Volatility is a baked-in feature of every NFL draft.
With each pick comes a degree of surrender to uncertainty, as the task of projecting how any player will fare in the transition from college to pro entails an untold number of variables. For some prospects, however, there’s a wider spectrum of possible outcomes. But while a visible gulf between a player’s apparent potential and their demonstrated ability might be an alluring sign of unrealized upside to some, the same discrepancy can prove fatal to teams if a coaching staff assigned to bridge that gap is unable to do so.
And just like in years past, the 2023 NFL draft class features plenty of boom-or-bust prospects. Here’s our look at 13 of the biggest high-risk, high-reward players:
Will Levis, QB, Kentucky
By any measure, the 6-4, 229-pound passer is a confounding study. Levis aces some feats that few others can match, slinging off-platform throws on point and squeezing tight-window passes to the sideline or deep downfield. Yet he too often botches intro-to-quarterbacking-level assignments with sloppy footwork and bewildering decision-making. Kentucky’s janky offense did him few favors, though, and a litany of injuries he played through last season likely hindered his play.
Levis’ appeal as a potential top-10 pick is evident, as any team confident it can correct his accuracy issues might think it has the next Josh Allen on its hands. Given his discomfort in consistently operating from the pocket, however, he might be closer to former Tennessee Titans washout Jake Locker – an imprecise passer whose considerable physical tools weren’t enough to compensate for his shortcomings in the most vital parts of his job.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida
Something doesn’t add up when a 6-4, 244-pound quarterback with 4.43-second speed in the 40-yard dash and a dazzling deep ball only completes 53.8% of his throws in his lone year as a starter and is still considered a top-five pick. Nevertheless, that’s the outlook for Richardson, a sublimely gifted passer whose rapid ascension seems to be rooted primarily in his brief bursts of brilliance. And with only 393 career attempts to examine, it’s up to NFL scouts and general managers to figure out why Richardson could comfortably deliver a high-difficulty pass on one play and end up sailing a simpler throw on the next one.
Similar to Levis, Richardson was too often let down by a shoddy supporting cast and suspect offensive scheme. Maybe his most serious lapses can be attributed to fixable footwork and an overall shortage of experience, in which case he could come along quickly with proper coaching and additional repairs to his release and touch. Ultimately, however, no matter how much of a game-breaker he is as a runner – and he’s already a singular talent in this area – or impressive his highlights are, Richardson’s long-term viability will hinge on whether he can establish the consistency as a passer that has eluded him to date.
Jalin Hyatt, WR, Tennessee
A five-touchdown performance in a win over Alabama not only served as Hyatt’s star turn at the collegiate level, but it also helped legitimize his NFL outlook as well. Before recording a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, he raced to 15 touchdowns and an average of 18.9 yards per catch as one of the country’s premier deep threats. But it’s still unclear exactly what NFL teams can expect from Hyatt, as Tennessee’s offense manufactured clean releases for him and seldom asked him to do much beyond running go routes from the slot. Beating press coverage that no doubt awaits him at the next level will be the foremost challenge for the wiry 6-0, 176-pounder. How he handles that physicality and expanding his route tree could determine whether he’s a one-note receiver or a consistent big-play threat.
Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU
For better or worse, Johnston doesn’t consistently play in the manner one might expect from a 6-3, 208-pound receiver. To his credit, Johnston is an electric after-the-catch threat one rarely sees in a player of his build, as he can elude defenders in the open field with his surprising agility and pick up yardage in huge chunks. But despite his size advantage over most defensive backs, he’s underwhelming in his ability to haul in contested catches, and his lack of polish surfaces in his route running and struggles with drops. There’s a path for him to become a No. 1 target, but he runs the risk of quickly losing a quarterback’s trust if he doesn’t clean up key areas of his game.
Luke Musgrave, TE, Oregon State
Even in one of the deepest and most talented tight end classes in years, Musgrave stands out as the most dynamic athlete at the position. At the Senior Bowl, he clocked a max speed of 20.05 miles per hour, a mark more commonly seen from a running back than a 6-6, 253-pound pass catcher. Still, he’s much more inexperienced than many of his peers after a knee injury limited him to just two games in 2022. Musgrave’s upside might be greater than that of any other tight end, but he has work to do – particularly in becoming a better route runner – to catch up to the more reliable Michael Mayer and Dalton Kincaid.
