Free agency never truly ends in the NFL. But the 2023 market’s shelves were largely barren by the time players could officially switch teams last week.
And while unsigned veterans like LB Bobby Wagner and WR Odell Beckham Jr. – and neither needs to be in a rush – bide their time before inking their next deals, the otherwise altered league landscape serves to better inform each club’s needs heading into the 2023 draft.
So taking the free agent fallout into account – plus the new-look first-round order in the aftermath of the Bears’ move out of the No. 1 spot – time for a fresh stab at projecting Round 1 with five weeks to go before the Panthers go on the clock in Kansas City, Missouri. (Note: The Miami Dolphins, who were scheduled to select 21st, forfeited their pick for illegally tampering with QB Tom Brady and coach Sean Payton when they were under contract with other clubs):
1. Carolina Panthers (from Chicago Bears) – QB Bryce Young, Alabama
The 2021 Heisman Trophy winner didn’t work out at the scouting combine but is expected to throw at the Crimson Tide’s pro day. Though his 5-10, 204-pound frame might cause teams to take a beat, his experience in a pro-style offense and quick cycle time through his progressions are among the traits that should lead Carolina to Young – even if C.J. Stroud’s sturdier build is more comparable to the players new Panthers head coach Frank Reich has typically worked with.
Young’s Heisman-winning performance included 4,872 yards and 47 TDs through the air. He’s accurate (66% completion rate in college) and his career 80-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio is indicative of solid decision-making. Young is also highly mobile, though typically buys time to pass and does a nice job keeping his eyes downfield – a la peak Russell Wilson. As poised at the podium as he was while reading the field from the Bama pocket, a lot to like about Young. And the supporting cast in Charlotte is pretty good overall, though the Panthers have downgraded their top weaponry over the past six months, mostly recently exporting WR DJ Moore, with an eye toward the future … one that will be built around their new quarterback.
2. Houston Texans – QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
His throwing session at the combine was as impressive as any in recent years, backing up Stroud’s assertion beforehand that, “(I) throw guys open, and that’s something that I think is rare – because, at the league, dudes aren’t wide open.” That’s probably going to be especially true in Houston following the trade of Brandin Cooks, given Texans WRs Robert Woods, Nico Collins and John Metchie III aren’t exactly elite or swift relative to their position – and there’s a legitimate argument to be made that Stroud had better pass catchers in Columbus the past two years. A guy who feels like he should have won the last two Heismans is going to need every scintilla of his next-level passing ability in the pros if he lands in H-Town given the Texans still have a lot of roster building ahead of them.
Stroud (6-3, 214 pounds) is accurate (69.3% completion rate in college), productive (85 TD passes, 12 INTs, 182.4 passer rating over last two seasons) and athletic – but has been inclined to extend plays to throw rather than break the pocket, though he admits he should probably tuck the ball and run a bit more. He was spectacular in his final game for the Buckeyes, a 2023 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Georgia, passing for 348 yards and four TDs against a Bulldogs defense that is almost NFL-caliber. He could be the man to stabilize a franchise that has essentially been in free fall for more than three years.
3. Arizona Cardinals – OLB/DE Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
Even with Carolina and Houston expected to pick passers, the rebuilding Cards seem to be in a good spot to trade out given there are other teams who desperately need quarterback help, including the Colts, who select fourth, or another club looking to leapfrog them. Barring that, Anderson was probably a better schematic fit with the 3-4 front the Cards used in recent seasons. But you don’t say no when you get the chance to take someone with his characteristics given his size (6-4, 253 pounds), burst, power and winning persona. And considering the success new HC Jonathan Gannon had deploying LB Haason Reddick – he’s a bit smaller than Anderson – on the edge in Philadelphia, there should be no issues. And Arizona clearly needs help hunting opposing quarterbacks with last year’s top pass rushers, J.J. Watt and Zach Allen, no longer on the roster. Anderson, the two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was truly spectacular in 2021, when he led the country with 17½ sacks and 31 tackles for loss.
4. Indianapolis Colts – QB Anthony Richardson, Florida
The self-styled “Cam Jackson” blew up the combine as a bit of a Cam Newton-Lamar Jackson hybrid. At 6-4, 244 pounds, Richardson blazed a 4.43-second 40-yard dash and hit combine quarterback records with a vertical jump of 40½ inches and a broad jump of 10 feet, 9 inches. So though he’s lacking in experience (13 starts for the Gators), Richardson’s physical tools – to include a bazooka of an arm that was also on full display – are very likely to land him in the top 10 … at the very least. He’d be quite a departure from the pocket passers Indy has largely been reliant on in recent seasons, but the Colts’ options were instantly limited after the Panthers jumped them. Yet new HC Shane Steichen might be the perfect man to shape Richardson given the success he had with Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. And with veteran QB Gardner Minshew II now in the fold, the Colts have another guy who could teach Richardson the offense and even start indefinitely if the 21-year-old isn’t ready to play … even if that means the entire 2023 season.
