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A way-too-early and destined-to-be-wrong look at Ohio State’s 2023 NFL Draft class

It’s never too early to look ahead. But rather than give you a list of players, here are surefire predictions on where current Buckeyes will land in the future.

Spoiler alert: Stroud and Smith-Njigba are likely to go very (very) early in the 2023 NFL Draft
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Just days removed from the completion of the 2022 NFL Draft, 2023 mock drafts are already circulating. Hell, they were being published, shared, or tweeted out before this most recent draft even took place. But I am here to add to the insanity, with Land Grant Holy Land’s Ohio State-centric version. The editors have been given assurances that most of these predictions will come true, and very few will be ridiculed during this time next year.

Ohio State should have a loaded 2023 draft class, depending on the progression of guys like Zach Harrison, Dawand Jones, and Ronnie Hickman, to name a few. But the same could have been said prior to last season, and it never really came to fruition. Harrison was a projected 2022 first-rounder, and Sevyn Banks’ name showed up in first-round mocks as well. Even a guy like Haskell Garrett – who went undrafted this weekend – was pegged as a second or third-rounder 12-18 months ago.

When all was said and done, only six Buckeyes were selected in the 2022 draft, with four of them coming off the board in the third round or later. I definitely expect a better showing from OSU in Kansas City next year (2023’s host city).

To try my hand at any sort of 2023 mock draft, I first had to take a stab at the order in which teams would select. I do not see many teams from this year’s “bottom 10” suddenly making a jump up, so I stuck relatively close to the 2022 draft order. Previous trades of 2023 first-round picks were taken into account, and I am only looking at the OSU players I consider most likely to go high(ish) in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Buckeyes will likely not come close to matching Georgia’s record of 15 players taken in a modern draft, but I would not be surprised if they approach double digits.

First round candidates

C.J. Stroud, Quarterback – 1st overall to the Atlanta Falcons

Stroud is currently one of the betting favorites to go first in 2023, and NFL talent evaluators already have an eye on him
Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

I was torn on which team would be picking first overall, but I was never torn on who I thought they should take. C.J. Stroud is my pick for a variety of reasons, and I did not hesitate. Most 2023 mocks have the Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, or Jacksonville Jaguars earning this prize (or stumbling into a position to choose), but fortune favors the bold. I felt the need to go elsewhere. I have not seen many mocks with the Atlanta Falcons choosing first, but I have seen the team’s projected roster... Yikes.

Atlanta picked eighth overall this season, and arguably got worse during the offseason. Matt Ryan is gone, replaced by Marcus Mariota and/or Desmond Ridder. Also gone are players such as Russell Gage (second-leading receiver) and Foyesade Oluokun (192 total tackles, led the NFL). The Falcons added Casey Heyward and rookies Ridder, Drake London, and Arnold Ebiketie, but they are simply not a good team. Landing Stroud would give them a chance to expedite their rebuild. And having Ridder on the team should not dissuade them from going QB again in 2023. The former Cincinnati Bearcat was picked up in the third round, and will not be tied to a big-money contract.

For my money, Stroud is the best quarterback in the 2023 class (right now). Bryce Young could pass him, and maybe Spencer Rattler re-discovers what made him a 2021 preseason Heisman candidate, but I do not think either scenario is likely. What Stroud showed off last year should have NFL talent evaluators salivating. His accuracy is off the charts, and his ability to read the field improved with each game played. Helping his case is that fact that he will be surrounded by equal, if not better, weapons this season — which is almost ludicrous to say, having just watched Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave go in the first 11 picks of the 2022 NFL Draft.

The Falcons would also not hesitate to move on from Mariota, or keep him in the fold as a backup. This would not be an Alex Smith-Patrick Mahomes type of situation. Smith was a playoff winner and Pro Bowl performer. Mariota, on the other hand, owns a 62.8 career completion percentage, and has started just six games in the last three seasons (none since 2019). So, if Stroud (or Young) is available when they pick in 2023, it is hard to image the Falcons passing on a potentially generational talent. Stroud would give them a new franchise QB and hope.

Jaxon Smith-Njiga, Wide Receiver – 5th overall to the Chicago Bears

Perhaps you could call me a homer for having JSN this high. Or maybe... just maybe... you could see things from my point of view, and admit that the Chicago Bears might just hate Justin Fields. The former Ohio State Buckeye was supposed to be their franchise savior, but the organization has failed to meet even the lowest expectations when it comes to acquiring offensive talent. Fields’ top receiving options are Darnell Mooney and Byron Pringle, for crying out loud! Chicago has committed team-building malpractice, but JSN would give them a shot at redemption.

While I realize that No. 5 overall seems high for a wide receiver – especially one who does not have the physical makeup of a Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson – the Bears have to do something. And JSN is currently the top pass catcher projected to go in the 2023 NFL Draft. There is also some level of familiarity between these two former (in this instance) Buckeyes, making the pick even more of a no-brainer. Fields and JSN, while they did not share the field often, could potentially replicate the teammate connection and success currently enjoyed by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase in Cincinnati.

JSN is a smooth operator, capable of playing inside or outside. I personally prefer him in the slot, and I believe he would excel in such a role for the Bears. As a young quarterback, Fields could use a security blanket capable of making plays after the catch. JSN is more than capable, and he would be a clear upgrade over any pass catcher currently on Chicago’s roster. So while the Bears would be making a huge investment, it would be at a position that they have largely ignored since 2015. It is imperative that they help their franchise QB.

