Biggest Risers on 2023 NFL Draft Big Board with 3 Weeks to Go

Biggest Risers on 2023 NFL Draft Big Board with 3 Weeks to Go

Biggest Risers on 2023 NFL Draft Big Board with 3 Weeks to Go

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    Devon Witherspoon

    Devon WitherspoonAP Photo/Nati Harnik

    Less than three weeks until the 2023 NFL draft kicks off in Kansas City. The NFL Scouting Combine has long since come and gone. The last of the pro days took place earlier this week. There are still a personal pro day or two and player visits still to go, but for the most part, draft season is winding down. We know just about everything we’re going to know between now and April 27.

    Through the entire predraft process, NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski and Bleacher Repot NFL Scouts Cory Giddings, Matt Holder, Derrik Klassen and Brandon Thorn have been hard at work poring over film and evaluating this year’s rookies. The team has released several NFL Draft Big Boards, with the most recent one dropping Friday.

    As they have gained more information, some of the team’s evaluations have changed—a number of players have moved up and down the board since the B/R Scouting Department last slotted everyone just after the combine.

    In the spirit of positivity, here’s a look at the biggest risers, beginning with a quarterback who didn’t even make the cut last time out.

Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee

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    KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 12: Hendon Hooker #5 of the Tennessee Volunteers before the game against the Missouri Tigers at Neyland Stadium on November 12, 2022 in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Tennessee Volunteers won the game 66-24. (Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images)

    Donald Page/Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: N/A

    You can’t put a number on how far Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker has risen up Bleacher Report’s Big Board since the post-combine edition. That’s because the 6’3″, 217-pounder wasn’t listed last time out.

    To be clear, the scouting department here at B/R still has significant reservations about Hooker, with Derrik Klassen calling Hooker a “Day 3 flier.”

    “His adequate athletic ability, velocity over the middle and years of starting experience give him a decent baseline as a backup,” Klassen wrote. “However, Hooker showcased very few NFL reps and high-level NFL traits at Tennessee, on top of being a very old prospect at 25 years old. Hooker will need years of development with respect to progressions, accuracy outside the numbers and pocket management, which is a concerning profile for such an old prospect.”

    However, there is a growing sentiment among some in the draftnik community that Hendon could be chosen long before that. There has been more than one mock draft recently in which Hooker went in Round 1, including one from Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports in which Hooker was selected inside the top 20.

    The need for a quarterback will make NFL teams do wild things; the first round of drafts over the last 20 years is littered with signal-callers who didn’t pan out.

    This isn’t to say that Hooker will join that list, but rolling the dice on a 25-year-old rookie coming off an ACL tear who needs substantial development in Round 1 is asking for trouble.

Ricky Stromberg, IOL, Arkansas

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    COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 25: Arkansas Razorbacks offensive lineman Ricky Stromberg (51) points out the defense in the second quarter of an SEC college football game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and Missouri Tigers on November 25, 2022 at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +51

    Among the players who were listed on the post-combine Big Board, no one has made a bigger jump from that board to the latest one than Arkansas offensive lineman Ricky Stromberg.

    A four-year starter with experience playing both guard and center, Stromberg isn’t particularly imposing physically. But he told reporters at January’s East-West Shrine Game that opponents who underestimate his physicality do so at their own peril.

    “I think that’s a thing that makes me a good player,” he said. “I just like to play football and I like to play it physically. I think when you’re on the O-line or D-line, if you’re not a physical player, then you’re not going to survive down there. There are guys trying to rip your face off every play. I just think my physicality really is the No. 1 standout thing.”

    However, he also said that his extensive experience in college football’s toughest conference also gives him a solid understanding of the mental aspects of the game.

    “I think I have a great knowledge of the game,” Stromberg said. “I like to watch film a lot. I enjoy it. I feel I’ve always been a student of the game and have a great football IQ. I think that is one of my most underappreciated traits.”

    Stromberg isn’t a player with a sky-high ceiling. He may never be great. But he’s experienced, versatile and one of the most NFL-ready interior linemen in his class. He could be a very good player for a very long time.

Zach Evans, RB, Ole Miss

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    OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI - OCTOBER 15: Zach Evans #6 of the Mississippi Rebels carries the ball during the game against the Auburn Tigers at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on October 15, 2022 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

    Justin Ford/Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +39

    There is very little dissent in the draftnik community regarding who the top running back prospect is. It’s Bijan Robinson’s world, and everyone else is just living in it. However, there’s another back who is surging up B/R’s Big Board as draft day nears: Zach Evans of Ole Miss.

    A 5’11”, 202-pounder who averaged a robust 6.5 yards per carry and topped 1,000 total yards with the Rebels in 2022, Evans is a physical runner who drew comparisons to Kareem Hunt from Klassen.

