant coach for his former team from 2014-18 but was fired by Mike Tomlin. But there’s little doubt that Porter’s ultra-physical approach would make him a fast favorite in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers could find themselves in a tough spot if Cameron Sutton signs elsewhere in March.
Detroit has a strong opportunity to keep its defensive youth movement rolling, but top talent at cornerback is sorely lacking. The Lions should have several potential answers in the first round, and the 6-2, 200-pound Gonzalez proved with four interceptions this season that he’s more than just an impressive package of size and speed.
Maybe this is too cute for a team that has major problems areas elsewhere and could soon be facing life without Tom Brady. Still, Robinson is not merely a bell-cow ball carrier, as the Doak Walker Award winner’s electric ability to shake defenders in tight quarters or the open field and fluster defenses as a receiver position him as one of this draft’s most dynamic threats.
If the Seahawks bring back Geno Smith at quarterback, the veteran would stand to benefit greatly from the addition of another pass catcher to an offense that has tilted heavily toward DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. While Mayer won’t have anyone confusing him for Kyle Pitts or Travis Kelce given his athletic limitations, the 6-4, 265-pounder is one of the most sure-handed and reliable tight end prospects in years.
An opportunistic defense was responsible for lifting Jacksonville to its first AFC South title since 2017, but there’s still room to build out the burgeoning unit. Smith is highly aggressive and boasts the requisite traits to thrive in man coverage, making him an appealing option to place opposite Tyson Campbell.
Big decisions are ahead for Big Blue, as the team will have to navigate the impending free agency of Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley. Assuming the Giants’ brain trust hangs on to both, the next order of business should be finding a receiver who can create the separation that was so hard to come by for this position group in 2022. No problem there for Smith-Njigba, a smooth route runner who should be a shoo-in for the first round despite missing all but three games in 2022 with a hamstring injury.
As strong as the pull might be to equip Justin Herbert with more help up front or needed speed in the receiving corps, the Chargers shouldn’t overlook a talent like Simpson merely because of his listed position. Adept at handling a variety of matchups in coverage who can also make his mark as a blitzer, Simpson can be so much more than an off-ball linebacker – if used properly.
Utilizing his quick-twitch movements and advanced feel for the position, Phillips continually delivers performances one wouldn’t expect from a 5-10, 185-pound cornerback. While he will have to show he can hold up against the NFL’s most physical receivers, Phillips offers coverage ability that would allow the Ravens to continue to revamp their secondary with Marcus Peters unsigned beyond this season.
Despite unearthing a late-round gem in rookie nickel DaRon Bland, the Cowboys should still be on the hunt for more steadiness in the secondary. Combining sticky coverage skills with a flair for making plays on the ball when tested, Witherspoon would be an intriguing running mate for Travon Diggs.
Jessie Bates III’s departure appears inevitable after the team issued the franchise tag last offseason, and Vonn Bell could also be headed out. Johnson isn’t a one-for-one replacement for either player, but it’s difficult to ignore the upside here given his versatility and penchant for making plays.
The Russell Wilson reclamation project is no doubt top priority in Denver, even if it’s not explicitly spoken by top brass. Upgrading at right tackle with Harrison would be an instant win for both Wilson and the rest of an offense that surrendered a league-worst 63 sacks.
Having ranked 31st in pass defense (265.6 yards allowed per game) and with cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan set to become free agents, the Vikings’ secondary looks ripe for change. The 6-2, 205-pound Jones sizes up as a smart fit for Minnesota’s zone-heavy scheme.
Shaky play on the interior has been one of the Bills’ few glaring issues, and the team is past due for a meaningful investment at guard. Torrence is a bulldozer in the run game, though he might be a liability early on in pass protection.
First-round rookie defensive end George Karlaftis notched 5 1/2 sacks in his final seven games, but there’s always room for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to build out his pass rush. So long as Smith’s recovery from a season-ending torn pectoral muscle is on track, the 6-3, 235-pounder should be an enticing option for any team willing to be creative with his deployment.
What do you get the team that boasted the NFL’s best record and topped the league with 70 sacks? If you’re Howie Roseman, maybe still more speed off the edge. Ojulari brings plenty of that with a blistering first step, which should become even more imposing if he can develop a better plan for his rush.