Jim Nagy is a former NFL scout and the current director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl. He makes the case every year that the draft begins in Mobile, with the Senior Bowl as the kickoff to draft season.
However, in many ways the National Championship Game is the kickoff event to draft season. With the NFL season drawing to a close on Sunday, 18 teams now turn their focus and attention to the draft.
As do their fans.
If that sounds like you, then these are the players you want to watch tonight.
Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia
We begin with one of the best defensive prospects in all of college football. For the second year in a row, the Bulldogs have a stout defense with a force on the interior of their defensive line in Jalen Carter, an imposing defensive tackle with the strength and awareness to play in a two-gap role at the next level.
Carter has been limited at times with ankle and MCL injuries, but can still punish offenses in the run game and penetrate on the interior when the opposing quarterback drops back to pass. Just watch as he beats Ohio State’s center with a quick swim move, forcing C.J. Stroud to bail the pocket:
Jalen Carter WRECKS his guy 1 on 1, but how about C.J. Stroud making him miss and finding Julian Fleming! pic.twitter.com/yYrwz0rFMT— Jake Schyvinck (@JakeNFLDraft) January 1, 2023
Oh, and he also did this in the SEC Championship Game:
So, Jalen Carter lifted Jayden Daniels with one arm and threw up the No. 1 pic.twitter.com/qJm4UgGw7V— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 3, 2022
There is a solid chance that Carter is the first defensive player taken this spring.
Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU
Unlike recent years, when the wide receiver position was one of the strengths of each draft class, the WR group for the 2023 NFL Draft seems a bit thin. But Quentin Johnston from TCU has the potential to be the first receiver off the board this spring. Johnston fits the mold of a prototypical X receiver, with the size and ball skills to win in the vertical passing game.
However, do not sleep on what he can do underneath, as well as after the catch. He turned in one of the biggest plays of the game against Michigan by taking a shallow crossing route to the house:
Where he truly stands out is, as noted, in the downfield passing game. On this play against Kansas State Johnston provides a great example of getting open on the nine route, and stacking the cornerback at the catch point:
Didn’t take long for TCU’s Quentin Johnston to make a spectacular play. Does such a great job winning vertically and tracking this dime from Max Duggan.— Seven Rounds in Heaven (@7RoundsInHeaven) December 3, 2022
Plays like this are why Johnston is viewed as WR1 in the 2023 #NFLDraft. pic.twitter.com/QOA7yeMFVg
Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia
Perhaps the best individual matchup to watch tonight will come when the Horned Frogs have the football. Kelee Ringo squaring off with Johnston in man coverage situations is something we could see next fall on an NFL Sunday.
Ringo is big for a cornerback, listed at 6’2”, but he moves very well for a player of that size, with good change-of-direction skills. According to charting data from Pro Football Focus, he has forced 11 incompletions this season, and allowed just 53.3% of passes thrown in his direction to be caught.
When TCU has the football, there is a lot to watch, including Jalen Carter on the inside. But if and when we get the Johnston vs. Ringo matchups, make sure to pay attention.
Max Duggan, QB, TCU
Quarterbacks are always part of the draft discussion, and with this offseason having the potential to see a ton of QB movement, teams will be doing their work on every arm in the draft class.
Max Duggan’s rise from backup quarterback at the start of the year to Heisman Finalist is certainly of note, and if he caps off a magical season with a national championship, his rise up draft boards will certainly continue. If current mock drafts are any indication, Duggan played himself into the middle rounds during the fall, and is currently considered a late-round pick.
Still, Duggan checks the intangible boxes that NFL teams covet at the position, with his competitive toughness and leadership qualities standing out over the course of his entire college career. You just know that he will walk into a conference room at the Combine in Indianapolis and leave teams impressed.
If he adds a title to that tonight?
Stetson Bennett IV, QB, Georgia
Then there is the other quarterback in this game, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett. Like Duggan, Bennett faced some adversity over the course of his college career, and even stared down questions a year ago whether he should be under center for the Bulldogs in the playoffs.
Now? Bennett was also a Heisman Finalist, and is on the cusp of becoming the first quarterback in the College Football Playoff era to win back-to-back titles. He might not have the best arm in the college game. Other quarterbacks are certainly more athletic. He has the benefit of playing with a ton of talent around him, and with one of the best defenses in college football. He is on the older side of the prospect scale, as this is his sixth season of college football and he is 25 years old. Bennett is just ten months younger than Joe Burrow, who played in the Super Bowl a season ago.
Those are certainly a lot of questions. But if he walks into an interview room in Indianapolis wearing a pair of title rings, that is going to carry some weight with NFL teams. Probably not enough to see him come off the board until later on the third day of the draft, but something tells me he hears his name called.
Kendre Miller, RB, TCU
Kendre Miller is a question mark heading into the National Championship game, as he is dealing with a knee injury. But when he is on the field, Miller is a problem for opposing defenses. Miller is a physical ball-carrier who gives TCU yardage after contact, but he also has great vision and footwork for the position. On this run against Kansas State, you can see him put those traits to use:
Kendre Miller #33 RB out of TCU has speed and quickness, sometimes utilizing that to his detriment(I.E. bouncing when he doesn't need to). Here he does a nice job using the cutback lane and being a little more patient to set up his blocks. The uses that quickness to bounce pic.twitter.com/Y75S4I2hff— Daniel Harms (@InHarmsWay19) January 4, 2023
As NFL offenses adjust, and perhaps lean into the running game more, Miller might be entering the NFL at the exact right moment.
