Now that the 2023 NFL draft is complete, the work begins for the newest players in the league to start carving out roles for themselves as rookies.
With just over four months between the NFL draft and the first week of the season, the work to get acclimated begins almost immediately, with rookie minicamps set to take place over the next two weekends before full-team offseason workouts begin. And it’s important for each of Ohio State’s 2023 NFL draft picks to get off to a strong start.
C.J. Stroud, Paris Johnson Jr. and Jaxon Smith-Njigba will all be expected to play major roles right away as first-round picks. Zach Harrison, Dawand Jones and Luke Wypler aren’t likely to play as much as rookies, but they will need to establish themselves as key backups to put themselves on the trajectory for potential starting jobs in the future. As for Ohio State’s undrafted rookies, all of them will need to perform well this summer just to make regular-season rosters.
Now that we know which NFL teams Ohio State’s 2023 draftees will be starting their careers with, it’s time to take a look at how each of them will fit into their new teams and what kind of impact they could make early in their careers.
C.J. Stroud is Houston’s new face of the franchise
Stroud redshirted his first year at Ohio State before becoming the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback, but he won’t have that kind of time to learn the ropes in the NFL. As the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Stroud will be expected to immediately be the Houston Texans’ starting quarterback and start making their offense better as a rookie.
While Texans general manager Nick Caserio said after drafting Stroud that he didn’t want to put any timetables on when any of the rookies would play and that he wants them to “earn their role on the team,” it’s hard to imagine Stroud not being the Week 1 starter considering Davis Mills had the third-worst quarterback rating among NFL starters last season.
There will likely be some growing pains for Stroud as a rookie. After throwing to the best wide receiver unit in college football for the last two seasons, he won’t have that same luxury in Houston, whose roster includes no pass-catchers who reached 600 yards during the 2022 NFL season. And as Caserio noted, the transition from college to the NFL isn’t easy for any rookie quarterback.
“There’s certainly things that he’s gonna have to work on. There’s some things that he’s really probably never seen defensively, what some of the other teams are gonna do,” Caserio said. “He’s gonna have to learn our vernacular, our vocabulary of how we call plays. Our offense is probably a lot different than what he did with Coach Day at Ohio State. It doesn’t mean one’s better or one’s worse, it just means you’re essentially starting over.”
That said, Stroud won’t face the same expectations to win every game as an NFL rookie that he did at Ohio State. As a rebuilding team, Houston isn’t in position to compete for a championship right now. But they will want to see consistent development from Stroud over the course of the 2023 season to feel good about their decision to make him their new franchise quarterback.
Paris Johnson Jr.’s initial position still to be determined
The Arizona Cardinals didn’t draft Johnson with the No. 6 overall pick to sit on the bench, so there’s little doubt he’ll be an immediate starter on their offensive line. Whether that will be at his natural position of left tackle, however, is still to be determined.
Going into the NFL draft, tackle was actually the strongest position on the Cardinals’ offensive line with a pair of returning starters in left tackle D.J. Humphries and right tackle Kelvin Beachum. The interior offensive line has holes, so it’s possible Johnson could kick inside to guard – just as he did at Ohio State in 2021 before moving to left tackle in 2022 – for his rookie season.
Johnson wasn’t as good as a guard for the Buckeyes as he was this past season as a tackle, so the Cardinals will need to consider whether they’ll get the best value out of their first-round pick if they move him inside. Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort said no decisions have been made yet on where Johnson will line up, saying the objective will be to get the best five offensive linemen on the field and Johnson will practice at multiple spots leading up to the season.
One way or another, though, the Cardinals will be counting on Johnson to immediately make their offensive line better in both pass protection and run blocking. His experience playing both outside and inside and on both sides of the line helped cement his standing as the draft’s top offensive lineman, and it gives the Cardinals options for how to utilize their biggest draft investment this year.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba gives Seahawks elite trio of receivers
While Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave immediately became the No. 1 receivers for the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints after those teams drafted them with the 10th and 11th overall picks in last year’s NFL draft, No. 20 overall pick Smith-Njigba is less likely to become the immediate go-to guy for the Seattle Seahawks. DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett were both 1,000-yard receivers last season, putting less pressure on JSN to become an immediate star as he begins his career as the No. 3 receiver in Seattle.
Then again, Smith-Njigba was expected to be Ohio State’s third option behind Olave and Wilson in 2021 only to end the year as Ohio State’s single-season record holder for receptions and receiving touchdowns. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if Smith-Njigba makes a big impact right away and gives Geno Smith a starting trio of receivers that’s as good as any in the entire NFL.
