NCAA Football

2023 NFL Draft underclassmen: 15 of the most intriguing early-entry prospects

2023 NFL Draft underclassmen: 15 of the most intriguing early-entry prospects

The emergence of NIL (and everything that goes along with it) definitely made its presence felt ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft. Several potential top-100 prospects, including multiple big names with first-round grades, opted to return to school in hopes of furthering their development with a fair amount of now-legal cash in their pocket.

There were some big surprises. Still, most of the country’s top-ranked underclassmen have entered the draft. By now, you’re probably familiar with the best of the best — stars like Bryce Young, Will Anderson Jr., and Jalen Carter. Which other prospects do you need to know as we head toward April?

Here are 15 of the most intriguing underclassmen NFL Draft declarations:

(Note: The deadline for college players to enter their names in the NFL Draft is Monday, Jan. 16. An additional 72-hour window follows, in which players can withdraw from the draft and remain in school.)


Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia

6-foot-7, 265 pounds | Career: 45 receptions, 774 yards, 3 TD

A true unicorn. Darnell Washington’s best athletic comp doesn’t actually live in the NFL. It’s probably someone playing point forward in the NBA. That’s how special a talent he is.

Brock Bowers, Washington’s younger teammate, is the more polished player. But the two-time defending national champions didn’t have a player on their roster like Washington. He is the offensive version of Eagles DT Jordan Davis (who famously ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash at 340 pounds last spring) and should drop jaws on the testing circuit.

So much of Washington’s effectiveness in college came down to 1-on-1 wins — he’s typically bigger, stronger and faster than everybody else in his area. While his technique is an ongoing process, Washington is a player who could massively outperform his draft slot as a blocker and a pass catcher, depending on where he lands. There’s no one else like him.

Devon Achane, RB, Texas A&M

5-9, 185 | Career: 369 carries, 2,376 yards, 21 TD; 65 receptions, 554 yards, 5 TDs

A home-run hitter with terrific lateral quicks and vision in the hole, Devon Achane posted a 10.14-second time in the 100-meter dash and a 20.20 in the 200-meter as part of Texas A&M’s track team. He has elite, all-everything speed and can go from nothing to “whoa” in a hiccup.

Achane averaged seven yards per carry as a sophomore in 2021 behind Isaiah Spiller. He didn’t have quite the breakout season many thought possible as a junior in ’22 (1,102 yards, 8 TDs), but not all of that is on him. While Achane has size concerns and still hasn’t shown everything that’s possible as a pass catcher, he’s very young, very fast and very tough. He’s definitely going to be in the Round 2 mix, if not late Round 1.

Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU

6-0, 205 | Career: 131 receptions, 1,782 yards, 16 TD

He could be a top-50 player, no question, and possibly a first-rounder. A former five-star prospect, Kayshon Boutte’s debut at LSU in 2020 was highly productive (45 catches, 735 yards, 5 TD), but he really never topped that the rest of the way. While his final year (after LSU hired Brian Kelly) started slow, Boutte caught a combined 31 passes for 408 yards over his final six games.

He’s incredibly dynamic, plus he can catch anything anywhere and be a YAC-monster. He’s also totally disappeared at times. A high-reward prospect, but what’s the risk?

Brian Branch, S, Alabama

6-0, 195 | Career: 172 tackles (19.5 tackles for loss), 4.0 sacks, 3 INTs

A modern star for the modern defense, Brian Branch is a safety who can run with receivers and tackle like a linebacker. He’s a terrific tackler in space, with great change of direction and general explosiveness as an athlete. NFL teams will view him as the potential counter for spread looks and tight ends/big slots nobody else can cover.

So, where do you play him? Wherever the ball is going. It’ll be fascinating to see Branch’s fit is at the next level. He shouldn’t have to wait long to hear his name called.

GO DEEPER

NFL Draft scouting: How can dynamic Alabama safety Brian Branch help an NFL defense?

Gervon Dexter Sr., DL, Florida

6-6, 312 | Career: 125 tackles (10.5 TFL), 5.0 sacks, 2 INTs

There are moments from Gervon Dexter’s career that make your jaw drop. He is a terrific combination of size, power, body control and agility, and his flashes are some of the best in the country. He has game-wrecker potential as an interior pocket pusher who also can hold up against the run.

His consistency as a player, however, just isn’t anywhere near where it should be or where it will need to be, if he’s going to find his ceiling at the next level. This is a huge evaluation period for Dexter, who has to show scouts he can get in (and stay in) great shape ahead of his pro career.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State

6-0, 198 | Career: 110 receptions, 1,698 yards, 10 TDs

Nearly all of Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s numbers above are from the 2021 season, a spectacular sophomore campaign that actually saw him outproduce standout NFL rookies Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. Smith-Njigba is not the type of athlete Wilson or Olave are, but he might be the best route runner of that trio. At least, he was during the 2021 season.

Of course, that’s sort of the issue. Smith-Njigba can look like a point guard on the football field at times, with the way he’s able to weave through defenders before finishing in the air. He can separate vs. press without even touching a defender, too. However, almost all of what we’ve seen from him came over that one year. He missed most of 2022 with a hamstring injury, and there could be some size/play strength/speed questions.

But there’s a ton to like.