5. Seattle Seahawks (from Denver Broncos) – DE Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech
With QB Geno Smith re-signed, much lower odds they opt for a young passing prospect with the pick obtained in the Russell Wilson trade – assuming Richardson isn’t sitting here, and he’s not in this scenario. And the additions of DTs Dre’Mont Jones and Jarran Reed in free agency seem to reduce the odds Seattle rolls the dice on Georgia’s Jalen Carter. But reinforcements for a defense that hasn’t ranked better than 22nd since 2018 are long overdue. Wilson, a 6-6, 271-pound edge rusher with 14 sacks and 27½ TFLs over the past two seasons – even though his 2022 campaign was cut short by a broken foot – should provide needed pressure that would make a young group of cornerbacks shine even more.
6. Detroit Lions (from Los Angeles Rams) – DT Jalen Carter, Georgia
It’s shaping up as one of the most fascinating pivot points of the first round, the Lions apparently completely comfortable with QB Jared Goff and probably unlikely to take his long-term successor. A trade could also be a viable option here for GM Brad Holmes, who doesn’t need to reach for a linebacker or tight end this early. Of course, he could easily settle on the best player – clearly Carter. However it’s been a rough couple weeks for the former Bulldogs star. He recently received one year of probation, community service and a $1,000 fine after being charged with racing and reckless driving in conjunction with the January 15 accident that resulted in the deaths of Georgia teammate Devin Willock and recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy, who were in a separate vehicle. Add in a disastrous pro day, when Carter appeared overweight and didn’t finish all of the drills, and a slip from potential No. 1 overall pick to outside the top five seems viable.
Hopefully Carter’s mental state is as good as can be expected given all that’s swirled about him, notably the deaths in his UGA family. And hopefully, for his sake, he lands in a good spot professionally. Could that be Motown? From a football perspective, an inside-out combo of Carter and 2022 first-rounder Aidan Hutchinson could instantly catalyze what was the league’s last-ranked defense a year ago. When in the proper state of mind, the 6-3, 314-pound Carter is cat quick, lines up at all points along the front, can push the pocket and gets exceptional penetration and is especially adept at swallowing running backs. And while Holmes and HC Dan Campbell would realize great value by landing Carter at No. 6, they’ll also have to determine if he’s a cultural fit for an ascending team that values players who unrelentingly persevere with non-stop effort, perhaps another knock on Carter.
7. Las Vegas Raiders – QB Will Levis, Kentucky
Yes, they just signed QB Jimmy Garoppolo to a three-year deal. No, that doesn’t mean he’ll still be the starter in 2025 or even 2024. This is a perfect spot to take Levis and groom him, Jimmy G. among the league’s ultimate teammates and the perfect mentor to a player who could use an apprenticeship. Eventually, Levis, the man with the self-described “cannon” attached to his right shoulder, could put it to excellent use throwing to WRs Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Renfrow. “The goal eventually is to try to have a young player here, that’s going to be a Raider for a long time,” coach Josh McDaniels said at the combine. Fairly or not – OK, not – the strong-armed, athletic, tough, 6-3, 229-pounder with experience in a pro-style offense is going to draw comparisons to the likes of Matthew Stafford and Josh Allen. But Levis needs to improve his consistency and footwork while recovering from the physical beating he endured in 2022.
8. Atlanta Falcons – WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
This is another team that would probably be well served to trade down – if it can find a partner – since it doesn’t seem the Falcons will likely be a player in the rookie quarterback market. And, sure, Atlanta could also take a hard look at bringing Nolan Smith up the road from Athens or pursuing a corner or some such for a defense that ranked 27th in 2022. But with second-year QB Desmond Ridder the apparent starter for 2023, it seems incumbent to give him more help when considering the Falcons only have one returning player (WR Drake London) who had more than 30 receptions last year. Smith-Njigba, who had 347 receiving yards in the 2022 Rose Bowl before missing most of last season with a hamstring injury, is a silky smooth weapon out of the slot and would beautifully supplement TE Kyle Pitts and power forward-esque London in the passing game. And though this feels like an awfully rich price – at the moment anyway – Smith-Njigba can help justify it with a solid showing at his pro day this week.
