We are less than a week away from my personal favorite time of the NFL offseason: the Draft.
While free agency is used to supplement the current roster, nothing can make or break a team quite like a draft class can. Think of the 1974 Steelers class including Hall of Fame talent such as Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster, or the 1986 49ers drafting seven starters during their dynasty years, or the 1996 Ravens drafting two franchise cornerstones in Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden to connect the team with their then-new city. More recent examples would include the 2012 Seahawks (Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson), the 2016 Jaguars (Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack. Yannick Ngakoue), and the 2017 New Orleans Saints (Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara). The NFL Draft stands as arguably the most important three days of the offseason, as they can help teams build a core that can open and sustain a championship window.
The first two rounds of the draft are where you’re expected to find the stars of tomorrow. Whether it’s translating a player’s college production to the NFL level or building an elite athlete into a superstar, GMs and coaches will face some of their hardest decisions early on. With the pre-draft process all but finished, these are the players that, if I were a GM or scout for an NFL team, I would have on my board for the early rounds.
That said, it wouldn’t be fun to wax poetic about a prospect that you’ve probably read up on a hundred times. So, for the sake of avoiding redundancy, these are some popular players that I won’t mention that I would still draft without hesitation: Bryce Young (QB, Alabama), C.J. Stroud (QB, Ohio State), Bijan Robinson (RB, Texas), Peter Skoronski (OT/OG, Northwestern), Will Anderson Jr. (EDGE, Alabama), Christian Gonzalez (CB, Oregon), and Brian Branch (S/CB, Alabama).
With that out of the way, who stands out as the Nerd-approved prospects for the first couple of rounds? Let’s find out.
Zach Charbonnet (RB, UCLA)
Bijan Robinson is the top running back in this year’s class, and I have no intention of disputing that claim. While running backs have lost most of their value over the past few years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least a few go in the early rounds. After Robinson, Charbonnet stands out as an option for who could be the best back in this class in retrospect.
The frame (6 feet, 214 pounds) and 4.53 40-yard dash time would lead some teams to believe Charbonnet’s a power back only. However, he’s shown that he can be explosive and make tacklers miss, combining toughness with underrated elusiveness. Charbonnet also stands out as one of the better third-down backs in the class, functioning well as both a passing option and an extra blocker in the backfield. Combine all of this with the fact that he didn’t lose a fumble in his four years of play with UCLA and Michigan. and you have the makings of a reliable three-down workhorse.
Charbonnet’s floor is already pretty high among his fellow running back prospects, but the fact that his ceiling may be even higher than anticipated should draw a team towards the back half of Round 2.
Jalin Hyatt (WR, Tennessee)
While the receiver class this year looks pretty deep, there are very few options that stand out as a “home run” threat quite like Hyatt does.
The immediate comparison for Hyatt is Philadelphia WR DeVonta Smith, who was a top-10 pick in 2021. Both are slender receivers who may not necessarily have the play strength to be consistent against traffic, but that’s not why a team drafts such a player. Hyatt possesses 4.4-second speed, allowing him to torch opposing defensive backs and force defenses to remain honest. Tennessee’s unique offense did mean that Hyatt primarily had to focus on running out into open space, but he’s shown the instincts necessary to find soft spots in coverage and exploit them for big plays, so I don’t expect learning an NFL route tree to be too problematic for him.
The expectation of Hyatt should be as an impact receiver and deep threat, which is critical in the age of the big-armed quarterback. I would draft him over similar players like Zay Flowers, which would put him squarely in the Round 1 conversation.
Josh Downs (WR, North Carolina)
While North Carolina has seen some quality quarterbacks over the years with Sam Howell and Drake Maye, Downs has been a consistent part of the Tar Heel offense that has allowed both to thrive.
While Downs’s slight build (five-foot-nine, 179 pounds) is likely going to keep him in the slot at the NFL level, his ability to compete and win contested catch situations has him playing much bigger than his size suggests. His athleticism allows him to reach top speed quickly, while his route running and subtleties let him separate from defensive backs and find the open spaces in coverage. There are favorable comparisons to Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett being thrown out for him, suggesting that the ceiling for him is a consistent thousand-yard threat and potential Pro Bowler.
If Downs measured as his play style suggests, he’d probably be targeted in the middle of the first round. That said, there’s still a chance his name gets called at the tail end of Round 1, lest he turn into a nice value pick in Round 2.
