2023 NFL Mock Draft Roundup: C.J. Stroud Now the Consensus No. 1 Overall Pick While Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Dawand Jones Move Up After Combine

By Dan Hope and Matt Gutridge on March 14, 2023 at 10:10 am
C.J. Stroud

The 2023 NFL draft changed in a big way on Friday, and it appears to have changed in a good way for C.J. Stroud.

The Carolina Panthers acquired the No. 1 overall pick in a trade up with the Chicago Bears, and the consensus belief is that the Panthers will use that pick to draft the former Ohio State quarterback. Stroud is now the betting favorite to be the first player drafted, and longtime Panthers beat reporter Joseph Person reported shortly after the trade that “the sense around the league” is they traded up for Stroud.

That belief is reflected by the many mock drafts that have been released over the past four days since that draft-altering deal. Among 22 mock drafts we compiled that have been published or updated by media outlets that cover the NFL draft since Friday night’s trade, 15 of them have Stroud going with the No. 1 overall pick – which would make him the fourth No. 1 overall pick in Ohio State history along with Tom Cousineau, Dan Wilkinson and Orlando Pace.

The trade could also potentially lead to one of Ohio State’s other top prospects joining Justin Fields in Chicago, as Paris Johnson Jr. and Jaxon Smith-Njigba – both of whom are on the rise after strong showings at the NFL Scouting Combine – have each been paired with the Bears in multiple mock drafts since the trade.

The full list of mock drafts, including a trio of three-round mocks and two seven-round mocks, included in our latest mock draft roundup:

QB C.J. Stroud

No. 1, Carolina Panthers: 15 (Bell, Brown, Draft Tek, Easterling, Edwards, Farrar, Fowler, Iyer, Mellor, Menendez, Middlehurst-Schwartz, SB Nation, Schrock, Standig, 33rd Team)
No. 2, Houston Texans: 5 (Johannes, McShay, Stackpole, Tankathon, Wilson)
No. 4, Indianapolis Colts: 2 (Kelly, Trapasso)

Just about everyone agrees that Stroud and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young will be the first two players selected in this year’s draft, with most analysts believing the Panthers are targeting Stroud. Only five of the 22 mock drafts we surveyed have the Panthers drafting Young, and all five of those mock drafts have the Texans taking Stroud with the second pick.

There has been some chatter that the Panthers are also interested in Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, who occupies the top spot in the other two mock drafts. Both of those mock drafts have Young going second to the Texans and Stroud landing with the Colts’ No. 4 overall pick, which is now seen as his draft floor after the Panthers’ trade up and his excellent combine throwing session.

OT Paris Johnson Jr.

No. 3, Arizona Cardinals: 1 (Menendez)
No. 9, Chicago Bears: 5 (Draft Tek, Farrar, Mellor, Middlehurst-Schwartz, Tankathon)
No. 11, Tennessee Titans: 10 (Bell, Easterling, Fowler, Iyer, Johannes, McShay, Schrock, Stackpole, Standig, Wilson)
No. 13, New York Jets: 4 (Brown, SB Nation, Trapasso, 33rd Team)
No. 14, New England Patriots: 1 (Edwards)
No. 16, Washington Commanders: 1 (Kelly)

Could Ohio State have two of the top three picks in this year’s NFL draft? That’s how Brad Menendez sees it in the latest mock draft at Draft Countdown, which has the Cardinals taking Johnson as the first non-quarterback off the board following Stroud and Young.

The overall consensus among mock drafters, though, is that Johnson wll be selected in the second quadrant of the first round. Much like in our February mock draft roundup, the Titans remain the most popular projected landing spot for Johnson in the most recent wave of mocks – though that could change after the Titans agreed to a deal with former Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Andre Dillard on Monday.

Johnson is also viewed as one of the top candidates to be selected by the Bears with the No. 9 overall pick they acquired in their trade down with the Panthers. Offensive tackle remains one of the Bears’ biggest positions of need, and Johnson told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine that “it would be an honor” to reunite with Fields, who he played with at Ohio State for one year in 2020.

Only two of the 22 mock drafts have Johnson falling further than the No. 13 overall pick, as the Jets are another team that could be in the market for a first-round offensive tackle. None of the mock drafts we found have Johnson falling out of the first half of the first round.

WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba

No. 9, Chicago Bears: 2 (Schrock, Trapasso)
No. 11, Tennessee Titans: 1 (Mellor)
No. 12, Houston Texans: 4 (Draft Tek, Middlehurst-Schwartz, Stackpole, Tankathon)
No. 14, New England Patriots: 3 (Fowler, Johannes, Standig)
No. 17, Pittsburgh Steelers: 1 (Farrar)
No. 19, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 1 (Menendez)
No. 20, Seattle Seahawks: 4 (Bell, Edwards, Iyer, Kelly)
No. 21, Los Angeles Chargers: 2 (Easterling, Wilson)
No. 22, Baltimore Ravens: 2 (Brown, McShay)
No. 27, Buffalo Bills: 1 (SB Nation)
No. 31, Kansas City Chiefs: 1 (33rd Team)

While most of the mock drafts in our February roundup had Smith-Njigba falling into the twenties, that’s changed after he proved his health at the NFL Scouting Combine. 16 of the 22 mock drafts in this roundup have Smith-Njigba going within the top 20 picks, while none of them have him falling out of the first round.

