2023 NFL Draft: 8 Prospects To Watch During Conference Championship Weekend

Oct 2, 2021; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers linebacker Trenton Simpson (22) reacts after an incomplete pass against the Boston College Eagles during the first quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2021; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers linebacker Trenton Simpson (22) reacts after an incomplete pass against the Boston College Eagles during the first quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports /

Many of the top NFL Draft prospects will see their college careers draw to a close this weekend. While some of these players have more eligibility at the collegiate level, it would be stunning if they turn down the 2023 NFL Draft.

Ironically, nearly all of the top-ranked quarterbacks failed to make a conference title game. CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, and Will Levis will all be sitting on the couch watching, just like us. Other signal-callers possess intriguing NFL traits, like Utah’s Cam Rising and TCU’s Max Duggan, but they are merely late-round fliers at this point.

The crop of talent at running back makes it one of the deeper positions in the draft class. Bijan Robinson, Jahmyr Gibbs, and Sean Tucker will not be suiting up again until their bowl games — if at all. Still, the next tier of ball carriers boasts franchise players at running back, leaving a couple of 2023 NFL Draft prospects on the schedule this week.

Wide receiver, on the other hand, has its top two players at the position in action. More on them later. Tight end will see Dalton Kincaid take the field, an expected riser in the 2023 NFL Draft. The offensive line has Broderick Jones from Georgia, among others. Neither group’s top prospect is slated to compete this weekend.

2023 NFL Draft: 8 Prospects To Watch During Conference Championship Weekend

The defensive side of the ball holds higher grades all-around on my 2023 NFL Draft board. The top player on most big boards, Will Anderson Jr., will be sat at home with teammates Young and Gibbs. The No. 2 player in the draft class faces off against LSU in the SEC Championship game, but we will analyze Jalen Carter in just a moment.

The Clemson defense features three top 20 players: Trenton Simpson, Myles Murphy, and Bryan Bresee. Each prospect will likely hear their name called early in the 2023 NFL Draft. Going back to Georgia, Kelee Ringo grades out as a potential All-Pro defensive back; read more on the cornerback group here.

Now that we know the draft landscape, let’s dive in and look at 8 NFL Draft prospects to monitor during conference championship weekend.

1. Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU

One of the two wide receivers that I alluded to earlier is the TCU star, Quentin Johnston. Johnston is built like an NFL pass catcher already, standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing 215 pounds. Reading that, you might assume that Johnston is a jump ball specialist, but you would be wrong.

That is not to say Johnston can’t go up and get the ball; he definitely can. The point is Johnston is much more than that. The Horned Frog captain uses blazing speed and a sudden twitch to shake defenders out of their cleats. Johnston possesses elite body control when working downfield and to the sideline, highlighting his potential as a chain mover.

Any team that needs a do-it-all WR1 on the roster should look Quentin Johnston’s way. He averages more than 18 yards per reception in his career, doing so with long catches and long runs after the reception. Look for Johnston to dominate the Kansas State Wildcats this Saturday, before turning his attention to the College Football Playoffs.

2. Jalen Carter, DL, Georgia

Continuing the trend of the best player at their position, Jalen Carter is the cream of the crop on the interior of the defensive line. Carter oftentimes looked like the best player on Georgia last season, which is a lofty claim considering all of the NFL talent that littered the roster.

Carter’s blend of elite strength and explosiveness off the snap allows the Bulldog leader to create pressure from the interior. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound mammoth of a man is a wrecking ball in pursuit of the passer and ball carrier alike. Carter frequently is seen blowing up the pocket and forcing the offense to improvise, leading to a bevy of mistakes.

Carter’s ability to win with his superb hand usage and mystifying short-area agility will be a major selling point for NFL franchises. Expect the Georgia defensive tackle to man the middle of a defensive line at an All-Pro level for the next decade. The last step before the College Football Playoffs? A date with the LSU Tigers in the SEC Championship.

3. Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson

The final player to fit the “best at their position” label is Clemson linebacker, Trenton Simpson. Pigeon-holing Simpson into one position feels unfair, so I prefer to just call him a football player. Clemson’s leader on the second level of the defense, Simpson is asked to do a little bit of everything for Dabo Swinney’s crew.

Simpson is among the freakiest athletes to enter the NFL Draft in recent years. He will blow minds during the testing portion of the 2023 NFL Draft process, but all it takes is one look at the tape to see the ways Simpson can impact a game on Sundays. The jack-of-all-trades defender excels in space, using his quick start-stop ability to change direction and track down ball carriers and receivers after the catch.

Impressively, Simpson also shows an ability to cover tight ends and running backs downfield, occasionally lining up against a smaller receiver and flexing his size to shut down the route. Perhaps the most enticing part of Simpson’s game is his underrated (and underused) ability to track down the quarterback.

