Whether you're looking for your team to add a pass rusher who can explode off the edge, a big-bodied disruptor at the heart of the defensive line or a dominant defensive back who can hold up strong in the passing game, the 2023 NFL Draft truly does feature something for everybody on the defensive side of the ball. And with such a wealth of talent available, opinions have varied greatly on who is the top dog. Here are my leading five defenders in this upcoming class of college players about to enter the NFL.
1. Jalen Carter – Defensive Tackle – Georgia – 6-3/314 pounds
No one is dividing the crowd more than Georgia's dominant defensive lineman Jalen Carter. He has been tabbed as the best player in this entire class, regardless of position and hailed as a difference maker who must be accounted for on every snap. Carter is an exceptional talent who can play all three downs to a Pro Bowl level in the NFL, but he comes with concerns. On the eve of the NFL Combine in March, he was arrested and charged with reckless driving in relation to a January 15 crash that killed teammate Devin Willock and football staffer Chandler LeCroy. Carter pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 12 months' probation, a $1,000 fine, 80 hours of community service and to attend a driving course. He also showed up at his Pro Day nine pounds overweight and could not complete all his drills. Carter remains confident he will be picked high. The player who has been compared to Tennessee's Jeffery Simmons has refused to meet privately with teams picking outside the top 10.
2. Will Anderson Jr. – Edge Rusher - Alabama – 6-4/243 pounds
The two-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy awarded to college football's best defender will hear his name called early in round one. Will Anderson was as productive as he was eye-catching at Alabama, recording 34 ½ career sacks while starting all 41 games in which he played over three seasons. Anderson has it all – size, speed, power and a desire to be great; earning comparisons with a couple of similarly-twitchy NFL stars in Von Miller and Khalil Mack. Anderson learned toughness at a young age, of course. He had five older sisters who were tough on him and once stuck him in the tumble drier. But it will be Anderson who has the heads of NFL quarterbacks spinning at the next level. With great leadership skills and a desire to be just as good against the run, Anderson is a very safe prospect who will make his new NFL team very happy indeed.
3. Tyree Wilson – Edge Rusher – Texas Tech – 6-6/275 pounds
There are some NFL Draft experts who believe the physical traits of Tyree Wilson will lead to him being the first defender off the board in round one. There is no doubt that Wilson is an impressive physical specimen with Dane Brugler, of The Athletic, describing him as "a yoked-up Captain America." The production is not the same when compared to Anderson, however. Wilson played one season at Texas A&M before making 28 starts during three seasons at Texas Tech. He has 17 ½ career sacks. The tall and intimidating figure off the edge has true Pro Bowl potential, works hard against the run and plays with a high-running motor all game long. He easily has the skills to be a 10-sacks-per-season player in the NFL and has drawn generous comparisons to New England's Matthew Judon, himself no stranger to wreaking havoc off the edge.
4. Christian Gonzalez – Cornerback – Oregon – 6-1/197 pounds
After starting his first two college seasons at Colorado and then excelling at Oregon in 2022, Christian Gonzalez has NFL scouts drooling over his film and his prospects of succeeding at the next level. The big-bodied cornerback has it all – size, speed and the ability to play press man coverage. In short, he is an ideal NFL prospect and one who recorded an impressive four interceptions in 12 starts last term. Even though he would instantly become one of the bigger cornerbacks in the NFL, Gonzalez can cover the field with his speed and fluidity. And he knows how to find the football when it is in the air, drawing comparisons to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was a long-limbed Pro Bowler and All Pro when he played in the league from 2008 to 2019. There is a belief that Gonzalez will reach a similar all-star level in the NFL.
5. Devon Witherspoon – Cornerback – Illinois – 6-0/181 pounds
There is not much between the aforementioned Gonzalez and Devon Witherspoon at cornerback. The latter is a fiery and competitive player with a "junkyard dog" mentality. A three-year starter at Illinois, Witherspoon showed his ball skills in 2022 by recording three interceptions. His read-and-react skills are elite and he can drive on the football when it is in the air and make plays. Witherspoon's aggressive and gambling nature could lead to a couple of negatives in the NFL – drawing flags and giving up big plays. But his supporters believe he will make more good plays than bad and have compared Witherspoon to four-time All Pro and three-time Pro Bowler Marcus Peters. With the ability to play in man or zone schemes, Witherspoon has the tools to be a day one starter and to reach a Pro Bowl level. But he may take a few lumps along the way.