2023 NFL Draft: Most athletic defensive prospects at the combine

Nov 5, 2022; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Maryland Terrapins defensive back Deonte Banks (3) reacts following a play during the third quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 5, 2022; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Maryland Terrapins defensive back Deonte Banks (3) reacts following a play during the third quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Many of the best performances at the NFL Scouting Combine came from defensive prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft, but what does the tape say about them?

Tape is king, but like the all-star game circuit, the NFL Combine is an important piece of the NFL Draft puzzle; especially when evaluating 200+ players in a class. Having verified measurements and athletic testing numbers are two of the many important parts to an evaluation, yet, the NFL Combine’s most important function are the medical exams and interview opportunities for teams. Still, watching big men and explosive athletes run 40-yard dashes are why the event is televised for several hours a day for four days.

Those athletic testing numbers and measurements are useful brushes that help paint the picture of each prospect and can be a reason to send an evaluator back to the tape. That’s why Relative Athletic Score’s (RAS) have become something everyone must take into account when evaluating. RAS, created by Kent Lee Platte, gauges a player’s athletic abilities relative to the position they play and provides tools to contrast and compare based on known measurables (pro day numbers are also added once known).

While offense drives viewership, last year the NFL Scouting Combine saw several marquee performances from defensive players with Georgia’s Jordan Davis and Travon Walker, UTSA’s Tariq Woolen, Montana State’s Troy Andersen, and Sam Houston State’s Zyon McCollum all putting on shows for viewers at home. Those players all saw major playing time as rookies with the size and athleticism needed in the NFL to take the field early on and not look out of place.

Each of those defensive prospects had over 9.90 RAS scores, they were the elite of the elite athletes in Indianapolis which helped them to transition to the pro game quicker than other prospects. This year’s NFL Scouting Combine saw some similarly astonishing athletic feats performed by defensive players, but with tape meaning more than testing, these are the 10 2023 NFL Draft prospects with the highest RAS scores on defense and what the tape says about them.

2023 NFL Draft: Most athletic defensive prospects

Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland (6-0, 197, 31 3/8-inch arms)

Cornerback is one of the most loaded positions in the 2023 NFL Draft and it has no shortage of freaky athletes. That was proven at the NFL Scouting Combine when Maryland’s Deonte Banks, a potential first-round pick before his showing in Indianapolis, had himself a day.

Banks scored the third highest RAS at the Combine coming in with a 9.99 behind just Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Old Dominion’s Zack Kuntz (both scored perfect 10’s). Banks clocked the third fastest 40-yard dash among cornerbacks with a 4.35 (good for fifth best at the entire Combine), but even more impressive than his blazing time were his jumps. He had the third highest vertical, which was the best among cornerbacks in Indianapolis, with 42 inches and the  second best broad there when he hit 11-4. His 40, vert, and broad were all over the 90th percentile.

A physical press corner on tape, Banks athleticism is easy to see. He’s quick to match when mirroring receivers at the line of scrimmage and has no trouble staying in phase when carrying vertical routes downfield. Banks is a loose and springy athlete who does a good job using his length to disrupt the catch point. Just like with his long speed, his explosion is evident with the way he can click and close in an instant and trigger downhill to make plays on ball carriers.

While his natural athleticism is impressive, it can help him hide some flaws on tape that will give teams pause. Banks footwork can get a little messy with false steps against more refined route runners and his pedal can be a little high and wonky—almost nonchalant at times. In zone his eyes can make him late to react, but again that quick twitch athleticism helps him make up for it.

It’s hard to find physical press corners with rare athleticism and fluidity like Banks and that’s why it’s tough to imagine him falling out of the first-round even if he’s not as pro-ready as some of the other corners available. You can’t teach traits.

Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa (6-5, 249, 31 7/8-inch arms)

There aren’t many defensive prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft that were more important to their teams success this past season than Jack Campbell was to Iowa’s given how disturbing it was to watch Kirk Ferenz allow his son to call plays for the offense. Campbell, one of the most decorated linebackers in college football history, racked up 265 tackles, 9 TFLs, and 4 interceptions as the heart and soul of the Hawkeyes the last two seasons.

