Expert Analysis


12 min read

13 Biggest Steals From 2023 NFL Draft

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud
Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) on the sideline during the third quarter of the game against the Arizona Cardinals at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably heard it before — the NFL Draft is an inexact science. The saying pervades because, year after year, players prove it’s true.

As we head into the final seven weeks of the 2023 regular season, many players chosen in the 2023 NFL Draft are exceeding expectations in their rookie seasons, and a handful of undrafted players are proving they deserved to have their names called back in April. 

Here are 13 (lucky) draft steals, beginning with the sure-fire Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Biggest Steals from 2023 Draft Class

C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans (Round 1, No. 2 Overall Pick)

Even though C.J. Stroud was the second overall pick, he is far outplaying top pick Bryce Young of the Carolina Panthers, albeit with a better supporting cast. In that sense, Stroud is a steal for the Houston Texans. He has injected himself into the MVP conversation with the team's rise to playoff contention at 6-4 and on a three-game winning streak.

Stroud is the clear front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He leads the league with 296 passing yards per game and ranks eighth in passer rating (99.3). After throwing only one interception in his first eight starts, he has been picked off four times in the last two victories over the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals

Stroud’s best game this season was in Week 9. He broke the NFL record for passing yards in a game by a rookie with 470 yards in a 39-37 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had five touchdown passes and no turnovers, including the winning touchdown pass to fellow rookie Tank Dell with 10 seconds left.

Stroud has shown poise and leadership along with his arm strength. He has a big game in Week 12 at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars with the AFC South lead on the line. The Texans won the first meeting between the teams in Week 3. Stroud threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.

Tank Dell, Houston Texans (Round 3, No. 69 Overall Pick)

Speaking of Dell, he has been a terrific third-round find for the Texans. He’s coming off the best game of his career last Sunday with eight catches for 149 yards (one touchdown) against the Cardinals. Dell has 42 receptions for 659 yards (second most among rookie receivers) and six touchdowns. He’s a versatile player who has returned 11 punts with a 9.1-yard average.

Dell was familiar to the Texans because he played college football at the University of Houston, where he was a prolific receiver with 199 catches for 2,727 yards and 29 TDs during his last two seasons. He’s a smaller receiver at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds who has good speed, quickness and agility, is an excellent route runner and is dangerous in run-after-catch situations.  

Dell and Stroud should be a formidable combination for years to come.  

Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams (Round 5, NO. 177 Overall Pick)

A fifth-round steal, Puka Nacua burst on the NFL scene with 10 catches for 119 yards as the Los Angeles Rams upset the Seattle Seahawks in the season opener in Seattle. He followed up with a rookie-record 15 receptions (for 147 yards) in a close Week 2 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Nacua leads all rookie receivers in catches (69) and receiving yards (897) and has three touchdowns. He ranks sixth in the NFL in receiving yards and ninth in receptions. Nacua has paired with Cooper Kupp to provide a top duo since Kupp returned from injured reserve in Week 6, and they have helped the Rams stay on the fringe of playoff contention at 4-6.

Nacua has good size, excellent hands and run-after-catch ability. His average speed and route running knocked him down in the draft, but the Rams have coached him up, and they’re thrilled with him as perhaps the best later-round bargain in the 2023 draft.

Jordan Addison, Minnesota Vikings (Round 1, No. 23 Overall Pick)

Dell, Nacua and Jordan Addison are part of another solid wide receiver class as recent NFL drafts have been exceptional at the position, going back to 2020 when Addison’s teammate with the Minnesota Vikings — Justin Jefferson — was the fifth receiver selected in the first round (No. 22 overall). Like Jefferson, Addison was a later first-round pick. He was the fourth wide receiver off the board, and he’s outproduced the other three thus far (Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Quentin Johnston and Zay Flowers).

When the All-Pro Jefferson went on injured reserve due to a hamstring injury in Week 5, Addison became Minnesota’s WR1 and has produced 35 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns over the past seven games. He's done that while playing with three quarterbacks (Kirk Cousins before his Achilles injury, Jaren Hall and now Josh Dobbs). Addison was a key player in Minnesota’s five-game winning streak, which ended in a one-point loss at Denver in Week 11.