If all of this is beginning to sound familiar… yes, there are a lot of comparisons between Trenton Simpson and Micah Parsons. The two possess nearly identical frames, and I would pay good money to see them compete side-by-side in the NFL Scouting Combine drills. I am not saying Simpson will immediately become one of the best in the NFL, but a savvy defensive coordinator will turn the kid into an NFL star.

Clemson faces the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Championship this weekend. Look for Simpson and the Tigers to get after UNC quarterback Drake Maye.

4. Jordan Addison, WR, USC

The USC Trojans have earned a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game in year one of the Lincoln Riley Era. While Heisman favorite Caleb Williams deserves heaps of praise, the 2021 Biletnikoff winner is just as big a part of the puzzle.

Jordan Addison made a name for himself around the country last season as the No. 1 option for quarterback Kenny Pickett. Following Pickett’s departure to the NFL, Addison entered his name in the transfer portal and quickly relocated to the opposite end of the country. Addison immediately assumed the top spot on the depth chart and has been a force in 2022.

Addison is an elite route runner and possesses a deceptive run-after-the-catch trait. His frame is the biggest red flag, but even if Addison is forced into the slot, he will be an impact player at the next level. My favorite thing about the gifted wideout is the way he contorts his body when working downfield. Addison also consistently uses his strong hands to snatch the ball out of the air.

The Trojans lost to Utah earlier in the season, but Jordan Addison had a strong game with seven receptions, 106 yards, and a touchdown. Cornerback Clark Phillips III has a tall task ahead of him this weekend by trying to keep Addison in tow.

5. Deuce Vaughn, RB, Kansas State

Kansas State is on a tear of late, led by Deuce Vaughn at running back. Vaughn will get docked points on his 2023 NFL Draft profile for his lack of size — and that is fair. Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren Sproles are popular comparisons, and I see Vaughn as falling somewhere in between.

The Kansas State star is listed at 5-foot-6 and weighs 176 pounds, meaning his height is nearly identical to the two running backs, but his frame is considerably leaner than MJD’s. Still, Vaughn’s tape shows that he plays bigger than the scale says. Often you see Vaughn taking on much bigger guys with zero fear in his heart.

The facet of Vaughn’s game that will make him a favorite in fantasy football leagues is his pass-catching chops. Vaughn is not just a great receiver for a running back; he is one of the best pass-catchers in the group, period. If you don’t believe me, watch for yourself this weekend when the Wildcats challenge TCU for a Big 12 Title.

6. Charlie Jones, WR, Purdue

Charlie Jones began his career elsewhere with the Buffalo Bulls, before transferring to Iowa after two seasons. Following his transfer, Jones appeared in seven games for the Hawkeyes in 2020, serving primarily on special teams. The journeyman receiver once again transferred after a so-so 2021 season, this time to the Purdue Boilermakers.

At long last, Jones earned the opportunity to display his talent at the wide receiver position. In 12 games, the new man on campus has posted this ridiculous stat line: 97 receptions, 1199 yards, and 12 touchdowns. It makes you wonder why Jones was never utilized more in his previous stops.

What makes Charlie Jones a legit NFL prospect is how great of a route runner he is. Jones is always open. That is not hyperbole; he really is. Even when he is not open in the traditional sense, the Purdue star thrives in contested catch situations, which is rare for someone of his size (6-foot-flat, 188 pounds). Like others on this list, Jones has a chance to gain favor with NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl.

7. & 8. Ali Gaye/BJ Ojulari, EDGE, LSU

The LSU Tigers are in year one of the Brian Kelly Era and already have a conference championship appearance to show for it. Their path to hoisting the trophy is a difficult one, as they go toe-to-toe with the defending National Champions.

The Georgia Bulldogs boast a fearsome defensive unit, but the offense should not be slept on. In hopes of slowing down the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, and keeping Stetson Bennett in check, the Tigers must get big games from two of their best pass rushers. First up, is the fifth-year Senior Ali Gaye.

Gaye looks chiseled from stone. He is long, athletic, and built to inflict punishment on whoever draws his assignment. While Gaye lacks the production as a whole, the play strength and physical traits are worth betting on in the middle of the 2023 NFL Draft. The 24-year-old will head to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl following the college football season.

The “other” LSU pass rusher is the more intriguing in terms of high-end pro potential. Ojulari is twitchier than his teammate Ali Gaye, and pairs this with a quick first step to terrorize opposing backfields. Ojulari’s suddenness off the edge is special, but he faces questions regarding his viability as a run stuffer at the next level. Against multiple, future NFL linemen vs. Georgia, Ojulari will have a chance to showcase his talents and dispel these fears.

Next. Latest NFLMocks’ Updated Mock Draft. dark