Heading into the NFL Scouting Combine, Campbell was viewed as a clear top-five linebacker in a weak draft class for them; and a lock to go top-100. Exiting the week, as more and more people dive into the tape, it looks as if nobody can see him falling out of the top-60.

Not only did he check the box with his 4.65 40 (and 1.59 10-yard split), a really impressive time at his size, he blew away the competition with his jumps and agility testing. Campbell had the best short shuttle (4.24) and second best vertical (37.5 inches) and broad (10-8) among linebackers, but more mind-boggling was his 6.74 3-cone; the third best time at the entire combine.

The change of direction skills and fluidity he possesses at his size are rare and it shows up on tape where he’s natural dropping into zone coverage and able to use his instincts and quickness to make plays in the middle of the field. As a run defender, Campbell is a physical tackler who gets downhill in a hurry to engulf running backs with his size. Using his range, he flies to the football and rarely misses a tackle with his impressive take on skills; though he could be more consistent stacking and shedding blocks.

Campbell is a natural Mike linebacker who can run a defense, like he did at Iowa, and use his quickness and aggression to make plays on all three downs. A likely second-round pick, he’s got the makeup of a plug-and-play player that will be starting Week 1 of the NFL season.

Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon (6-1, 197, 32-inch arms)

Viewed as a top-two cornerback in the 2023 NFL Draft and one of the most gifted athletes in the class, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez lived up to the hype in Indianapolis. Given his bloodlines, with his father being a former semi-pro basketball player and both his older sisters being All-American track athletes (one of them competed in the Tokyo Olympics), it’s no surprise that Gonzalez tested like a freak and looked gifted in on-field work.

Seeing Gonzalez run sub-4.4 with his 4.38 wasn’t a surprise, but it was certainly still impressive watching how smooth he looked at top speed. What really stole the show for the Ducks star were his 41.5-inch vertical (fourth best at the entire Combine) and 11-1 broad jump (fourth best among cornerbacks); his broad was in the 95th percentile and his vert in the 96th.

Sometimes elite testers don’t see that athleticism translate on the field but that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Gonzalez. The athleticism clearly translates and it’s what makes him a likely top-10 pick this April. With his quick feet, fluid hips, change of direction skills, and blazing speed, he’s capable of mirroring any type of receiver in man coverage. Gonzalez is light on his feet and rarely takes a false step giving receivers hell trying to separate as he utilizes his quick twitch reaction time to match them step for step when they make their break or work their stem.

One of the best parts of his game is his cover versatility. While he’s got the length and athleticism to be a star press-man corner, he also has the eyes in zone and the explosiveness to close on the ball and make plays. Gonzalez has the skill set to play in any scheme looking comfortable in man and zone and in press and off coverage. His ball skills show up in both in zone and man too thanks to his feel for reading and reacting to quarterbacks and his ability to find the ball in phase to make plays.

While some may ding him for his inconsistency as a run defender, there’s not one defensive back in this class as ready to cover all the different flavors of receivers in the NFL as Gonzalez and that’s why he’ll make an instant impact wherever he lands.

Riley Moss, CB, Iowa (6-1, 193, 30-inch arms)

Whatever Raimond Braithwaite, Iowa’s strength and conditioning coach, is doing in Iowa City is working because the Hawkeyes did not disappoint in Indianapolis. Joining Campbell as one of the most impressive testers was Riley Moss, a three-year starter and two-time first-team All-Big Ten cornerback.

Moss, a high school track star, could have easily gotten lost in a deep and athletic cornerback class, and while his 4.45 40-yard dash time doesn’t necessarily jump out, his 1.48 10-yard split was tied for the fourth best at the entire Combine. That instant explosion showed up in both his vertical and broad jump too where he had the sixth best vertical (39 inches) and 12th best broad (10-7) in his position group.

