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You might as well start mocking for 2023

It’s actually not way too early

NFL: NFL Draft Gary Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Few activities are as addictive for NFL fans as doing mock drafts (speaking from experience). By the time the 2021 season was three weeks old, the gaze of many New York Giants fans was already beginning to turn toward April. After an inspiring overtime victory over the Saints, the flame burned again for many. But following blowout losses to the Cowboys and Rams, both highlighting the hideous state of the offensive line, fandom was in full 2022 draft mode.

The Pro Football Network simulator updates its big board and projects draft order for the following year almost as soon as the draft is over. Utterly ridiculous, isn’t it? Or is it? For laughs, I wrote a Fanpost last year about this. Let’s compare some of what PFN predicted on May 1, 2021 to what actually happened.

Projected draft order

For the 2022 draft, PFN anticipated the following sequence of picks:

  1. Detroit Lions
  2. Houston Texans
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars
  4. Philadelphia Eagles
  5. Cincinnati Bengals
  6. New York Jets
  7. New York Giants
  8. Atlanta Falcons
  9. Denver Broncos
  10. New York Giants (from Chicago)

Obviously PFN was way off the mark on the Bengals, and the Eagles rebounded from their disastrous 2020 season faster than anyone expected. They also did not anticipate the Russell Wilson trade that gave Seattle Denver’s No. 9 pick. But otherwise PFN was pretty much on the mark about which teams would be terrible. They were having none of the optimism about Joe Judge that many fans had after the Giants’ 6-10 campaign almost got them a Wild Card berth, nor did they think that the addition of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Justin Fields would do much right away for the teams that drafted them. They were right.

For the record, here is PFN’s projected draft order for 2023: 1. Houston; 2. Atlanta; 3. Detroit; 4. Jets; 5. Jacksonville; 6. Carolina; 7. Giants; 8. Chicago; 9. Seattle; 10. Washington. PFN is clearly not drinking the Daboll-Kafka-Martindale-Thibodeaux-Neal Kool-Aid that many Giants fans are gulping down right now. Basically, their working assumption seems to be that bad teams remain bad. Eight out of ten times in 2021, that was correct.

Who were the top 10 prospects in the 2022 draft a year ago?

Now that the 2022 draft is in the books, “way-too-early” mock drafts are beginning to pop up in articles about the NFL. In fairness, the purpose of these is simply to highlight potential players of interest that fans should keep an eye on during the upcoming 2022 college season. But fans have already developed opinions about what the Giants should do in the 2023 NFL draft even though the Brian Daboll-led Giants have yet to play a single game:

What can be said about 2023 before a single 2022 college game has even been played? Well...

On May 1, 2021, the top of PFN’s big board for the 2022 draft looked like this:

  1. Kayvon Thibodeaux
  2. Spencer Rattler
  3. Derek Stingley Jr.
  4. Sam Howell
  5. Kyle Hamilton
  6. Ahmad Gardner
  7. Christian Harris
  8. Drake Jackson
  9. Chris Olave
  10. Evan Neal

Rattler took a nosedive in the 2021 season, did not declare, and is now trying to resurrect his career at South Carolina. Howell lasted until the fifth round in what turned out to be an overall uninspiring quarterback class in the eyes of NFL general managers. Christian Harris was taken in Round 3. And PFN got their USC Drakes mixed up (Jackson didn’t go until Round 2). But the other six projected picks either were taken in the top 10, or close to it (Chris Olave went No. 11, and Kyle Hamilton No. 14, only because safeties are considered rightly or wrongly to be of low positional value).

Six out of 10 is a pretty good batting average a year before the fact. The lessons we might learn are

  1. It could be premature to anoint college quarterbacks as saviors until they play their careers out.
  2. For other positions, the late Dennis Green’s “They are who we thought they were” may be pretty good advice.

There are always players who show out in their final college season. Travon Walker and Aidan Hutchinson were the obvious examples this past year, although it is still mystifying to some how a player with Walker’s modest production could rise to become the No. 1 pick in such a short time.

In addition to Rattler and Howell, PFN had two other QBs as first round values on their big board: Kedon Slovis of USC (No. 15) and Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati (No. 29). Slovis had a poor junior year and decided to transfer to Pitt for his senior year to replace Kenny Pickett rather than declaring for the draft. Ridder was the second QB chosen, but not until No. 74 in Round 3.

