Thursday, October 6, 2022

2023 NFL Draft: Under-the-radar prospects who could have breakout seasons, emerge as early-round draft picks

There is a big discrepancy between way too early mock draft projections and the end result in April. Rising stars are one factor in that change. 

One of the qualifiers for the list was that a player could not be in the top 10 of my conference previews (ACC, Pac-12Big 12, Big 10, SEC and Group of 5) because that hardly suggests that the player is off the radar. As a result, Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, Oregon State tight end Luke Musgrave, Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing, USC offensive tackle Courtland Ford, North Carolina cornerback Tony Grimes and Maryland edge rusher Durell Nchami are absent despite a belief that better days lie ahead for each. Highly productive players like Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington and Maryland wide receiver Rakim Jarrett were also excluded.

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, Georgia tight end Arik Gilbert and Ohio State offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. were also left off the list because including them would have been a bit of a cop out. Richardson and Gilbert have had limited playing time at the collegiate level but are featured prominently in pre-season draft content. Johnson has also been present in first-round projections but carries more value as a tackle than a guard, which he played last season. 

Now, for the potential breakout draft prospects ahead of the college football season:

Hunter Dekkers, QB, Iowa State

Dekkers was all-state in three sports out of high school, with basketball and baseball being the other two. He has spent the past two years backing up Brock Purdy and has attempted just 43 passes. The Iowa native has good mobility in his 6-foot-3 frame. If he is able to develop as a passer, then he is going to be a problem for Big 12 defenses. 

It was disappointing for the Cyclones to lose Tarique Milton to Texas in the transfer portal, but Xavier Hutchinson is one of the best senior wide receivers in the conference. 

Justin Flowe, LB, Oregon

The nation’s No. 6 overall high school recruit in 2020 suffered season-ending injuries in the opener each of the past two years. During his redshirt freshman season, he earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Week by recording 14 tackles and one forced fumble. There is no denying his talent on the field, but health has robbed him of that opportunity to shine. The upcoming season could serve as his breakout moment with former Georgia defensive coordinator-turned Oregon head coach Dan Lanning designing the plays. Lanning played a role in three Bulldog linebackers — Channing Tindall, Quay Walker and Nakobe Dean — being drafted as part of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Jadon Haselwood, WR, Arkansas

The nation’s No. 4 overall recruit as part of the 2019 recruiting class transferred from Oklahoma this offseason. The Atlanta native missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL, so he is more than a year removed from the injury. Quarterback K.J. Jefferson will likely turn to Haselwood to replace Treylon Burks as his top target. His 4.5 40-yard dash speed is more than enough to excel in his 6-foot-3 frame. 

Elijah Higgins, WR, Stanford

The professional trajectory of quarterback Tanner McKee and Higgins could run parallel this season. The latter is a big body wide receiver with good body control and athleticism. There are some aspects of his game that could use improvement, but another year of maturity gives that a chance to occur in 2022. If he puts it all together, then his statistics from last season (44 receptions for 502 yards and four touchdowns) should pale by comparison. 

Adisa Isaac, EDGE, Penn State

There is zero concern about Isaac’s athletic profile. There is a lot of explosiveness packed into his 6-foot-4 frame. After suffering a torn Achilles in the summer of 2021, Isaac is ready to contribute for the Nittany Lions this season. They have sent edge rushers Odafe Oweh, Shaka Toney and Arnold Ebiketie off to the NFL over the past two years, and Isaac could be next. The only concern is whether or not he is fully recovered from his injury. 

Brett Johnson, DL, California

Johnson played in all four of California’s games during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. He missed the entire 2021 season recovering from a broken hip sustained during an automobile accident. He has good size and speed for the position. A healthy junior campaign could be all he needs to enter the 2023 NFL Draft. There is a lot of hype around the Golden Bear ahead of the season.

DJ Johnson, EDGE, Oregon

Few in college football have taken as circuitous a path as Johnson. After beginning his career at Miami, the California native transferred to Oregon. He has gone back and forth from defensive end to tight end, but the latest position switch is likely to stick. The Ducks lost Kayvon Thibodeaux to the first-round of the NFL Draft but return a 6-foot-4, 270-pound edge defender with good speed. There is buzz emanating from every corner of Eugene hinting that the light switch has turned on for Johnson.

