The practice of comparing draft prospects to professional players in any sport has value, though it’s far from an exact science. In football, there are times when you’re evaluating a prospect, and the similarities between a draft prospect and a current or former NFL player just pop right off the tape. From there, you can extrapolate (to a point) how the prospect might best fit in the league as the professional player has.
When you’re making those evaluations public, the value may be in helping a reader to understand more about the unseen prospect at a level with which the reader is more familiar. Comps may allow hardcore NFL fans who don’t watch a lot of college football to divine a prospect’s attributes and liabilities based on that comparison.
It’s also one more step in the evaluative process. When I’m deep in draft analysis, I want to take the tape, measurables, and advanced metrics, put them together, and see how well I can superimpose prospects over pros.
Now that we have the Touchdown Wire Top 50 Big Board up, let’s drill down to the NFL comparisons for our best players in the 2023 draft class, with graphics by the incomparable Coley Cleary.
Like Jones, who the Chiefs selected in the second round of the 2016 draft out of Mississippi State, Carter is a perfect distillation of the modern interior defensive lineman in that he can create pressure from any gap in multiple ways. Jones has further advanced his skills throughout his estimable career to become one of the best of his era, and given the right environment, Carter absolutely has that potential.
We’re talking about the Bradford who would light up NFL fields occasionally with good-not-great velocity, easy movement, and ridiculous ball placement, not the Bradford who unfortunately couldn’t stay healthy. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Rams out of Oklahoma, Bradford had a cool demeanor on the field, surprising mobility, ridiculous ball location, and an arm that was good enough to get everything done. In those cases, he was very much what Stroud is now.
Of course, we’re talking about Watson on the field ONLY, and Watson before his off-field stuff affected how things go on the field. When Watson was at his best in his first four seasons, he was running total NFL offenses to a very high degree, and his relatively slight stature (6-foot 2, 215 pounds) didn’t factor into it. It’s tough to remember that Deshaun Watson, but if you can, you can superimpose a lot of what that Deshaun Watson did on the field at a very high level.
Selected by the Dolphins in the second round of the 1997 draft out of Louisville, Madison transcended any concerns about his size (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) with great movement skills and the toughness to take any receiver right to the woodshed. Madison parlayed all that into four Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro nominations. Witherspoon seems to have the tools to possibly put up an equivalent NFL career, given the right home.
The Steelers selected J.J. Watt’s younger brother with the 30th pick in the 2017 draft because Watt had just one full season of production to project to the next level. But Watt has become an absolute terror on the outside because of his technical palette, gap-moving athleticism, quickness to the pocket, and speed/power conversions. It is not unreasonable to assume that Anderson will have a similar level of success.
The Raiders took Jacobs out of Alabama with the second of their three first-round picks in the 2019 draft. The other two picks, edge-rusher Clelin Ferell and safety Johnathan Abram, were unmitigated busts. But Jacobs became one of the best running backs in the NFL, especially in the 2022 season, when he forced a league-high 90 missed tackles, showed all kinds of second- and third-level speed, and showed that he could get things done as a receiver. Robinson is more evolved with a lot of Jacobs’ traits, but it’s a fairly even comp.
There’s a little Richard Sherman to Gonzalez’s game in that he defends every deep fade with a curiosity that any quarterback would try such a thing, but Gonzalez also has a smoothness to his game that’s just unusual for his size, and he doesn’t have Sherm’s obvious desire to physically embarrass his opponent. That puts me in mind of Rodgers-Cromartie, who at his best was just impossible for receivers to shake.
The Colts took Hilton in the third round of the 2012 draft out of Florida International, and though he had some work to do with the nuances of the position, the 5-foot-10, 183-pound Hilton could present nightmares to opposing defenses immediately with his explosiveness in all kinds of ways. Hilton was Andrew Luck’s best buddy before that whole thing fell apart, and I think Flowers has the same potential to make his NFL quarterback a very happy person.
The Giants selected Pierre-Paul out of USF with the 15th pick in the 2010 draft despite the fact that Pierre-Paul was quite raw, because his tools were off the charts. Sound familiar? Well, it took Pierre-Paul exactly one season to blow up in the NFL’s face, with a 17-sack, 72-pressure season in 2011 in which he was just about unblockable from anywhere in Big Blue’s fronts. I would not be at all surprised if Wilson was able to make the same jump.
