Behind the curtain: NFL teams reveal how and why of 2023 first-round picks

Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Behind the curtain: NFL teams reveal how and why of 2023 first-round picks

Even as media misfired and public debates raged about the first overall pick, Bryce Young was No. 1 on the Carolina Panthers’ draft board for more than two months.

C.J. Stroud went second to Houston, standing tall as the precise pocket passer his game film and production indicated and not withering under a barrage of published reports that he scored poorly on cognitive tests and led the Texans into a mindset of waiting for the QB Class of 2024.

Clarity and sanity arrived in hefty doses on Thursday night, bringing insight and hindsight to the mockery of the pre-draft buildup.

We clear the runway with a peek behind the curtain at how the decisions played out in draft rooms.

–Panthers paid price to get Bryce

There was one player the Panthers wanted in the 2023 NFL Draft more than any other. They rated Alabama quarterback Bryce Young as the No. 1 player in the class by a wide margin in pre-combine meetings more than a month before general manager Scott Fitterer executed a trade with the Chicago Bears to gain full control of the board.

“We’re watching film. Scouts are talking about Bryce Young,” Frank Reich said of his first draft meeting as Panthers head coach in February. “And basically, Scott proposes a question at the end of that meeting, like, ‘Hey, so, if we trade up, where’s our conviction?’ And it was unanimous with every guy in that room, starting from Scott on down, that Bryce was the guy. That was great for me to hear.”

Reich knew too, as soon as he logged a few video hours with the clicker watching Young execute the Crimson Tide offense without his frame — 5-foot-10 1/8, 204 pounds — causing issues.

“You just watched the tape. There’s a lot said about the size,” Reich said. “At the end of the day, there are a lot of factors that go into it. But we’re coaches; we’re scouts. We watched the tape. And when you watch the tape, Bryce Young is the best player.”

–Texans not passing, hammer gas pedal to take QB C.J. Stroud

Here’s the thing about negative stories before the draft: Motives aren’t crystal clear. But almost always, a reason can be gleaned for late-arriving negative tidbits cracking draft news cycles. This year, the topic became Stroud’s cognition test scores — the modern-day Wonderlic evaluation — which were debunked by creator and testing company S2 Cognition.

Here’s the other thing: Teams know everything about every player on their board. Area scouts, team security, position coaches, quality control coaches, head coaches, coordinators, personnel directors, and general managers all pore over available information, investigate each player’s background and any skeletons that emerge for that player including family, friends, and teammates.

By the end of the process, Houston had no problem at all with Stroud, who averaged an absurd 324 yards and 3.4 TD passes per game at Ohio State. He was 21-4 with the Buckeyes.

Texans general manager Nick Caserio attended multiple Ohio State games in person — the Buckeyes had three top-20 picks Thursday — and utilized his area scouts to run their own deep dive into each quarterback in this class.

Stroud helped solidify his pro projection and final draft grade by putting up 41 points against a salty and stubborn Georgia defense in a one-point CFP semifinal loss.

“I knew that if the Texans wanted me, they were going to go get me,” Stroud said. “I don’t care about the outside noise. Even after my playing days, I know I still won’t be perfect. But I’m going to make sure I work my tail off to do the right thing. And you have my word on that for sure.”

–Texans’ 2-step

With 1:30 on the clock and the Arizona Cardinals still interested in a trade partner, Caserio parted with one of his two first-round picks in 2024 and successfully worked a deal to become the first team to draft back-to-back in the top five since Washington selected LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels in 2000. Samuels was an All-American left tackle at Alabama, which transitions nicely into the player former Alabama linebacker and current Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans wanted more than any other in this draft: Crimson Tide outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr.

With 12 total picks, the Texans didn’t even blink or reference “value charts” while pursuing the top defensive player available.

Anderson had 10 sacks last season to finish second on Alabama’s career sacks list (34.5) and tackles for loss (62), trailing only Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas.

“It was an opportunity to get a player we thought very highly of. We knew he wasn’t going to last. We felt that adding him to our football team is something we wanted to do,” Caserio said.