One of the most productive defensive players in the Big Ten throughout his career, Moss picked off 11 passes and broke up 26 (including 11 this year) in his five seasons as a Hawkeye. That ball production jumps out on tape with his instincts showing up as a zone cover corner. Most comfortable playing off-zone in Cover 2 or with bail technique in Cover 3, Moss trusts his eyes reading the quarterback and leans on his explosiveness to close and make plays on both receivers and the ball.

His speed shows up carrying vertical routes with his ability to play the deep-third in Cover 3 and he’s more than willing to trigger downhill as a Cover 2 defender in the flats and make tackles on ball carriers. That physicality also shows up as a force player against the run. Moss’ biggest issue is his stiffness and footwork when playing man coverage. He can struggle to mirror quicker receivers and is slow to throttle down and break as they come out of cuts.

Likely an early-Day 3 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Moss is best suited for a heavy zone scheme that will allow him to play with his eyes on the quarterback and use his explosiveness to react in space to what he’s seeing rather than try to match receivers in man.

Daniel Scott, S, Cal (6-1, 208, 30 1/4-inch arms)

This safety class is more intriguing than it is talented, but a handful of them put together strong NFL Scouting Combine performances and chief among them was Cal’s Daniel Scott. Scott, a three-year starter and star special teams player for the Golden Bears, is building quite the resume between how he looked at the Senior Bowl and what he did in Indianapolis.

Scott timed the second fastest 40-yard dash among safeties with an impressive 4.45 40-yard and hit a 39.5-inch vert (fifth best for his position) and a 10-8 broad (fourth best at safety). His speed and explosion were big for checking boxes in his evaluation but the numbers that jump out the most were from agility testing where he ran the fourth fastest 3-cone at the entire Combine (6.75) and eighth fastest short shuttle (4.17).

Scott, who ended his collegiate career with 207 tackles and 7 interceptions, played the majority of his snaps as an overhang defender. It allowed Cal to take advantage of his physicality and take on skills with his consistency as a perimeter run defender and ability to make plays as a tackler in space while utilizing his athleticism and size as a cover man against both quick receivers and tight ends.

With great eyes and instincts in zone and the explosiveness to trigger and close on in and out breaking routes, Scott does his best work lining up down low as a big nickel in Cover 3 and playing the flats and playing the hook/curl in Cover 2. He also showed the skills to line up in the box to deal with tight ends and as a 2-deep safety playing the deep half with his range and feel.

As a run defender he’s more than willing to stick his nose in and fill and is one of the most consistent tacklers at safety in this class. He can attack as a dime linebacker or be a force player on the outside as a big nickel. Scott’s aggressive but patient as a tackler and coordinators won’t have to worry about him missing.

Overall, Scott may have solidified himself as a top-10 safety in this class and a top-150 pick. It’s hard to imagine him falling too far past the fourth-round and he should quickly become an impact special teams player and third safety with his versatility.

Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson (6-2, 235, 32 3/8-inch arms)

For about 10 months now Clemson’s Trenton Simpson has been touted as one of the best linebackers in the 2023 NFL Draft. In his two year starting for Dabo Swinney he’s managed to rack up 137 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, 9 sacks, and five pass breakups all while flashing obvious athletic traits. Simpson and his athletic traits came to play at the NFL Scouting Combine.

The rangy and long linebacker ran a blazing 4.43 40-yard dash, the second fastest at his position and tied for the second fastest 40 by a player over 230 pounds in Indianapolis (Anthony Richardson and Byron Young both ran 4.43 while Nolan Smith hit a 4.39). While Simpson opted not to do any more testing, between his size, speed, and 25 reps on the bench he hit a 9.86 RAS. At his pro day this week he reportedly hit a 40.5-inch vert, 9-10 broad, 4.22 short shuttle and 6.89 3-cone; all awesome numbers.

On tape it’s not hard to spot Simpson with his explosion, violent play, and range. He’s been compared at times to former Tiger and No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft Isaiah Simmons. Like Simmons, Simpson has all the athletic traits you could want in an off-ball linebacker, but is lagging behind with his instincts and take on skills which makes it difficult to project where exactly his best spot will be in the NFL.