    “Evans has the profile of a starting NFL rusher,” he said. “The physicality, decisiveness and flexibility he brings are all highly encouraging. His profile is only somewhat limited by his ceiling with regards to pass-catching and explosive ability. Evans has the rushing skills to slot into any system, though a downhill gap scheme may unlock his potential the most.”

    A hamstring injury prevented Evans from working out at the combine, but as Cole Thompson wrote for The Grove Report, Evans’ showing at the Ole Miss pro day may have alleviated some of the concerns about his top-end speed.

    “Evans posted a 4.45-40 time, which would have ranked him sixth among the running backs at the combine,” he said. “He also ran a 4.26-second 20-yard shuttle and finished the three-cone drill in 7.08 seconds. Both numbers would have ranked inside the top 10 of running backs back in Indianapolis.”

    That performance, combined with Evans’ physicality and smooth running style, could be enough to get him into the latter stages of Day 2.

Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois

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    ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 19: Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Devon Witherspoon (31) reacts during a college football game against the Michigan Wolverines on November 19, 2022 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +30

    The predraft process has been a frustrating one for Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon. A hamstring injury prevented him from working out at both the combine and Illinois’ pro day. But on Wednesday, Witherspoon finally got a chance to show off his wheels in front of scouts at a personal pro day.

    And show them off he did. Per Eric Edholm of NFL.com, the 5’11”, 180-pounder peeled off a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, which goes a long way toward alleviating any concerns about Witherspoon’s long speed.

    As Joey Wagner wrote for 247Sports, the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and one of this year’s top cornerbacks just wanted to put an exclamation point on his impressive game tape.

    “Everything that they already know,” Witherspoon said. “That’s really the logistics of it. Just who I am that they’ve seen on tape. That’s all it is. It was aggravating because I really just wanted to hurry up and showcase what they already know. I kept getting setbacks, setbacks, setbacks, but I tried to look on the brighter side. It’s like, ‘OK, it’s getting me more time to keep getting better, get my body right for me to be at my best when I do perform.’ I tried to look at the brighter side of it.”

    Bleacher Report’s Cory Giddings already saw Witherspoon as one of the best cornerbacks in the class.

    “Devon Witherspoon is an active cornerback who has shown to make plays all over the field,” Giddings said. “He is a fluid cover defender who is able to play from multiple schemes and alignments. A first-team All-American, Witherspoon plays his best game when in coverage. He can play the man from press or off coverage. He shows to have a controlled pedal, which allows him to quickly get his feet in the ground and react to what he sees.”

    Now, he appears locked into the first round—and he may be the first cornerback drafted.

Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon

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    Oregon defensive back Christian Gonzalez tracks a California ballcarrier during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

    AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez

    Big Board Jump: +28

    Witherspoon isn’t the only high-end cornerback prospect who made a big jump up the Big Board. Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez saw a significant boost as well.

    Mind you, this isn’t especially surprising. Gonzalez has everything NFL teams could want in a cornerback, whether it’s length (6’1″), speed (4.38-second 40) physicality or technique.

    Dane Brugler of The Athletic said (via Tim Twentyman of the Lions website) that Gonzalez entered the 2022 season as a top-10 prospect overall, and nothing that has happened since has altered that assessment.

    “My No. 9 prospect back in August,” Brugler said, “Christian Gonzalez lived up to those lofty expectations and is one of the best non-quarterbacks in this draft class. He is long and athletic, can run and showed improved ball skills this past season. With his traits, Gonzalez should be an immediate starter as an NFL rookie.”

    Brentley Weissman of The Draft Network offered a similarly glowing endorsement.

    “Overall, Gonzalez offers prototypical physical attributes with his size, length and athleticism, and he pairs his elite traits with outstanding instincts and refined technique,” he said. “He has the potential to be a lockdown corner at the next level and could develop into a Pro Bowl player early in his career.”

    Gonzalez isn’t without flaws; he can be outmuscled by bigger receivers, his tackling needs refinement, and big plays were relatively few and far between in college.

    But there’s no question Gonzalez will be a first-round pick. The only question is how high he will go.

Adetomiwa Adebawore, DL, Northwestern

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    COLLEGE PARK, MD - OCTOBER 22:  Northwestern Wildcats defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore (99) goes after Maryland Terrapins quarterback Billy Edwards Jr. (9) during a Big10 football game between the Maryland Terrapins and the Northwestern Wildcats, on October 22, 2022, at SECU Stadium, in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +12

    There aren’t many players who have helped their draft stock more since the calendar turned to 2023 than Northwestern defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore.

