A new Super Bowl champion may have been crowned two weeks ago, but the NFL is a 365-day proposition. Fans of the game begin looking ahead to “next season” well before the confetti is dropped and the Lombardi is hoisted. Between blockbuster trades, free agency and an infusion of rookie talent, the glory of the gridiron remains in constant motion.
Staying ahead of the league’s calendar isn’t as overwhelming as one might believe, though. Not with pros like Matt Bowen and the ESPN Fantasy team delivering need-to-know nugs throughout the offseason. Bowen, a seven-year NFL vet, serves as one of ESPN’s draft experts. He’s already spent a week in Mobile for the Senior Bowl and will have his discerning eye on all the action at the combine.
I asked him which incoming rookies he thought could make a splash in Indianapolis. After comparing notes, we compiled a list of names and pinpointed the events that could showcase their talents and, potentially, push them up draft boards.
The talent at signal-caller is deep in 2023. In fact, four QBs are expected to be selected within the first 10 picks in April’s draft. It’s unlikely that any of them will post top-12 fantasy numbers in their first season. Given the landscape of the position, however, it’s imperative to become familiar with their skill sets. There are a lot of needy teams and some interesting potential fits.
Bryce Young, Alabama
Winner of the 2021 Heisman Trophy, the 21-year-old has the goods to excel at the next level. He’s a playmaker with poise and precision. In possession of elite pocket mobility and the arm talent to service every level of the field, Young has that dog in him.
What he doesn’t possess, however, is size. His measurements at the combine will be a reminder to teams and coaches of what he’ll need to overcome. With a handful of 6-foot-1-and-shorter, dual-threat QBs thriving in the league in recent years, however, Young’s stock shouldn’t suffer too much if he were to top out at 5-foot-11.
C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
The antithesis to Young in terms of build, Stroud boasts prototypical size and is currently listed at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds. A Heisman finalist in 2021 and ’22, the Buckeye is an accurate passer with excellent mechanics and decision-making skills. Per Bowen, Stroud’s performance against Georgia in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve illustrates the 21-year-old’s ability to withstand pressure. He’s expected to ace the throwing drills in Indy.
Will Levis, Kentucky
Levis is a big man (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) with an even bigger arm. While he can sail the ball downfield with ease and remains an accurate passer overall, there are questions about his touch and ball placement. The tools are there, but nuance (at this stage) might be lacking. The throwing drills will be key for the New England native. Scouts and coaches will want to see if Levis can be an accurate thrower in a rehearsed session. His ability to impress with a bit of finesse could determine whether he goes behind or ahead of the aforementioned Stroud.
Anthony Richardson, Florida
Richardson is all about that upside, something NFL coaches and fantasy managers covet. He has the size, arm strength, mobility and overall athleticism to stun at the next level. With just 13 career starts under his belt, however, he doesn’t have an excess of experience or tape. Some big athletic testing numbers — particularly in the broad and vertical jumps — could showcase his speed and explosiveness, convincing teams to invest in his dazzling potential.
From top-of-the-draft talent like Breece Hall to a seventh-round selection like Isiah Pacheco, rookie running backs were, once again, fantasy contributors in 2022. The position has regularly churned out fantasy producers in players’ first campaign. This year’s class is a mix of obvious and under-the-radar talent.
Bijan Robinson, Texas
There is nothing under the radar about Robinson. An immediate producer in his true freshman effort, the Longhorn quite literally burst onto the scene … and never stopped churning. The 2022 Doak Walker Award winner, closed out his college career with 3,410 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns (fourth most in UT history).
He additionally forced 201 missed tackles in the past three seasons, by far the most in the FBS in that span. Robinson’s stop-and-start ability (especially given his 6-foot, 220-pound frame) is awe-inspiring. His acceleration and short-area speed should be on full display in the 10-yard split (first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash).
Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama
A multi-sport athlete who lined up as a wide receiver in high school, Gibbs shines as a pass-catcher. He led the position in forced missed tackles on receptions (18) in 2022. The Georgia native is an electric, dual-threat back who should fit easily into any pro scheme, and he earned high praise from Bowen, who compared Gibbs to Dalvin Cook. He figures to crush the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drill, leaning into his next-level suddenness and lateral agility.
