Draft Wire’s Jeff Risdon reveals his top-graded draft prospects at each position since 2004
On a recent radio appearance, I was asked an intriguing question.
“Who was the best prospect you’ve ever graded?”
I’ve been evaluating prospects and covering the NFL draft professionally since 2004, which meant the 2023 draft was my 20th. The question and the timeframe was a nice catalyst to go back and examine some of the older evaluations.
To answer the question directly, my highest-graded player ever was Wisconsin OT Joe Thomas in 2007. The grading scales and systems I use have changed over the years, but Thomas topped any iteration.
Here are the top-graded players from my evaluations at each position since the 2004 NFL draft.
The NFL keeps looking for the wrong things in 1st-round LBs, but heeding a Beastie Boys song could help them evaluate them better
Here’s a little story I’ve got to tell about drafting linebackers in the NFL…
NFL teams haven’t established a great track record in evaluating first-round linebackers lately. A quick check of the recent decline in all fifth-year options for first-round LBs in the 2020 draft shows the league still struggles to get linebacker scouting correct.
My good friend Ash Thompson recorded an outstanding video breakdown on this whole topic for the Detroit Lions Podcast, in the context of evaluating 2023 first-rounder Jack Campbell. In chatting with Thompson privately, I was reminded of both an old song and something I’ve learned about linebacking play over the years.
Hold it now, hit it
The Beastie Boys and their “License to Ill” album was part of the deep-rooted soundtrack of my high school years. There’s a lesser-known track mixed among the epic songs, one that’s been a phrase I’ve adopted over the years to help me sort out my linebacker evaluations. It’ss the lead track on the album as well as a guiding light in LB scouting.
“Hold it now, hit it”
In linebacking terms, it means being positionally disciplined while also having enough athleticism to react quickly enough to make the play. Intelligence and body control matter as much–if not more–than straight-line speed and hyperkinetic energy. Hold your ground, don’t get fooled, then strike and terminate the play with a hit.
In his video, Thompson highlighted one-time Lions first-rounder Jarrad Davis, who is a great example of where the NFL gets evaluations at LB all wrong. Davis is a special athlete, a big-fast-strong-twitchy athlete, the kind of guy you want leading the charge to fight for the right to party. Alas, that doesn’t make him a very good linebacker.
Davis is far from the only linebacker where the NFL was looking for the new style in the wrong places. 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Simmons is another great example of a tremendous athlete who didn’t actually play off-ball linebacker all that effectively in college (he was best as a box safety), but was expected to just flip that switch in the NFL. Simmons, like Davis, Devin Bush, Darren Lee, Ernie Sims and many others, just wasn’t that crafty at actually doing LB things with their athleticism.
Overvaluing athletic traits at a position where football IQ is a paramount virtue for success is where NFL teams continually foul. There has to be a requisite level of athleticism to make it work, of course; slow and low is not an effective tempo. Change of direction ability, initial burst and open-field speed can’t be ignored, but they shouldn’t be the primary attribute. The ability to diagnose a play pre-snap, quickly read and react to a play, finish tackles and understand coverage responsibilities are more important than running 40 yards in a straight line rapidly.
The NFL does appear to be listening to the same tune. In this draft class, Clemson’s Trenton Simpson was my No. 86 overall prospect. I expected Simpson, a phenomenal athlete, to be selected in the top 40 because of his physical traits even though he didn’t pass my “hold it now, hit it” test. Simpson wound up being the No. 86 overall pick, by the Baltimore Ravens.
Scratching the record back to Jack Campbell, he absolutely passed the “hold it now, hit it” test. The Iowa LB was my No. 23 overall prospect. Detroit is hoping he makes sweeter music as the No. 18 overall pick than so many recent out-of-tune LBs have played. I like his chances.
Other sports leagues use a draft lottery system, but don’t expect the NFL to follow suit
The NBA held its annual draft lottery on Tuesday night. It’s a rite of passage so firmly entrenched that the phrase “draft lottery” no longer raises an eyebrow.
The NHL also adopted a draft lottery, as has the WNBA and several other non-major sports. The weighted system discourages “tanking,” which is deliberately losing to get the worst record to guarantee getting the top pick.
The NFL has never followed suit. And even though the NBA draft lottery is a prime-time event that draws interest and ratings —two things the NFL almost never shies away from —there is little momentum for the draft lottery system to infiltrate football.