Darnell Washington (TE, Georgia)
The tight end class this year is loaded with top-end talent, and the position could very well see three names get called in Round 1. Michael Mayer and Dalton Kincaid both possess tremendous upside but, if you’re hunting for Mayer’s blocking acumen with Kincaid’s receiving ability, Washington will be where you ultimately land.
While fellow Bulldog Brock Bowers received much of the attention in Georgia’s offense, Washington made a fair share of contributions to the back-to-back national champs. While he’s never gotten much of an opportunity to show his receiving chops, Washington was able to serve as a sixth offensive lineman in both the running and passing games. Helping Washington’s case is that he possesses one of the best size-speed combinations of anyone in the draft; his Combine performance was amongst the best at the position, clocking a 4.64 40-yard dash time and a 4.08 shuttle time at six-foot-seven and 264 pounds. All of the tools are there to create offensive mismatches and become near-unstoppable in the red zone, and a savvy offensive coordinator will be more than happy to work with Washington to achieve that as he begins his career as a blocker.
While Mayer and Kincaid could count as “safer” picks, Washington possesses much more intrigue than either of them, in my opinion. Whether it’s the end of Round 1 or the beginning of Round 2, the team that drafts and develops Washington properly could have a star on their hands.
Sam LaPorta (TE, Iowa)
Iowa has earned its reputation as “Tight End University” with the likes of George Kittle, Dallas Clark, and T.J. Hockenson translating their time as Hawkeyes to NFL success. LaPorta has a good chance of following in the footsteps of his predecessors.
Despite being the only consistent threat in an anemic Iowa offense, LaPorta was still able to get things done this season. Much like the names mentioned that came before him, LaPorta stands out as a combination of toughness and underrated agility. Not only can LaPorta fight his way through traffic and come through with the catch in contested situations, but he can just as easily turn up the field and pick up substantial yards after the catch. While he isn’t particularly known as a blocking specialist, his toughness and leadership ability should help him be able to learn and develop into at least a serviceable player on that front.
If you aren’t sold on the top tight ends or just want to spend a first-round pick at a higher-value position, LaPorta should be available around the middle of Round 2. That would be a fair value on someone who’s been a little under-the-radar compared to the rest of the prospects at his position.
Dawand Jones (OT, Ohio State)
While a lot of the hype at offensive tackle will go to fellow Buckeye Paris Johnson Jr., Jones has built a resume worthy of a high pick in his own right.
The first thing that will immediately stand out about Jones is his size. Six-foot-eight, 370-pound athletes are difficult to come by, but Jones ensured that the Buckeyes always had the largest man on the field. While that comes with some drawbacks in terms of quickness, Jones has showcased surprisingly good mobility at Ohio State and during his brief stint at the Senior Bowl. He projects as an absolute mauler in the running game with some underrated pass protection skills, which will be perfect for teams that like to run balanced offenses. While his status as a natural right tackle will serve as a limitation, he should see the field early on in his career.
The first round is where teams look for the left tackles of the future, and Jones probably doesn’t qualify for that just yet. However, teams in need of offensive line help should look for him in the middle of Round 2 and watch him swallow up opposing defensive linemen.
Myles Murphy (EDGE, Clemson)
There was once a time when Murphy was up with Will Anderson Jr. as not only the best edge rusher, but the best prospect in the entire draft class. While that narrative has long since faded away, Murphy still possesses some great value.
If you want to look at a good comparison for Murphy, take last year’s top overall pick in Travon Walker; both were more tools than production when they were drafted, but the talent has flashed enough to warrant such a high choice. Very few edge rushers in the class have Murphy’s blend of freakish athleticism and positional versatility. He’ll most likely serve as a traditional defensive end in 4-3 sets, but he has the potential to work on the inside from 3-technique to 5-technique. While Murphy will need to work in developing a pass rushing plan to reach his potential, he has a decent array of moves to choose from already, so a defensive coordinator will only need to figure out how to string those moves together.
Murphy is largely projected to go in the middle of Round 1, with an outside shot of going in the top 10. Teams looking for edge rushing help at that stage of the draft would be wise to look at Murphy and give him a chance to showcase his abilities.
Derick Hall (EDGE, Auburn)
There hasn’t been much for Auburn to be happy about over the past few years, but the development of Hall as an edge rusher and defensive leader has certainly been a highlight.
