Background: Dec 31, 2022; New Orleans, LA, USA; Kansas State quarterback Will Howard (18) throws under pressure from Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) during the 2022 Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome. Alabama defeated Kansas State 45-20. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.
Some draftniks feel much more confident about selecting college players who have demonstrated sustained success over a period of at least two seasons —- particularly players who have succeeded at the highest levels of competition. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the 2023 NFL draft prospects whose PFF grades over the past two seasons averaged 80.0 or better.
Note: Players from Power 5 conferences (including Notre Dame) are in BOLD.
- Bryce Young, Alabama: 91.9
- Clayton Tune, Houston: 91.4
- C.J. Stroud, Ohio St.: 90.1
- Darren Hall, BYU, 87.8
- Hendon Hooker, Tennessee: 87.6
- Stetson Bennett, Georgia: 87.1
- Jake Haener, Fresno St.: 83.4
- Malik Cunningham, Louisville: 81.5
- Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA: 80.0
RB: (90s Club):
- DeWayne McBride, UAB: 92.1
- Bijan Robinson, Texas: 91.0
- Zach Charbonnet, UCLA: 90.5
Note: all of the other top rated RBs averaged in the 80s
- Michael Mayer, Notre Dame: 86.7
- Dalton Kincaid, Utah: 84.7
- Tucker Kraft, South Dakota St.: 82.0
- Kyle Patterson, Air Force: 80.6
- Xavier Hutchinson, Iowa St.: 86.8
- Demario Douglas, Liberty, 86.7
- Puka Nacua, BYU: 86.4
- Jordan Addison, USC: 85.2
- Nathaniel Dell, Houston: 85.1
- A.T. Perry, Wake Forest: 83.0
- Rashee Rice, SMU: 82.9
- Josh Downs, North Carolina: 82.2
- Jake Bobo, UCLA: 80.4
- Cody Mauch, North Dakota St.: 90.1
- Peter Skoronski, Northwestern: 86.7
- Blake Freeland, BYU: 86.3
- Dawand Jones, Ohio St.: 84.3
- McClendon Curtis, Chattanooga: 83.8
- Paris Johnson Jr., Ohio St.: 81.1
- Alex Palczewski, Illinois: 80.4
- Jordan McFadden, Clemson: 80.2
- O’Cyrus Torrence, Florida: 88.1
- Andrew Vorhees, USC: 86.5
- John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota: 90.4
- Brett Neilon, USC: 88.2
- Joe Tippmann, Wisconsin: 82.5
- Jacob Gall, Baylor: 81.5
- Luke Wypler, Ohio St.: 81.2
- Olusegun Oluwatimi, Michigan: 80.2
- Devonnsha Maxwell, Chattanooga: 90.4
- Kobie Turner, Wake Forest: 90.2
- Jalen Carter, Georgia: 88.8
- Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh: 88.2
- Jonah Tavai, San Diego St. : 87.2
- Moro Ojomo, Texas: 82.7
- Jacob Slade, Michigan St.: 82.5
- Desjuan Johnson, Toledo: 81.8
- Byron Young, Alabama: 80.8
- Karl Brooks, Bowling Green: 87.1
- Derek Parish, Houston: 87.1
- Will Anderson Jr., Alabama: 86.7
- Jose Ramirez, Eastern Michigan: 86.5
- Nick Herbig, Wisconsin: 85.5
- Viliami Fehoko, San Jose St.: 85.5
- Nolan Smith, Georgia: 84.4
- Nick Hampton, Appalachian St.: 84.2
- Zach Harrison, Ohio St.: 83.9
- Tui Tuipulotu, USC: 82.4
- Andre Carter, Army, 80.3
- Felix Anudike-Uzamoh, Kansas St.: 80.0
- Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati: 88.1
- Jack Campbell, Iowa: 85.7
- Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson St.: 83.3
- Drake Thomas, North Carolina St.: 80.3
- Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi St.: 83.6
- Mekhi Blackman, USC: 81.4
- Riley Moss, Iowa: 80.8
- Devon Witherspoon, Illinois: 80.7
- Clark Phillips III, Utah: 80.0
- Jordan Battle, Alabama: 84.8
- Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M: 84.5
- Brian Branch, Alabama: 83.1
- Marte Mapu, Sacramento St.: 80.8
PFF Top 50 Prospects who averaged less than 80 the last two seasons:
- 4 QB Will Levis, Kentucky: 79.6
- 6 QB Anthony Richardson, Florida: 77.5
- 9 Edge Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech: 74.9
- 10 WR Quentin Johnson, TCU: 76.1
- 11 CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon: 77.3
- 12 WR Jaxson Smith-Njigba, Ohio St.: 73.5
- 14 Edge Lukas Van Ness, Iowa: 75.2
- 16 CB Deonta Banks, Maryland: 69.3
- 18 Joey Porter Jr., Penn St.: 70.2
- 20 Darnell Wright, T, Tennessee: 67.0
- 21 DI Bryan Bresee, Clemson: 71.5
- 23 Edge Myles Murphy, Clemson: 79.1
- 24 T Anton Harrison, Oklahoma: 74.8
- 25 Edge Will McDonald IV, Iowa St.: 75.4
- 26 T Broderick Jones, Georgia: 78.5
- 29 WR Zay Flowers, Boston College: 74.3
- 33 DI Mazi Smith, Michigan: 77.8
- 34 Edge B.J. Ojulari, LSU: 73.2
- 37 QB Tanner McKee, Stanford: 72.2
- 38 LB Daiyan Henley, Washington St.: 69.9
- 39 CB Cam Smith, South Carolina: 76.8
- 41 Edge Adetomiwa Ademawore, Northwestern: 73.5
- 43 TESam LaPorta, Iowa: 76.2
- 46 CB Tyrique Stevenson, Miami: 74.3
- 47 Steve Avila, G, TCU: 76.2
- 49 TE Luke Musgrave, Oregon St.: 66.3
Note: all of the ranked players in this group are from Power 5 conferences.