9. Bears (from Panthers) – CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
The 6-1, 197-pound All-Pac-12 performer had four INTs and seven passes defensed in 2022 and showcased his explosive athleticism at the combine, running a 4.38 40-yard dash, posting a 41½-inch vertical leap and broad jumping 11 feet, 1 inch. The Bears, who surrendered the most points in the NFL in 2022 (27.2 per game), need help throughout their defense, though corner has been especially problematic despite the recent second-round picks invested in Jaylon Johnson (2020) and Kyler Gordon (2022).
10. Philadelphia Eagles (from New Orleans Saints) – RB Bijan Robinson, Texas
A three-down back with his talent and speed – Robinson clocked a 4.46 40 at the combine while showing off velvety soft hands – would have been a surefire top-five selection 20 years ago … but might still be the first top-10 RB since Saquon Barkley in 2018. Admittedly, taking Robinson here doesn’t seem like a typical move by Philly EVP/GM Howie Roseman, who frequently opts for linemen atop the board. But does it really feel like RBs Kenny Gainwell, Boston Scott and (oft-injured) Rashaad Penny are going to offset the loss of departed Miles Sanders? The NFC champs very much seem to be in their championship window, and a team that ran the ball more than any club in the NFL save two could very much use a bell cow who had more than 3,300 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons while averaging 6.7 yards per touch for at least the next four or five years. Robinson could well be the missing Lombardi piece here.
11. Tennessee Titans – OT Paris Johnson Jr., Ohio State
As long as this team’s offense is dependent on RB Derrick Henry, there better be some top-notch run blocking up front. Johnson can certainly provide that, whether he’s playing outside or in – he lined up at left tackle last season and right guard in 2021. Tennessee’s recent signing of Andre Dillard, traditionally a left tackle, could mean Johnson starts out on the right side.
12. Texans (from Cleveland Browns) – DE Lukas Van Ness, Iowa
He never started for the Hawkeyes, but he sure was impactful – totaling 13 sacks and 19 TFLs the past two seasons. The 6-5, 272-pounder with sub-4.6 speed would instantly add juice to a Houston front that needs it, not to mention the depth new coach DeMeco Ryans needs for a pass rush that was overly reliant on 34-year-old Jerry Hughes in 2022.
13. New York Jets – OT Broderick Jones, Georgia
Probably this draft’s premier pass blocker, the 6-5, 311-pound All-SEC performer capably guarded QB Stetson Bennett IV’s blind side the past two years as the Bulldogs won a pair of national title. With four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers seemingly headed to The Big Apple, the NYJ will need to upgrade their protection – especially given the question mark former first-round OT Mekhi Becton has become.
14. New England Patriots – OL Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
Whether Skoronski winds up at tackle or guard, Bill Belichick isn’t one to turn down the opportunity to take a smart, talented, unanimous All-American blocker – especially with 60% of the Pats’ projected starting O-line headed for free agency next year.
15. Green Bay Packers – OLB Nolan Smith, Georgia
Mixed bag – at best – from the Pack’s pair of first-round Georgia defenders, LB Quay Walker and DL Devonte Wyatt, in 2022. But why not keeping swinging on Bulldogs, especially after Smith’s sub-4.4 40 and 41-inch vertical leap at the combine. Mostly recovered from a torn pectoral muscle that cut his 2022 season short, Smith would also address a problem area given Green Bay OLB Rashan Gary tore an ACL midway through last season.
16. Washington Commanders – CB Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
A team lacking depth at corner seems like the right spot for an All-Big Ten performer who broke up 23 passes over the past two seasons and is a willing tackler ready to mix it up behind the line of scrimmage.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers – CB Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
There just might be the proper overlap of talent, need and serendipity needed to bring the son of former Steelers OLB Joey Porter to Pittsburgh. Porter Jr. is positioned to become the inaugural first-round defensive back in Nittany Lions history. All-Big Ten in 2022, he’s big (6-3, 193) and physical and would be a long-term solution to a secondary that lost CB Cam Sutton in free agency and is counting on soon-to-be 33-year-old Patrick Peterson.
18. Lions – TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
He catches (138 receptions for 1,649 yards over past two seasons), he blocks, he scores (16 TDs over past two seasons), and the 2022 All-American is huge (6-5, 249 pounds). He’d certainly garner appreciation from a former tight end like Campbell and for a team that needs to replace T.J. Hockenson, who was traded last season.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OT Darnell Wright, Tennessee
A 6-5, 333-pound, All-SEC selection, Wright would be a nice pickup for a Bucs offense in near-total transition. He has experience at both left and right tackle but might be best deployed on the right side if All-Pro Tristan Wirfs moves to QB Baker Mayfield’s blind side following the departure of longtime LT Donovan Smith. And, assuming this team runs more, backs should do well by following in Wright’s wake.
