Editor’s note: This is part six of Dane Brugler’s Summer Scouting series, which takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects for the 2023 NFL Draft. Previously: Part V (OTs) and Part VI (Interior OL).
Early prediction: Defensive line (both edge rushers and defensive tackles) will be the strength of the 2023 NFL Draft.
We were spoiled with four elite-level NFL pass-rush prospects over a five-year stretch, with Joey Bosa (2016), Myles Garrett (2017), Nick Bosa (2019) and Chase Young (2020) — aside from injuries, all four have lived up to the immense hype.
There were several talented pass rushers in the last two drafts, but none on the same level as that group. However, we will have another elite-level edge defender in the 2023 class in Alabama’s Will Anderson. Between now and next April, NFL evaluators will grapple with the question: Where does Anderson rank compared to Garrett, Young and the Bosa brothers? And it won’t be a surprise if some arrive at the conclusion that he belongs at the top.
(Note: Asterisk represents draft-eligible underclassmen. Heights and weights are what NFL teams have on file for each player and may differ from school rosters)
1. *Will Anderson Jr., Alabama (6-foot-4, 245 lbs.)
Best Trait: Rare package of skills
Anderson is a special prospect because he combines explosive athleticism and raw strength with technical know-how and outstanding play recognition. That rare package of skills allows him to be equally dominant as both a pass rusher and run defender.
Anderson lived in the backfield on the Ole Miss tape from last season. Lined up at left end on this play, he is shot out of a cannon at the snap and shows remarkable acceleration with his first two steps. Using his bendy, flexible frame to play from a low position, Anderson does a masterful job clearing the hands of the right guard to create a clear runway to the quarterback.
Anderson is also an elite-level run defender. This play against Cincinnati in last year’s College Football Playoff is a great example of his proficient technique and freaky physical traits.
Anderson reads the down blocks and inches forward to stay gap sound while also deciphering the backfield action. Using a “wrong arm” combo technique, he rips his outside shoulder to the inside of the pulling blocker and establishes leverage through contact. When that move is properly executed, the edge rusher can dispose of two blockers (the puller and kickout), allowing second-level help to tackle the ball carrier.
But Anderson not only spills the run and disposes of both blockers (like he is coached to do), he’s able to fight through the contact and make a remarkable stop.
Must Improve: Finishing tackles
This isn’t an indictment of Anderson’s finishing effort, because his motor is outstanding. But because he often plays in hyperdrive, he has the bad habit of leaving his feet too early, which results in more missed tackles than necessary. Anderson finished last season with 102 tackles, so this is more nitpicking than a true concern.
2022 Season/2023 NFL Draft Outlook
Georgia landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the 2020 cycle, despite allowing 18 of the top-20 players in the state to sign elsewhere. One of those recruits that got away was Anderson, a five-star edge rusher who helped the Crimson Tide to the No. 2-ranked recruiting class that same year. The Hampton, Ga., native was an immediate starter for Nick Saban’s defense and earned Freshman All-America honors with 7.0 sacks. As a sophomore last year, Anderson had one of the best seasons by a defensive end in college football history, which should have won him the Heisman — on top of those 102 tackles, he led the nation in both tackles for loss (34.5) and sacks (17.5).
On paper, Anderson is a remarkable prospect. His tape is even more extraordinary. With his lower-body twitch and explosive upper half, he has the physical makeup that NFL teams covet. But what really sets him apart as a prospect are his intelligence, competitive fire and astute understanding of how to apply coaching.
With his high level of play rushing the passer and stopping the run, Anderson is one of the best prospects I’ve ever studied and compares very favorably to Von Miller.
2. Nolan Smith, Georgia (6-3, 237)
Best Trait: Twitchy athleticism
With his ability to rush the passer and make stops versus the run, Smith was one of the key cogs of Georgia’s national title-winning defense last season. He is a smart, assignment-sound player, but his loose athleticism is what stands out the most on his film. Smith has the first-step quickness to cross the face of blockers and slip through gaps at the line of scrimmage. The natural twitch in his joints and hips helps him smoothly change directions, avoid blockers and allow for sharp pursuit angles when closing on the football.
Against Michigan in the College Football Playoff, Smith had one of his best performances of the season, both rushing the passer and stopping the run. This play for no gain shows off his recognition skills and open-field range.