He was at his best in 2021 spending more time playing as an overhang defender outside the box where he was kept clean from offensive linemen and using his athleticism and size as a mismatch in space. Playing more in the box as a Will and even edge rusher at times this year, Simpson’s eyes were used against him. He was slow to read his keys and made up for it with his speed, but that will be hard to pull off in the NFL; it’s made tougher when his run fits are inconsistent.

Despite questions around his instincts, Simpson’s athleticism is rare and his ability to go sideline-to-sideline as a run defender is enticing. With his speed he can string runs out play side and chase them down backside with his incredible motor. He’s also a competent pass rusher with his play speed and flexibility giving tackles issues and his downhill explosion making him an impactful blitzer.

The tools are there for him to become a more productive player in coverage. He has the speed to carry routes down the seam and the quickness to play out in the flats as a big nickel when needed, it’s just a matter of him refining his eyes in zone.

Overall, Simpson’s traits are exactly what teams want in a modern three-down linebacker and with the increase in running quarterbacks, his ability to spy and hunt them down will be desired. Despite his flaws, there’s no way Simpson falls out of the second-round.

Adetomiwa Adebawore, DL, Northwestern (6-2, 282, 33 7/8-inch arms)

There hasn’t been a player that’s done more for their stock in the 2023 NFL Draft since the actual college football season ended than Adetomiwa Adebawore. After turning in the most dominant week at the Senior Bowl, Adebawore capitalized on his freakish athleticism by blowing up the Combine.

While the NFL world was going crazy over Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey running a 4.81 at 267 pounds, it seemed to miss that Adebawore, a fellow undersized interior defensive lineman, ran a 4.49 with a 1.61 10-yard split. Maybe it’s because Adebawore tested with the edge rushers, but those numbers didn’t get enough attention. That 40 is in the 99th percentile for an interior defensive lineman and his 10 is in the 98th percentile. It was by far the fastest 40 for a player over 280 pounds with the next best time for a player that size being Kancey’s, but unlike Kancey Adebawore did more than just run.

The tweener on the defensive line was known for his explosion and that showed up in the form of his vertical and broad jumps. Adebawore hit a disgusting 37 1/2-inch vertical, 99th percentile for IDLs, which was again the best of any player at the NFL Scouting Combine over 280. His broad was just as dominant with a 10-5, 99th percentile for IDL as well and the best of any player over 280. Adebawore’s testing numbers were so dominant that he’d hit over a 9.0 RAS at any position on defense.

That freakish twitch of Adebawore is what helped turn him into a three-year starter as he finished his career in Evanston with 24.5 TFLs and 12.5 sacks. While never a stat stuffer, Adebawore’s impact was much stronger than the numbers say as he was the best player on a bad team.

Throughout Senior Bowl week those unfamiliar with his game got a taste of his ability to generate power. With that explosive first step, natural leverage, and his long arms, Adebawore is one of the best at converting speed to power. He can get under offensive linemen and keep their hands off him with his length while using that knock back power to get them out of position. His pass rush plan is all about using his power whether he’s lining up as an edge rusher, 3-tech, or 5-tech.

In the run game, he can shoot gaps when lining up inside by using his quickness to beat offensive linemen to their spot and his strength and length to get hands off when they only get a piece of him; he’s also a terror coming backside with his effort. The question with Adebawore is his ability to anchor down and hold the point consistently when playing as a 3-tech given the lack of sand in his pants; perhaps he can play on the edge on early downs and move inside on passing downs.

Overall, Adebawore’s potential, dominance at the Senior Bowl, and strong testing numbers have helped elevate him from an early fourth-round prospect to a likely second-round pick. If he can prove himself holding the point and utilize his hands more as a pass rusher he’s got a chance to be a complete mismatch in the NFL as a 3-tech.

YaYa Diaby, DL, Louisville (6-3, 263, 33 7/8-inch hand)

The best NFL Scouting Combine performance nobody is talking about comes from Louisville’s YaYa Diaby. Diaby seems to be a casualty of all the great athletes that tested on the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine—the defensive linemen and linebackers were flying—and never quite got the attention he deserves.

