We're four games into the 2023 NFL season, and while looking ahead is typically what I do this time of year, it's instructive to also look at how the rookies, just a month into their professional careers, are doing.
(Regarding looking ahead: On Thursday's "With the First Pick" podcast, that's exactly what Rick Spielman and I did -- we looked at those that they've positioned themselves in the 2024 NFL Draft. So if that's your jam, check that out.)
Specifically, I'll rank the top 10 picks from the 2023 NFL Draft class, a group that includes three quarterbacks, six offensive players and a player who went ninth overall but is playing like one of the best players in the league. I watched every NFL snap for all 10 players, and their ranking below reflects both how they've performed (obviously), but also takes positional value into account. Put another way: quarterbacks are important, so even if, say, , he might be ranked lower than perhaps you might expect.
But here's the thing: nine of the 10 players on this list are off to good-to-great starts; only one has struggled (though he has improved each week), and that's likely due to a foot injury he's still recovering from. Basically: there's a lot of reason for optimism if your team had a top-10 pick because those guys have been impressive thus far.
We'll start at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.
10. Tyree Wilson, EDGE, Raiders (7th overall pick)
Wilson suffered a foot injury last fall at Texas Tech, so he wasn't able to take part in the Senior Bowl, the combine or even a pro day. He's played in every regular-season game, and each week he's gotten a little better. He's still a far cry from where he was in college, but there's no denying the length, the get off, and the power -- again, once he's back to full strength. Wilson had two hurries against the Chargers in Week 4, but he's still looking for his first sack. And the Raiders desperately need pass-rush help opposite Maxx Crosby, who leads the team with four sacks. After that, linebackers Robert Spillane and Divine Deablo are next on the list with one each.
9. Darnell Wright, OT, Bears (10th overall pick)
Given the current state of the Bears, there will be questions about if the team would've been better off staying at No. 9 and taking Jalen Carter (more on him later) and beefing up a defense that has been hard to watch at times this season. Maybe, but whatever off-field concerns some teams had about Carter haven't been an issue in Philadelphia, which took him at No. 10, in part because there's institutional stability there, something that appears to be lacking in Chicago (see the Chase Claypool drama, for example).
Instead, the Bears moved down one spot and landed right tackle Darnell Wright, who was a Day 1 starter and has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal start to the season. Yes, he's given up three sacks in four games, but he's also held his own against a slew of good pass rushers – Rashan Gary in Week 1, Shaq Barrett in Week 2, George Karlaftis in Week 3 and Nik Bonitto last Sunday. He'll continue to get better, and once they get LT Braxton Jones back from injury (the hope is Week 7), perhaps the unit will find the consistency they've lacked so far.
8. Will Anderson Jr., EDGE, Texans (3rd overall pick)
Anderson has just one sack in four games, but he's been incredibly active, both on defense and on special teams, where he blocked a field goal against the Jaguars in Week 3. In four games, he has eight hurries, has seen his fair share of double teams, and is both active as a pass rusher and against the run. He also has the top rookie pass-rush grade, according to PFF, and owns the third best pass-rush-win-rate among all pass rushers after only Micah Parsons and Boye Mafe.
Will Anderson has looked DOMINANT on tape in the first 3 weeks of the season.— The Football Scout (@NFLTrenchBattle) September 29, 2023
He currently has the 4th most pressures (11) among all rookie defensive linemen.. The most run stops (4) and the 2nd highest overall PFF grade.
But where he really shines is his 1 on 1 win rate. He… pic.twitter.com/TiktBiBYnn
So while the traditional stats may not tell the entire story, if you've watched Anderson closely, he's been better than advertised on one of the NFL's most surprising teams.
7. Bryce Young, QB, Panthers (1st overall pick)
Let's start here: Young has been better than social media might lead you to believe. He's improved each week, and last Sunday's game against the Vikings was the best of his young career. He showed all the things that made him QB1 in the spring: the ability to throw accurately and with anticipation, knowing where to go with the ball, and getting better at getting the ball out on time.
Now, it's fair to wonder if Will Anderson Jr. should be ranked ahead of Young, and if Young didn't play quarterback this would've been an easy decision; but Young's struggles, in addition to being a rookie and, well, looking like one, can be chalked up to suspect offensive line play and receivers who have struggled to get open consistently. That said, you just can not, under any circumstance, get strip-sacked-for-six, which is what happened last weekend against a reeling Vikings team. Thing is, that was Young's cleanest game up to that point, and I expect he'll continue to play with more consistency as the season progresses.
6. Devon Witherspoon, CB, Seahawks (5th overall pick)
The Seahawks had two first-rounders, and the thinking was that they would definitely address their defense -- but along the defensive line, not in the secondary. Instead, Seattle passed on Jalen Carter, selected Witherspoon, and the Illini standout has made an immediate impact. He missed Week 1 with an injury, but he's making up for lost time. Witherspoon played primarily outside the first two games -- and against the Panthers in Week 3, he was targeted 13 times and just allowed five catches for 31 yards -- but on Monday night, Witherspoon spent a lot of time in the slot, where he locked it down in coverage (including, of course, that 97-yard pick-six) and also blitzed five times. And five times, he was disruptive, twice sacking quarterback Daniel Jones.
5. Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Cardinals (6th overall pick)
You might try to make the case that Devon Witherspoon should be ahead of Johnson here but, 1) Witherspoon didn't play in Week 1, and 2) Johnson has been rock-solid over four games -- and he's never played right tackle! He was a left tackle and right guard at Ohio State, and the transition to the right-tackle position has been as close to seamless as imaginable.