Addison has 48 catches for 647 yards, and his seven touchdown receptions lead all rookies and rank third in the league. His strengths are his athleticism, route running, speed and ability to make contested catches. He and Jefferson will be among the league’s top duos this season when Jefferson returns (and in future years).

De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins (Round 3, No. 84 OVerall Pick)

De’Von Achane fell to the third round due to concerns about his size at 5-foot-9, 188 pounds. But he exploded on the NFL scene in Week 3 against the Denver Broncos when he rushed for 203 yards and two touchdowns and added four receptions for two more touchdowns in the 70-20 rout. He had three straight 100-plus rushing yard games in Weeks 3 to Week 5 before a knee injury landed him on injured reserve. He returned last week but tweaked the knee again, and his status for Friday’s game at the Jets is uncertain.

Achane was the sixth running back taken in the 2023 draft. In five games, he has 461 rushing yards, 10 receptions and seven total touchdowns. He leads the league in rushing yards per game (92) and yards per carry (11.8) for players with more than 30 attempts. He’s far outperformed first-rounders Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs in those categories.

Achane was the fastest running back in the draft (running the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds) and is an instinctive runner. He is a good receiving back and dangerous kick returner, which he hasn’t done for the Miami Dolphins yet. Achane had two kickoff return touchdowns in his college career at Texas A&M. He benefits from playing in an offense with outstanding receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Still, he adds a game-breaking talent to the Miami backfield for the league’s No. 1 offense.

Detroit Lions tight end Sam Laporta
Detroit Lions tight end Sam LaPorta (87) runs into the end zone for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers. Photo by: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

Sam LaPorta, Detroit Lions (Round 2, No. 34 Overall Pick)

There was some angst among Detroit Lions fans when the team traded Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson to the Vikings last season. The Lions addressed the position by drafting Sam LaPorta in the early second round.

It’s paid off. LaPorta has contributed 50 catches for 492 yards and four touchdowns through 10 games for the 8-2 Lions, who have the NFL’s second-ranked offense.

LaPorta leads all rookie tight ends in receiving yards and touchdowns and has outperformed first-rounder Dalton Kincaid of the Buffalo Bills by 56 yards. He’s also a solid blocker, aiding Detroit’s fifth-ranked rushing attack.  

Like Hockenson and his fellow Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle, LaPorta played at Iowa, where he is the career receptions leader among tight ends (153).

Jarrett Patterson, Houston Texans (Round 6, No. 201 Overall Pick)

Drafting a center in the sixth round who starts as a rookie is unexpected. However, that’s what the Texans accomplished with Jarrett Patterson, another quality player from what is turning into an outstanding 2023 draft class for the surprising Texans.

On opening day, Patterson stepped into the starting lineup after a preseason injury to second-round center Juice Scruggs created the opportunity. Patterson was off to a great start in his career, with no sacks allowed in seven starts for Houston before he fractured his fibula in Week 8. The Texans subsequently placed him on injured reserve. The Texans are hoping he can return in mid-December.

“Jarrett has been a staple for us throughout the season,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said after Patterson was hurt. “Smart player, tough player — played well for us. Hopefully we can get him back.”    

Patterson was a four-year starter at Notre Dame and has the versatility to play guard, where he started in 2022.

Byron Young, Los Angeles Rams (Round 3, No. 77 Overall Pick)

The Rams drafted Byron Young with the third-round pick they acquired for trading Jalen Ramsey to Miami. He became an immediate starter, having a highly productive rookie season with five sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 43 tackles for the improving Rams defense. He has given the team another quality pass rusher next to All-Pro Aaron Donald.

Young brings excellent speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds), acceleration and athleticism to help as a pass rusher and run stopper, especially as he continues to get stronger.

Young was among the oldest players in the 2023 draft class at 25 years old after bouncing around in junior college before transferring to Tennessee. His age made him a hungry and likely more mature player.  

Brian Branch, Detroit Lions (Round 2, No. 45 Overall Pick)

Brian Branch had an illustrious start to his NFL career with a 50-yard pick-six off Patrick Mahomes in the Lions’ opening night win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Detroit traded up three spots in the second round to select Branch (the first safety taken). Many analysts projected him as a first-round talent.

