The scrutiny is non-stop for entrants in the 2023 NFL Draft. Even after a full college season, the combine, pro days and meetings with teams, there are players who are moving the needle in a positive direction in the final days before the draft.
Here are six such players.
6 Rising Prospects for 2023 NFL Draft
Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee
Four quarterbacks have been analyzed pretty thoroughly, but the one whose stock is rising is Hendon Hooker (scouting report). Anyone who watched his games last season and followed the pre-draft process knows Hooker is getting a lot of scrutiny and admiration.
One negative in the eyes of some evaluators is Hookier’s age — he’s 25. I’ve never minded a 25-year-old rookie quarterback who can go into a huddle with a bunch of grown men as opposed to a 20-year-old quarterback who has to prove his chops. There is added maturity. Hooker has already had to win over a huddle because he transferred from Virginia Tech after the 2020 season.
He also has been tested by having to make a lot of decisions. He had responsibility for Tennessee’s run game. The Volunteers like to play fast, and their wide receivers take wide splits. They’re pretty much in the crowd before they emerge and run routes. Hooker had total responsibility for getting Tennessee into the proper run and pass plays.
Hooker also is incredibly accurate. He completed 70 percent of his passes and had 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions in 2022. Some will say, “The wide receivers were wide open.” Yes, but he didn’t miss them either. He appears to be the best long-ball thrower in this draft. Lest anyone think last season was an anomaly, it wasn’t. Hooker had a 31-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2021 and completed 68 percent of his throws.
>>READ: Best Landing Spot for Hooker
If Hooker had not injured his ACL in November against South Carolina, he would not be a rising prospect. We would be debating whether he is the third quarterback in this draft along with Kentucky’s Will Levis (scouting report) and Florida’s Anthony Richardson (scouting report). They are behind Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (scouting report) and Alabama’s Bryce Young (scouting report).
It’s possible Levis might not go in the top 10. If he lands in the 20s, there is more and more debate starting to happen about Hooker and Levis. The thinking was Hooker would have to redshirt this season because of his ACL injury, but that’s not true. All of the medical information coming out points toward him being ready to play earlier this season rather than later. So that might push Hooker a little bit, as well.
Richardson should be in this conversation as well. But he is so physically gifted and imposing teams are saying, “If I can draft him and sit him for a year, then I’ve really got something.” That takes him out of this debate. Whereas Hooker and Levis are quarterbacks who have a chance to play early.
Sam LaPorta, TE, Iowa
Sam LaPorta (scouting report) is magnificent. He’s an easy mover when he runs. His routes are precise, and he has good, strong hands. Given the Iowa pedigree, he’s probably going to block well, too. If we consider predictive behavior and what schools give us, Iowa consistently provides great tight ends. In the 2019 draft, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were first-round picks, and both have become productive starters.
LaPorta’s numbers weren’t great — 58 catches for 655 yards, but only one touchdown in 2022 but the quarterback play wasn’t terrific either. Spencer Petras completed just 55.9 percent of his passes and threw only five touchdown passes. The Hawkeyes’ inconsistency on offense shouldn’t prevent LaPorta from being drafted in Round 2 or 3. He’s the type of player teams will look back on and wish they had taken earlier.
LaPorta also can line up next to a tackle and block when needed. Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (scouting report) is the consensus No. 1 guy in that regard, but if LaPorta had played in a different offense where he had more passes thrown his way, this could be a real debate. Mayer had more opportunities for receptions, and he played in more high-profile games.
LaPorta was impressive on tape, and then he had a strong showing at the combine. It’s dangerous to make decisions based only on the combine. LaPorta’s performance wasn’t eye-opening, it just confirmed what the tape showed.
Michael Wilson, WR, Stanford
The biggest problem for Michael Wilson (scouting report) has been staying healthy. He hasn’t played a full season because he’s been dinged up a number of times. He’s only played 14 games total during the past three seasons.
However, Wilson is as skillful as any route runner in this draft. He’s well put together at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and he catches the football well. The only thing he doesn’t have is blazing speed, but Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba (scouting report) doesn’t have that either, and he might end up being the first receiver picked.
Because Wilson hasn’t played anything close to a full season since 2019, his stock is down. Former NFL receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has trained several receivers for the NFL including 2022 Atlanta Falcons’ first-round pick Drake London, says Wilson is the best he has worked with so far.
Wilson also had a fantastic Senior Bowl week. The key for him is staying healthy. If he does that he’s going to open a lot of eyes and make a lot of catches in the NFL.
Garrett Williams, CB, Syracuse
Garrett Williams (scouting report) tore an ACL in Syracuse’s seventh game in October last season, but he is rehabbing and should come back during the 2023 season.
Williams has movement skills to play over the top of receivers. He is 6-foot and has a lanky build. Not only is he a ballhawk, but he’s an excellent tackler. He’s averaged more than five tackles per game during his three college seasons. Some team will get a steal with him.
D.J. Johnson, LB, Oregon
D.J. Johnson has probably played every position except for quarterback in college, but outside linebacker is his best fit. He’s got a great build at 6-foot-4 and almost 260 pounds, and he can rush the passer and play the run equally well. In 2022, he had six sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and 39 tackles.
His breadth of experience — he’s played everything from safety to up on the line of scrimmage — makes him someone to keep an eye on.
Drew Sanders, LB, Arkansas
Drew Sanders (scouting report) is going to get some first-round mentions because he is a prototypical off-the-ball linebacker who will make 100 tackles or more per season. However, he also can move to the edge and rush the passer. He led Arkansas with 103 tackles — 13.5 for a loss and 9.5 sacks last season. He also had an interception and five passes defended.
Sanders started his college career at Alabama and transferred out because he was playing drop end. The guy on the other side was Will Anderson (scouting report), who will be one of the top picks in this draft. Sanders made a great move for his pro career by transferring to Arkansas. He looks like a poor man’s Micah Parsons in terms of his mobility and being able to play a bunch of positions.
Charles Davis is an NFL analyst for CBS and NFL Network. He joined the sports media world after playing safety at the University of Tennessee.