2023 NFL Draft: How many Group of Five prospects will go in the first round?

The 2022 NFL Draft is in the rearview mirror. The college football season is almost upon us. And the 2023 class will soon come into focus. Let’s delve into the top Group of Five prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft and decipher how many could come off the board in Round 1.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we will lump all independent programs outside of Notre Dame into the Group of Five.

How many Group of Five prospects in history have gone in the first round of the NFL draft?

In the 2022 NFL Draft, the Group of Five had two prospects selected, both from the AAC: Cincinnati CB Ahmad Gardner (No. 4 – New York Jets) and Tulsa OT Tyler Smith (No. 24 – Dallas Cowboys).

From 1936-2009, the Group of Five sent 112 players to the NFL via the first round. While not an insignificant amount, it’s still over 100 less than the Power Five conference with the fewest first-round picks in that span (Big 12 – 228). Since 2010 (last 13 drafts), the Group of Five has averaged three players chosen in Round 1. With the history lesson out of the way, how many Group of Five prospects could hear their names called in the 2023 NFL Draft?

2023 NFL Draft: Group of Five prospects who could go in the first round

In our “way too early” prediction, there will be around zero to two Group of Five players selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Keep in mind there will be players who fall further than we expect, others who rise from obscurity, and some who will return to school.

The quarterbacks who could challenge for Round 1 consideration

The Group of Five’s best chance of having a player drafted in the first round is with the quarterbacks. BYU’s Jaren Hall, Fresno State’s Jake Haener, and Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall all have potential.

Hall is the best of the trio, owning the arm talent to pair with his above-average athleticism. The Cougars’ signal-caller pushed the ball downfield last season, but his accuracy didn’t falter. With another year under his belt, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hall take the next step in his development in 2022.

Haener is solid in every facet: mobility, processing speed, and arm strength. The problem is, he isn’t elite in any one area. He’s a stellar college QB, but without a key trait to sell evaluators on, Haener likely won’t crack Day 1.

Meanwhile, McCall plays in a triple-option, RPO-heavy offense. It allows him to showcase his athletic ability, but it makes it difficult to project his skill set to an NFL offense. McCall has undoubtedly put together an electric highlight reel with both his arm and legs, but Round 1 may be even more elusive.

Other Group of Five names to know in the 2023 NFL Draft

Hall isn’t the only Cougar who has an outside chance of sneaking into the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Blake Freeland protected Zach Wilson’s right side for two years before transitioning to left tackle last season. The switch allowed Freeland to post his best campaign yet, halting opponents in pass protection. Similarly, guard Clark Barrington has been a dependable force on the interior, allowing just one sack across three seasons.

Haener’s favorite target is also one of the top prospects in the Group of Five. He may not receive a first-round billing, but Jalen Cropper simply gets the job done. Cropper isn’t a field-stretcher, playing almost exclusively from the slot, but he understands leverages, where holes in zones will be, and how to set himself up for success.

Another Group of Five receiver that requires attention is Houston’s Nathaniel Dell. Dell was QB Clayton Tune’s go-to weapon, receiving 10+ targets in 10 of 14 games last season. That’s not the target share you expect from a WR listed at 5’10” and 155 pounds. But Dell can take the top off defenses and make would-be tacklers look silly underneath all the same.

Now, we saved the best for last. Outside of one of the QBs crashing the first-round party, two Group of Five defenders deserve to be in the Round 1 conversation: Army’s Andre Carter II and Louisiana Tech’s BeeJay Williamson.

Carter owns a 6’7″ and 265-pound frame with excellent length. The Army edge rusher steamrolled his competition, recording 15 sacks last season. With another dominant campaign, Carter should march his way into the Day 1 fold. If he does, he would be the first service academy player drafted in the first round since — checks notes — 1947.

As for Williamson, he is LA Tech’s version of a Swiss Army knife. The defensive back lined up in the slot, in the box, and at deep safety last season. Williamson has used his years of starting experience to devastating effect, snatching six across the last two seasons. He possesses respectable size at 6’1″, 185 pounds, though he is a bit light. Williamson can create momentum-changing plays from multiple alignments. All he needs to do is remain consistent and improve as a run defender/tackler.

Honorable mentions

  • DeWayne McBride, RB, UAB
  • Sidy Sow, G, Eastern Michigan
  • Dontae Bull, OT, Fresno State
  • Davonte Brown, CB, UCF
  • Arquon Bush, CB, Cincinnati
  • Darrell Luter Jr., CB, South Alabama
  • Rashad Wisdom, S, UTSA
  • JL Skinner, S, Boise State

James Fragoza is a Writer and News Editor at Pro Football Network. You can read his other work here and follow him on Twitter @JamesFragoza.

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