Must Improve: Play strength
While he sports a defined physique, Smith has leaner qualities and needs to continue developing his play strength to better match up with blockers at the NFL level. I was impressed with his toughness to swat the hands of blockers and his contact balance to easily leverage his body. But there are times when he gets hung up on the edge, which will be an issue for NFL teams looking for a hand-on-the-ground lineman.
2022 Season/2023 NFL Draft Outlook
When Smith beat Evan Neal and sacked Bryce Young in the final seconds to secure the national championship for the Bulldogs, most fans believed that would be his final play in a Georgia uniform. What better way for the former five-star recruit (and No. 1 recruit nationally) to finish a college career and ride off into the NFL sunset? Georgia set a record with five defensive players selected in the first round of 2022 NFL Draft, and it might have been six had Smith declared. Instead, the rising senior elected to return to Athens for one final season, in the hope of elevating his draft stock even higher.
On a loaded Georgia defense last season, Smith finished fifth in tackles (56), second in tackles for loss (9.0) and first in forced fumbles (three). He plays with explosive athleticism, functional length and the instincts to always be around the football. In addition to his on-field impact, several Georgia players I spoke with identified Smith as the proverbial heart and soul of the locker room.
His exact positional fit might look different from scheme to scheme, which will lead to varying draft grades. But as an edge defender who can stand up in space, Smith displays the explosive qualities and intangibles to be an NFL difference-maker.
3. *Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame (6-5, 260)
Best Trait: Long-arm rush
An impressive athlete for his size, Foskey can line up across the front seven and win in a multitude of ways. As a pass rusher, he threatens the corner and forces blockers to respect his edge speed, which unlocks his go-to power moves — specifically, his long-arm techniques. Foskey has a crafty understanding of how to use his length to soften the edge and leverage the point of attack with one arm.
If you isolate Foskey’s 10 best pass-rush clips from last season, more than half would be an example of his long-arm techniques. On this play against USC, Foskey stabs the left tackle with his inside hand, dips his hips and relies on basic physics to drive the blocker into the pocket. His long-arm execution creates a pass-rush lane and allows Foskey to use his outside arm to force the strip sack.
Must Improve: Consistent counters
Foskey has outstanding physical tools and is very active with his hands, which helps him take on and dispose blocks. But he is still developing his feel for countermeasures and an overall plan once his preferred move is taken away mid-rush. Foskey would have been in the top-50 mix last April, had he left school. Instead, he opted to return for a fourth season in South Bend to become a more consistent threat.
2022 Season/2023 NFL Draft Outlook
A former four-star recruit from the Bay Area, Foskey put his name on the NFL map when he flashed as a redshirt freshman, and he cemented himself as a legitimate prospect last year with 12.5 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks and six forced fumbles — all team bests. Then defensive coordinator and current head coach Marcus Freeman found creative ways to deploy Foskey’s talent, standing him up and using a variety of stunts and loops to get him free.
Notre Dame has a rich history of sending defensive linemen to the NFL, but the program hasn’t had an edge rusher taken in the first round since Renaldo Wynn in 1997 — over a quarter-century ago. Foskey has the talent to break that streak. With improvements in key areas, he could get himself in the conversation for the top half of Round 1.
4. Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech (6-6, 270)
Best Trait: Shock in his hands
At 6-6 and 270 pounds with almost 36-inch arms, Wilson is physically imposing and has the quick, physical hands to beat down the door and go through blockers. He can convert speed to power from different angles on the defensive line, and he trusts the shock in his hands to overwhelm at contact.
Lined up against the Kansas State right tackle in this clip, Wilson extends his powerful hands into contact and runs his feet to bully the blocker into the pocket. He separates late and gets his long arms free to disrupt the quarterback’s balance for the sack.
Must Improve: Rush diversity mid-sequence
On tape, Wilson shows different rip, wipe or swipe moves, but his rush style is predicated on bully tactics — he often relies too much on his size and length to defeat blocks. It also doesn’t help that his rush can be too easily stalled and his balance disrupted, due to his high center of gravity. Going into his redshirt senior season, NFL scouts want to see an improved rush plan with better diversity mid-rush to keep blockers guessing.
