Eyeing Early Free-Agent Alternatives to the 2023 NFL Draft’s Top Prospects
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A month still remains in the 2022 NFL regular season, but several teams are already looking ahead to the offseason.
The 1-11-1 Houston Texans, for example, aren’t making the playoffs this year. However, they have a 1.5-game lead over the next-closest team for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.
Whether they want a new franchise quarterback or a potentially generational pass-rusher, whichever team lands the top pick will have plenty of options. The problem is that it won’t be able to fill multiple needs with that one selection.
That’s where free agency will come into play for many organizations. While free agents don’t always come with the same team-friendly contracts or long-term value as draft prospects, they can help a team narrow its draft needs.
Here, we’ll examine the top 10 draft prospects on the latest Bleacher Report Scouting Department big board. We’ll dive into what makes these prospects special and identify one veteran alternative for each based on factors like position, skill set and recent production.
Prospects are listed in order of their ranking on the B/R big board.
1. Will Anderson Jr., Edge, Alabama
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FA Alternative: Yannick Ngakoue
Alabama pass-rusher Will Anderson Jr. is the top-ranked prospect on the B/R board. It isn’t hard to see why.
The 21-year-old has logged a whopping 27.5 sacks and 48 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He recently became Alabama’s first-ever two-time unanimous All-American.
Anderson will undoubtedly be coveted by teams toward the top of the draft. However, one team could find quality pass-rushing help before the draft by targeting Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue.
Although Ngakoue doesn’t possess the same upside that Anderson does, he’s a consistent playmaker who won’t turn 28 until the spring. Like Anderson, he’s solid on the edge against both the run and the pass.
So far this season, Ngakoue has tallied six tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 25 tackles and 24 quarterback pressures. He has notched at least eight sacks in each of his seven NFL seasons.
Ngakoue possesses a combination of youth and dependability that shouldn’t go unnoticed in free agency.
With a projected market value of $14.8 million annually, Ngakoue could fill a major need without carrying a top-of-the-market price point.
2. Jalen Carter, DL, Georgia
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FA Alternative: Javon Hargrave
While Anderson is trending as the top prospect in the 2023 draft, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter go ahead of him. Prospects with Carter’s combination of size (6’3″, 300 lbs) and athleticism are exceedingly rare, and every NFL team is looking for its own version of Aaron Donald.
While we may not see another Donald in the near future, Carter has the potential to be similarly disruptive on the defensive interior. Despite dealing with an MCL injury this season, he has managed to amass 29 tackles, three sacks and seven tackles for loss in 11 games.
Carter should be a difference-maker as an interior pass-rusher in the NFL.
Teams could get a similarly potent interior rusher by targeting Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Javon Hargrave in free agency. The 29-year-old had his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2021 and is having another fantastic campaign. Hargrave has already tallied 46 tackles, eight sacks, seven tackles for loss and 14 quarterback pressures.
Far from a budget option, Hargrave has a projected market value of $20.1 million annually. While he’ll likely come with a high price tag, any team signing the SC State product should have the ability to wreck offensive game plans for the next half-decade.
3. Myles Murphy, Edge, Clemson
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FA Alternative: Brandon Graham
While Clemson’s Myles Murphy might not possess the generational upside that Will Anderson Jr. has, he’s a talented sack artist who will undoubtedly be a top-10 draft selection. The second pass-rusher on the B/R board, Murphy is a marvel on film.
At 6’5″ and 275 pounds, Murphy is largely a defensive-end prospect, though he does possess positional versatility. He can win with speed or power, which allowed him to accumulate 14.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons.
The soon-to-be 21-year-old still has plenty of untapped potential.
At 34 years old, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham doesn’t have the same long-term upside. However, teams seeking an impact rusher from the end position would do well to target Graham in March.
So far this season, Graham has racked up 8.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss and 17 quarterback pressures.
Because of his age, Graham could possibly be had for a bargain. With a projected market value of only $3.3 million annually, he’d be the perfect choice for a cap-strapped franchise looking to address its pass rush before the draft.
4. Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
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FA Alternative: Saquon Barkley
Texas’ Bijan Robinson has established himself as the top running back in the 2023 draft class, largely due to his dual-threat ability.