In four games, Johnson has allowed a single sack and just three pressures, and his athleticism consistently pops. Whether it's his footwork in pass protection, or the smoothness with which he gets to the second level and locks onto a linebacker when run blocking. He's quietly having a great season, in part because of the position he plays and in part because of the team he plays for. But the Cards are playing hard and certainly exceeding expectations, and Johnson has a lot to do with that.
4. Anthony Richardson, QB, Colts (4th overall pick)
There is so much to like about Richardson's game. And while some of the credit goes to first-year coach Shane Steichen, who teamed up with Jalen Hurts in Philly the last few seasons, Richardson is the one making the plays with his arm and his legs. Unlike Hurts, Richardson hasn't yet learned the art of avoiding the big hit -- and he was concussed in Week 2 (and missed Week 3 as a result) -- though when he returned last Sunday, he did seem more inclined to get down instead of trying to steamroll NFL linebackers. But more than that, Richardson's athleticism -- both with his cannon arm and 4.4 speed -- is what makes him so fun to watch. There isn't a window in which he can't squeeze the ball, and for someone who started just 13 career games at Florida, he's shown the ability to get through reads and throw with anticipation at the NFL level. The biggest issue is the occasional inaccurate throw, but that is outweighed by all the otherworldly talents he possesses.
The Colts appear to have gotten it right at head coach and at quarterback, and they've had early-season success without one of their best players, running back Jonathan Taylor.
3. Bijan Robinson, RB, Falcons (8th overall pick)
There have been a lot of discussions about paying running backs, and perhaps we'll have those talks around Robinson when his rookie deal is up. But for now, he was absolutely worth the No. 8 overall pick, and it's not even controversial to say he's the best playmaker on this team ahead of Kyle Pitts and Drake London (both underutilized in this offense), and Desmond Ridder (who has struggled in Year 2). Robinson can do it all, both as a runner and a receiver, and he's already one of the most dynamic players in the game. His first NFL touchdown came on a reception, and while it only went for 11 yards, a lot happened from the time he caught it three yards behind the line of scrimmage and when he bulldozed his way into the end zone.
It's like that every time he touches the ball, and if Atlanta can figure out how to get Pitts and London more involved, and find some consistency with Ridder, this team could win the division in a wide-open NFC South.
2. Jalen Carter, DL, Eagles (9th overall pick)
Back in April, no one would've given you a double-take if you proclaimed Jalen Carter the best player in the 2023 NFL Draft, mostly because it was true based on what he put on tape at Georgia. The concerns came off the field, and it's the only reason he was still on the board when the Eagles traded up to No. 9 to take him.
I talked above about whether the Bears would've been better off with Carter (they traded out of the ninth spot), and on paper, yeah, they would've been. But the reality is that the Eagles organization has its act together while Chicago is, well, a mess. Either way, Carter has been absolutely dominant for a Philly defensive front that is deep. They have him lining up all over the line, though he does most of his damage against interior offensive linemen, and I could spend the rest of the day showing tweets of him manhandling 300-plus-pound grown men like they were little kids. Instead, I'll just include two:
Jalen Carter's rank among DT/DIs for first 4 games of their NFL career over the last 18 years:— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 4, 2023
PFF grade: #1 (92.2)
Total pressures: #1 (20)
Pass-rush win rate: #1 (23.2%)
Previous best grade after 4 games...some guy called Aaron Donald
Carter is ELITEpic.twitter.com/dnkRIeuXQa
#Eagles DT Jalen Carter (@BreadManJalen) found A LOT of ways to win in Week 1.— Fran Duffy (@EaglesXOs) September 11, 2023
Lot of success as a 3rd down disruptor vs a pair of fellow rookie guards.
Great first week - excited to see him continue to build off of it as he sees more vets! #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/O46L9G11re
1. CJ Stroud, QB, Texans (2nd overall pick)
This is the least surprising development as we sit here in early October, but it would've been pretty hard to wrap our collective brains around in, say, July. Not because Stroud didn't come into the league with legit credentials -- he was dominant at Ohio State -- but because there were questions about how he would navigate the rigors of the position behind a Texans offensive line that wouldn't provide him with anything close to the protection he enjoyed in Columbus. But even with Houston playing backups at multiple positions along the O-line,. And I don't mean in a 'Hey, he'll be good one day, you can tell!' sort of way. I mean, sort of way.
Active QBs who have produced 1,200+ passing yards & 0 INTs in a 4-game stretch in the same season:— Heath Cummings (@heathcummingssr) October 3, 2023
Aaron Rodgers (6)
Patrick Mahomes (4)
Tua Tagovailoa (2)
Russell Wilson (2)
C.J. Stroud IN HIS FIRST 4 GAMES
Stroud throws with anticipation and accuracy -- things with both saw at Ohio State -- and the ball is coming out on time, whether it's the first read in the progression or the third. It's been so much fun to watch, which is a credit to Stroud and first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, who consistently has put Stroud in position to succeed.
I know this throw already circulated through the internet.— DJ Bien-Aime (@Djbienaime) October 4, 2023
But this throw by CJ Stroud is straight up WICKED. To hit Nico Collins in stride on a corner route but not lead him out of bounce to where he could run while throwing with enough arc over the DB.
Special. Teach tape. pic.twitter.com/jzPUdggtuC
There are plenty of lessons to learn here, but maybe the biggest is this: remember when former coach Lovie Smith beat the Colts in Week 18 last season, and that win gifted the No. 1 overall pick to the Bears and the Texans dropped down to No. 2 in the draft order? The thinking was that Houston loved Bryce Young, and there were even rumors that the team might not take a quarterback at all with the second selection and instead might target Will Anderson Jr.
In the end, the Texans took Stroud and Anderson, and they're currently 2-2 and tied with the three other teams in the division. The takeaway: NFL teams (and all of us in the draft media, too) can too often overthink it. Turns out, Stroud was the guy all the time.