Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ranking the Biggest Surprises of the 2023 NFL Draft

Gary Davenport

The 2023 NFL draft is in the books.

Hundreds of thousands of fans attended. Millions more watched on television. Approximately all the barbecue ever was eaten in Kansas City. And most importantly, 259 players now know where their NFL careers will begin.

If there's one thing that you can expect about the NFL draft, it's the unexpected. Some players come off the board much earlier than expected. Others languish in the green room like fish in the most awkward aquarium ever. And there's always a shocker of a trade or two.

2023 was no exception, whether it was a "Big Four" quarterback who wound up being picked from home, the first running back taken in the top 10 since 2018 or a couple of defensive players who waited much longer than expected.

There was even a Day 2 kicker pick. For reals.

As we bask in the warming glow of another completed draft, here's a look back at the biggest eyebrow-raisers and jaw-droppers of 2023. They were determined using a combination of criteria that included coming off the board much earlier (or later) than expected, the bucking of historical precedence and in at least one case, good, old-fashioned bad strategy. These were also limited to singular moves, as opposed to teams eschewing a perceived position group of need for the whole draft.

There's more than one way to send eyebrows skyward.

9. Falcons Pass on Bigger Needs to Take Bijan Robinson at No. 8

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

OK, before Atlanta fans stomp off to immolate my Twitter account, let's get one thing clear.

Bijan Robinson is a fantastic football player. He's the best running back prospect to come along since Saquon Barkley. Some will argue he's better. And the eighth overall pick in the 2023 draft made it clear he intends to show both that he was worth that pick and that drafting running backs high isn't such a bad idea after all.

"I know the running back position in the top 10 is really, really rare," Robinson told reporters Friday. "But I mean, it's pretty cool to be a guy that can share that and to show the younger kids in the college football, the younger running backs, that it's possible—you just got to do everything the right way and just be as effective as you can for their program."

But it was still surprising to see the Falcons be the team to take the plunge. Because they are fixing something that wasn't broken.

Last year the Falcons led the league in rushing attempts and ranked third in rushing yards. Tyler Allgeier set a rookie franchise record for rushing yards.

The Falcons badly needed help on the edge, more passing game weapons and improvements to a secondary that allowed the eighth-most passing yards in 2022. Oh, and the quarterback situation is a massive question mark.

Even if Robinson is as advertised, he's not going to alter the trajectory of a mediocre team.

8. CB Joey Porter Jr. Lands in Steelers' Lap at No. 32

Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You can qualify this one under "happy surprise."

By virtue of the Chase Claypool trade last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers owned the first pick in the second round of the 2023 draft. And when Round 2 opened with Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. still available, you knew what was going to happen.

That Porter wasn't taken in the first round was a surprise to the Bleacher Report Scouting Department, who graded the 6'2½", 193-pound cornerback as the 10th-best prospect in the class.

"Joey Porter Jr. is a physical cornerback with ideal length and size," B/R scout Cory Giddings said. "He's an aggressive cover corner who likes to play press and get his hands on receivers to disrupt routes. Porter is the best cornerback in this draft class. He may not be as polished as some of the other top cornerbacks in previous classes, but with his length and physicality, he's comparable."

Now Porter will play for the same team where his father was a legend at linebacker. He plans to put his own stamp on the franchise.

"It's going to be my flavor to it," Porter told reporters. "It's me. It's not him. He understands that it's my time to shine. He did what he had to do, and it's my time right now. I'm going to get the fans' attention with that, and I'm going to play hardball."

Sometimes, things just work out.

7. S Brian Branch Falls to Round 2, Lands with Lions

David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions surprised some by drafting Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell at No. 18 overall. But Campbell was easily the top off-ball linebacker prospect in this class, and the Lions had a major need at the position.

So, we'll give them a pass—especially after Brian Branch fell into their lap in Round 2.

Granted, Branch was just 30th on Bleacher Report's final pre-draft Big Board, but he was also universally regarded as this year's top safety prospect.

"Ultimately, Branch's versatility makes him a valuable prospect," Cory Giddings wrote in his scouting report for Branch. "He could earn a starting position early on in his NFL career and can add depth to other positions in the secondary if needed. He will need to continue to work on his man coverage skills, but if used correctly, Branch can have a very good NFL career."

However, Branch didn't near his name called on Day 1 despite being invited to the green room. It took until the 14th pick of the second round for the Lions to finally end his slide, but when they did it was a coup.

He'll likely be an immediate starter for a defense that allowed the most yards in the league in 2022. And if you flip-flopped Branch to No. 18 and Campbell to No. 45, both picks would have been applauded.

6. Jets Pass on Wide Receiver for Edge-Rusher at No. 15

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The New York Jets entered the first round of the 2023 draft still riding the high of acquiring Aaron Rodgers in a trade with the Packers. And when the 15th overall pick rolled around, the Jets had a chance to do something the Packers never did for Rodgers—draft a wideout in Round 1. In fact, New York had its choice of the entire WR class.

Instead, the Jets drafted a developmental pass-rusher in Iowa State's Will McDonald.

It was a pick that left Bleacher Report's resident pick-grader Brent Sobleski unimpressed.

"Joe Douglas dipped into the second tier of prospects and chose McDonald," he said. "While the fit makes sense for New York's defensive scheme, the Jets already have significant investments in Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers and Jermaine Johnson. Where the Jets were picking worked against them, as one of the higher-graded offensive tackles didn't fall into their lap, but there were multiple better options at other positions."

Yes, the Jets got frozen out of the top tackles in this class. And McDonald may well develop into an excellent pass-rusher. But it wasn't a position a Jets team firmly in "win now" mode needed to address.

A wideout would have made a bigger short-term impact—and made their new quarterback that much happier.