Branch is a versatile player who can play safety or slot corner. He’s talented in coverage, as a run defender or blitzing, as shown by his three tackles-for-loss, six tackles, one QB hit, and one pass defensed in the Lions’ comeback win last Sunday over the Chicago Bears. He started five games this season and has 43 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss and five passes defensed. He has helped the Detroit defense improve from dead last in 2022 to No. 9 this season.

Branch was utilized as a do-everything safety/nickel back for Nick Saban at Alabama, and he has taken on a similar role with the Lions. He’s a smart, competitive player who makes up for a lack of top-end speed (that probably knocked him out of the first round) with his instinctive play.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joey Porter Jr.
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (24) checks in while covering Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (3). Photo by: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Porter, Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers (Round 2, No. 32 Overall Pick)

Joey Porter Jr. was the first pick in the second round, and he’s a great value at that spot for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted Porter’s father in 1999. The elder Porter played linebacker for eight years for the Steelers.

The Steelers selected Porter Jr. with the pick they acquired for trading Chase Claypool to the Bears. Chicago would surely like a do-over on that deal. The Bears would love to have Porter, who is quickly developing into a lockdown corner, as a starter with size, speed and excellent ball skills. He has one interception, five passes defensed and 27 tackles for the Steelers, who are in the playoff hunt at 6-4.

Porter showcased his coverage skills in the Steelers’ Week 9 win over the Titans. Porter was in man coverage (mainly press) on star receiver DeAndre Hopkins on 26 of his 36 routes per NextGen Stats, with Hopkins having only one reception for 17 yards on five targets while Porter was on him.

Ivan Pace, Jr., Minnesota Vikings (Undrafted)

As a former general manager who signed Hall of Fame defender John Randle as an undrafted player in 1990, I love seeing players who get passed up in the draft emerge as NFL starters. But it’s rare for that to happen in a player’s rookie season. However, that is what happened to Ivan Pace Jr.

He was an All-American linebacker at Cincinnati but was considered undersized at 5-foot-10, 230 pounds. With his football IQ and playmaking ability, Pace quickly impressed Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores in OTAs and training camp. He has started seven games, and with the recent injury to Jordan Hicks, Pace is now responsible for relaying the defensive play calls from Flores to his veteran teammates.

Pace led the Vikings with nine tackles in the one-point loss to the Broncos on Sunday night, and he nearly won the game when he forced a fumble on Denver’s winning drive that he recovered out of bounds. Pace’s quickness shows up as a blitzer with five quarterback hits. He also has 46 tackles for a Vikings defense that has improved from No. 31 last season to No. 13 in 2023.   

Marvin Mims, Jr., Denver Broncos (Round 2, No. 63 Overall Pick)

Marvin Mims Jr. is a valuable addition to the surging Broncos as a late second-round pick who leads the league in punt return average (20.7 yards). Among players with more than one kickoff return, Mims ranks third with a 33.6-yard average, including a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Miami.

He also is the Broncos' speedy third wide receiver who ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and is a likely future starter at the position. Mims has contributed 13 receptions for 258 yards (19.8 average) and one touchdown.

Mims scored 20 touchdowns as an explosive college receiver at Oklahoma. His slighter frame, at 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, likely caused his drop in the draft. But his upside as a deep threat, with good hands and run-after-catch ability, is apparent early in his NFL career.

Brandon Aubrey, Dallas Cowboys (Undrafted)

Brandon Aubrey almost didn’t make this list after he missed his second PAT of the season (he’s made 29 of 31 extra points) in the Dallas Cowboys’ win over Carolina on Sunday. But he’s another good story as an undrafted kicker who is perfect on field goals (21 of 21, including four of four from 50-plus yards) after the Cowboys signed him as an All-USFL kicker from the Birmingham Stallions.

The value of Aubrey’s signing is clear. He has outperformed Jake Moody (16 of 19 on field goals), whom the 49ers drafted in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Moody missed a 41-yard potential winner in the team’s first loss of the season at Cleveland in Week 6. Aubrey is also off to a much better start than fourth-round rookie Chad Ryland of the Patriots, who has converted only 12 of 17 field goals.