The Rams stole Kupp in the third round of the 2017 draft out of Eastern Washington, and Kupp made it clear pretty quickly that he was going to define Sean McVay’s passing game, regardless of the quarterback, with his route precision, his awareness of defenders around him, and his ability to move away from them despite decent (but not amazing) straight-speed. The NFL team adding Smith-Njigba to its roster will benefit from all of this at a very high level.
Jarrett was one of the most important players in Clemson’s knockout 2014 defense, but size concerns (6-foot-0, 205 pounds) saw him drop all the way to the fifth round, where the Atlanta Falcons got him. That was a multi-mistake on the part of 31 other teams, because Jarrett became a rolling ball of butcher knives in Atlanta’s fronts for years, and I think Kancey will be the same wherever he goes. I’ve seen comps from Aaron Donald to Ed Oliver in Kancey’s case, but this one makes the most sense to me.
Selected in the third round of the 2001 draft out of Penn State by the Jets, the 6-foot-6, 330-pound McKenzie brought serious run-blocking attitude and eventually elevated technique to the right tackle position for the Jets and Giants through the 2011 season. Wright may not be your top choice if you’re into athletic, graceful blockers, but if you want a true earthdog who can announce his presence with authority, he’s the best offensive lineman in this class.
The Dolphins took Fitzpatrick out of Alabama with the 11th overall pick in the 2018 draft, and they played him similarly to the ways in which he was deployed at Alabama — all over the defense. When the Steelers traded for Fitzpatrick in 2019, they turned him into more of a pure free safety, and Fitzpatrick was able to make that transition. Branch has all the attributes to make that happen, though you probably don’t want to take too much away from his outstanding slot coverage. Nick Saban and his staff have had a knack for developing these multi-position stars, so it’s no surprise that Branch is the latest guy to shoot out of that pipeline.
The Panthers selected Horn with the eighth overall pick in the 2021 draft, and he’s become a lockdown cornerback regardless of coverage concept. While I like to go into the Wayback Machine for a lot of these NFL comps, I think that Porter and Horn have a lot of the same attributes in the sense that they can become scheme-transcendent defenders at the highest level when a lot of comparable players are stuck on one side of the man/zone debate.
Selected by the Browns in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Nevada, Bitonio was a college left tackle who excelled immediately and consistently at left guard. Bitonio brought a nasty streak, a great skill set for the interior, and the obvious desire to improve to the position, and he’s been a top 3 guard in the NFL for a long time. Jones could have the same future with such a conversion.
Selected in the third round of the 2004 draft by the Cardinals out of Florida State, Dockett was a more powerful man than Bresee at 6-foot-3 and 293 pounds, but the quickness to the backfield from multiple gaps tracks pretty well. And if Bresee can add to his technique palette when he hits the NFL, those similarities could play even more obviously.
The comps to Cam Newton are widespread and understandable, but Newton came out of college with a more refined sense of touch and differing velocities. Kaepernick, who presented an equivalent running threat in his prime as an NFL quarterback, was also a 95-MPH pitcher at one time, and just about everything was a fastball with Kaepernick when he had a football in his hand. But when Kaepernick had it going on, he destroyed defenses with his running ability, and those fastballs had a lot of opponents on edge more often than not.
Selected fourth overall by the Jets in the 2006 draft out of Virginia, Ferguson combined athletic ability with developed power to make three Pro Bowls in his 10-year career. Ferguson occasionally dealt with bouts of iffy protection, but overall, he availed himself well in the run and pass games. Johnson could rise to that level over time.
The Chiefs took Kelce out of Cincinnati in the third round of the 2013 draft, and after a rookie season in which he didn’t make an impact due to a knee injury, Kelce quickly became an epicenter of a Kansas City offense that has become exponentially more complex, explosive, and hard to stop in the last decade. Kincaid projects so well in many of the areas that have made Kelce a future Hall-of-Famer.