5. Edge Nolan Smith Falls to No. 30 Overall

Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In our last pre-draft Big Board here at Bleacher Report, Georgia edge-rusher Nolan Smith was the No. 13 prospect overall. Bleacher Report's Matt Holder ranked him third among all edge-rushers.

"For someone who is only listed at 235 pounds," Holder said, "Nolan Smith is a lot stronger than you'd think and is surprisingly a better run defender than pass-rusher. He gets extension against offensive linemen pretty easily and will occasionally have them falling on their faces with how violent he is when shedding."

However, partly because of his smallish size and a pectoral injury, Smith fell to the back of Round 1—where a Philadelphia Eagles team that already has an undersized force off the edge in Haason Reddick pounced.

Howie Roseman told reporters that the Eagles are confident in Smith's health—and excited to see what he can do on the field.

"He's healthy with the pec," Roseman said. "I think when you get into the first round, some teams, you pick who you like and you pick what you're looking for there. It would be hard for me to kind of say what other teams are thinking, and I'm sure every team is happy who they got in the first round."

Given that the Eagles also landed Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, Roseman is about nine levels north of "happy."

4. Houston Double-Dips at No. 2 and No. 3

C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr. AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox

There were rumors galore leading up to the draft that the Houston Texans might pass on a quarterback at No. 2 overall in favor of an edge-rusher like Alabama's Will Anderson Jr. or Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson.

As it turned out, Texans general manager Nick Caserio had a plan up his sleeve to have his cake and eat it too.

With the second overall pick, the Texans did take their quarterback of the future in Ohio State's C.J. Stroud. They immediately proceeded to acquire the third overall pick from the Arizona Cardinals and used it to select Anderson.

It wasn't a cheap move. In exchange for No. 3 and a fourth-rounder, Houston shipped away the No. 12 overall pick along with the No. 33 overall pick, its 2024 first-round pick and a 2024 third-rounder.

While speaking to reporters, Caserio didn't mince words: He wanted Anderson, and he was willing to do what it took to get him.

"It came down to what we felt was best for the football team," Caserio said. "It was an opportunity to get a player we thought very highly of. We knew he wasn't going to last. We felt that adding him to our football team is something we wanted to do."

It's the kind of wildly aggressive move that can either make a general manager a genius or get him fired. It's just the third time in NFL draft history that a team picked twice in the top three.

In any event, can't accuse Caserio of sitting on his hands.

3. San Francisco 49ers Draft a Kicker on Day 2

New Niners kicker Jake Moody Norm Hall/Getty Images

Kickers are typically an afterthought in the NFL draft. There are only a few drafted each year, mainly on Day 3.

But as Day 2 wound to a close Friday night, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch was willing to defy that trend. He selected Michigan kicker Jake Moody with the No. 99 overall pick.

Back at the NFL Scouting Combine, Moody told reporters that he thought he deserved to be selected at some point during the draft.

"I know what I'm capable of, and I feel like I'm worth a draft pick," he said. "It's hard to come by a kicker that is worth getting drafted, but I think that I possess all the tools needed for that. And if it were up to me, I would draft myself."

It has been several years since a kicker was drafted on Day 2. The last time it happened—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Roberto Aguayo in the second round in 2016—it was an unmitigated disaster.

Moody was automatic at Michigan and has a big leg. But drafting a kicker that early is always going to get you on a list like this.

2. Lions Draft Jahmyr Gibbs 12th Overall

Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There was no question that Bijan Robinson of Texas was the No. 1 running back prospect in the 2023 draft class. And there was little doubt that Robinson would be a first-round pick.

But few thought there would be two backs chosen in Round 1, and the only folks who knew two would be drafted in the top 15 were the Detroit Lions. They stunned the NFL world by drafting Alabama's Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12.

While speaking to reporters afterward, general manager Brad Holmes said that the Lions had Gibbs in their sights for a while.

"I've got a ton of respect for Coach [Nick] Saban and what he does down there [at Alabama], and you kind of know what kind of product and what kind of football player he's putting out," Holmes said. "So, it just happened to be that [Gibbs] was one of our top players that we really, really liked and just glad that we were in the position to get him."

Gibbs' talent and explosiveness are undeniable, and if he goes on to become an elite ball-carrier, it won't matter where he was picked. But this was the first time since 2017 that multiple backs were drafted in the top 15.

That most assuredly qualifies as a surprise.

1. Will Levis Falls to Round 2

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Leading up to the 2023 draft, there was no shortage of speculation about who the top quarterback in the class was.

As draft day neared, it became fairly clear that the Carolina Panthers were going to take Bryce Young first overall. But Kentucky quarterback Will Levis of Kentucky wasn't expected to have to wait long to hear his name called. He was present in the green room at the draft.

Young did go first overall, followed by Ohio State's C.J. Stroud to the Houston Texans at No. 2. The Indianapolis Colts, who were rumored to be interested in Levis leading up to the draft, instead took Florida's Anthony Richardson at No. 4.

The rest of the round came and went without Levis nearing his name called. The Tennessee Titans finally stopped his slide with the No. 33 overall pick early in the second round.

Levis told reporters from his home in Connecticut that he's glad to be a Titan, but he isn't going to forget what happened.

"Regardless of where I got picked, it's not going to change my work ethic," Levis said. "You can't let the circumstances dictate your preparation and the level of intensity you bring to every-day practice. Definitely a little bit of a chip [on my shoulder]."

We won't know for a while whether Levis' slide was a shrewd move by the teams that passed on him or a bargain for the Titans. But we do know that it was the biggest surprise of the 2023 NFL draft.


Read 0 Comments

Download the app for comments Get the B/R app to join the conversation

Install the App
Bleacher Report