Lanning has a lot of talent in the front seven with linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe, as well as defensive tackle Brandon Dorlus. 

Kenny McIntosh, RB, Georgia

If unfamiliar with Georgia’s production of NFL running backs, here is a quick history lesson: 13 running backs have been drafted since 2000, including James Cook and Zamir White in the 2022 NFL Draft, and five were taken in the top-50 overall.

It sounds as though McIntosh has an advantage over Kendall Milton to be the Bulldogs’ starter, but there are more than enough carries to go around in that offense. McIntosh has never had more than 58 carries in a season, but that is destined to change during his senior campaign. The Fort Lauderdale native contributed 22 receptions last season. 

Kendre Miller, RB, TCU

The transfer decision of Zach Evans opens the door for Miller to take on a larger role. He is a well-rounded running back with good top-end speed and size. As an effective pass catcher, he presents a lot of challenges for opposing defenses. Despite never having more than 95 touches in a season, Miller is prepared to take on a larger workload. 

R.J. Moten, S, Michigan

Also an accomplished baseball player, Moten has started just five games to this point in his career. The New Jersey native shows good awareness and does a great job of tracking the ball through the air. His background as an outfielder on the diamond likely contributes to the latter. His father, Ron, played at the University of Florida and was a sixth-round draft choice by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1987.

Gabriel Murphy, LB/EDGE, UCLA

Fans may not be familiar with Murphy’s game coming from North Texas, but there is a lot of quickness to his game. The Texas native is effective as a pass rusher and has multiple avenues in which he can defeat a block. He should take on a role left vacant by Mitchell Agude, who transferred to Miami. 

Jack Nelson, OT, Wisconsin

Nelson is expected to make the transition from guard to left tackle this season, which should benefit his game. Nelson has the look of an NFL left tackle and the athleticism to match. The Wisconsin native is quick out of his stance and plays with good leverage. He should follow in the footsteps of Ryan Ramczyk, Joe Thomas, Travis Frederick and others before him as the next great Badgers offensive lineman. 

Joe Ngata, WR, Clemson

It is Year 2 of expecting a breakout season from Ngata. Originally from California, he possesses great speed relative to his 6-foot-3 frame. Last season was a down year for the Clemson offense, but there is more than enough talent on that team to turn fortunes around in a year’s time. Ngata has 47 career receptions in three years. 

Tayvion Robinson, WR, Kentucky

Kentucky’s Will Levis is one of the best quarterback prospects entering the college football season. After losing Wan’Dale Robinson in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Wildcats have a lot of production to replace. The Virginia Tech transfer runs good routes and is physical for his size. Robinson is going to be force fed targets this season, which should increase his exposure in the SEC.

Drew Sanders, EDGE, Arkansas

Sanders transferred from Alabama after the season. Depth is always a hurdle in Tuscaloosa, as even the most talented players can find themselves down the depth chart waiting for a moment to flash. Dallas Turner and Will Anderson Jr. are among the most talented players in the nation regardless of position. 

Sanders started three of the 12 games in which he appeared last season and recorded one sack. His decision to transfer opens him up for a breakout season with the Razorbacks and it begins Sep. 3 against Cincinnati. 

Cory Trice, CB, Purdue

Trice has started the last 13 games, including five as a redshirt freshman, in which he was available. A season-ending injury caused him to miss all but two games a year ago. At 6-foot-3, Trice has tremendous length, solid top-end speed and a willingness to fly downhill and make plays in the flat. There is a role for him in the modern NFL. 

Cameron Ward, QB, Washington State

After beginning his career at Incarnate Word, Ward made the transition to Pullman this offseason. Ward is a big-framed, strong-armed quarterback with the athleticism to do a lot on the football field. His new platform offers fans significantly more exposure to his game. While a rollercoaster ride is sure to follow as he adjusts to the new competition level, fireworks are possible any given week in the PAC-12.

Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell should receive more draft consideration after this season, but he has already produced a few good statistical seasons. Utah’s Cameron Rising should also gain more notoriety in his second season at the helm. 

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