It’s the automatic comparison for every top-level tackle who kicks to guard at the next level, but in Skoronski’s case, it’s a good fit with his power, technical refinement, and playing demeanor. A tackle at Notre Dame, Martin was selected by the Cowboys with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 draft, and he’s racked up eight Pro Bowls and six All-Pro nods since. I do think that Skoronski will be better inside, but it’ll be an acceptable compromise if he maximizes his attributes there.
The Buccaneers took Dean in the third round of the 2019 draft out of Auburn, and were rewarded with a top-notch cornerback with a specific knack for pressing and matching receivers all over the field. Banks has a lot of attributes that make up his game, but any team involved in a lot of aggressive press coverage should find him especially intriguing.
The Cardinals selected the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Reddick out of Temple with the 13th pick in the 2017 draft, tried to make him an off-ball linebacker for whatever reason, and finally reaped the benefits of his skill set when they made him a true edge-rusher in 2020. With the Panthers in 2021, and especially with the Eagles in 2022, when he amassed 21 sacks and 87 total pressures, Reddick has been one of the most consistently productive outside rushers in the NFL in recent years. Hopefully, Smith’s NFL team will take the latter Reddick plan, and will just let him work his athletic magic where he’s best-suited.
The Seahawks took Lockett in the third round of the 2015 draft out of Kansas State, and he’s become one of the league’s most difficult receivers to consistently defend because he can beat you in so many different ways. Like Addison, the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Lockett isn’t going to win any strength battles, but you don’t buy a Ferrari to tow your boat. Put Addison on the field, and your NFL passing game immediately becomes more of a problem for every opponent.
The Packers took Gary with the 12th pick in the 2019 draft out of Michigan despite the fact that his pass-rush repertoire was pretty basic at the time (bull-rush and long-arm). They bet on his upside as a bigger guy who could do damage from multiple gaps, and that took hold in Gary’s second, third, and fourth seasons. Murphy presents a similar set of rewards for a patient NFL coaching staff ready to give him the tools he needs to take his basic speed/power profile to the proverbial next level.
I’ll compare Brown to another former Big 10 defender in Hooker, who the Titans selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft out of Iowa. Like Brown, Hooker is an under-tall safety who can play the deep third (and would do so more often were he not in the same secondary as Kevin Byard) and the slot, and uses intelligence and aggression to mask his liabilities.
The Browns selected Mack with the 21st overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Cal, and Mack took a play style with more root strength than you’d imagine for his size (6-foot-4, 311 pounds), impressive agility, and the technique and intelligence required to make seven Pro Bowls in his career. Furthermore, Mack was a Pro Bowler by his second NFL season. Schmitz wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he hit that same high bar.
Selected in the sixth round of the 2015 draft by the Ravens out of Georgia Tech, Waller overcame personal issues to become one of the NFL’s most explosive pass-catching tight ends. Musgrave doesn’t have Waller’s longer track speed (Waller ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at his scouting combine), but the 1.58-second 10-yard splits are identical, and from the deep play potential to the blocking issues to the occasionally maddening drops, Musgrave looks a lot like Waller to me.
Jackson came out of Cal and was selected by the Eagles with the 49th overall pick in the 2008 draft as Andy Reid’s vertical element in his West Coast-based passing game. Jackson had burner skills from his first minicamp, and over time, he developed an underrated ability to alter his routes and movements to further create issues for defenses. Hyatt has a lot of that same profile, and whichever speed receiver he most reminds you of, he is absolutely That Guy.
The fourth-round pick of the Packers in the 2013 draft is one of my automatic comps for any smaller offensive lineman who can transcend that and make it look easy at the NFL level, and Harrison will come off the bus to his first minicamp with that capacity. If he can stay within himself and make the most of his estimable athletic traits, he could very well be the best pass-blocker in this class.
The 49ers stole Greenlaw out of Arkansas in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, and while coverage has never been his thing, Greenlaw has become one half of the NFL’s best linebacker duo alongside Fred Warner. There are also elements of Tampa Bay’s Devin White in Simpson’s play style in his ability to disrupt the passer from everywhere, but Simpson has more potential in coverage.
It’s the obvious comparison, it’s the one everybody is using, and while I could try to be cute and go elsewhere, it just makes too much sense. Selected by the Saints in the third round of the 2017 draft, Kamara was the ideal lightning/satellite back in Sean Payton’s offense. Payton helped to force the advent of the base nickel defense by moving Reggie Bush from the backfield to the slot, Kamara was a furtherance of that paradigm, and in a lot of ways, Gibbs is the next step in the progression — or, at the very least, a very good copy of the original.
An undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State by way of East Mississippi Community College, Autry first got on with the Raiders in 2017, became a real force multiplier with the Colts in 2019 and 2020, and has continued that with the Titans over the last two seasons. Like White, Autry came from relatively humble athletic beginnings to maximize what he could bring to a team, and now, he does it as a hybrid-sized game-wrecker from all over the line.
Selected by the Patriots in the second round of the 2020 draft out of Lenoir-Rhyne, Dugger is a bigger (6-foot-2, 220) defender who excels everywhere from boxbacker to press slot defender to the deep third at times. Like Johnson, Dugger is at his best when he can set the tone against receivers as opposed to letting them get him out of phase with certain route concepts, and he’s become one of the most valuable cogs in New England’s defense. Johnson could be that kind of player with a few technique fixes, and maybe a couple of protein shakes.
Who is Derek Cox, you may ask? He was selected by the Jaguars in the third round of the 2009 draft out of William and Mary, and he had three different four-interception seasons in four years for Jacksonville, and he had his hands all over the ball, with 11 pass deflections in both 2009 and 2012. Cox stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 180 pounds, and he’s probably the best recent example of how a player with similar build and ball skills to Cam Smith can succeed in the NFL. Most cornerbacks who played at a high level at around 180 pounds did so well before our time, but Cox proved that it’s still possible in the modern era.
I’m not going to compare McDonald to Dwight Freeney, though there are similarities in the spin techniques and the ability to create turnovers. So, I’ll go with Quinn, selected with the 14th pick of the 2011 draft by the Rams. Quinn has parlayed a smooth, quick, athletic tool box to 106 sacks, 505 total pressures, and 26 forced fumbles in his NFL career so far. It’s hard to give an accurate comp for McDonald right now because he’ll be used so differently in the NFL (at the edge as opposed to inside the tackles in a bunch of three-man fronts), and to his great advantage. I can’t wait to see what he does at the next level.
It took Smith a long time to succeed at the NFL level for multiple reasons, but when he finally caught on all the way with the Seahawks, he combined athleticism, accuracy, velocity to the second and third levels, and leadership attributes to make himself into a franchise quarterback. Smith also had to adjust to the NFL from his college offense, and while that’s also the case for Hooker coming out of Josh Heupel’s Air Raid/veer system, Hooker has already shown enough to make his NFL graduation relatively seamless.
I feel that I could be wrong about Van Ness in the same way I was wrong about Karlaftis if Van Ness winds up in the right system for his talents, as Karlaftis did when the Chiefs took him with the 30th overall pick in the 2022 draft out of Purdue. At 6-foot-4 and 263 pounds, Karlaftis was more of a power guy with a few moves inside and outside as opposed to a flexible edge disruptor, and the Chiefs did the smart thing by moving him around the line and allowing him to feast in blitz packages. Van Ness might transcend his occasionally limited college tape with the same kinds of NFL benefits.
Selected with the first pick in the second round of the 2020 draft (the same draft that gave the Bengals Joe Burrow with the first overall pick), Higgins came into the league as a big (6-foot-4, 219 pound) receiver with all the traits, but gaps in consistency. Higgins has been incredibly productive in the NFL, especially over the last two seasons, and like Higgins, Johnston could be the same in any offense where he’s not the alpha dog, with the point of defensive focus on him every week. He could be part of a hellacious one-two punch, as Higgins is with Ja’Marr Chase, pretty quickly.
I could also go with Zach Ertz, though Ertz has been a bit more explosive throughout his career. Instead, let’s look at Witten, selected by the Cowboys in the third round of the 2003 draft out of Tennessee. Witten was nobody’s idea of a speed demon, and he wouldn’t necessarily fit the modern prototype of the detached big receiver masquerading positionally as a tight end, but he made 11 Pro Bowls and had two All-Pro nods because he was consistent, tough, and fearless on the field. He maximized his abilities, and I think Mayer will do the same in his own way with similar athletic limitations.
Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2010 draft out of Idaho, Iupati was a massive (6-foot-5, 331-pound) guard who won far more with power than speed and agility. There is still a place for those big earthmovers in today’s NFL (Iupati made four Pro Bowls and had one All-Pro nod) as long as they have enough athleticism to get past the obvious transitive issues with this kind of size and strength. Torrence has snaps in which this seems possible, but it might not happen overnight.
There aren’t a lot of linebackers who move as well as Campbell does at his height and weight, but Dansby was one. Selected in the second round of the 2004 draft by the Cardinals out of Auburn, Dansby proved able to do just about everything on the field at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds. Campbell has that kind of potential — once again, let’s have him not think and diagnose quite as much once he gets the hang of his NFL defense.
Like Wentz, who was selected with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft out of North Dakota State, Levis brings a compelling bag of attributes that look good on their face until you dig underneath. Wentz has played at an MVP level when he operated very specifically in a defined offense with the Eagles, and he’s been mystery meat ever since in a variety of systems. Quarterbacks like Wentz and Levis, whose athletic traits pop off the tape, are always attractive until it’s time to successfully operate outside of structure, and then you just never know what you’re going to get. Not a great thing for the game’s most important position.
Selected with the 24th overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Bengals out of South Carolina, Joseph played 14 years in the NFL for Cincinnati, the Texans, the Cardinals, and the Titans. Joseph at his peak was always an underrated cornerback who did a great job of taking his freaky combine numbers to the field. Similarly, Turner’s tape shows a lot more than just another fast guy running around the field with half a clue.
When Vea came out of Washington for the 2018 draft, he was selected 12th overall by the Buccaneers despite similar concerns regarding the consistency of his play. The collegiate version of Vea was a terror on one series, and all too average the next. But Vea has made the most of his tools at the next level, and if Ika can do the same, he could have the same kind of unique — and transformative — impact.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft by the Browns out of Miami, Benjamin was that same type of scooting receiver with the ability to beat defenders on all kinds of routes. At his peak with the Browns and Chargers, Benjamin could do those things both in the slot and outside. Not bad for a 5-foot-10, 175-pound receiver, and Downs could also be that sort of NFL weapon.
An undrafted free agent out of Mississippi, Hilton got on with the Steelers, and has been an impact cornerback for Pittsburgh and the Bengals throughout his six-year career. He’s not the most imposing guy at 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, but Hilton proves that you can succeed in the NFL without that stature if you’re a student of the game, and that transfers to the field in positive ways. Phillips profiles very much the same way.
The Texans took Barwin in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Cincinnati, and while Barwin always had a decent number of snaps in the box throughout his career with Houston, the Eagles, the Rams, and the Giants, he was primarily an edge guy — and a very good one at his peak, with three seasons of double-digit sacks. Sanders profiles pretty well in that same way.
Selected in the third round of the 2010 draft by the Broncos out of Minnesota, Decker became a high-volume receiver who was especially productive in Denver and for the Jets. Like Tillman (they ran the same 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine), Decker was not a land speed wizard, nor did he create separation with anything but his wits and play strength. But Decker showed that there’s still a place for a receiver like this in today’s NFL — and again, with quick-game and RPO concepts increasing in popularity, there might be more of a place now than in Decker’s heyday.
The 6-foot-8, 363-pound Brown was selected by the Ravens in the third round of the 2018 draft out of Oklahoma. Brown was able to succeed in Baltimore’s heavy gap scheme at right tackle, and he subbed in on the left side for Ronnie Stanley when Stanley was hurt. That led to his trade to the Chiefs, in which Brown became a starting left tackle at a size you wouldn’t normally expect. Brown, who signed a major deal this offseason to be the Bengals’ left tackle, will lose edge-rushers around the arc, but like Jones, he’s great in quick-game pass pro, and there’s enough size and technique to make things work.
An undrafted free agent out of Indiana, Ogunleye caught on with the Dolphins in 2001, had a couple of double-digit sack seasons with Miami and later Chicago, and was able to get to the quarterback at a high rate from multiple gaps when such things weren’t as common as they are today. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Ogunleye had “tweener” size for an edge defender, but he and his coaches turned that into versatile productivity, and I think Tuipulotu has similar traits.