NFL draft week has arrived, the first round of the league's 88th "Player Selection Meeting" set to begin Thursday night in Kansas City, Missouri.
And the air of mystery surrounding the 2023 draft has become as thick as the smoke that has recently billowed and been inhaled by draftniks (and league personnel) across the country. Whether it's indicative of sending mock drafts like this one up in flames will be clear soon enough, but even Colts GM Chris Ballard fueled the conjecture last week.
"Nobody knows. Nobody is giving out information," said Ballard, who sits in the fourth overall slot, which may provide him with unexpected options if the AFC South rival Texans pivot from months-long speculation that they would take a quarterback at No. 2.
“Oh, everybody is lying,” Ballard said, while also disputing his organization had narrowed its focus to a specific player. “I might be the most honest one, unfortunately. But everybody is lying."
Yet the truth will come to light soon enough when the first 31 players hear their names called in Round 1. (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.)
But with more twists quite possibly still to materialize before the Panthers officially go on the clock – one already developed Monday afternoon when the Jets and Packers finally cemented a deal for QB Aaron Rodgers – this could be a wild week even by draft standards. USA TODAY Sports' latest projection as of Monday afternoon:
NFL DRAFT RANKINGS: QBs Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud rank high – but not No. 1 overall
1. Carolina Panthers (from Chicago Bears) – QB Bryce Young, Alabama
Whatever mayhem might follow, it's widely believed Carolina has settled on the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner as the long-awaited successor to previous franchise QB Cam Newton. Though Young's 5-10, 204-pound frame provides valid reason for concern, his experience in a pro-style offense and quick cycle time through his progressions are among the traits that distinguish him. His 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, often running as a last resort – 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.
2. Houston Texans – OLB/DE Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
Though this draft isn't considered especially deep with blue chip talent and may not have many (or any) generational stars among its ranks, Anderson may be the best of the bunch – and that could be reason enough for a team seemingly in perpetual rebuild to choose him. And there are other factors to consider. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud is represented by David Mulugheta, who is also the agent of disgraced former Houston QB Deshaun Watson – the man who left this organization in tatters on and off the field. Also, newly hired HC DeMeco Ryans comes from San Francisco, an outfit that has thrived by stockpiling enough talent that the 49ers have been able to thrive without a superstar under center. And though Texans GM Nick Caserio always plays his cards close, he may well prefer the passers scheduled to be available next year and – with a league-high 12 selections in 2023, including three of the top 33 – he could certainly attempt to wheel and deal his way into more draft capital for 2024, when he already owns a pair of first-rounders. "I mean, anything's possible," he said last week. "I think what's possible and what the hope is, is that we can come out of this draft with good football players that we think can help our football team."
As for Anderson (6-4, 253), 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. He was only slightly less impressive last season (10 sacks, 17 TFLs), when he didn't have as many opportunities to hunt quarterbacks. But his ability to do so would certainly be welcomed by Ryans, a defensive wizard, and by a unit whose best pass rusher, Jerry Hughes, will be 35 this season.
3. Arizona Cardinals – DE/OLB Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech
If Houston does indeed pass on a quarterback at No. 2, Thursday could mark a very disappointing night for the Cards. It had long seemed they'd get first crack at Anderson or, perhaps better, be in a good position to offload this selection if a QB run materialized. But regardless of what the Texans do, Arizona will need defensive reinforcements after the edges were depleted by the retirement of J.J. Watt and free agency defection of Zach Allen. Wilson, a 6-6, 271-pounder with 14 sacks and 27½ TFLs over the past two seasons – even though his 2022 campaign was cut short by a broken foot – would be a logical option.
4. Indianapolis Colts – QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
It seems as every draft approaches, at least one prominent prospect finds himself trying to deflect negative narratives. On that front, the last few weeks have hardly been kind to Stroud, who seemed like a 1A choice – at worst – to Young on the quarterback front following the scouting combine. But even if Houston passes, hard to believe Stroud will tumble far, especially given the lack of stability Ballard and Co. have endured under center since Andrew Luck's shocking retirement four years ago. An exceptionally accurate passer with the Buckeyes (69.3% completion rate in college) who would benefit from the tutelage of new Indy HC and QB guru Shane Steichen, Stroud could certainly do worse than coming to a team that's usually competitive and features a runner (2021 rushing champ Jonathan Taylor) who could carry much of the load.
Stroud (6-3, 214 pounds) was 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 dash 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 position that's been a merry-go-round of aging veterans since Luck's departure.
