The NFL Network released its top 100 players of 2023 over the last couple weeks. Rivals national recruiting director Adam Gorney looks back at them as recruits, moving to the middle of the group from Nos. 21-40 as there were hits and misses along the way.
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21. Austin Ekeler
The Eaton, Colo., prospect is not in the Rivals database as he played his college ball at Western State and then was picked up by the Los Angeles Chargers as an undrafted free agent. Playing his entire career with the Chargers, Ekeler is now one of the best all-purpose backs in the league with 7,175 total yards and 63 touchdowns.
22. A.J. Brown
A high four-star receiver from Starkville who was rated third in the Mississippi state rankings in a group led by Jeffery Simmons and ninth at receiver in the 2016 class, Brown picked Ole Miss over Mississippi State, Alabama, Cal and others. In 36 games in Oxford, Brown caught 189 passes for 2,984 yards and 19 touchdowns before being a second-round draft pick. First with the Tennessee Titans and now the Philadelphia Eagles, Brown has 4,491 yards and 37 TDs.
23. Sauce Gardner
A low three-star out of Detroit (Mich.) Martin Luther King, Gardner committed to Cincinnati over only a handful of Power Five offers. Gardner had three interceptions in each of his three seasons with the Bearcats and was then the fourth overall pick in the 2022 draft behind only Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson and Derek Stingley, Jr.
24. Roquan Smith
There was some discussion about making the Montezuma (Ga.) Macon County linebacker a five-star but we were wrongly concerned about his height as he came in just over 6-feet tall. Rated No. 77 overall and sixth at outside linebacker, Smith committed to UCLA on signing day but didn’t send in his paperwork as then-DC Jeff Ulbrich was leaving for the NFL. Days later, Smith flipped to Georgia. He ended up as the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft – and the first linebacker. He has 693 tackles and 18.5 sacks so far.
25. Derrick Henry
Henry rushed for more than 12,000 yards and 153 touchdowns in high school but it was done on 1,397 carries and the concern over making him a five-star was just how much he touched the ball at Yulee, Fla., and his upright running style. We basically questioned whether Henry would be too big to stay at running back. An early Georgia pledge, Henry backed off that commitment and picked Alabama over the Bulldogs and Tennessee. The high four-star went on to rush for 3,591 yards and 42 touchdowns in three seasons before being a second-round pick in the draft. He’s put up prolific numbers – again – with the Tennessee Titans and is considered one of the best backs in the league.
26. Jaire Alexander
After a visit to Louisville in December before signing day, Alexander flipped his commitment to the Cardinals from South Carolina. A three-star prospect who had seven interceptions at Louisville (five in his sophomore season), Alexander was the No. 18 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Playing his entire career so far in Green Bay, Alexander has 244 tackles, 10 picks and 58 pass deflections.
27. T.J. Watt
Minnesota and Northern Illinois were his only other offers than Wisconsin which Watt picked as a three-star tight end. After redshirting and then missing a season due to injury, Watt switched to defense and only in 2016 did his career take off with 11.5 sacks. He ended up as the No. 30 overall pick in the 2017 draft and has played his entire career with the Pittsburgh Steelers where he has 333 tackles and 77.5 sacks and is considered one of the best defensive players in the league.
28. Dexter Lawrence
Ranked as the second-best prospect in the 2016 class behind only Rashan Gary, Lawrence committed to Clemson over NC State, Alabama, Florida and North Carolina in December of his senior year. In three seasons, Lawrence totaled 131 tackles and 10 sacks (his freshman numbers were by far the best) and then was the No. 17 overall pick in the 2019 draft. Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Clemson teammate Christian Wilkins were the defensive tackles taken ahead of him.
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29. Nick Chubb
We wavered back and forth whether to make Chubb a five-star opting not to in the end and it actually ended up perfectly since he finished No. 35 in the overall rankings and then was drafted No. 35 overall in the 2018 draft. Georgia landed Chubb in the summer before his senior year as he picked the Bulldogs over South Carolina and Auburn and then rushed for 4,769 yards and 44 touchdowns there. He went early in the second round to the Cleveland Browns where he still plays and has posted 6,341 yards and 48 TDs so far.
30. Derwin James
The top-ranked safety and the fifth-best overall prospect in the 2015 class, James committed to Florida State in his freshman season and never really considered other programs. When he was on the field, James shined in Tallahassee but he also had a knee injury that slowed his progress. He was still the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 draft by the Los Angeles Chargers where he’s totaled 372 tackles, 9.5 sacks and seven interceptions in his career.
