I decided to try something new this season and start previewing what I view as our biggest draft needs in 2023. Going to focus mainly on the trenches, mostly because it's the position groups I know the best, and it's what I see as our biggest needs.
Predicting needs this early is always hard. Last year at this time I would have said DE was our biggest upcoming need in the 2022 draft, but then Gladney was cut before the season even started and we picked up ZDS in free agency. So DE wasn't even on the radar, and what should have been a solid unit was super thin.
That said, as of right now, I think IOL and IDL are the two biggest needs/concerns. I think we need better CB depth and we'll need to bring in some depth at LB if we decide to move on from Kendricks due to his contract being the easiest cap space.
On the OL, we're currently set to lose Bradbury (C), Jesse Davis (G), Austin Schlottmann (G/C), Blake Brandel (OT), Oli Udoh (RT), Kyle Hinton (G), and Timon Parris (OT) in free agency. Of those, it MIGHT be worth bringing back Davis (but he could be expendable if the coaches really like Ingram or if Wyatt Davis is even relevant as a backup). Bringing back Bradbury as depth on a vet minimum deal is a weak maybe, and Udoh or Brandel could potentially be a cheap backup swing tackle. I certainly don't think we can project Bradbury as a future starting option. No matter what, that's 7 bodies out of all 15 OL on our current roster. Nearly HALF of our OL needs to get turned over. Mostly depth guys and projects, but still definitely need replacing.
Currently we're hoping and praying that Cleveland continues to develop and maybe turns into above average to good guard and that Ingram is a solid guard and can replace Jesse Davis. Reed might challenge Bradbury for the starting center gig this year, and if Bradbury loses that battle I think it's basically a guarantee he's gone and we need a new center moving forward. And if Reed can't beat Bradbury, then we definitely need a center, because Bradbury is bad. If Cleveland doesn't continue to improve, we have to ask if we're willing to live with average as a starter, or if we need to look at potential replacements/ competition. Either way, I see OL being an early need AND a later round need. We need some high level talent AND we need more bodies.
Now, onto the handful of guys that I'm already looking at this year as frontrunners. It's an interesting OL class. After several drafts in a row full of elite tackles, this class seems fairly weak at tackle. There are a few very powerful guards that will go early, and it's actually a pretty solid center class, especially if we're looking for someone with a little more power. No "generational talents", but I wouldn't be surprised to see 3-4 working their way into round 2 conversations. No more undersized centers please.
4: Steve Avila, TCU. 6'5, 335 pounds.
Basically the anti-Bradbury, Avila is a thick, powerful center. He's not nearly as agile, but he's got underrated mobility in the phone booth with a decent ability to make reach blocks. Moved pretty well on some designed C pulls on runs. Rarely gets overpowered at the point of contact, and shows some solid power. When he hits people, they generally move. Active in pass protection helping out his guards. Was able to win a lot of 1v1 blocks with a DT or NT. Can climb to the second level decently, but struggles to get a good latch/grip onto linebackers and finish those blocks. Also shows some excellent and consistent snaps (which I only paid attention to after hearing about Reed struggling to snap the ball). Struggles a little with stunts/ blitzes unless they are right on him. I think if he dropped 10-15 pounds he could rocket up the list. He's got power in spades just needs to be a little quicker.
3: Ricky Stromberg, Arkansas. 6'4, 310 pounds.
Ricky comes from the most dominant conference in college - the SEC, which is the closest thing to NFL play. He's definitely more athletic/ nimble than Avila, but lacks the top end power. When he gets moving he can generate some decent push, but he needs to work on his balance in run blocking. Too often gets his upper body out past his legs and loses leverage. He's moving guys for sure, but a little more susceptible to getting pulled down in the dirt. He does show a solid anchor in pass protection with a good ability to sit down on his blocks and stall out a power rush.
2: John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota. 6'4 320 pounds.
Solid, gritty football player. Little tough to project how well his game translates to the pass-heavy NFL. Gophers run such a run-heavy offense with a decent number of tight OL alignments, almost like a goal line package. Needs to be better with his hand usage, but has good body positioning and has a little of that "nasty" OL mentality. He's putting shoulders into the ribcage if he's uncovered, finishing plays to the whistle, and putting guys in the dirt if he has the option. Good recovery - even on the rare times he gets pushed off the ball, he can reset his feet and recover. Active blocker, keeps his eyes on a swivel and does a really good job at picking up stunts/ blitzes. Could absolutely be my #1 center by the draft. Reminds me of Quinn Meinerz, but maybe not quite as quick.
1. Sedrick Van Pran, Georgia. 6'4, 310 pounds.
This pick is more than a little projection. This kid was a redshirt freshman last year and started 16 games for Georgia. Great first step at the snap, plays with great leverage, generates torque and can push a DT around, good movement to get out on linebackers. Solid, wide base with a good anchor. His main knock is that he doesn't finish plays like you would want to see. Not going to call it lazy, but he's not always pushing to the whistle. He's got the best balance of power, mobility, and intelligence, and absolutely has the physical tools to be an early round pick. That said, if I had to pick between Van Pran and JMS based on their tape from last year I'm probably taking JMS. I just think Van Pran is going to take that next step and cement himself as the #1 C.