Houston locked in on Anderson before last season, and the deal was sealed when Ryans arrived and felt like Anderson was the player they had to have in the 2023 draft. They met with Anderson three times since January.

Anderson knew the call was coming Thursday night; he just wasn’t sure when.

“The way they want to use me, it’s special. As a 9-technique, rushing off the edge, go get the quarterback,” Anderson said.

–Lucky for the Horseshoe

Indianapolis was chasing quarterbacks on an order that was crystal clear when owner Jim Irsay spoke to the need in a press conference setting in February.

Not many connected the dots between Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Colts general manager Chris Ballard, but perhaps they should have. Ballard is known as a scout who chases traits, and few prospects in this class have them at Richardson’s level. At 6-4, 244, he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and showed off a 37-inch vertical. Only 12 players in the history of the combine have run 4.43 at his weight.

These traits might not shout “quarterback.”

The knocks on Richardson are mostly factual and statistical analysis warranting context. Yes, he has only 13 career starts. But pointing to poor production is only valid when mixing in the footnote he played for multiple coaches and three offensive coordinators with vastly different plans at UF. He’s also the youngest of the prized quarterback prospects in this class.

We don’t yet know if he’s a passer. We know he’s a bull as a ballcarrier, part Cam Newton and elements of Daunte Culpepper.

Can you say potential?

A home run swing by Ballard and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen signals the joined belief they can get Richardson pointed skyward to reach his immense ceiling. Steichen was instrumental in the early success of Justin Herbert with the Chargers and critical to Jalen Hurts’ success with the Eagles.

Neither of those players ever reached 21.2 miles per hour on an 80-yard touchdown run in college.

The affinity for Richardson isn’t recent. Ballard said scout Morocco Brown sent him a text from Gainesville last August touting “the show I’m seeing right now,” and he was observing a 20-year-old Richardson at Florida’s practice. When Steichen arrived, he called Ballard early in his film breakdown of prospects to share what he was seeing with the Gators’ QB and sounded almost exactly like Brown did months before: “There’s not many guys that can do what Anthony Richardson can do.”

“He’s a pretty unique athlete and talent,” Ballard said Thursday.

–Hall of a DB

Troy Polamalu played for Pete Carroll at USC and was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Comparing any prospect to the Pro Football Hall of Fame safety sounds like sacrilege, even when it’s coming from Carroll.

But the parallels between Polamalu and Illinois All-American cornerback Devon Witherspoon are everywhere in Carroll’s trusted and thorough evaluation.

Pre-draft assessments of what the Seahawks might do in the first round almost always miss, so when GM John Schneider used his first top-five pick since his Green Bay days on a feisty cornerback, not many saw it coming.

Carroll was finally able to spill a lovefest explanation on Thursday night.

“He’s a rare player,” Carroll said. “Since the years we’ve been here, we haven’t seen a guy like this. We have not drafted corners high just because we haven’t come across a guy of this makeup. It’s his athletic ability, it’s his speed, it’s his playmaking, it’s his mentality. I haven’t come across a guy like this in a long time. The last time I recognized this kind of makeup was back at USC when we had a guy that you guys may know. Troy Polamalu was a guy who had an extraordinary way about the way he played the game, and I saw this connection between what Devon does and how he looks at the game and how he approaches it that just knocked me out.”

Consider us KO’d, too.

–Bears down, and down

Chicago swapped out of the first overall pick in the deal with the Panthers that netted a No. 1 wide receiver, DJ Moore, and a spare first-round pick in 2024.

But when the Bears moved again, sliding from No. 9 to No. 10 in a trade with the Eagles that allowed Philadelphia to select Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, general manager Ryan Poles essentially passed on the top 10 players in the draft multiple times. Already, die-hard Chicagoans are fearful the 2023 draft might be remembered for who the Bears didn’t draft.

“I won’t comment specifically on him, but character is always going to be important to us,” Poles said Thursday of passing on Carter, who some rated the No. 1 talent in the draft.