Labeled the best third-down back and the ball-carrier with the best hands by the B/R Scouting Department, Robinson’s value should be obvious. In today’s pass-driven NFL, running backs must do a little bit of everything to be true bell-cow starters.
Robinson—who logged 258 carries for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns while catching 19 passes for 314 yards and two scores this season—can do virtually anything an NFL offense would require.
The same can be said about New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. The Penn State product has put his injury struggles (including a torn ACL in 2020) behind him this season and has reemerged as one of the league’s preeminent dual-threat backs.
So far in 2022, Barkley has rushed for 1,083 yards, caught 42 passes for 261 yards and scored eight total touchdowns.
With a projected market value of $12 million annually, Barkley won’t be cheap. However, he’d be the perfect pickup for a team seeking an offensive centerpiece but not wanting to spend a top-10 pick on a running back.
5. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
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FA Alternative: James Bradberry
From one former Penn State star to another, we pivot to Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr., the son of former All-Pro cornerback Joey Porter.
Porter is the clear-cut top cornerback in the 2023 draft class, and not only because of his NFL bloodlines. With a long, physical frame (6’2″, 194 lbs), tremendous instincts and superb man-coverage skills, Porter has the potential to be an instant starter, not unlike Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Sauce Gardner.
While Porter hasn’t notched an interception this year, he has logged 27 tackles and an impressive 11 passes defended.
Eagles cornerback James Bradberry was already a reliable No. 1 corner with the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants, but he’s having a career year in Philadelphia this season. He has already logged 14 passes defended, three interceptions and a defensive touchdown while locking down opposing receivers in coverage.
Robinson has allowed an opposing passer rating of only 40.5 in his 13 starts.
With a projected market value of $17.1 million annually, Robinson should be paid like a top-tier cornerback. However, he won’t turn 30 until next summer and should be able to fill that No. 1 role for years to come.
6. Bryan Bresee, DL, Clemson
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FA Alternative: Larry Ogunjobi
Clemson’s Bryan Bresee is the second-ranked defensive lineman on the B/R board. His stock might be even higher had he not torn his ACL last year.
Bresee proved this year that he’s back near 100 percent, though. He returned from that injury to appear in nine games, logging 2.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and two passes defended.
At 6’5″ and 305 pounds, Bresee is a mammoth interior defender with the athleticism needed to be more than just a run-stuffer.
His skill set is very similar to that of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Despite his 6’4″, 305-pound size, Ogunjobi is more than just a space-eater and is capable of smothering ball-carriers and pressuring passers with equal efficacy.
Though Ogunjobi has flashed less often with Pittsburgh this season, his skills were on full display with the Cincinnati Bengals last year, The 28-year-old finished the 2021 season with 49 tackles, seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback pressures.
The foot injury that Ogunjobi suffered during the postseason last year could be contributing to his drop in production this season. He originally signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency, but the deal was voided because of a failed physical.
With a projected market value of just $3.4 million annually, Ogunjobi could be one of the biggest bargains in the 2023 free-agent market if he’s fully healthy.
7. Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame
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FA Alternative: Dalton Schultz
Like Kyle Pitts two years ago, Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer figures to be one of the top pass-catchers taken in the 2023 draft. Pitts was selected fourth overall in 2021, ahead of wide receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith.
Mayer is a similarly gifted pass-catcher, though perhaps not a complete tight end. From the B/R Scouting Department:
“Mayer remains the class’ best tight end with his prototypical build (6’4½”, 265 lbs.), unwavering hands and the yards-after-the-catch ability of a rhinoceros. Even so, he isn’t perfect. Mayer isn’t nearly the caliber of blocker that his frame and play strength as a receiver would suggest. He has the potential to grow in that area, although he should be a real people-mover instead of just being adequate.”
Teams that want a playmaking tight end but aren’t keen on using a top-10 selection on an incomplete prospect should instead take a long look at Dallas Cowboys standout Dalton Schultz. The 26-year-old has emerged as a tremendous weapon in Dallas’ offense over the past three seasons.
Between 2020 and 2021, Schultz caught 141 passes for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns. So far this season, he has caught 41 passes for 430 yards and three scores.