Hall mostly stands as a 3-4 outside linebacker that can be a force in stopping the run and rushing the passer. His ability to quickly get leverage on opposing offensive tackles and tight ends is one thing, but being able to convert speed to power and use his long reach to explode into the backfield. Beyond that, he’s emerged as a leader both on and off the field for Auburn, so that will certainly appeal to teams looking at character as well as on-field ability. While Hall does come across as a little underdeveloped as a pass rusher at this point, it’s fair to wonder if the instability at Auburn contributed to that; getting to work with an NFL coaching staff should make some serious difference for his game.
Hall has all of the tools to be an every-down starting outside linebacker and edge rusher at the NFL level. For a prospect who has his stock currently in the back half of the second round, that has the chance to be one of the highest-value picks in the draft.
Adetomiwa Adebawore (DT/EDGE, Northwestern)
I’ll be honest with you all here: I’m not a big fan on many of the top defensive tackles in this class. Combining that positional weakness with an amazing pre-draft process, it’s no surprise why Adebawore has shot up draft boards over the last few months.
While his tweener frame (six-foot-two, 282 pounds) is a little too large for the outside and too light for regular snaps on the interior, it’s large enough to warrant being a defensive end and kicking inside to three-technique on pass-rushing sets. Adebawore has led Northwestern in sacks and forced fumbles in each of the past two years, and even showed flashes of brilliance during the Senior Bowl. There’s the need to show more consistency and recognize plays better, but his explosive first step combined with his length should make him a natural disruptor early.
While Adebawore is a little raw and would typically warrant a selection at the end of Round 2, the eye-popping Combine results will likely mean he goes off the board closer to Round 1. If a team pairs Adebawore’s raw athleticism and traits with a defensive coordinator that can place him in the right position, they may have a devastating pass rusher on their hands.
Jack Campbell (LB, Iowa)
With the de-valuation of traditional linebackers in recent years, that should give teams the chance to land some value picks at the position. While arguments for Trenton Simpson and Drew Sanders can be made, my pick for the top linebacker in this class would be Campbell.
Standing out in the middle of the defense at six-foot-five and 250 pounds, Campbell has been able to turn into one of the most productive linebackers in college football. His work has mostly come from plugging up running lanes and joining in on the pass rush occasionally, but he’s also shown flashes of ability in coverage. Increasing Campbell’s stock further was his impressive showing at the Combine, showing scouts that he had legitimate athleticism to back up his production. There are a few technical aspects that need work, but the issues surrounding Campbell are less alarming than some of the other top prospects at the position.
Five to ten years ago, players like Campbell could have easily warranted a first-round selection. Instead, Campbell and players like him will probably go around the middle of Round 2, which stands out as some solid value.
Devon Witherspoon (CB, Illinois)
Last year, Sauce Gardner won the hearts of scouts with his combination of ball skills, superior instincts, and swagger beyond his years. Given that Gardner proceeded to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, it should be no surprise that a similar prospect in Witherspoon has picked up a serious amount of hype.
While Witherspoon may be considered too small (five-foot-eleven, 181 pounds) to play on the perimeter, his experience playing both on the outside and inside should give defensive coordinators options on where to place him. Everything about Witherspoon’s game speaks volumes about his versatility: man or zone, pass or run, outside or inside, he has the skills to make a huge play at any time. Not only can Witherspoon make the big tackle or break up the pass, but he has the confidence in his own ability to go for it. That ability to set the tone on defense will be huge for a team that has seen fair shares of struggles stopping opposing offenses.
Out of every prospect on this list, Witherspoon will likely go the highest, possibly in the top 10. While that value ultimately hinges on how teams view Witherspoon as an NFL player, plenty of teams will be excited to add a player of his competitive nature and pedigree.
Jartavius Martin (S, Illinois)
What is it with Illinois defensive backs this year? While Witherspoon and Sydney Brown (an honorable mention for this list) are plenty deserving of the high praise being given to them, I’m surprised that the hype train hasn’t focused on Martin as much as it should.
While teams might be uncertain about whether he fits as a corner or a safety, that can also play into Martin’s strengths. Versatile defensive backs are always going to have some value in the NFL, so a safety like Martin that can play in a number of alignments, as well as in the nickel, is going to have some eyes on him. Being one of the better tacklers out of the defensive backs means Martin is a safe choice for blitz packages, and better ball production this season suggests he’s turned the corner in coverage as well. A strong Combine has also helped his chances, showing he has the athleticism to address any issues in his game.
Martin’s name is probably the least likely to be called in Round 2, and some outlets have him in Round 3. However, should a team decide to go for him in the second round, they’ll be getting a versatile skillset with more than enough room to blossom into a quality player.
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