Seven Biggest Steals of the 2023 NFL Draft
I was reading a story by Rob Lorge over at our sister site, 4for4, this morning. Rob listed his seven biggest steals of the NFL Draft, which got me thinking. I’ve ranked my favorite pick for each team, my favorite day three selection for each team, and my five favorite draft classes this week. Today, I will take a page from Rob’s book and perform the same exercise of listing my seven biggest steals of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Brian Branch, DB — Detroit Lions
I know that some are down on the Lions draft class. I’m not. I like that the Lions got their guys, regardless of the consensus line of thinking. While some argue that running back Jahmyr Gibbs and linebacker Jack Campbell were reaches in round one, their trade-up for Brian Branch in round two was an absolute steal.
According to The Athletic, the Branch pick was the biggest steal of the draft, with 53 points (Points: Difference in draft slot and big board ranking weighted by draft round) in their formula. I had Branch mocked to the Buccaneers at No. 19 in our final NFL Mock Draft.
Brian Branch was a three-year contributor and two-year starter for the Crimson Tide, tallying 172 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, four picks, and 23 pass deflections in his career. Branch earned AP second-team All-American honors after collecting 90 tackles, 14 TFLs, three sacks, seven passes defended, and two picks.
Branch is a do-it-all defender with instincts in coverage and speed as a blitzer. The Ringer compared Branch to Texans safety Jalen Pitre, and that’s a great comp. It’s also great news for the team that drafted him because he’s got the profile to be a day-one starter.
Nolan Smith, EDGE — Philadelphia Eagles
Nolan Smith was one of my favorite players in the pre-draft process. Getting him at the first round’s tail end is great value for Philadelphia. Howie Roseman rolled the dice with Jalen Carter at No. 9, but landing his Bulldogs teammate at No. 30 gives them an explosive pass rusher and a fifth-year option for each of their new Georgia defensive lineman.
The value in the Nolan Smith pick was tremendous, and he fits what the Eagles look for in a pass rusher. Learning on the job from Hasaon Reddick and Brandon Graham will also be a significant advantage for Smith. After paying Jalen Hurts a couple of weeks ago, landing a solid draft class full of young and cost-controlled players was crucial.
The Athletic gave the Eagles pick of Smith 50 points and ranked it the second biggest steal of the NFL Draft.
Roschon Johnson, RB — Chicago Bears
The Bears killed this draft. They’re included in my top five draft classes. I’ve included defensive tackle Zacch Pickens and wide receiver Tyler Scott in my favorite picks and day three gems stories this week. But I would be remiss if I didn’t give some love to running back Roschon Johnson.
The worst thing I’ve seen said about Johnson over the last week is that he might be David Montgomery 2.0. If that is the case, I think Bears fans would be thrilled. Many wanted Ryan Poles to re-sign Montgomery this offseason. So, if they end up with the same back at a lesser cost and four years of control, that’s a massive victory. Especially when it only cost the Bears a mid-round pick.
However, that’s an undersell on Johnson. Even though he played behind Bijan Robinson at Texas, his 4.28 yards after contact per attempt were second in the nation. While he doesn’t have much burst speed, he’s a big strong runner who has improved as a receiver year-over-year and shines in the pass-blocking game, which will have him as Chicago’s lead back before the season is over.
Michael Mayer, TE — Las Vegas Raiders
Michael Mayer is my TE1 of this draft class. I’ve said it before — Dalton Kincaid looks like the superior pass-catching, vertical threat. However, Mayer is the total package. Mayer is a more well-rounded three-down tight end who can dominate the middle of the field and is a far better blocker than Kincaid.
The Raiders got a steal at No. 35. The Raiders landed the best tight end in the 2023 NFL Draft for my money and they replaced Darren Waller, whom they traded to the New York Giants last month, with a second-round pick.
4for4’s Rob Lorge also had Mayer on his list of biggest draft steals:
“While he’s taken a bit of a hit during the predraft process for not being the same level of athlete as Dalton Kincaid, Luke Musgrave, and Darnell Washington, he showed an ability to make plays after the catch in college. In 2022, he averaged a broken or missed tackle on 21% of his receptions. This ranked sixth among tight ends according to SIS and was even ahead of Washington. “
Jalin Hyatt, WR — New York Giants
Jalin Hyatt might be the biggest steal of the bunch. It’s incredibly easy to forget that he won the Bilentnikoff Award this past season for being the best collegiate receiver when you look at his third-round selection by the Giants.
Either way, the Giants got one of the biggest draft steals in Hyatt at No. 73. Joe Schoen and the Giants added a receiver that racked up 1,267 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and torched the Crimson Tide to the tune of 207 yards and five touchdowns.
The Giants were receiver-needy, and that got a darn good one in Hyatt and did so in the middle-rounds. That’s a huge steal and tremendous value.
Darnell Washington, TE — Pittsburgh Steelers
Darnell Washington was Dane Brugler’s TE4 and his No. 39 prospect on his final Top 100 a couple of weeks ago. So, Pittsburgh landing Washington at No. 93 was a massive win for the Steelers.
Darnell Washington was just one of six picks that the Steelers made (out of seven total) that were ranked inside Brugler’s Top 100. Washington might be the most efficient pick of the most efficient draft class of the year in Pittsburgh. Heck, The Ringer had Washington ranked as their fourth-best pass-catching prospect, period. That includes tight end and wide receivers.
Christian Gonzalez, CB — New England Patriots
Not only did Bill Belichick add one of the best cornerbacks in the draft, he stuck it to the Jets at the same time and added additional draft capital in the process! The hoodie genius is at work once again.
But seriously, Christian Gonzalez is s stud, and he was a sure-fire top-ten pick until the top-10 lost its mind last Thursday. The Seahawks (and I) preferred Devon Witherspoon by the slightest of margins. Still, many had Gonzalez as their CB1 in a draft class loaded with cornerback talent.
Snagging Gonzalez at No. 17 and extracting future draft assets while costing your divisional rival the offensive tackle they coveted was pure genius, and one of the most biggest draft steals of the year.
You can check out Rob’s complete list of the seven biggest draft steals in the 2023 NFL Draft over at 4for4!