By Jon Wilner
Welcome to the Hotline’s assessment of the top Pac-12 prospects for next year’s NFL Draft, an annual exercise in semi-futility that nonetheless helps frame the 2023 season.
The two positions stocked with high-end talent are destined to collide on a down-by-down basis.
As most fans are undoubtedly aware, the Pac-12 is loaded with elite quarterbacks. (No other conference comes close.)
But the conference also is brimming with top-tier edge rushers to a degree not seen on the West Coast in years.
The broad narrative for 2023 — whether the touted quarterbacks dominate, as expected, or are held in check — depends partly on the outcome of that essential conflict.
Because the collection of offensive tackles is, well, not very strong.
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.
*** Only the draft prospects viewed (by the Hotline) as candidates for the high rounds are ranked below.
Also considered: Arizona WR Jacob Cowing, Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders, Oregon DE Jordan Burch and TB Bucky Irving, Oregon State OL Joshua Gray and QB DJ Uiagalelei, Stanford TE Benjamin Yurosek, UCLA DEs Gabriel and Grayson Murphy, USC DE Korey Foreman, OL Jonah Monheim and WR Dorian Singer, Utah TE Brant Kuithe, LB Karene Reid and QB Cam Rising, Washington OL Troy Fautanu, WR Jalen McMillan and LB Edefuan Ulofoshio, WSU EDGEs Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr.
1. USC QB Caleb Williams
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the top quarterback prospect in the country, largely because of his next-level ability to manufacture plays outside the pocket. Barring an on-field regression, Williams’ draft position will depend on the needs of the teams picking in the top three. The last time a Pac-12 player went No. 1 overall: Jared Goff in 2016. The last time a USC player went No. 1 overall: Carson Palmer in 2003.
2. Washington QB Michael Penix
No quarterback eligible for the 2024 draft delivers the ball with more zip from the pocket. But Penix was injured enough times at Indiana to potentially cause concern for teams at the top of the draft. (The greatest predictor of injuries is injuries.) That said, Penix could very well emerge as a top-10 pick if he navigates the 2023 season unscathed. So the pressure is on UW’s offensive line (again).
3. UCLA EDGE Laiatu Latu
Latu’s career began at Washington, then went off script when he retired from football due to a neck injury. A year later, he resurfaced at UCLA and recorded 12.5 tackles-for-loss in the 2022 season. But his emergence as a prime candidate for the first round isn’t surprising. Latu was a four-star recruit and one of the nation’s top EDGE prospects in 2019 when he collected scholarship offers from Alabama and Georgia.
4. Oregon WR Troy Franklin
The former blue-chip recruit had a breakout season in 2022 (61 catches) and possesses the combination of size (6-foot-3) and speed required for first-round consideration. Receivers have gained significant draft value in the pass-happy NFL. If Franklin shows he can beat top-tier man coverage on a consistent basis, Day One awaits.
5. Washington EDGE Zion Tupulola-Fetui
Admittedly, this projection could look foolish come April 2024. Tupuola-Fetui has the physical skills needed to become a Day One selection and, in fact, was an elite EDGE before tearing his Achilles in the spring of 2021. Or he could muddle through the season and fall into the middle rounds. Is he all the way back, or only part of the way back?
6. Utah S Cole Bishop
Bishop was good enough to start for the Utes as a true freshman and enters 2023 as one of the top defensive playmakers in the conference, a punishing safety who spent two years playing wingman to star cornerback Clark Phillips III. His draft position likely will hinge on the 40-yard dash next spring, but we view Bishop as a potential first-round selection.
7. Washington WR Rome Odunze
The junior was draft-eligible this spring and might have been a Day Two pick but opted to return for another year with Penix and UW’s high-powered passing game. He has plenty of size and speed, and his hands seemingly turned more secure with the arrival of the new coaching staff. If Franklin isn’t the first Pac-12 receiver off the board, Odunze will be.
8. Oregon QB Bo Nix
We spent considerable time pondering Nix’s draft value and guessing along with NFL scouts. He doesn’t have a rocket arm; he isn’t exceedingly big or fast; he’s solid outside the pocket but not elite; and he was erratic for three years at Auburn. In other words: Nix needs a second season of high-level efficiency to convince teams he’s worth a Day Two pick. We think he’ll clear that bar.
9. USC S Calen Bullock
The third-year junior enters 2023 as one of the top ball-hawkers in the country — last season, he had five interceptions and five pass breakups — and a candidate for Day Two, especially if his tackling improves. As some might recall, Bullock was run over by Utah tight end Thomas Yassmin in the conference championship game.
10. Washington EDGE Bralen Trice
We rate Tupuola-Fetui as a better pro prospect than Trice, but it’s close and depends, in part, on the former’s Achilles remaining intact. Trice has one season (2022) as a full-time starter but made it count with nine sacks. His NFL combine numbers in the speed and agility drills will frame the final outlook: For EDGE rushers, it’s all about that initial burst.
11. Arizona OL Jordan Morgan
The former three-star recruit has shown plenty of NFL ability, save in one respect: availability. He missed time in 2020 and 2021 due to injury, then tore knee ligaments late last fall, derailing his plans to enter the 2023 draft. If healthy for 12 games, Morgan should be the first Arizona offensive lineman drafted in more than a decade.
12. Oregon DL Brandon Dorlus
The Hotline might be more optimistic about Dorlus’ draft prospects than others, but we see loads of raw talent at a coveted position. As with every player on his list, draft value is based on a combination of production, potential, team needs and the depth of available talent at the position. At this point in the process, Dorlus stands as one of the top six or seven defensive linemen available.
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*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.