When picking in the upper half of the 1st Round, on average, the surest bets are players who have demonstrated sustained success and highly consistent levels of performance throughout consecutive seasons.
For example, if a team that wants to use an early first round draft pick on a CB, should consistency over a two year span matter?
In 2020, Jeffrey Okudah and C.J. Henderson were selected #3 (DET) and #9 (JAC) —- neither Okuda (77.8) nor Henderson (71.8) scored an average of 80 or above during their last two seasons in college. Both of them have now been traded to other teams.
Note: The highest graded CB of the 80s Club in the 2020 NFL Draft was Trevon Diggs, Alabama at 82.4. He was drafted at pick #55 (R2) by DAL and this year scored the highest NFL PFF grade of all 2020 CBs drafted in Rounds 1 and 2 at 67.6.
Conclusion: If a team going to take a CB in the top 16 picks of the draft, that CB had better be a consistently superb player like Sauce Gardner (82,3) or Patrick Surtain II (86.6).
Monti Ossenfort was part of the draft group in Tennessee that selected Caleb Farley at pick #22 of the 2021 NFL Draft. Farley is a highly gifted athlete who opted out of the 2020 season and has had knee and back injuries. His average PFF grades for his previous two seasons at Virginia Tech were 71.5.
Moreover, what was odd about Farley was that in two years of playing at Virginia Tech, he only was used for 58 snaps of press man coverage. The pundits fell in love with Farley’s supreme athleticism, so much so that some pundits were projecting him at a top 10 pick, primarily based on his one great season in 2019.
Some pundits had Farley rated higher than Surtain,
Caleb Farley’s PFF Grades with Titans: 2022: 42.5 2021: 45.7
CBs Taken in 1st Round of the 2021 NFL Draft:
# 8 CAR: Jaycee Horn, South Carolina —- 2022 NFL PFF grade: 71.4 —- last 2 college seasons: 74.2
#9 DEN Patrick Surtain II, Alabama —- 2022 NFL PFF grade: 86.8 —- last 2 college seasons: 86.8
#22 TEN Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech —- 2022 NFL PFF grade: 42.5 —- last 2 college seasons: 71.5
#26 CLE Greg Newsome II, Northwestern —- 2022 NFL PFF grade: 69.1 —- last 2 college seasons: 71.2
#29 GB Eric Stokes, Georgia —- 2022 NFL PFF grade: 53.7 —- last 2 college seasons: 77.4
Note: in the 2021 NFL Draft Class there was one CB in the 80s Club in the 2021 NFL Draft class —- Patrick Surtain II (86.8) —-so then, what CB from the 2021 NFL Draft has the only 80-s grade in the NFL after 2 seasons? Patrick Surtain II.
Consistent success matters. It’s not how athletic a player looks in his uniform, it’s how consistently well he plays his position.
In the vast majority of 2023 Mock Drafts, pundits have Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez going earlier than Alabama’s Brian Branch. But, when you watch the last two years of tape on Gonzalez and Branch, there is no question that Branch is the superior football player. The comparison is not even remotely close.
Branch excels at slot CB, which is the most difficult coverage assignment in football.
Moreover, Branch is arguably the best tackler in the 2023 NFL Draft Class. Of the 176 tackling opportunities Branch had the last three years at Alabama, he delivered 172 tackles and missed 4.
