A year from now, the West Coast will dominate the NFL Draft. The Pac-12 will not.
Remember the infamous 2019-20 recruiting cycle, when a slew of five-star prospects from California and Arizona shunned the Pac-12 and signed with schools elsewhere?
Those players will be draft-eligible next spring, and the NFL is salivating.
Quarterbacks CJ Stroud (Ohio State) and Bryce Young (Alabama), cornerbacks Eli Ricks (Alabama) and Kelee Ringo (Georgia), tailback Bijan Robinson (Texas) — all five grew up in the Pac-12 footprint and are projected first-round selections in the 2023 draft.
Add the elite prospects from the class of ’19, including quarterback Spencer Rattler (South Carolina) and linebacker Henry To’o To’o (Alabama), and the footprint could generate six or eight first-rounders who didn’t play in the Pac-12.
What of the conference itself during the three-day draft in Kansas City?
A handful of players should receive first-round consideration. But as we scan rosters for the top talents and cross-match them with the positions of highest value (quarterbacks, offensive tackles and edge rushers, receivers and cornerbacks), the potential selections are slim, especially on offense.
The Pac-12 performed modestly in the ’22 draft, with four first-round picks but just 25 overall selections — its lowest total since expanding to 12 teams a decade ago.
Next year could be more of the same.
Welcome to one of the Hotline’s most popular exercises: Our projections of the top NFL talent in the Pac-12 for the upcoming season.
Futile as it might seem, the research helps illuminate positions of strength (and weakness) across the conference, which, in turn, provide a framework from which to assess the fast-approaching season.
Notes on the following:
*** Projections include underclassmen who will be draft-eligible next spring and are, in our view, likely to declare.
*** Not every player listed will declare for the draft, while some prospects who aren’t listed will assuredly leave school.
*** We aren’t ranking every draft prospect, only those we see as strong candidates for the high rounds.
(Curious about our projections for the ’22 draft, which were published last spring? Here they are.)
Also considered: DL Kyon Barrs (Arizona), LB Mohamoud Diabate (Utah), WR Stanley Berryhill (Arizona), TB Zach Charbonnet (UCLA), OL Braeden Daniels (Utah), LB Justin Flowe (Oregon), DE Korey Foreman (USC), OL Alex Forsyth (Oregon), DL Brett Johnson (Cal), TE Dalton Kincaid (Utah), TE Brant Kuithe (Utah), QB Cam Rising (Utah), LB Merlin Robertson (ASU), DE Ron Stone (WSU), TB Tavion Thomas (Utah), LB Edefuan Ulofoshio (Washington), OL Andrew Vorhees (USC) and CB Rejzohn Wright (Oregon State).
10. Arizona State DL Jermayne Lolo: This categorization comes with a significant caveat: Lole is currently in the transfer portal but has indicated a willingness to return to ASU given the right offer for name, image and likeness opportunities. At 300-plus pounds, and assuming good health, he would be one of the top linemen in the league.
9. Stanford CB Kyu Blue Kelly: The second-team all-conference pick has the size (6-foot-1), length and ball skills to be an early-round selection similar to former teammate Paulson Adebo, a third-round pick last spring who started for the Saints. But as with many cornerbacks, Kelly’s 40-yard dash time at the scouting combine will help shape his draft destination.
8. USC DT Tuli Tuipulotu: We envision ’22 as a breakout season for the third-year playmaker, who was one of the few bright spots for the Trojans’ overwhelmed defense last year. Not sure Tuipulotu has the initial burst needed to become a pure edge rusher in the NFL, but his size (290 pounds) and mobility make him a valuable option along the line. Has the potential to be a Day One selection.
7. Oregon DE Brandon Dorlus: Like Tuipulotu, the 280-pound Dorlus could land anywhere from the first round to the middle rounds, depending on performance in-season and in draft workouts. He won’t get as much attention as Oregon’s stellar linebackers, but the disruptive Dorlus will play a central role in their success by occupying multiple blockers. When he’s in one-on-one situations, the pocket collapses.
6. Utah DB Clark Phillips III: Our pick as the No. 1 cornerback in the conference — the other option is Stanford’s Kelly — Phillips has been as good as advertised since arriving in Salt Lake City as one of the top recruits in program history. He’s not quite 6-foot, but the speed, footwork and ball skills are readily apparent. Utah’s success churning out NFL-caliber defensive backs won’t hurt.
5. WSU QB Cameron Ward: Don’t be fooled by his background (two years at Incarnate Word). Ward has the arm and the legs required to become high-round selection, especially with the league’s acceptance of Air Raid quarterbacks. As one scout noted after watching film: “He made me say ‘Wow’ five times in about 20 minutes. He can work in an NFL system.”
4. Washington OL Jaxson Kirkland: The mammoth (6-foot-7) left tackle passed on the ’22 draft and returns for his final season in Seattle as one of the top offensive line prospects in the country. A two-time, first-team all-conference selection, Kirkland will receive first-round consideration if he avoids performance regression and serious injury. For Kirkland and the entire UW offense, it cannot get any worse than last season.
3. Stanford QB Tanner McKee: The best pure passer in the conference since Stanford’s Davis Mills in 2020, the 6-foot-6 McKee has the pocket skills necessary to become a Day One pick. He’s not as mobile as Mills, which could limit his NFL value and seemingly increases the chances of injury given Stanford’s likely reliance upon the passing game. But if he stays healthy and slings it as we expect, the scouts will rave.
2. Oregon LB Noah Sewell: We project Sewell as the best player in the conference next season (on either side of the ball), but that doesn’t mean he’s the top draft prospect. Inside linebackers simply don’t carry as much value as their perimeter peers. But Sewell is elite — as good in the middle of a defense as anyone in the country — and that makes him a first-round candidate.
1. Washington DE Zion Tupuola-Fetui: Admittedly, this selection requires two leaps of faith: 1) That Tupuola-Fetui’s rehabilitated Achilles tendon remains structurally sound, and 2) That his performance returns to pre-injury form. After all, ‘ZTF’ led the nation in sacks per game (1.75) in the shortened 2020 season, and perhaps no skill is more coveted on Day One of the draft than the ability to rush the passer. That said, it’s clear the Pac-12 currently does not possess an obvious top-15 selection — there’s no ’22 equivalent to Kayvon Thibodeaux or Drake London. At least not yet.
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