5. Seattle Seahawks (from Denver Broncos) – DT Jalen Carter, Georgia
He may well be the best player available this year, but concerns about his character and motor could knock him out of the top five. However Carter said on HBO recently that teams haven't probed him too deeply regarding his role in the fatal automobile crash that killed Bulldogs teammate Devin Willock and recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy in January. And any issues pertaining to his effort could naturally resolve in the competitive environment HC Pete Carroll fosters in Seattle. And bulwarking a defense that hasn't ranked better than 22nd since 2018 is long overdue. The 6-3, 300-pounder's sack numbers (3 last year) won't wow you. But the All-American is cat-quick, lines up at all points along the front, can push the pocket and gets exceptional penetration and is especially effective at swallowing running backs.
6. Detroit Lions (from Los Angeles Rams) – CB Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
A defense that ranked dead last in 2022 and just dumped disappointing CB Jeff Okudah seems like a perfect home for a tough-as-nails defensive back like Witherspoon, who's not afraid to stick his nose in the backfield when he's not disrupting opposing passing attacks – the All-Big Ten performer breaking up 23 passes over the past two seasons.
7. Las Vegas Raiders – OL Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
Whether he lines up at guard, right tackle or eventually takes over for LT Kolton Miller, the unanimous All-American seems like a wise choice for a team that's going to trot out oft-injured QB Jimmy Garoppolo the next few years.
8. Atlanta Falcons – WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
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.
9. Bears (from Panthers) – OLB Nolan Smith, Georgia
As much help as Chicago still needs, another trade down would make sense ... as would additional blocking help and weaponry for QB Justin Fields. But a team that had a league-low 20 sacks in 2022 could certainly use an edge presence, and why not one with Smith's extraordinary athleticism – including sub-4.4 40 and a 41-inch vertical leap at the combine? Mostly recovered from a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2022 season, Smith should be ready to wreak havoc in Week 1.
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 wouldn't be 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, not to mention a lethal complement to newly minted QB Jalen Hurts – a combo that could truly fluster defenses.
11. Tennessee Titans – QB Anthony Richardson, Florida
Ryan Tannehill is entering the final year of his contract, and Malik Willis did little to inspire confidence from the fans or coaches in 2022. Enter the self-styled "Cam Jackson," who blew up the combine as a bit of a 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 tantalizing. And similar to Jackson, Richardson could benefit from breaking in behind Tannehill while maybe seeing the field in specially designed packages ... given the reasonable assumption the 21-year-old won't be ready to start immediately.
12. Texans (from Cleveland Browns) – QB Will Levis, Kentucky
Even if Houston bypasses a passer at No. 2, reasonable chance the Texans could snag one here ... or even move back up for one? But heck, taking a player with Levis' upside offers the franchise a shot at filling Watson's void. Yet if it doesn't go well with Levis – a cannon-armed, athletic, tough, 6-3, 229-pounder with experience in a pro-style offense – then Houston would be back in position to draft another quarterback early in 2024, and at a time when teams aren't afraid to quickly punt on a player even after a Round 1 investment. Levis will have to improve his consistency and footwork while recovering from the physical beating he endured in 2022.
13. Green Bay Packers (from New York Jets) – OT Paris Johnson Jr., Ohio State
The trade of Rodgers boosts the Pack up two spots in this year's first round. And taking Johnson would be one fine way to help presumed starting QB Jordan Love given the Buckeye's ability to play tackle or guard. A 6-6, 313-pound consensus All-American, Johnson would be a candidate to take over for aging LT David Bakhtiari in a year or two but could certainly plug in elsewhere in the interim. As for providing another pass catcher for Love? It's not something the Pack typically do until Day 2, yet they'll have multiple opportunities this year after picking up one of the Jets' second-rounders.
14. New England Patriots – 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 explosiveness at the combine, running a 4.38 40-yard dash, posting a 41½-inch vertical leap and broad jumping 11 feet, 1 inch. Given the value here and Gonzalez's ability to play man or zone, he's a good fit for a team that needs help at corner – especially at a time when New England could be in the unfamiliar position of facing a superior quarterback in all of its divisional games.
15. Jets (from Packers) – 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 Rodgers now headed to The Big Apple, the NYJ will need to upgrade their protection – especially given the question mark former first-round OT Mekhi Becton, who was ticketed for the right side last year, has become.
16. Washington Commanders – CB Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
He's positioned to become the inaugural first-round defensive back in Nittany Lions history. All-Big Ten in 2022, he's big (6-3, 193), fast (4.46 speed) and physical, though rarely tested in Happy Valley. That could remain the case if he lands in D.C. given the pressure the Commanders can apply up front to help their back end.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers – OT Darnell Wright, Tennessee
He's played both tackle spots extensively, though really seemed to settle in nicely on the right side in 2022, almost impenetrable to pass rushers – including the great Anderson. The Steelers' O-line has long been in need of a boost, and the 6-5, 333-pound, All-SEC selection would be a boon to second-year QB Kenny Pickett and RB Najee Harris regardless of where he lines up.