The highest projections for Smith-Njigba have him reuniting with Fields in Chicago, which both of them have said publicly they’d love to see happen. Four mock drafts have the Texans drafting Smith-Njigba at the No. 12 overall pick, a move that would be particularly logical if they land Stroud with the No. 2 pick. Other popular projected destinations for JSN include the Patriots, whose offenses have frequently been built around shifty slot receivers like Smith-Njigba, and the Seahawks, who could pair him with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett to give recently re-signed quarterback Geno Smith another playmaking weapon.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Jaxon Smith-Njigba made his case for being the draft’s top wide receiver with a strong showing at the NFL Scouting Combine.

OT Dawand Jones

No. 11, Tennessee Titans: 1 (33rd Team)
No. 16, Washington Commanders: 1 (Fowler)
No. 17, Pittsburgh Steelers: 1 (Kelly)
No. 24, Jacksonville Jaguars: 2 (SB Nation, Wilson)
No. 28, Cincinnati Bengals: 1 (Johannes)
No. 31, Kansas City Chiefs: 2 (Menendez, Tankathon)
Round 2, No. 33, Pittsburgh Steelers: 1 (Brown)
Round 2, No. 35, Indianapolis Colts: 1 (Easterling)
Round 2, No. 38, Las Vegas Raiders: 1 (Mellor)
Round 2, No. 41, Tennessee Titans: 1 (Draft Tek)

Jones’ draft projections are also on the rise after the NFL Scouting Combine. While he was only in the first round of six of the 27 mock drafts in our February roundup, he’s projected as a first-round pick in eight of 22 mock drafts this time around, while none of the mock drafts that include more than one round have him falling further than the first 10 picks of Round 2.

Given that the majority of Jones’ draft projections have him going within the final eight picks of Round 1 or the first 10 picks of Round 2, he appears to be right on the bubble of giving Ohio State four first-round picks in 2023. Potential candidates to draft him late in the first round include the Jaguars, who lost starting right tackle Jawaan Taylor to the Chiefs on Monday; the Bengals, whose offensive line has been their biggest weakness for the last two years; and the Chiefs, who are still in need of a right tackle even after signing Taylor to play left tackle.

DE Zach Harrison

Round 2, No. 53, Chicago Bears: 1 (Draft Tek)
Round 2, No. 63, Philadelphia Eagles: 1 (Brown)
Round 3, No. 86, Baltimore Ravens: 1 (Tankathon)
Round 3, No. 92, Cincinnati Bengals: 1 (Mellor)
Round 3, No. 98, Cleveland Browns: 1 (Easterling)

While Harrison entered the combine as a candidate to make a first-round push with an impressive on-field workout, his projections remain between the second and third round after he was unable to do any on-field drills in Indianapolis due to a hamstring injury. A strong showing at Ohio State’s pro day next week if he is fully recovered could give his draft stock a boost, but for now, he appears likely to be selected on Day 2 of the draft.

Like Harrison and Smith-Njigba, Harrison’s draft projections include a potential reunion with Fields in Chicago. Other draft projections have Harrison staying in the state of Ohio and going to either the Bengals or Browns if he falls into the late third round.

C Luke Wypler

Round 3, No. 65, Houston Texans: 1 (Mellor)
Round 3, No. 71, New Orleans Saints: 1 (Tankathon)
Round 3, No. 74, New York Jets: 1 (Draft Tek)
Round 3, No. 83, Seattle Seahawks: 1 (Easterling)
Round 3, No. 97, Arizona Cardinals: 1 (Brown)

Although Wypler was a top performer among centers at the combine, he’s still unanimously projected as a third-round pick just as he was a month ago. All five mock drafts in this roundup that included at least three rounds have Wypler going somewhere in the third rounds, with his projections ranging from the Texans taking him with the second pick of Round 3 to the Cardinals taking him with the first of this year’s compensatory draft picks.

S Ronnie Hickman

Round 4, No. 128, New York Giants: 1 (Mellor)
Round 6, No. 209, New York Giants: 1 (Draft Tek)

The surest bet to be a Day 3 pick among Ohio State’s draft prospects this year, Hickman was not included in any of the mocks in this roundup that feature three rounds or fewer, but is projected to go to the same team – the Giants – in both seven-round mock drafts.

The Giants are expected to look for safety depth in the draft – especially if they lose current starter Julian Love in free agency – and would add a player with local roots by drafting Hickman, who grew up just minutes away from MetLife Stadium in South Orange, New Jersey.

K Noah Ruggles

Round 6, No. 188, Houston Texans: 1 (Mellor)

Ruggles didn’t appear in any mock drafts in our last roundup, but lands in the sixth round of Cam Mellor’s seven-round mock for Pro Football Network. While his limited leg strength on kickoffs decreases his likelihood of being drafted, his 90.2% field goal conversion rate in two years at Ohio State could garner consideration as a potential late-round choice for a team looking for an upgrade in that area.

DT Taron Vincent

Round 6, No. 214, Las Vegas Raiders: 1 (Draft Tek)

As was the case in our last roundup, Draft Tek still has the Raiders using a late-round pick to select Vincent, who could give them some needed depth on their interior defensive line after they traded fellow former Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins to the Dallas Cowboys last season. Like Ruggles, Vincent was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but could still warrant consideration as a potential late-round draft choice, especially if he has a strong showing at Ohio State’s pro day.

Other Ohio State Draft Hopefuls

Despite being invited to the combine, former Ohio State cornerback Cameron Brown does not show up in any mock drafts in this roundup, underscoring the need for Brown to perform well at next week’s pro day after he opted not to work out in Indianapolis.

Other Ohio State draft hopefuls who are pursuing NFL careers but were not included in any of these mock drafts include safety Tanner McCalister, defensive tackle Jerron Cage, fullback/tight end Mitch Rossi and long snapper Bradley Robinson.

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