Jaelyn Duncan, OT, Maryland
Demand always outstrips supply when it comes to fleet-footed offensive linemen, a phenomenon that annually pushes up athletic players whose body of work has been underwhelming. At 6-6 and 306 pounds with fluid movement skills, Duncan fits the physical profile of what teams seek in their pass protectors. When he has to lock onto a defender, though, his other gifts are often neutralized by his inability to anchor or drive them away. Duncan’s traits should buy him an opportunity as a Day 2 pick who starts off as a swing tackle, but he’ll need to discover some toughness to hack it as a starter.
Dawand Jones, OT, Ohio State
There’s a literal boom to Jones’ game, as the 6-8, 374-pounder can ragdoll even the stoutest defenders to the ground. He’s not merely a mauler, though, as it’s not easy to get around a player with an 87 7/8-inch wingspan and exceedingly difficult to push him back. But nimble pass rushers can get him off balance, and there likely will be plenty of pliable players off the edge ready to test his subpar flexibility. While Jones won’t be the right fit for every offensive scheme, he could follow the lead of Trent Brown and Orlando Brown as the next supersized standout offensive tackle.
Adetomiwa Adebawore, DE/DT, Northwestern
Perhaps no one else at the scouting combine did as much to boost their name, as Adebawore showcased his explosiveness with a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, 37 1/2-inch vertical leap and 10-5 broad jump. At 6-2 and 282 pounds, Adebawore can resemble a full-speed bowling ball when barreling toward offensive linemen. The problem: His pass-rush plan and finishing touch often have the same level of subtlety as that bowling ball. Playing him at defensive tackle rather than on the edge should help Adebawore tap into his best features, but a dose of control and discipline will be needed for him to become a consistent playmaker.
Calijah Kancey, DT, Pitt
It’s good to be an outlier when you’re a defensive tackle blazing a 4.67-second 40-yard dash time at the combine, besting Aaron Donald’s record for the position. But when you’re answering for a 6-1, 281-pound frame and 30 5/8-inch arms – one of the shortest measurements for an interior defensive lineman in years – standing out isn’t quite as fun. Kancey might get pushed around early and often in the run game by heftier guards and centers. He can still create havoc even as a limited designated pass rusher, but his future team might need to get creative with its usage of him to leverage his burst while limiting the issues tied to his build.
Will McDonald IV, OLB, Iowa State
Projecting McDonald’s NFL role requires a leap of faith larger than needed for many other prospects, mainly due to the role he likely will serve in. The 6-4, 239-pounder is a perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, with a devastating spin move and impressive blend of pliability and rapid closing speed as an edge rusher. But even though he tallied 34 sacks in five years at Iowa State, McDonald was often played out of position along the defensive line. The larger concern, however, rests with his ability to incorporate an element of power both as a pass rusher and run stopper, as he currently stalls out too often when unable to jet past a blocker.
Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson
From chasing down ball carriers in the open field to dropping in man coverage or blowing up plays on the blitz, Simpson has the physical tools to find the ball almost anywhere. Now, it’s on him to do so consistently as a pro. The 6-2, 235-pounder is a well-rounded and versatile piece that defensive coordinators covet to combat pass-heavy attacks. But Simpson’s instincts are lacking, and he too often takes himself out of plays through zone coverage gaffes or poor pursuit angles. A team will no doubt bet on his athletic traits, likely as an early Day 2 pick, but it’s unclear exactly what kind of payoff they can reasonably expect in the early going.
Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State
One of the most astounding measurements from this year’s combine came when Forbes tilted the scales at a mere 166 pounds, the lowest weight for any defensive back at the event since at least 2000, according to Pro Football Reference. Forbes – who was up to 170 pounds at his pro day – is battle-tested against the best of the best in the Southeastern Conference, and few can match the playmaking credentials of a cornerback with 14 career interceptions (including a Football Bowl Subdivision-record six returned for touchdown). Still, he could end up relegated to a zone-heavy scheme, and his frame might make him a liability in the run game.
Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia
At 6-2 and 207 pounds with 4.36-second speed in the 40, Ringo looks like a cornerback built for an earlier era. His size and speed allow him to match up with the most imposing downfield threats. Yet his struggles to change direction and transition at the top of routes leave him vulnerable against shiftier receivers. Ringo should be an asset for a press-heavy team that allows him to unleash his physicality and recovery speed, but other outfits that demand more versatility from their defensive backs likely will be wary.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.