    Adebawore was a solid player for the Wildcats in 2022, registering 38 total tackles, nine tackles for loss and five sacks. But the 6’2″, 282-pounder was considered a Day 3 prospect.

    That is, right up until he blew the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium, posting a dominant workout that included a ridiculous 4.49-second 40-yard-dash.

    While appearing on The Jim Rome Show after that workout, Adebawore said he was glad to be able to show NFL scouts his athletic upside.

    “I definitely had a lot to prove,” he said. “I just didn’t think people understood just how athletic I really was. Being able to show that just makes me happy I was able to come out and execute because you only get a few opportunities to execute in those type of moments, so I was able to do that, and I’m happy with that,” he said.

    Per Matt Holder’s scouting report on Adebawore, that athleticism is intriguing, but the key for the youngster will be refining his hand placement and technique.

    “Adebawore showed some flashes where he was able to use his physical gifts to take advantage of poor technique or bad offensive line play,” Holder wrote. “But he’s still flushing out a go-to move that he can win with. A lot of that is rooted in his poor use of hands as a rusher.”

    Flaws in his game or no, Adebawore has worked his way well into the Day 2 conversation. As a matter of fact, there has even been speculation that he could be selected late in Round 1.

Cedric Tillman, WR, Tennessee

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 10: Tennessee Volunteers wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) runs during a college football game against the Pittsburgh Panthers on September 10, 2022 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +11

    Cedric Tillman isn’t the highest-ranked wide receiver on Bleacher Report’s Big Board. He may not even be the first Tennessee wideout drafted in April.

    But Tillman is ranked above teammate Jalin Hyatt with our scouts, and the 6’3″, 234-pounder climbed more than 10 spots relative to the post-combine edition.

    Tillman tore up the SEC in 2021, reeling in 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 scores. But while Hyatt was winning the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver in 2022, an ankle injury wiped out a big chunk of Tillman’s season.

    However, Tillman is healthy now, and Klassen wrote that he has all the tools NFL teams look for in an “X” receiver.

    “Tillman has a classic X receiver build at 6’3″ and 215 pounds,” he said. “He plays to the archetype, too. Though not a true field-tilter, Tillman plays with good speed for his size. He excels on go routes, post routes, dig routes and comeback routes, all routes that either go vertical or threaten the vertical stem before snapping off.

    “Tillman also excels on those routes because they are true 1-on-1 outside routes, which make use of his snappy stop/start explosiveness, crisp feet and effortless hips. Tillman has exhibited all the route-running tools you could ask for, just on a limited route tree thus far.”

    Like Hyatt, Tillman will need some seasoning after playing in an offense at Tennessee that is nothing like the NFL. But the talent is there for him to go from Day 2 pick to one of this year’s biggest steals.

Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland

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    COLLEGE PARK, MD - OCTOBER 30:  Deonta Banks #33 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates a play during a college football game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on October 30, 2020 at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium in College Park, Maryland.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +11

    This year’s crop of cornerbacks is deep and talented. But per Derrick Bell of All Steelers, Deonte Banks believes there’s one thing that sets him apart from the crowd.

    His physicality.

    “I physically impose my will on people,” Banks said. “I press all day, and I’m physical. I like to kick-step slide 45 [degrees] and get my hands on. If they try to come across my body, I’m going to two-hand jam him.”

    Banks is indeed one of this year’s more physical cornerbacks. But as Justin Melo wrote for The Draft Network, at February’s combine, Banks also opened more than a few eyes with his athleticism:

    “Banks captured attention in Indianapolis. The Baltimore, Maryland native measured in with terrific size at 6-foot-0 and a rocked-up 197 pounds. Banks ran a ridiculous 4.35 in the 40-yard dash to pair with a 42-inch vertical and 11-foot-4 broad jump. Banks also ran a super-fast 1.49 10-yard split. Banks’ athletic testing confirmed an elite athlete that qualifies for rare territory. Banks scored a near-perfect 10/10 Relative Athletic Score, placing him among the most athletic cornerbacks to perform at the combine since 1987.”

    Banks all but certainly won’t be drafted ahead of Christian Gonzalez or Devon Witherspoon. But there are a number of teams who pick in the 20-30 range this year who could use help at cornerback.

    Banks would be a fine pick in that range, especially for a defense that plays a lot of press and man coverage.

Joe Tippmann, IOL, Wisconsin

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    MADISON, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 03: Joe Tippmann #75 of the Wisconsin Badgers warms up prior to the start of the game against the Illinois State Redbirds at Camp Randall Stadium on September 03, 2022 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)

    John Fisher/Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +9

    The University of Wisconsin has a long tradition of producing NFL-caliber linemen on both sides of the ball. Maybe it’s all the cheese. Or the bratwurst. Or the booyah stew.