31. Saquon Barkley
In the winter before his senior season, the Whitehall, Pa., four-star running back flipped his commitment from Rutgers to Penn State. One of the best backs in Nittany Lions’ history, Barkley was a mid-level four-star but he finished No. 117 overall and No. 11 at the position, far too low for his success. In three seasons at Penn State, Barkley totaled 3,843 yards and 43 TDs before being the second overall pick in the 2018 draft behind only Baker Mayfield. He was the NFL offensive rookie of the year and is considered one of the league’s best backs.
32. Justin Herbert
After not playing his junior season because of injury, Herbert had offers from only Montana State, Northern Arizona and Portland State before Oregon got involved late in the recruiting process. It was a dream for the Eugene (Ore.) Sheldon three-star QB to play for the Ducks and he made the most of it by throwing for 10,541 yards with 95 touchdowns and rushing for 13 more. Herbert was the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft and the third QB taken after Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa and is now one of the best young players in the league.
33. Matt Judon
Judon does not have a Rivals profile as he played at Grand Valley State and then was a fifth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens before heading to the New England Patriots in recent years. What’s most impressive about the unranked linebacker is that his numbers have gotten only better as his career has gone on as he’s totaled 356 tackles and 62.5 sacks so far in his career.
34. CeeDee Lamb
The high four-star receiver from Richmond (Texas) Foster originally committed to Oklahoma only to back off that pledge and then pick the Sooners again over Texas A&M and Ole Miss. In Norman, Lamb had 173 catches for 3,292 yards and 32 touchdowns in three seasons before being the No. 17 overall pick in 2020 by the Dallas Cowboys. The high four-star who even at No. 72 nationally had a lofty ranking but proved to be too low is one of the best receivers in the league now.
35. Christian McCaffrey
No one can argue McCaffrey rated as the third-best all-purpose back behind Joe Mixon and Dalvin Cook was a miss but No. 77 overall was too low as McCaffrey was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 draft. McCaffrey, a Stanford legacy, chose the Cardinal over Oregon, Michigan and many others and he had a great career there where he rushed for 3,922 yards with 21 TDs in three seasons and also caught 10 touchdowns as well. Since getting to the NFL, McCaffrey has been one of the best weapons in the league so No. 35 overall seems way too low.
36. Jalen Ramsey
An early commitment to USC, Ramsey flipped to Florida State and finished as a five-star prospect, the third-best corner and No. 10 in the 2013 class. Ramsey had 181 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions and 22 pass deflections in three seasons with the Seminoles before being the fifth overall pick in 2016. Only Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott were drafted ahead of him.
37. Jason Kelce
A former walk-on running back at Cincinnati, Kelce eventually moved over to the offensive line and excelled there for the Bearcats. Kelce was not in the Rivals database and so he wasn’t ranked and after his time at Cincinnati he was a sixth-round draft pick. He’s become one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league.
38. Khalil Mack
A two-star inside linebacker from Fort Pierce (Fla.) Westwood, Mack signed with Buffalo (his only offer) and after redshirting he totaled 327 tackles (75 for loss) with 28.5 sacks and 31 quarterback hurries during his time with the Bulls. That catapulted Mack into the fifth overall pick of the 2014 draft behind only Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson, Blake Bortles and Sammy Watkins. In his NFL career, Mack has 517 tackles and 84.5 sacks so far.
39. Ja’Marr Chase
Chase’s recruitment is one for the books. He was supposed to commit on the NFL Network but that got botched as he was expected to pick TCU. After re-evaluating his options, he picked Florida. That commitment didn’t last and as a signing day choice neared it looked like Auburn was going to win out but the Metairie (La.) Rummel standout picked LSU. In a loaded wide receiver group, Chase was one notch from five-star status but ended up as the No. 12 receiver in a class led by Amon-Ra St. Brown and Justyn Ross. In 2019, Chase caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns which propelled him to be the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft where he’s become one of the best young receivers in the league.
40. Quinnen Williams
The Birmingham (Ala.) Wenonah standout flipped from Auburn to Alabama in the summer before his senior season and then he finished as a mid-level four-star and the No. 11 defensive tackle in the class led by five-stars Rashan Gary, Dexter Lawrence, Derrick Brown and Ed Oliver, far too low for his future successes. Williams totaled 91 tackles (26 for loss) and 10 sacks in two seasons with the Crimson Tide before being picked third overall in the 2019 draft behind only Kyler Murray and Nick Bosa.