The scouting process leading up to the 2023 NFL Draft is exhaustive. Evaluations begin — and continue — during the college football season. Once the national champion is crowned, the seriousness goes up another couple of notches during Senior Bowl week.
There are a handful of players who had strong weeks in Mobile, Ala., but aren’t getting the attention they deserve in the run-up to the draft. Teams that select them will be getting potential steals.
7 2023 NFL Draft Day 3 Steals
Maryland CB Jakorian Bennett
If you asked most NFL evaluators to rank what tools or attributes they value most at the cornerback position, most would put speed and ball skills at or near the top. Bennett, a former unrecruited high school player and a junior college transfer, is among the best in both areas in this year’s corner class. His 4.30-second official 40-yard dash time was second-best at the NFL Combine behind only Michigan’s D.J. Turner (scouting report).
Bennett got his hands on 27 passes (five interceptions, 22 passes defended) over the past two seasons for the Terps. In these final hours leading into the draft, most teams we’ve spoken with have Bennett graded as a fringe top-100 player (he is CB11 and ranked 93rd overall on The 33rd Team’s final big board).
Stanford TE Elijah Higgins
It’s almost startling how little buzz there’s been in draft media circles about Higgins, who ran a 4.54 40 at the combine at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. Every NFL team is looking for explosive mismatch players in the passing game, and Higgins is one of the top size/speed skill players in this year’s draft.
Multiple teams told us Higgins and college teammate Michael Wilson (scouting report), who was selected 94th overall by the Arizona Cardinals, were difficult to evaluate in Stanford’s offense, but if you grade the flashes, Higgins is someone teams feel they can “hit” on in this draft. Higgins played wide receiver in college, but in terms of projected role fit in the NFL, think of a Mike Gesicki-type player.
Georgia FS Christopher Smith
This year’s safety class has been widely panned, and it’s admittedly not a great group at the top of the draft, but one player many teams are targeting in the third-round range is Georgia’s defensive captain. Nobody in the league expected Smith to be an elite tester at the combine, so his subpar numbers didn’t really affect teams’ grades.
What he lacks in physical tools, Smith more than makes up for with his high-end football intelligence and on-field communication skills. Georgia’s staff raves about Smith’s ability to tie together the backend of a defense, and he did an outstanding job in interviews with NFL coaches during this pre-draft process. Teams think Smith could be the type of cerebral overachieving safety who starts for a long time.
Stanford CB Kyu Blu Kelly
A trio of 6-foot-plus, long-armed corners — Kansas State’s Julius Brents (scouting report), South Carolina’s Darius Rush (scouring report) and Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson (scouting report) — boosted their draft stock considerably coming out of Senior Bowl week and have received plenty of buzz in the NFL draft Twitter space.
That said, one player nobody in the media seems to be talking about is Stanford’s Kelly. As we said about every team looking for mismatch players on offense, the majority of the league places a premium on cover corners with 32-inch arms, and Kelly meets that threshold. While he is a notch below Brents (who went 44th overall to the Indianapolis Colts), Rush, and Stevenson (who went 56th to the Chicago Bears) on most team’s boards, we still think Kelly hears his name called on Day 2.
Tennessee-Chattanooga OL McClendon Curtis
Maybe the biggest shocker of last year’s draft was UT-Chattanooga’s Cole Strange going No. 29 overall to the New England Patriots. While we don’t expect Curtis to go nearly as high as his former teammate, he is someone we think will end up starting in the league. Curtis, who played mostly guard in college, helped himself tremendously at the Senior Bowl by holding his own at both tackle spots against a good group of edge rushers.
Teams think he could be a potential starter at three spots (both guards and right tackle) and provide emergency versatility at left tackle. There’s always a handful of players each year in Mobile that end up being better players than I gave them credit for based on college film, and Curtis was one of those guys this year. It sounds like the fifth round is the most likely landing spot for Curtis, and whoever takes him in that range will be getting a potential steal.
Oklahoma RB Eric Gray
Ask veteran NFL evaluators what the most overrated running back trait is and the majority will tell you top-end speed. Burst matters more. This is a very good class of running backs when it comes to its overall depth, and Eric Gray seems to be getting ignored after running a 4.62 40 at the combine. Scouts have not forgotten about him, however.
He is one of the shiftiest and most creative runners in the draft, so smart teams will not get hung up on what the stopwatch read in Indianapolis. Projecting where running backs will get taken in this new era of positional devaluation is extremely difficult, but we’re hearing mostly fourth- and fifth-round grades on Gray. We have little doubt he will have a role on Sundays for some team.
>>READ: Eric Gray’s Full Scouting Report
Missouri Edge Isaiah McGuire
We’ve been big fans of the pass-rush versatility of McGuire since watching his junior tape last summer, but for some reason, he’s flying under many draft analysts’ radars. Two things you can’t coach are length and explosion, and McGuire has both. At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds with almost 34-inch arms, McGuire posted an excellent 10-yard dash time (1.59) and was among the combine’s defensive line leaders in the vertical jump (36.5 inches) and broad jump (10-2).
McGuire was a consensus top-100 prospect for all the teams we spoke with during the past week.
Before taking over as executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl in 2018, Jim Nagy was an NFL scout for nearly two decades, having worked for five teams that won a combined four Super Bowls. Follow him on Twitter @JimNagy_SB.