There are any number of reasons or excuses why the draft lottery system hasn’t hit the NFL. Among them (in no particular order):
Lesser impact of one individual player on a 53-man roster than in other sports.
The shorter schedule makes tanking more difficult to succeed (see: 2022 Houston Texans).
The variety of different positions needed across different teams greatly exceeds other sports.
The fairly robust trade market at the top of the draft; the No. 1 overall pick was traded just this year.
Of course, there are also rampant conspiracy theories about the NBA draft lottery dating back to the very first one in 1985. It was a little too convenient that the New York Knicks landed the top pick and the ability to select a transcendent star college player like Patrick Ewing. The same accusations of a fixed lottery have reared up several times, notably for the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the lottery and local superstar high schooler Lebron James.
Even now, with media members observing the process, there are still doubters about the veracity of the NBA lottery system. For a team like the Detroit Pistons, losing the lottery is a devastating blow–one the NFL desperately hopes to avoid.
The Pistons were the NBA’s worst team in 2022-23, going 17-65. The next-worst teams were the Rockets and Spurs, who each went 22-60. Despite being clearly the worst team for a variety of factors, including an injury to 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, Detroit won’t pick first. Or second, or even third. The Pistons “lost” the lottery and fell to the No. 5 overall pick.
The NFL, its owners and the broadcast partners simply don’t have the stomach for that. Don’t expect that appetite to change anytime soon.
With 10 day to go, Draft Wire’s Jeff Risdon offers up 10 thoughts on how the draft might play out
We are now just 10 days away from the 2023 NFL draft, which kicks off in Kansas City on Thursday, April 27th at 8 p.m. ET.
This has been one of the more difficult drafts to predict. We still don’t know who the No. 1 pick will be even after the pick was traded from the Bears to the Panthers. Current mock drafts from across the projection spectrum still include close to 25 different prospects listed within the top 10.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on how I think the draft might play out in 10 days.
Bennett is one of the greatest college QBs of all time but he might not get drafted at all
Stetson Bennett had a fantastic collegiate career at Georgia. He led the Bulldogs to two straight national championships with steady leadership, savvy use of his talented supporting cast and better arm and legs than you might think by looking at Bennett.
Yet in 2023 NFL draft projections, Bennett is rarely spotted above the sixth round — if at all. More projections than not have Bennett going undrafted.
There are a variety of factors for that. Some are tangible and legitimate detractions. Bennett is already 25, a few weeks older than Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker. He stands just 5-11 and wears his 192 pounds more like a weekend warrior than a full-time athlete.
Then there are the tougher factors to see. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, quoting anonymous NFL sources in a very informative piece this week, pulled this quote from an NFC exec,
Bennett’s size (5-11, 192 pounds) is bound to be a concern for some teams. And many interviewed have non-football concerns about Bennett, who was arrested for public intoxication on Jan. 29 and did not receive universally high marks on combine interviews. Said an NFC exec: “To me, he’s clearly better than those other guys [in this tier]. He does some good stuff. But he might go undrafted. His pre-draft has not been good and there are questions about whether he’ll be the pro that you need out of a backup QB.”
It all shapes up poorly for Bennett at the NFL level in terms of his value as a prospect. Measurable attributes and potential upside matter far more to team GMs than Bennett’s 29-1 record the last two years as a starter. His 66 touchdowns against 21 career interceptions don’t mean as much as the arrest, which happened during Senior Bowl week — an event where he declined to participate to try and prove himself.
Fans, especially those with strong college football leanings, often scoff at the NFL’s relatively lowly perception of proven collegiate winners like Bennett. It harkens back to Kellen Moore at Boise State, or Craig Krenzel from Ohio State a couple of decades ago.
College wins mean very little in the eyes of most NFL teams. Winning in college is better than losing, but it’s not something that can trump physical limitations or off-field concerns.
Going undrafted, as I expect will happen with Bennett, shouldn’t tarnish his legacy as one of the most successful collegiate quarterbacks of all time. It’s a different game than the one he’s attempting to play in next.
How South Carolina CBs Cam Smith and Darius Rush might echo another set of SEC CB teammates from a decade ago
The South Carolina Gamecocks have two starting cornerbacks in the NFL draft class of 2023. Both Cam Smith and Darius Rush are worthy Day 2 prospects, with Smith potentially a late first-rounder.