The curious case of Will Levis

For 2023, PFN, like most everyone else, has C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young as QB1 and QB2, respectively. After that, it’s anyone’s guess who the best alternative options at QB will be. The NFL Mock Draft Database consensus big board currently has Will Levis of Kentucky as QB3 at No. 14, and as the consensus pick for the Giants. The history of Levis’ projected draft position is one of the biggest mysteries in football (figure from NFL Mock Draft Database):

He had been tracking as a high-to-middle Round 4 pick through the first few months of 2022. Then between April 28 and May 2 - which happen to encompass the dates of the NFL Draft - he suddenly rose to No. 20. In the past week he has risen further to No. 14.

What occurred at the NFL Draft to create Levis-mania? What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, so we may never find out. Did everyone scurry to find Wan’Dale Robinson film after Joe Schoen unexpectedly drafted him in Round 2, and then noticed for the first time the guy throwing Wan’Dale the ball? I mean, he was in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, where he completed 17 of 28 for 233 yards and led a game winning TD drive in the final minutes, so he wasn’t unknown.

This doesn’t seem likely. The Giants were criticized for drafting Robinson so high because he was labeled a “gadget player” rather than a downfield receiving threat, so it stands to reason that Levis’ tape wouldn’t have impressed the scouts that much. (Never mind that Robinson isn’t actually a gadget player, just as Kadarius Toney isn’t, but the NFL community never lets the truth get in the way of a good narrative.) More objectively, his overall performance to date does not inspire confidence in him to be a franchise QB:

The chart above indicates that Levis took a step last year from poor to middling. Good, but nothing to get excited about. But it so happens that two previous No. 1 draft picks, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow, did the same before exploding in their final college seasons, as did Kenny Pickett to a lesser extent.

So it seems that the hype over Levis may be a projection that he will follow the paths of Murray, Burrow, and Pickett in the 2022 season. If so he will have to do it without Robinson, who had 43 percent of Kentucky’s pass receptions and 45 percent of the passing yards on the team in 2021. PFN still has Levis at No. 65, behind not only Stroud and Young but also Rattler, Anthony Richardson of Florida, Jaren Hall of BYU, and Jake Haener of Fresno State.

Levis does have the tools, but he is prone to interceptions, some of it due to mechanical flaws, and has difficulty with read progressions and his internal clock:

The 2022 season will be key for Levis to demonstrate that he can fix his shortcomings and thrive with an as-yet unknown favorite wide receiver. Burrow may be a great quarterback, but he had Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase to throw to in his final year at LSU, which couldn’t have hurt.

Are offensive lineman predictable a year in advance?

The Giants may also be shopping for offensive linemen again in 2023, since there are still questions at left guard and center entering the 2022 season. How did PFN’s big board do a year ago? Here are their highest rated OLs after Evan Neal at that time:

17 - Rasheed Walker, OT

22 - Tyler Linderbaum, C

23 - Zion Nelson, OT

30 - Charles Cross, OT

36 - Jarrett Patterson, C

38 - Ed Ingram, G

42 - Ben Brown, G

43 - Abraham Lucas, OT

48 - Zion Johnson, G

They got five of nine right, specifically Charles Cross, Tyler Linderbaum, Zion Johnson, Ed Ingram, and Abraham Lucas, who all went fairly early in the 2022 draft. Zion Nelson and Jarrett Patterson did not declare for the draft. But Rasheed Walker lasted until Round 7, and Ben Brown was signed as an undrafted free agent. Ikem Ekwonu, Trevor Penning, Kenyon Green, and Tyler Smith, all first round picks, were not on PFN’s radar at that time.

Who will be the top 10 draftees in 2023?

For the record, here are PFN’s current top 10 draftees for 2023:

  1. C.J. Stroud, QB
  2. Bryce Young, QB
  3. Will Anderson Jr., EDGE
  4. Jalen Carter, DT
  5. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR
  6. Kayshon Boutte, WR
  7. Michael Mayer, TE
  8. Peter Skoronski, OT
  9. O’Cyrus Torrence, OG
  10. Nolan Smith, EDGE

The NFL Mock Draft Database consensus big board currently has most of these names in their top 10 as well. Their top five are identical in both names and order to those of PFN. The differences are that their top 10 includes CB Kelee Ringo, DL Bryan Bresee, RB Bijan Robinson (What? Isn’t the era of drafting running backs in the top 10 over?), and WR Jordan Addison. It does not include Mayer, Skoronski, Torrence, and Smith. Keep your eye on Ringo, as well as Cam Smith (No. 16), Eli Ricks (No. 18), and Joey Porter Jr. (No. 25), if the Giants are shopping for a cornerback in 2023.

Remember, PFN got 6 of 10 for 2022 correct a year ago. No one will be surprised if the 2023 top 10 includes most of the names currently being projected. Gentlemen, start your mocks. It’s ridiculous, yes. But not that ridiculous. Unless you draft a QB before seeing his 2022 season.