Tyjae Spears, Tulane
Spears’ stock is on the rise, after an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl. In possession of what Bowen refers to as “big-play juice,” Spears is explosive as both a runner and a receiver. He has the potential to contribute immediately on third downs. He figures to wow in the 40-yard dash and 20-yard shuttle.
Kenny McIntosh, Georgia
A potential late-round gem, McIntosh has the traits to emerge as a solid player in the pros. He’s a natural hands-catcher who recorded zero drops on 90 targets during his career at Georgia. A marvel in the open field, McIntosh’s lateral agility and vision command respect. A sub-7.0-second time in the 20-yard shuttle could generate serious buzz.
The past few years have spoiled us with an exuberance of blue-chip talent at the receiver position. This year’s class isn’t as deep, but there’s still plenty of main-character energy to keep tabs on.
Quentin Johnston, TCU
Size. Speed. Leaping ability. Johnston is, arguably, the most well-rounded prospect in the 2023 class. In possession of a rare physical profile, Johnston is explosive out of his breaks and dangerous after the catch. At 6-foot-4, he figures to crush the vertical jump (that catch radius, tho). He should also post a solid 40 time (think mid-4.4s).
Jordan Addison, USC
Addison’s game oozes savvy. Before transferring to USC in 2022, he earned top honors as the nation’s best college wide receiver, winning the Biletnikoff Award in 2021 after posting a 100-1,593-17 stat line at Pittsburgh. What the 21-year-old lacks in size (6-feet and 175 pounds) he makes up for in technique. His route-running prowess figures to shine in the wide receiver drills. From a workout perspective, the 40-yard-dash will be key for Addison. Expect (and root for) a sub-4.5 time.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
Despite sharing the field with Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, Smith-Njigba managed to record a historic 1,606 receiving yards and 9 TDs on 95 grabs in 2021. Unfortunately, the follow up wasn’t nearly as impressive, as the Buckeye was limited to just three games due to a hamstring injury this past season.
However, his overall talent — elite ball skills, impressive footwork and soft hands — has kept NFL teams equal parts intrigued and enamored. Scouts and coaches will likely want to evaluate Smith-Njigba’s explosiveness as well as his catch-and-run speed. Keep an eye on his numbers in the 10-yard split and three-cone drill.
Zay Flowers, Boston College
A smooth route-runner with excellent balance and body control, Flowers gets open with ease. The 22-year-old was widely productive in college — despite playing on a subpar offense — and took the majority of his snaps on the outside. That’s surprising given his slight stature (5-foot-9, 182 pounds). While he’s likely to be relegated to the slot in the NFL (at least at the top of his career), his overall traits figure to make him a consistent producer. He’s expected to fly in the 40-yard-dash.
Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee
After catching fewer than 25 balls and recording less than 280 yards for two straight seasons, Hyatt hit the gym, bulked up and broke out in his junior effort. The 2022 Biletnikoff Award winner led the position in slot TDs (12) last season. He’s a vertical stretch target who can create conflict with his speed. His 40-yard dash time should be fire.
Everyone is aware of the “first-year tight ends don’t produce in fantasy” trope. And, for the most part, it’s an accurate adage. Still, the 2023 class is flush with young talent. Streamers and dynasty enthusiasts will want to take note.
Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
Widely considered the most polished TE in this year’s draft, Mayer possesses a rare blend of top-notch receiving and blocking skills. He can truck after the catch, while also dominating as a run-blocker. The latter part of his game doesn’t flash for fantasy fans, but it does keep him on the field and earn him valuable pass-catching opportunities. While a mid-4.6 time in the 40-yard-dash would buoy his stock, what he does in the route-running drills will be particularly revealing.
Sam LaPorta, Iowa
LaPorta has the tools to emerge as a consistent middle-of-the-field producer in the NFL. He may not be the buzziest prospect (despite hailing from Tight End U), but his reliable hands and extensive route tree could allow him a Heath Miller-esque career at the next level. The Iowa product could hear his name called as early as day two … but it will require a strong showing in the 40-yard-dash (mid-4.6 range).
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