Smith is the more accomplished and heralded prospect. He earned some All-SEC honors and was a fixture on preseason watch lists and first-round mock draft projections. Rush didn’t garner such widespread acclaim or respect amongst college football observers or draft analysts, not after switching from wide receiver after he arrived in Columbia.
Yet there is a growing consensus that Rush might be the better NFL player than his more renowned running mate. It’s far from a consensus, but Rush is starting to climb up in mock draft projections while Smith fades back a bit.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen an SEC school have two cornerbacks in the same draft where the lesser-accomplished college player might be the better NFL prospect. It happened a decade ago at Mississippi State with Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.
Like Smith, Banks was an accomplished collegiate cornerback with a lot of polish to his game. Back in 2012, he was a fixture on preseason watch lists for awards and first-round projections for the draft the following spring. Slay, meanwhile, was seen as something of an upstart, a more athletic but raw prospect who didn’t consistently live up to his potential in Starkville.
In the 2013 NFL draft, Slay wound up being selected first on his athletic promise and scheme-diverse skills. He was the No. 36 overall pick, taken by the Detroit Lions. Banks slid to No. 43 overall and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after being pigeonholed as a more athletically limited, zone-only cornerback.
As NFL rookies, the collegiate pecking order prevailed. Banks started all 16 games, picked off three passes and played well enough to be looked at as a capable, if limited, long-term starter. Slay played his way out of the lineup with frequent blown assignments and lapses in coverage.
The key was the patience the Lions showed in their investment. They knew Slay wasn’t quite ready for primetime as a prospect. Despite his rocky rookie campaign, they didn’t throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater. They leaned on veteran Rashean Mathis to help bring Slay along, and it finally clicked. Boy howdy did it click!
Slay emerged as one of the NFL’s best cover corners and defensive playmakers over the last decade. He’s earned Pro Bowl nods in five of the last six seasons and continues to excel at 32 years old for the Eagles.
Meanwhile, Banks quickly faded. Being more NFL-ready to start the career didn’t equate to longevity. The Buccaneers bailed on him after he played his way in and out of the lineup beyond his second year. Banks bounced around several teams, even spending some time as Slay’s backup in Detroit, before washing out of the NFL by the end of 2017.
Flash forward to 2023. Smith is widely tagged as a fit strictly for zone-oriented coverage schemes, a label that proved true with Banks. Rush is rising in part because of his projectable ability in either man or zone schemes. Broader appeal creates rising stock, just as it did for Slay.
It’s not a perfectly analogous situation. Smith is a much better athlete than Banks was based on Combine testing, not to mention the eye test. While Rush’s stock is rising, it would be a stunner to see him selected ahead of Smith, whereas Slay going ahead of Banks was pretty widely expected back in 2013.
But don’t be surprised if Rush winds up being the better NFL player of the Gamecocks duo. The Bulldogs from a decade ago provide a very realistic historical precedent.
These 4 NFL draft prospects are in danger of being the victims of too lofty expectations and inflated draft status
Sometimes it can be hard to deviate from the norm when it comes to NFL draft player evaluations. Straying from the herd is difficult when so many in the herd have earned the trust and respect with their past evaluations.
Even so, there are instances every draft season where I feel strongly enough about a player evaluation that doesn’t conform to the general consensus to plant a flag in a different field from the herd. In some cases, it proves prescient. In others, the herd gets the last laugh. I’d rather miss by trusting my own eyes than being misled by others.
Here are four 2023 NFL draft prospects where I just don’t see the validity of the high rankings or the pre-draft hype.
So, there’s been quite a few mock drafts tabbing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to pick a certain quarterback from Kentucky. Everyone seems to think the Bucs are searching for Tom Brady’s heir and that they want to do so as soon as possible — everyone except the Bucs, that is.
With how the offseason has gone, it doesn’t seem as if Tampa Bay is looking to find its long-term option in the draft. The signing of Baker Mayfield seems to indicate that the team has no intention to tank like some have wanted them to, it also speaks volumes about the way the team is handling Kyle Trask — it doesn’t want Trask to guide them to a top pick, it wants Trask to win.
On top of that, the team has plenty of other needs elsewhere that typically come before a franchise QB slots into place. If the Bucs were to pick Will Levis in the 2023 draft, there wouldn’t be anyone to protect him, as Tampa Bay recently cut Donovan Smith and has no one to fill the position at the moment. The secondary has also been depleted, and the Bucs could also address that with the first pick, too. There’s too much to do outside the position to either trade up for or to pick Will Levis. The infrastructure isn’t there, and I think Jason Licht knows that, too.