Paris Johnson Jr., Left Tackle – 20th overall to the Dallas Cowboys

I have seen other mock drafts with Johnson (Jr.) going inside the top-10, but I am not quite there yet. I need to see him play, I dont know, one game at left tackle. I don’t think that’s asking for too much. But I do think that Johnson is going to be a stud sooner than later. The transition from interior mauler to outside blindside protector has already begun in Columbus, and I expect him be a hell of a bodyguard for Stroud this season.

I settled on Dallas, in the middle of the first round, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, their offensive line has been picked apart by age, injury, and free agency. The Cowboys used to have the best line (and line depth) in the league, but Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are the only remaining pieces. This unit could use a makeover, and it starts here, with a talented Buckeye.

Beyond the overall health and wellbeing of the entire group, the Tyron Smith issue looms large for Dallas. His subtle drop-off and large salary were the biggest factors in making this decision. When healthy, Smith is one of the best in the league — and one of this most physically-intimidating human beings I have ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, he has not played a full season since 2015, and carries a cap hit of $17.6 million in 2023. While not an enormous salary for a franchise LT, it far exceeds whatever the Cowboys would have to pay Johnson as the 20th overall pick.

Even if Johnson moves back to guard upon being drafted, it be worth the long-term investment. Both Smith and Martin are getting up there in age, so Johnson gives Dallas an option to replace whichever player falls off or leaves first. His positional flexibility is a luxury for any team looking to upgrade the offensive line. In this case, America’s Team adds another former OSU player to the roster, something they have been accustomed to doing over the years.

Dawand Jones, Right Tackle/Guard – 22nd overall to the Houston Texans

No, I do not think the Texans are sniffing the playoffs. But I am a man of my word, and I told you that 2023 trades were factored in here. This pick actually ends up in Houston as a result of the Deshaun Watson trade. Despite my dislike for the franchise (sorry, not sorry), I could see the Browns making a playoff run as long as Watson plays the majority of their games. Fortunately for Dawand Jones, he is not likely to end up on the Browns if he is indeed taken in the first round.

Projecting Jones to go in the first was definitely the biggest “swing” I took, but you simply can’t coach 6-foot-8, 360 pounds. He showed great progress as a first-year starter, and I could see him taking a leap forward under new offensive line coach, Justin Frye. Jones is more than just a mountain of a man. He moves extremely well for his size, and is a mauler in the run game. His pass pro needs to improve, but I believe he has early round potential.

The Texans need a little bit of everything, but they have a ton of picks to work with, and Jones would give them a monster of a tackle — even if he only has experience on the right side. I did not forget about Laremy Tunsil, but he is a free agent after the 2023 season and currently holds down the opposite side. Jones could start on the right and be groomed to protect the blind side starting in 2024. At the very least, he could be one of Houston’s bookends.

Day Two Potential

Zach Harrison, DE/OLB – 50th overall to the Tennessee Titans

Harrison is looking to rebound from an uneven 2021, and he has all the tools to do so
Barbara J. Perenic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Harrison was a projected first-rounder going into the 2021 college football season, but failed to meet those lofty expectations. That being said, the ceiling is still high for this Columbus, Ohio native, and Buckeye fans hope he is able to flourish under Jim Knowles. While we did not see him in OSU’s spring game, there is a thought that Harrison could alternate between DE and the Jack position(s), hence making him a potential fit for any NFL team running a 3-4 defense. That is where Mike Vrabel and the Titans come in.

Tennessee’s current base is the 3-4, and while they have one stud (OLB) in Harold Landry, the return on Bud Dupree has been disappointing. Here, the Titans are able to pick up a potential replacement with positional versatility. Harrison could replace Dupree if the team decides to move on after 2022, or get after the QB in four-down sets. Vrabel loves his Buckeyes, and Harrison could be a great value in the second round.

Ronnie Hickman, Safety – 60th overall to the Kansas City Chiefs

Something in my gut tells me that Hickman is going to be a defensive weapon for Knowles and the OSU coaching staff. He led the Buckeyes in total tackles last year, and now has access to a much better group of coaches — sorry, it’s true. He might not possess top-end speed, but he is a willing tackler, and the new staff should turn him into much more of a playmaker. If he is able to move around the defensive backfield, it will only help his stock as a draft prospect.

The Kansas City Chiefs love versatile safeties, and they have a couple of good ones in Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill. But in today’s pass-happy league, every NFL team needs to have three or four interchangeable players in the back end. Hickman could join KC’s safety group, or be a replacement for Juan Thornhill. Thornhill is slated to be a free agent after the 2022 season, and coincidentally was drafted by the Chiefs at the end of 2019’s second round (No. 63 overall).

Mid-round Vets

Tanner McCalister, 3rd round — Coverage safeties are in high demand, and McCalister has a ton of experience.

Josh Proctor, 4th round — Another versatile, experienced safety. If Proctor stays healthy, he could go even higher than Hickman and/or McCalister.

Cameron Brown, 5th round — A sticky corner when healthy. Much like Proctor, his draft position will be heavily influenced by health.

Taron Vincent, 6th round — Vincent flashed towards the end of 2021, and could make even greater strides this season. Will need to be disruptive on a consistent basis, and hopefully his efforts are aided by the talent around him.


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