However, the passing game remains king, which leads us to ...
Kenny McIntosh, RB, Georgia
With the departure of both Zamir White and James Cook to the NFL, Kenny McIntosh took on a bigger role in the Bulldogs’ backfield this season. McIntosh led Georgia in rushing attempts (141), rushing yards (77) and rushing touchdowns (10).
However, what could play a role on Monday night — and an even bigger role at the next level — is what McIntosh did out of the backfield as a receiver. He was third on Georgia with 42 receptions, gaining 506 yards and scoring twice as a receiver. Those numbers gave him 1,285 yards from scrimmage, most on the Bulldogs and fifth in the SEC.
Plays like this make him worth watching tonight:
Kenny McIntosh, RB, #6— Rapinas do Mar (Cortes) (@cortesrapinas) January 6, 2023
One handed catch. pic.twitter.com/6uSZFMeDcp
McIntosh runs right by the linebacker in coverage, getting open on the vertical route and then making a great adjustment to the throw from Bennett. The NFL is about matchups, and McIntosh could be the next matchup weapon out of the backfield for an NFL offense.
Chris Smith, S, Georgia
Safety Chris Smith is one of the most versatile defenders on the vaunted Georgia defense with the ability to line up in a number of spots, including on the back end, in the slot, and as a box defender. Since carving out a prominent role for the Bulldogs in 2020, the former four-star recruit as shown great instincts and a high football IQ with six interceptions and 10 pass breakups over the past two seasons.
At 5’11 and 190 pounds, he’s not the most physically-gifted player for Georgia but his willingness to mix it up in the run game and sniff out ball carriers will cause some scouts to overlook any physical shortcomings for a guy who can fill a number of roles on an NFL defense.
In the pair of clips below, you can see Smith running the alley against two outside runs from Vanderbilt and Oregon. Smith wastes little time reading and reacting to the play before perfectly executing the inside-out pursuit angle into the inside hip of the running backs. Those are textbook tracking skills that any number of professional teams would be happy to add to their unit.
Georgia safety Chris Smith running the alley pic.twitter.com/J4BSyVkB1c— Kendell Hollowell (@KHollowell_) December 28, 2022
Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, CB, TCU
TCU cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson might not have ideal size and length for the NFL, but what he lacks in that department he more than makes up for with his play. Hodges-Tomlinson is a tough defender at the catch point, with 18 forced incompletions on the season according to charting data from Pro Football Focus. He was credited with 14 passes defended this season, which was the most in the Big 12, and ninth in the nation.
He also has great awareness for the position. Take this play against Oklahoma, where he peels off his initial responsibility to rally downhill and make a tackle in space:
This is, and will always be, a Tre'vius Hodges-Tomlinson fan account. pic.twitter.com/Pck2NQMCTZ— Cory (@realcorykinnan) October 29, 2021
Due to his size, Hodges-Tomlinson likely finds a role inside at the next level, as a slot cornerback. But his instincts and ball skills give him the potential to be a very good defender in the NFL.
Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia
There is already a lot of buzz about Georgia tight end Blake Bowers, and his NFL future.
But Bowers is not eligible until next season.
Darnell Washington, however, could decide to enter the 2023 NFL Draft. If he does, NFL scouts might have a hard time passing on a player with his combination of size, speed, and physicality. Washington is listed at 6’7”, which makes him a potential red zone nightmare at the next level. In Georgia’s run-heavy offense, Washington has displayed the ability to be a force as an in-line blocker in the NFL.
These two plays against Oregon from earlier in the season highlight just what he brings to the table. First you can see him in space as a lead blocker, and then you can see him after the catch shrugging off one defender, and hurdling another, for a big gain:
Georgia TE Darnell Washington is hilarious… on one play he looks like a pulling guard pancaking defenders in space and on the next he’s creating YAC and hurdling defenders.— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) January 7, 2023
Special blocker and athlete at TE in the 2023 NFL Draft. Hope he plays in the natty. pic.twitter.com/mfY7r3fybd
You just know an NFL team — or multiple teams — are going to love the potential.
Broderick Jones, OT, Georgia
Only a redshirt sophomore, it is not a lock that Broderick Jones decides to declare for the 2023 NFL Draft. If he does, however, a team will get a potential starting left tackle when they turn in a card with his name on it.
This was Jones’s first season as a full-time contributor for the Bulldogs, and he handled the left side of Georgia’s offensive line well. He has the size and athleticism that teams look for at the position, but there is some work to do from a technique standpoint. These three plays against Ohio State highlight his athleticism, as well as his potential:
#UGA LT Broderick Jones is still trying to find consistency snap to snap, but the natural tools and athleticism to win reps was fun to watch against Ohio State.— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) January 9, 2023
1st play, outstanding recovery. 2nd, blocking 2 dudes in space. 3rd, replacing hands inside after wide initial punch. pic.twitter.com/PGs0GjgdCC
Teams have been willing to draft linemen in the first round who need refinement, as just last season the Dallas Cowboys drafted Tyler Smith in the first round, another athletic but raw prospect at the position. Jones’s athleticism, frame, and potential might be too much for a team to pass up.
Provided, of course, that he declares.