Now, just because the Bucs won’t go QB in the first round doesn’t mean they won’t go QB at all.
The team seems to have at least a notable interest in Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who it’s bringing in for at top-40 visit. Early indications were that Hooker would be a Day 2 or Day 3 pick, which the Bucs could capitalize on, but recent mocks and rumors after the combine have Hooker climbing.
There is also, of course, room for a very late pick at the QB position. Brock Purdy’s impressive play will have shifted the viewpoint on that sort of thing pretty significantly, and Licht has done similar things before, so that could be an option for the team, too.
Bottom line: Yes, the Bucs will eventually need a stable player at the quarterback position. No, they will not draft a quarterback in the first round — not Will Levis, not Hendon Hooker and certainly not anyone else.
Luke Easterling reflects on covering his hometown team in his final column for Bucs Wire
I was born at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, a cannon shot of pirate beads away from The Big Sombrero.
I’ve bled Creamsicle ever since.
If you’re going to cover a sports team as a professional, you’re supposed to check your rooting interests at the door. But I prefer not to insult the intelligence of the reader by pretending I’m indifferent when those pewter hats are moving up and down the field.
Sorry, not sorry.
When I was growing up, the most uncool thing you could possibly be was a “Yucks” fan. While my friends traded in their Cowboys Starter jackets for Packers ones (then Broncos ones, then Patriots ones), I was still pulling for the team with the worst winning percentage in NFL history. They were scouring packs of Pro Set and Upper Deck for Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice; I wanted Reggie Cobb and Lawrence Dawsey.
We couldn’t even watch the games on TV back then. The Bucs were never good enough for the games to be anything but blacked out locally, so for the longest time, the iconic voice of Gene Deckerhoff was our only window into the on-field action every week. We’d catch a few highlights on the local news in the evening, or maybe SportsCenter, though the highlights were rarely fun to watch anyway.
That changed in the late-1990s, obviously, as the Bucs finally became perennial playoff contenders, riding a legendary stretch that culminated with a dominant win in their first trip to the Super Bowl. It was redemption for all of us who spent our entire lives rooting them no matter what.
When I decided in high school that I wanted to be a sports journalist, I wanted to do one of two things: Cover the Bucs, or cover the NFL draft.
I never imagined I’d be able to do both, and that someone would actually pay me for it.
But that’s what I’ve been able to do here, and I’ve done my best not to take it for granted.
My senior year, I won a Player of the Week award in football. They threw a banquet for all the winners after the season, and Ronde Barber was the guest speaker.
I was hoping to get a picture or an autograph afterward. He took the picture, signed the shirt, and then spent nearly an hour talking to me about my dreams of being a sports writer. The conversation ended with him telling me to call the team facility the following week, and he would give me an exclusive interview for my ugly little blog that nobody read. Sure enough, he called my house phone on a Tuesday morning, and answered all of my way-too-many questions.
In 2019, I was on the field to see Barber inducted into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor. Last month, I got to write about him being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Pulling for this team has always been a family affair.
My dad still has his ticket stub from that first home playoff game in ’79, a 24-17 win vs. Philly. There was a spirited halftime performance from the King High School band, complete with a trumpet solo. Mom nailed it.
Some of my earliest memories were collecting cards and gumball machine helmets and Starting Lineup figures with my older brother; anything with Bucco Bruce on it, we wanted it. I was at his house when Michael Spurlock ran it back. Santa Maria, indeed.
My sister was a Bucs cheerleader for three seasons. The youngest of five, with four older brothers, she was the only one of us who ever made it to the NFL.
Even now, our family group chat on game day feels like we’re all still huddled around the same TV.
Being able to cover this team will always mean the world to me. It has always been such a big part of my life, and I’ll never get over the fact that I got to do this for a living. Everyone deserves the chance to do what they love, with great people, and with an incredible support network. I’ve been lucky enough to check all of those boxes here.
Bucs fans mean the world to me. I am one of you, and always will be. I have never taken for granted the opportunity to represent the voice of the fans; in press conferences, in locker rooms, and on the digital page. This is my city, my community, my team.
No matter where I go, or how I do this work, that will never change.
I got to cover this team through the most successful three-year stretch in franchise history, with a trio of playoff appearances, back-to-back division titles, and a second Super Bowl run. The GOAT, Gronk, M1K3, LVD . . . some of the most iconic players in league and team history.