With the 10th pick, Poles, a former NFL offensive lineman, selected Tennessee right tackle Darnell Wright, a 6-6, 335-pound specimen who can also play the left side.

A four-year, 42-game starter, Wright and the Bears have been in close contact for months. He was identified by Alabama pass rusher and No. 3 pick Will Anderson Jr. as the toughest player he faced in college.

Wright played on the Senior Bowl roster of Chicago offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, met with the team’s brass at the scouting combine, visited Halas Hall on a “top 30 visit,” and then cemented his status in a private workout attended by Poles and conducted by Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan.

Poles rarely attends private workouts. This was an exception, seeking conviction the day before Easter that Wright was the right choice. Before and after, Poles said he knew that session in Knoxville would be “a really big piece.”

“There’s a mental toughness that you have to have to play this game,” said Poles. “We brought him in deep water to see if he could swim or not, and he accepted the challenge, and he showed us the grit and the mental toughness to be able to fight through fatigue and all those things that we look for.”

The plan was to get Wright comfortable on his “home turf” in Tennessee, then make him as uncomfortable as possible with tests of mental and physical endurance. They ran him to the whiteboard to challenge his ability to make calls if a QB or coach changes a call while a playclock ticked down, asked him to draw assignments — his and others’ — on plays he was given minutes earlier, and articulate the basis for his answer. Then they did the same exercise on the field, moving reps faster as if in no-huddle without more than 10 seconds to recover. In between, he needed to decipher the call and verbally explain his assignment.

Lastly, they looked for body language and focus when the well-lathered Wright was ordered through a 10-minute conditioning test.

“He stayed aggressive, finished. Again, that attitude we’re looking for up front,” Poles said. “You’re always looking to be convicted about things, and that was the final box we were able to check and feel good about it.”

Wright recalls the individual workout that cemented his ticket to Chicago from a slightly different perspective.

“He kicked my ass, if we’re being honest,” Wright said. “He wanted to see what I was made of. It was hard, but I didn’t quit. I think he respected that. He put me through the wringer. We were out there working. He just wanted to see if I’d quit, and I wouldn’t quit.”

–Late and often

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is the coupon shopper of draft decision-makers, and he moved down a few spots again Thursday only to come away with Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, the top-ranked cornerback in the class on some boards. New England pocketed an extra fourth-round pick in the deal.

Gonzalez was there at No. 17 after director of scouting Eliot Wolf helped New England work the trade to move down with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who wanted Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones.

“I’d say overall there probably was some surprise that he lasted as long as he did,” Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said. “But we’ve got our players stacked the way we got them. We can’t predict what anybody else is going to do.”

Groh said meeting Gonzalez at the combine and getting more comfortable with him as a person during a “top 30″ visit to Foxborough helped solidify his place on the team’s draft board. New England drafted four players from its top 30 list in 2022.

It didn’t hurt to have offensive line coach Adrian Klemm’s input on Gonzalez. Klemm was associate head coach at Oregon in 2022.

“You know you’re getting the truth on the player, good and bad,” Groh said of Klemm’s unique perspective. “There’s that comfort level. Coach Klemm was with Christian, call it eight months, so definitely a great resource.”

Including the 120th pick received from the Steelers on Thursday, the Patriots now have six picks between Nos. 46 and 135.

–Star stopper

Only 11 players were given first-round grades by the Dallas Cowboys, who passed on temptations to move up before a run of four consecutive wide receivers from Nos. 20-23.

Head coach Mike McCarthy was behind the push to add more physical and powerful players in the trenches, and defensive tackle Mazi Smith’s game is all about both. The Michigan standout should step into a significant role immediately and help Dallas patch a defense that ranked 22nd in the NFL against the run (129 yards per game).

“I think we said it earlier, when Mike came in here, he talked about building a bigger, stronger, faster football team,” vice president of player personnel Will McClay said. “We have continued to do that, and when you look at Mazi … teams run the football now, and you see things change. You look at our division; he’s a guy that can stop that, a guy that adds value to our defense as well.”

–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media

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