Jalin Hyatt, WR, Tennessee

6-0, 185 | Career: 108 receptions, 1,769 yards, 19 TDs

It has long felt like a matter of time for Jalin Hyatt, and 2022 was finally the breakout performance people had been waiting on. After battling injuries in 2021, Hyatt became perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Josh Heupel’s deep-choice attack this season — he averaged 3.27 yards per route run on the year. He finished with 67 catches for 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. That is a lot of production, any way you slice it.

The best is yet to come for the 2022 Biletnikoff Award winner.

2023 NFL Draft underclassmen: 15 of the most intriguing early-entry prospects

GO DEEPER

Just how good is Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt? He’s not done showing us

Siaki Ika, DL, Baylor

6-4, 358 | Career: 70 tackles (10.5 tackles for loss), 4.5 sacks

The size/quickness combination from Siaki Ika is unmatched among the interior defensive prospects in this class. Dexter may have an argument, but Ika is much bigger. The 358-pound Baylor product is massive, eats space and has the type of short-area burst that allows him to make plays while occupying multiple blockers.

He was a member of LSU’s 2019 national title team before finishing his career at Baylor. He’s not Vita Vea, but he is sort of in that area style-wise. Ika had a 16-percent pass-rush win rate back in 2021.

Tanner McKee, QB, Stanford

6-6, 230 | Career: 5,336 yards (63.2 percent passing), 28 TDs, 15 INTs 

Tanner McKee is a pocket passer all the way, albeit one capable of moving to quiet spaces vs. pressure. He’s maybe a bit like Jared Goff in that way: His frame is huge and he’s not a terrific athlete, but he’s not a bad one either. More importantly, despite Stanford’s poor play as a team over the past two seasons, McKee still showed occasional flashes of terrific vision and arm talent.

McKee is not the same player as former Stanford QB Davis Mills, but as was the case there, scouts will have to look pretty deep.

Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida

6-4, 232 | Career: 3,105 yards (54.7 percent passing), 24 TDs, 15 INT; 1,116 yards rushing, 12 TDs

One of the hardest evaluations in the entire class, regardless of position. There’s not a physical trait a modern quarterback needs that Anthony Richardson doesn’t have, and Richardson’s testing numbers should only confirm as much. He is a giant athlete with twitch, explosion and arm talent. If everything clicks, he could be an offense’s dream.

“If” being a rather critical caveat here. Richardson gave scouts just 393 career pass attempts of data, even fewer as a starter, so the team that drafts him will have be sure their timeline projections with him are right. If your franchise isn’t ready for a player like Richardson, you can’t draft him. If you have a developmental plan, though, he could be a massive steal.

6-0, 180 | Career: 69 tackles, 17 pass break-ups, 3 INTs

DJ Turner was a skinny, rangy IMG Academy prospect without a ton of recruiting buzz when Michigan plucked him in 2019. He just wrapped his college career as one of the toughest man coverage defenders in the Big Ten (or nationally).

His technique can miss at times — there are hiccups and mistakes — but he has enough speed to make up for those errors (many of which also happen to be correctable), and he’s not afraid of anything. Turner is a fearless coverage player whose name will climb the more NFL evaluators watch him.

Sean Tucker, RB, Syracuse

5-10, 205 | Career: 3,182 yards, 27 TD (5.4 ypc); 64 receptions, 622 yards, 4 TDs

After a stellar 2021 season, Sean Tucker didn’t have the follow-up year scouts were hoping to see from him. Whether or not he was bothered by an injury, Tucker struggled to consistently find the gear that saw him rush for better than six yards per carry on 246 attempts as a sophomore.

He has all the tools and instincts, however. When he’s rolling, it all looks great; when he’s not, it’s just pretty good.

His Twitter account, however, is legendary.

Lukas Van Ness, DL, Iowa

6-5, 275 | Career: 70 tackles (19.0 tackles for loss), 13.0 sacks

Ranked No. 25 on draft expert Dane Brugler’s midseason top 50, Lukas Van Ness is a freaky athlete with size (a combination we do see at Iowa from time to time). He used to play hockey and was good at it. He doesn’t carry bad weight, is powerful and moves well laterally.

Do-it-all edge defenders who don’t have to leave the field can be worth their weight in gold in the NFL. Van Ness is still growing into his game, but he’s got the potential to be great.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness living up to Hercules nickname

Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois

6-0, 180 | 157 tackles (11.5 tackles for loss), 1.0 sack, 25 pass break-ups, 5 INTs

A corner who gets better every time you watch him. Per PFF, Devon Witherspoon was the sixth-best CB in the country, in terms of catches allowed on targeted throws. He’s a steady tackler, very smart and rarely out of place. He also plays better than his athletic traits might show, and he lived in the slot last season at Illinois.

Witherspoon’s numbers during his final year with the Illini: 41 tackles (7 TFLs), 14 pass breakups, three picks and 97 return yards. Football player.

6-3, 300 | 19 starts, won starting job as a redshirt freshman

Luke Wypler is only a two-year starting center in the Big Ten and seemed on the fence about his NFL decision, but his tape from the CFP semifinals vs. Georgia — the country’s best defense by a mile — may have been what he needed to push things over the top. Wypler got better every time Ohio State played. He shows a great ability to reach down the line with flexibility, speed and power.

This is a prospect with a very bright future. Since he wasn’t a sure-thing to declare when 2022 started, teams might still have to play catch-up on him, which means his stock should only rise from here.

(Photo of Darnell Washington: John David Mercer / USA Today)





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