2022 Season/2023 NFL Draft Outlook
A former three-star recruit, Wilson started his college career at Texas A&M where he redshirted in 2018 and played sparingly in 2019. He entered the transfer portal and traveled 450 miles northwest to Lubbock, enrolling at Texas Tech and earning a waiver to play in 2020. Wilson had his breakout season last year as a junior with a team-best 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks.
In new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s hybrid 3-4 scheme, Wilson is listed as an outside linebacker on the Tech roster. He’s expected to split his time between standing up and playing with his hand on the ground. Regardless, his main goal each snap will be to affect the quarterback. Does he lack refinement? Yes, but his length and raw power are terrific foundational traits.
I won’t do my initial first-round mock draft for a few months, but if I did one today, he would be on it.
5. *Myles Murphy, Clemson (6-5, 275)
Best Trait: Pummeling power
A true power player, Murphy collapses the edge as a pass rusher and plays stout against the run. He is a smooth, coordinated athlete with impressive speed for 275 pounds, but his production comes from his anvil hands, long arms and eagerness to pummel blockers.
Against Boston College last season, Murphy showed off a variety of bull-rush moves. Lined up at his regular right defensive end position on this play, he attacks with power and uses push-pull action to get the left tackle off balance, allowing Murphy to turn the corner and finish at the quarterback with one arm.
Must Improve: Pass-rush efficiency
Murphy can batter and bully his way through blockers, but that won’t work consistently in the NFL without developed timing, control and setup in his pass rush. He isn’t a natural hip-flipper, and he lacks elite get-off, so it is imperative for him to be efficient in his move-to-move transition so he can stay on schedule.
2022 Season/2023 NFL Draft Outlook
Clemson had arguably the best recruiting haul in the 2020 cycle, largely because they nabbed the two highest-ranked defensive linemen in the class: Bryan Bresee and Murphy. A five-star from the Atlanta suburbs, Murphy looked like he belonged as an 18-year-old freshman starter, then more than doubled his pass-rush pressures last season as a sophomore.
Murphy is an interesting prospect because he has an NFL body with the play strength to be a true force player, but he isn’t a freak athlete like Travon Walker and lacks the polish of Aidan Hutchinson. However, it is easy to appreciate what Murphy brings each snap as he creates movement with his powerful attack or handles double-teams on the edge. With improved efficiency as a junior, Murphy will move up this list.
Preseason top-20 senior edge rushers:
3. Will McDonald IV, Iowa State (6-4, 226)
4. Andre Carter II, Army (6-6, 255)
5. Zach Harrison, Ohio State (6-6, 266)*
6. Derick Hall, Auburn (6-3, 255)
7. Nick Hampton, Appalachian State (6-2, 224)*
8. Ali Gaye, LSU (6-6, 255)
9. Habakkuk Baldonado, Pittsburgh (6-4, 258)
10. Ochaun Mathis, Nebraska (6-5, 257)*
11. Keion White, Georgia Tech (6-4, 283)
12. Byron Young, Tennessee (6-2, 249)
13. Robert Beal Jr., Georgia (6-4, 255)
14. Brenton Cox Jr., Florida (6-3, 252)*
15. Julius Welschof, Michigan (6-6, 285)
16. Xavier Thomas, Clemson (6-2, 279)
17. Eyabi Anoma, Tennessee-Martin (6-5, 242)*
18. Tyrus Wheat, Mississippi State (6-2, 269)
19. Ikenna Enechukwu, Rice (6-4, 267)*
20. Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington (6-3, 246)*
(Note: An asterisk on this list denotes a player who has multiple years of eligibility remaining, via redshirt and/or the NCAA’s COVID-19-year exemption, but will be scouted as a senior by the NFL.)
Preseason top-10 draft-eligible underclassmen edge rushers:
1. Anderson Jr.
4. Colby Wooden, Auburn (6-5, 285)
5. BJ Ojulari, LSU (6-3, 245)
6. Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Kansas State (6-4, 255)
7. J.J. Weaver, Kentucky (6-5, 245)
8. Tyler Baron, Tennessee (6-5, 260)
9. Jared Verse, Florida State (6-4, 250)
10. Reggie Grimes, Oklahoma (6-4, 275)
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic;
photos: Getty Images; Robin Alam, Joe Robbins, Michael Allio, Icon Sportswire)