    Joe Tippmann has long been headed toward inclusion on that list; headed into the 2022 college football season, Tippmann earned a shout-out from Bruce Feldman at The Athletic.

    “The 6’6″, 323-pounder made honorable mention All-Big Ten in his first season as a starter for the Badgers,” Feldman wrote. “Tippmann is a terrific combination of strength (635-pound back squat and 455-pound bench) and athleticism, clocking a 4.31 pro agility time and a 1.65 10-yard split, which would’ve been faster than any O-lineman at the NFL combine this year.”

    Tippmann followed that up with another fine season with the Badgers, and although he dropped 10 pounds and didn’t work out at the NFL Scouting Combine, B/R scout Brandon Thorn sees him as a player who could contribute in the NFL early in his career.

    “Overall, Tippmann is a young, tall, impressively built center with outstanding movement skills and is an adept zone run-blocker and quick processor,” Thorn said. “His strengths should allow him to win a job during his rookie year in a zone-heavy scheme, but his inconsistent leverage, posture and hand placement will pose issues with anchoring and sustaining on drive/base blocks.”

    Apparently others in the draft community agree. In his latest mock draft at ESPN, Todd McShay predicted the New York Jets will select Tippmann in the front half of the second round.

Felix Anudike-Uzomah, EDGE, Kansas State

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    MANHATTAN, KS - OCTOBER 29:  Defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah #91 of the Kansas State Wildcats gets set on defense against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the first half at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium on October 29, 2022 in Manhattan, Kansas. (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +9

    In college, Kansas State’s Felix Anudike-Uzomah had one job: make opposing quarterbacks miserable. He did that job well, amassing 19.5 sacks over two seasons as a starter. But at Kansas State’s recent pro day, the 6’3″, 255-pounder made a point of participating in some linebacker drills. He told reporters there was a reason for that.

    “I wanted to [prove] that I could move in space,” he said. “The defense we run [at K-State], I didn’t go out in space and drop, so the point of today was to show that I’m the type of edge-rusher who can play in space and I can play down on the line and rush the passer and be able to drop. Honestly, I like learning [any defensive system]. It doesn’t matter the system. I like to be a part of a system that allows me to help win games. That’s the type of player I am. I’m a guy that likes to win. I like to put myself in the best position to help my team out and win games.”

    As Holder wrote in his scouting report for Anudike-Uzomah, that showing at the Wildcats’ pro day was big because his best future lies in playing as a 3-4 “rush” linebacker at the next level.

    “As far as even or odd fronts go, Anudike-Uzomah would likely be best as a standup outside linebacker in odd fronts,” Holder said. “That way he won’t have to take on as many blocks from offensive linemen and can still be an effective pass-rusher. That being said, he’ll still be more of a third-down player to begin his career.”

    Holder’s player comp for Anudike-Uzomah is Yannick Ngakoue.

    The team that drafts him would no doubt be happy with Anudike-Uzomah tallying at least eight sacks in each of his first seven seasons—a feat Ngakoue is one of five players to accomplish.

Calijah Kancey, IDL, Pittsburgh

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 08: Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Calijah Kancey (8) looks on during the college football game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Pittsburgh Panthers on October 08, 2022 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Big Board Jump: +7

    When you’re an undersized defensive tackle from Pitt, you tend to get compared to another undersized defensive tackle from Pitt.

    To be clear, Calijah Kancey isn’t Aaron Donald. Only Aaron Donald is Aaron Donald. Kancey is explosive, but as Holder pointed out, he doesn’t have Donald’s strength or ability to hold up at the point of attack.

    “For comparison’s sake,” Holder said, “Donald was an inch taller and five pounds heavier at the NFL combine than Kancey’s listed height and weight at Pitt. In other words, the team that drafts Kancey is betting on him to be a major outlier.”

    However, the 6’1″, 281-pounder has plenty going for him in his own right. As a matter of fact, in the opinion of John Owning of Pro Football Focus, Kancey is the best pass-rusher in the 2023 class among interior linemen.

    “While his lack of size is seen as a detriment in many instances, it does help Kancey minimize his strike zone when rushing the passer, giving opposing blockers little surface area to land strikes and impede his progress,” Owning said. “Kancey’s elite 9.69 raw athletic score is easily identifiable on tape, as his quickness, burst and cornering enable him to generate pressure in a hurry. Kancey’s 16 pressures in 2.5 seconds or less were the second most in the entire class, behind only San Diego State’s Jonah Tavai (21).”

    Kancey is a tricky evaluation. But after pacing all interior linemen with a 4.67-second 40-yard dash at the combine, he followed that up with another impressive display of agility and explosiveness at Pitt’s pro day.

    And that has boosted Kancey into the fringes of first-round consideration.

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