Five prospects to watch at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Welcome to draft season.
Most of the best prospects will all converge at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis. Players will be tested in a number of areas to measure speed, strength, agility and more as they look to fortify their stock before April’s draft.
While many of the top players are solidified at the top of the board, there are still questions surrounding almost every prospect. Some have more at stake than others, but everyone wants to look their best against their peers.
With that in mind, here are five players to keep an eye on at the combine:
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
You won’t find many evaluators questioning Young’s talent. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2021 for the Crimson Tide and finished his career with a 80-12 TD-INT ratio in 29 games. Many consider him the best pure quarterback in this class.
So, why do you need to follow him at the combine? It’s all about his measurables. According to Alabama’s website, Young comes in at 6-feet tall and 194 pounds. Schools typically round up, and NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein expects him to be an inch or two shorter at the combine. Kyler Murray (5-foot-10) and Russell Wilson (5-foot-11) were the only starting quarterbacks under 6-feet last season. His weight is an even bigger question, as no NFL quarterback last season was listed at under 200 pounds. Whatever Young’s official height and weight are could determine if he’s the first pick or not.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida
So… everything I just wrote about Young? It’s the exact opposite story for Richardson. He’s built like an NFL star, standing at 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds. The former Gator has all the physical tools, including speed, arm strength and size.
So, what’s the problem then? Well, Richardson didn’t exactly play like a pro quarterback at Florida even if he looked like one. He completed just 53.8% of his passes in 2022 for 2,549 yards, 17 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions in 12 games. Despite his lack of production, Richardson has shot up draft boards and now seems likely to go inside the top 10 – or even higher. With that athleticism and size, he was made for an event like the combine.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
Entering the 2022 season, Smith-Njigba had sky-high expectations. Ohio State sent first-round receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave to the NFL, which cleared a spot for JSN to dominate. He blew up in the Buckeyes’ 2021 season finale at the Rose Bowl, catching 15 passes for 347 yards and three TDs. But over his entire final season at OSU, Smith-Njigba didn’t match his Rose Bowl production.
JSN played just three games last season, totaling three catches for 43 yards after suffering a hamstring injury. He didn’t play in Ohio State’s final six games. But now that the NFL has come calling, Smith-Njigba is answering the phone. He recently proclaimed himself the “best wide receiver available in this draft,” and he’s sure to be an early-round pick. A strong showing at the combine could solidify his status atop the wide receiver class.
Mazi Smith, DT, Michigan
Part of the allure of the combine is to watch behemoths in action. Smith, at 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds with a unique blend of power and agility, should be appointment viewing. He had just 0.5 sacks and 48 total tackles in 14 games last year, but you have to look past the numbers for an interior defensive lineman built like this.
Here’s what The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman wrote about Smith, who Feldman ranked No. 1 on his “Freaks List” for 2022:
“But let’s start with this: Smith does 22 reps on the bench press, but that’s with 325 (not 225). He close-grip benched 550 pounds. He vertical-jumps 44 inches. He broad-jumped 9-4 1/2. Smith, who had 37 tackles last season, has clocked a 4.41 shuttle time, which would’ve tied the best by any defensive tackle at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, and it would’ve been better than any defensive tackle weighing 310 pounds or more in the past decade. His 6.95 3-cone time would’ve been by far the fastest among defensive tackles in Indianapolis. The fastest was 7.33. Smith’s 60-yard shuttle time is 11.90.”
If Smith produces numbers like those in Indianapolis, the NFL world will be buzzing.
Nolan Smith, OLB, Georgia
This draft cycle for Smith could be a repeat of what eventual No. 1 pick Travon Walker went through. The traits are there, the stat sheet production just isn’t. Smith won’t rise to the top of the board like Walker did, but he should probably be higher than his current late-first-round projection by both NFL.com and ESPN.
Smith totaled three sacks and seven tackles for loss in eight games for the Bulldogs last year. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle against Florida in October and missed the rest of the season. So, like Smith-Njigba, how he looks at the combine coming off this injury is critical.