20. Seahawks – CB Deonte Banks, Maryland
Measuring 6 feet, 197 pounds, he shone at the combine with a 4.35 40 time, 42-inch vertical and a broad jump measuring 11 feet, 4 inches. Pairing him with another sensational athlete like Seattle CB Tariq Woolen would help a 26th-ranked defense get back on track.
21. Los Angeles Chargers – DT Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh
When you think undersized Pitt interior D-linemen who live behind the line of scrimmage – OK, OK, let’s not saddle Kancey with the Aaron Donald comparison. But let’s celebrate the 6-1, 281-pounder who dropped a 4.67-second 40 at the combine after posting 14½ sacks and 27½ TFLs for the Panthers over the past two years combined. Now imagine adding the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year to a Bolts defense overseen by HC Brandon Staley … who used to unleash Donald so effectively for the crosstown Rams. (Sorry, Calijah, couldn’t resist.)
22. Baltimore Ravens – DB Brian Branch, Alabama
The 6-foot, 190-pound All-American lines up in the slot, safety and corner, the latter spot looming as a particular problem spot in Baltimore. The Ravens also historically love Crimson Tide products.
23. Minnesota Vikings – WR Zay Flowers, Boston College
A weapon in the slot, from where he’ll occasionally motion into a jet sweep (57 rushes in four seasons), the 5-9, 182-pounder with 4.4 speed could bring a different dimension to a passing game undergoing a transition following the release of Adam Thielen.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars – TE Darnell Washington, Georgia
Franchise-tagged Evan Engram is the only tight end on the Jags’ roster with more than a dozen NFL receptions. Washington would be an intriguing complement and – at 6-7, 264 pounds with 4.64 speed – the imposing red-zone target Jacksonville doesn’t currently have. (For further proof, check out Washington’s one-handed stab on the boundary during combine workouts.) He isn’t likely to provide Engram-level receiving production, but Washington brings serious blocking ability to the table – which Engram doesn’t.
25. New York Giants – WR Quentin Johnston, TCU
An athletic, plus-sized (6-3, 208 pounds) target could nicely stabilize a position group currently awash in short-term options. Johnston averaged 19 yards per catch in college and had a dozen TD grabs over the past two seasons – a period when no Giant had more than four TD catches in either season. Johnston could be the answer that since-released WR Kenny Golladay wasn’t.
26. Dallas Cowboys – C John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota
HC Mike McCarthy wants “to run the damn ball’ in 2023. A good start might finally be addressing the center position, which hasn’t been the same since Travis Frederick retired after the 2019 season. Schmitz would be an upgrade who could help McCarthy achieve his stated objective.
27. Buffalo Bills – WR Jordan Addison, USC
At 5-11 and 173 pounds, you’d like him to have better than 4.49 speed. However he was highly productive at Pitt (100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 TDs in 2021) before transferring to the Trojans and leading them with 59 grabs for 875 yards and eight scores last year despite missing time with an ankle injury. Addison’s ability to play wide or in the slot is appealing, and he could make an immediate difference for Buffalo, earning a lot of targets against man coverage for a team that doesn’t have an established wideout behind Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis.
28. Cincinnati Bengals – DT Bryan Bresee, Clemson
A guy who can play up and down the line, Bresee (6-6, 298) is too good to pass up here given the impact he could have playing between DEs Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. And after the health issues and personal adversity, including the death of his sister, Bresee faced with the Tigers, he seems primed to unleash his talent with a new set of stripes.
29. Saints (from San Francisco 49ers via Dolphins and Broncos) – DE Myles Murphy, Clemson
New Orleans picked up this peripatetic pick by letting Payton go to Denver. Murphy totaled 18½ sacks and 36 TFLs in three seasons in Death Valley and should be an every-down player. And with this D-line losing David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport and Shy Tuttle, Murphy would provide welcome support to aging DE Cam Jordan, 33, and possibly serve as his eventual successor. Murphy didn’t work out at the combine or Clemson’s pro day but will hold a private session next month.
30. Eagles – DE Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Kansas State
For starters, this feels like the kind of pick Roseman typically swaps for future capital. But Anudike-Uzomah could be among the alternate options for a team that values quality and depth in the trenches. He had 19½ sacks and 25½ TFLs over the past two seasons and could up the ante for a pass-rushing corps that hasn’t gotten much from Derek Barnett in recent seasons.
31. Kansas City Chiefs – OT Anton Harrison, Oklahoma
He primarily served as the Sooners’ left tackle the past three seasons, though did log time on the right side in 2022. Regardless, Harrison would be a boon to the Super Bowl champs, who parted with last season’s starting tackles, Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie. Harrison’s experience on the blind side would also allow newly signed Jawaan Taylor to remain at his more familiar right tackle post.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.