Since Lockett plays some of his snaps in the slot, Smith-Njigba could be asked to line up outside more frequently in Seattle than he did at Ohio State. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Seahawks do expect Smith-Njigba to play primarily in the slot, saying “he really has a chance to be a big factor right there,” but Smith-Njigba expects to have no trouble lining up wherever his new team asks him to.
“I'm a receiver. Having that label on me of a slot guy, it's not who I am. I'm a receiver who can line up in all positions, and I think you'll see that,” Smith-Njigba said after being drafted. “If that's in the slot, that's OK. If that's outside, that's cool too. It don't matter, I just want to help the team win. If that's lining up in the backfield or doing anything I have to do, I'll do it.”
Zach Harrison could be role player on edge as rookie
After recording just 21 sacks as a team for the entire 2022 season, the Atlanta Falcons desperately need improved pass-rushing performance this year. Given that Zach Harrison was their highest draft pick on the edge, they’ll be hoping he can provide an immediate spark to their pass rush.
As a third-round draft choice, Harrison isn’t likely to be an immediate starter. Offseason free-agent signing Bud Dupree is likely to lead the Falcons’ rotation on the edge along with Lorenzo Carter and 2022 second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie. Considering none of them had more than four sacks last year, though, the door will be open for Harrison to make a quick move up the depth chart if he impresses in training camp and the preseason.
Where exactly Harrison will fit into the Falcons’ defense could depend on what new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen decides to do schematically. While the Falcons ran a 3-4 defense last season, they are expected to utilize more four-man fronts this year, which would be a more natural fit for Harrison coming from Ohio State. If the Falcons opt to stick with the 3-4 alignment, Harrison could line up as an outside linebacker and/or as a 5-technique defensive end.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith indicated Harrison would play mostly on the edge as a rookie as they’ll look not to put too much on his plate right away.
“He's a smart guy and eventually, as his game evolves, we can play him in both spots. Early on, on early downs, you can develop him off the edge,” Smith said after drafting Harrison. “As he gains experience, his game can expand … There's no pressure immediately for him, because of the way that room is constructed.”
Jones, Wypler will be backups on Browns offensive line
The Cleveland Browns already had one of the NFL’s best offensive lines entering the 2023 NFL draft, so unless injuries occur, they won’t be expecting fourth-round pick Dawand Jones or sixth-round pick Luke Wypler to start right away. Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin are locked in as the Browns’ starting offensive tackles while Ethan Pocic signed a three-year contract extension in March to remain Cleveland’s starting center.
How Jones and Wypler develop this year could determine whether they position themselves to remain in Cleveland for the long haul. Jones will compete with 2022 fourth-round pick James Hudson to be the Browns’ top backup tackle, while Wypler will battle with fourth-year lineman Nick Harris to be their backup center. Jones’ roster spot is likely safe as a fourth-round pick, but Wypler will need a strong preseason to ensure he makes the team after falling to the sixth round.
Undrafted Buckeyes have paths to earn roster spots
As of Monday night, four other members of Ohio State’s 2022 football team had signed contracts with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister both signed with the Cleveland Browns while Cam Brown signed with the Los Angeles Chargers and Jerron Cage signed with the New Orleans Saints.
Undrafted free agents usually face an uphill climb to making rosters, and none of this year’s undrafted Buckeyes are immune. But all four that have signed contracts look like they could have realistic paths to sticking with their teams if they shine in training camp and the preseason.
Hickman and McCalister could theoretically be competing with each other for one roster spot at safety after both of them signed with the same team. The Browns don’t have any proven depth at safety behind Juan Thornhill and Grant Delpit after releasing John Johnson III and opting not to re-sign Ronnie Harrison, so there is a real window of opportunity for one of the two Buckeye safeties to earn a backup job. How well they perform on special teams will likely be a factor in whether or not each of them makes the roster.
Brown also landed in a good spot, as some mock drafts had the Chargers drafting a cornerback in the early rounds yet they didn’t take any with their draft picks. The Chargers’ depth behind Asante Samuel Jr., Michael Davis and J.C. Jackson is suspect, and Jackson is coming off a season-ending injury, which could open up an extra roster spot at cornerback if Jackson starts the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Brown will have to beat out several other young cornerbacks to earn that spot, but he’s got a chance.
Defensive tackle was considered the Saints’ biggest need entering the draft, so Cage could have a shot to earn a roster spot as well. They drafted Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee with their first-round pick, while Khalen Saunders, Nathan Shepherd and Malcolm Roach should round out the two-deep, but Cage is currently one of only two other defensive tackles in New Orleans, giving him a chance to make the team if they choose to keep five DTs.