2022 PFF Grades:
Today, ESPN’s “The Draft Scout” Matt Miller put out an article about his favorite “Gamebreakers” in the 2023 NFL Draft. He lists two defensive backs, Brian Branch and Kelee Ringo Here is what he wrote about Branch::
Brian Branch, Alabama
Just about every player on this list stands out with an impressing showing at the combine. Branch is the outlier. There is no blazing 40, quick 3-cone drill or impressive jumps. Branch is a gamebreaker for his tape. The do-it-all defensive back is dangerous from multiple positions. Teams in immediate need of a nickel corner could target Branch in the first round, but so could teams with a need for a true free safety and teams looking for a playmaker in their secondary. I see a lot of Tyrann Mathieu in Branch’s game.
Usually the most underrated player in the draft is a mid to late round sleeper. This year it might be a consensus first round player. Brian Branch gets an elite grade from me. Extremely instinctive & dominant Slot CB. Effective in man & zone. Physical tackler, flys around the… pic.twitter.com/SUhDkFkwLj— The GOAT House (@GoatHouseNFL) April 24, 2023
The best possible defensive back the Cardinals could take in the 1st round is Brian Branch. Nick Saban said that Branch has the talent to play every position in the secondary at a superior level. Then, Saban said that he used Branch primarily in the slot because it takes the best man-to-man cover guy on the team to handle and master it. At Alabama, that’s a tremendous compliment.
Best 1st Round Picks for Cardinals:
- OLB Will Anderson, Jr., Alabama
- OLB Nolan Smith, Georgia
- CB/S Brian Branch, Alabama
- T/G Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
- T Paris Johnson, Jr., Ohio St.
- DT Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh
Riskiest 1st Round Picks for Cardinals:
- DT Jalen Carter
- DE Tyree Wilson
- CB Christian Gonzalez
Most Tantalizing 1st Round Pick for Cardinals:
- CB Devon Witherspoon, Illinois. Witherspoon was absolutely sensational this past season at Illinois. His aggressive style of play is extremely alluring and impressive. But, because of his lack of ideal recovery speed, he tends to get very handsy past the 5 yard press area, which could lead to a number of holding and PI calls in the NFL. It’s uncertain at this point whether he can hold up well in man coverage versus NFL caliber WRs. Lance Zierlein of nfl.com projects Witherspoon as a CB2 in a zone heavy defense, which seems pretty much spot-on. That’s why he’s tantalizing. He’s got all kinds of potential, but could Witherspoon be a legit CB1 in the NFL? if not, it is not a typically smart practice to use a top half of the 1st round pick on a CB2, particularly one who has only one highly successful season of college football under his belt. As superb as he was this past season, it’s hard to feel confident that Devon Witherspoon is a legitimate top half of the 1st round prospect. This year’s CB class is not nearly as strong at the top as last year’s. But, pundits always want to project CBs as top 10-20 picks. Thus, in some years, as it was in Jeffrey Okudah’s draft class in 2020, the top level CB talent was vastly over-rated, which proved costly for teams who tried to draft for CB need that high in the draft.
2022 NFL Draft Top 10: (Last 2 College Season Average Grade + 2022 NFL grade)
- JAC: Travon Walker, DE, Georgia: 70.0 College; 60.3 NFL
- DET: Aiden Hutchinson, DE, Michigan: 88.5 College; 80.7 NFL
- HOU: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU: 69.4 College; 49.1 NFL
- NYJ: Sauce Gardner, CB, Cincinnati: 82.3 College; 87.9 NFL
- NYG Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon: 81.2 College; 71.8 NFL
- CAR: Ikem Ekwonu, T, North Carolina St.: 86.2 College; 65.3 NFL
- NYG: Evan Neal, T, Alabama: 84.8 College; 44.1 NFL
- ATL Drake London, WR, USC: 81.2 College; 83.2 NFL
- SEA: Charles Cross, T, Mississippi St.: 75.5 College; 63.7 NFL
- NYJ Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio St.: 82.5 College; 82.7 NFL
Note: in BOLD, players who were in the 2022 NFL Draft 80s Club
Thus far, of the 7 players in the 2022 80s Club, 6 look like home runs. Of the 4 questionable picks (to date), 3 of the players were not members of the 80s Club.
- Walker over Hutchinson and Stingley over Gardner are looking like what could have been avoidable mistakes.
- Kudos to the Jets for drafting the 2022 DROY (Sauce Gardner) and the 2022 OROY (Garrett Wilson).
The 80s Club: where draft prospects’ levels of sustained success —- and consistency of quality play —- matter.