Expect Schultz to be the most coveted tight end in 2023 free agency, which his projected market value of $15.1 million annually reflects. Like Mayer, though, Schultz has the potential to be a team’s starting tight end for the next 7-8 years.
8. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
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FA Alternative: Lamar Jackson
The top signal-caller on the B/R Scouting Department’s latest big bboard, Alabama’s Bryce Young possesses just about every trait NFL teams would want in a quarterback aside from archetypal size. He is listed at only 6’0″ and 194 pounds.
Young has loads of arm talent and plenty of dual-threat ability, even if he didn’t run often in the Crimson Tide offense. This season, he has accumulated 3,007 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, five interceptions, 195 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns.
With receivers like Jameson Williams and John Metchie III at his disposal, Young racked up 4,872 passing yards, 47 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2021.
Multiple franchises will view Young as a franchise-caliber quarterback. However, one of them won’t be in the market for him if it can sign Baltimore Ravens signal-caller Lamar Jackson in free agency.
The Ravens are highly unlikely to let Jackson walk, but for now, his contract is set to expire in the spring. As one of the league’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, there isn’t much to dislike about the two-time Pro Bowler and the unanimous league MVP in 2019.
The lone possible exception is Jackson’s durability. He’s currently dealing with a knee ailment, and he missed four games in 2021 with an ankle injury (he missed a fifth due to illness).
Still, Jackson is a true franchise quarterback, and several teams will be happy to meet his projected market value of $42 million annually if it means solidifying the quarterback position for the next decade-plus.
9. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
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FA Alternative: Geno Smith
It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that some teams have Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud rated higher than Young. The 6’3″, 218-pound pocket passer fits the traditional quarterback mold and has all of the tools he needs to thrive in an NFL offense.
Though he isn’t prone to scrambling, Stroud is mobile enough to buy time in the pocket. His arm strength and accuracy are tremendous. Now headed to the College Football Playoff, Stroud has already passed for 3,340 yards and 37 touchdowns with only six interceptions this season.
Expect Young, Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis to all draw Round 1 consideration heading into February’s scouting combine.
While Jackson is the clear top quarterback in 2023 free agency—and 45-year-old Tom Brady may be in the mix as well—Geno Smith of the Seattle Seahawks could be an intriguing option for teams seeking a new starter before the draft.
Smith has revitalized his career in Seattle, putting up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers and keeping Seattle in playoff contention. Entering Thursday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, Smith had a league-high 71.5 percent completion rate, 3,433 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and a 106.8 passer rating.
At 32 years old, Smith is still young enough to be a franchise’s long-term starter. His breakout campaign should help him earn a hefty payday—he has a projected market value of $36.4 million—but whether we’re talking draft capital or contract dollars, potential franchise quarterbacks do not come cheaply.
10. Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU
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FA Alternative: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Like Stroud, TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston is headed to the College Football Playoff. We’ll see what the 6’4″, 215-pound pass-catcher can do against Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31, but he has already solidified himself as a top receiver prospect.
Johnston has caught a career-high 53 passes for 903 yards and five touchdowns this year after hauling in 33 receptions for 634 yards and five scores last year. The Horned Frogs star has the size, play strength and route skills of a true No. 1 NFL receiver.
“Johnston gives off strong DeAndre Hopkins vibes,” Bleacher Report’s Derrik Klassen stated last month.
While there isn’t a receiver of Hopkins’ caliber headed into free agency, Kansas City Chiefs receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has shown flashes of being a No. 1 target. A 1,400-yard receiver and a Pro Bowler with Pittsburgh in 2018, Smith-Schuster has reemerged as Kansas City’s top perimeter target this season.
Smith-Schuster has caught 61 passes for 762 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games.
With a projected market value of $9.7 million annually, Smith-Schuster is a potential bargain. Signing him wouldn’t preclude a team from drafting a potentially elite receiver in Johnston. However, Smith-Schuster could be a nice alternative for a team with an established No. 1 but still looking for help at the position.
Advanced NFL statistics from Pro Football Reference. College statistics from Sports Reference. Market-value information via Spotrac.
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