18. Lions – 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 the middle of a Detroit defense featuring Aidan Hutchinson and all the opposing attention he merits on the edge.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Tom Brady is gone. Kyle Trask, a second-rounder in 2021, is unproven. Baker Mayfield, the top pick of 2018 (and now on his fourth team in a year), looks like a one-year rental. This could be the right spot to roll the dice on Hooker, who was on a Heisman track last season (69.6% completion rate, 3,135 yards, 27 TDs, 2 INTs in 2022) before suffering an ACL tear late in the season. Hooker's age (25) isn't ideal for a team resetting the position, but it does help explain his renowned maturity and leadership. And a redshirt year might be good for his knee and transition from the Vols offense to a pro style.
20. Seahawks – DE Lukas Van Ness, Iowa
He never started for the Hawkeyes but sure was impactful – totaling 13 sacks and 19 TFLs the past two seasons. The 6-5, 272-pounder with sub-4.6 speed – whether he starts or subs – would add juice to a defense that was at its best a decade ago when the line rolled deep. And if a player like Van Ness could pair with Carter? Look out.
21. Los Angeles Chargers – TE Dalton Kincaid, Utah
An All-Pac-12 player (70 catches, 890 yards, 8 TDs) in 2022, he'd give QB Justin Herbert a nice option in the seams with TE Gerald Everett and WR Keenan Allen possibly entering their finals seasons with the Bolts. A back injury suffered at the end of the 2022 season prevented Kincaid from working out this spring, but he's been medically cleared to resume football activities.
22. Baltimore Ravens – CB Deonte Banks, Maryland
With Marcus Peters unsigned, why not target a guy in your own backyard? Measuring 6 feet, 197 pounds, Banks shone at the combine with a 4.35 40 time, 42-inch vertical and a broad jump measuring 11 feet, 4 inches. However, despite the athleticism, Banks is not the ballhawk Peters is, picking off just two passes in four seasons for the Terps.
23. Minnesota Vikings – DB Brian Branch, Alabama
Given S Harrison Smith's age (34) and the general turnover in the Vikes' secondary, Branch would be a sensible pickup no matter where he's deployed. And given the 6-foot, 190-pound All-American's history with the Crimson Tide, that could mean a lot of time in the slot.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars – TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
Yes, Jags TE Evan Engram received the franchise tag. But Mayer is a completely different kind of player, one whose size (6-5, 249 pounds) could open holes for RB Travis Etienne while giving QB Trevor Lawrence a red-zone threat this roster doesn't really have. The 2022 All-American had 138 receptions for 1,649 yards and 16 TDs over past two seasons.
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 must clean up his drops but could be the answer that since-released WR Kenny Golladay wasn't.
26. Dallas Cowboys – DE Myles Murphy, Clemson
While "America's Team" could stand to plug the interior of both lines, such concerns can be addressed later. Grabbing this All-ACC pass rusher means help for LB Micah Parsons and veteran DE DeMarcus Lawrence, not to mention trouble for divisional QBs Hurts and Daniel Jones – who can really cause trouble outside the pocket for teams that don't have sufficient depth up front.
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 plentiful targets against man coverage for a team that doesn't have an established wideout behind Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis.
28. Cincinnati Bengals – CB Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State
Cincy has done a nice job drafting ahead, yet the Bengals are a team in transition in the secondary. Forbes is quite a thief, picking off 14 passes in three seasons with the Bulldogs, six returned for TDs (an FBS record). But he will need an NFL nutrition program to add to the 166 pounds currently attached to his 6-1 frame.
29. Saints (from San Francisco 49ers via Dolphins and Broncos) – CB DJ Turner II, Michigan
His 4.26 40 time was the fastest at the combine, and he added a 38½-inch vert and 10-foot, 11-inch broad jump for good measure. Turner could step in and give New Orleans one heck of an athlete to man the slot.
30. Eagles – DE Keion White, Georgia Tech
Fat chance Roseman sticks and picks with both Round 1 selections, but stranger things have happened. The converted tight end had 7½ sacks and 14 TFLs in 2022 for the Yellow Jackets and is a hustler even at 6-5 and 285 pounds. He's also strong as an ox, evidenced by his 30 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press at the combine. Philly DE Brandon Graham and DT Fletcher Cox can't play forever, and White could spell either depending on the situation.
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.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL mock draft 2023: Aaron Rodgers trade shakes up first round