Diaby ran the sixth fastest time in the edge rusher group with a 4.51 40 and had the second best 10-yard split at 1.56. His instant explosion was showcased further with his 37-inch vertical, tied for second best by a player over 260 pounds, and his 10-0 broad. He’s a big explosive defensive lineman who had an underrated Senior Bowl where that athleticism created problems when he lined up inside.

A JUCO transfer, Diaby quickly found a role with the Cardinals and became a three-year starter with 19.5 TFLs and 10.5 sacks over that time. For Louisville he wasn’t put in a position to flash in the box score, but rather used as a fixer time lining up all over; from edge to 5-tech to 2-tech and 4i.

While Diaby’s an impressive athlete, his pass rush plan could use some work. He almost exclusively leans on power with his bull rush and speed-to-power, to take his game up a notch he needs to diversify and use his hands more often to compliment the athleticism and strength.

Diaby does his best work as a run defender where he sets a strong edge and plays with his hair on fire and can clean up plays from the backside. He’s not a splashy gap shooter, but he plays with good leverage and uses his length to lock out linemen to keep everything inside. It also helps he has the versatility to play inside and has shown he can hold up in there for a few reps a game.

With his frame Diaby looks like he could put on about 20 more pounds and really lean into his tweener ability. A likely mid-Day 3 selection, Diaby has the tools to be a solid contributor to the defensive line rotation with major upside thanks to his twitch; he’s a similar player to former second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr.

Julius Brents, CB, Kansas State (6-3, 198, 34-inch arms)

Last year there was a massive condor-like cornerback in the NFL Draft who used a week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl to build buzz before absolutely blowing everyone away at the NFL Scouting Combine. That was UTSA’s Tariq Woolen, who still managed to fall to the fifth-round before leading the NFL in interceptions as a rookie and making the Pro Bowl.

Looking for a player following a similar path? That would be Kansas State’s Julius Brents. Brents had one of the most complete Senior Bowl weeks among cornerbacks and kept the partying going in Indianapolis. While his 4.53 40-yard dash might not jump off the page, it was his explosion and agility testing numbers that got everyone’s mouths watering. Brents had the best broad jump at the entire Combine with an 11-6 and the fourth best vertical at 41.5 inches; absurd numbers. Despite his size, his 3-cone (6.63) and short shuttle (4.05) also came in as the second best at the Combine behind just Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

An Iowa transfer, Brents became a two-year starter for Kansas State leaving Manhattan with 5 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, and 6.5 TFLs to his name. His size allowed him to bully receivers in the Big 12 using his length to jam them at the line and throw off the timing of their routes. Those long arms also helped when doing battle with bigger receivers on the perimeter and over the middle where he could disrupt the catch point.

Most comfortable playing in zone, Brents showed the fluidity and speed to handle Cover 3 and play the deep-third while also utilizing his physicality as a flats player in Cover 2. When playing man in Cover 1, Brents could struggle at times with being overly physical and being grabby when trying to find the ball in phase; this happened against Quentin Johnston. His footwork could also give him trouble against better route runners but he has the ability to throttle down and close.

With his size and aggressive style, Brents is also a willing run defender who will trigger downhill to stop ball carriers. As a force player, that size comes in handy when funnelling run plays back inside; he gives receivers plenty of problems when they try to block him.

Still raw in coverage and needing to clean up his feet and ball skills, Brents has his flaws, but finding cornerbacks with his length and athleticism isn’t easy. Unlike Woolen, he shouldn’t fall out of the top-100 in April.

Cory Trice, CB, Purdue (6-3, 206, 32 3/8-inch arms)

Yet another cornerback, which just goes to show how talented and deep this class is in the 2023 NFL Draft. Unlike the other corners who had top-10 RAS scores among defensive prospects, Cory Trice is more of an unknown, but after his showing at the NFL Scouting Combine he’ll become a Day 3 darling.

One of the biggest cornerbacks in Indianapolis, Trice managed to crack sub-4.5 in the 40 with a 4.47 and he also hit a solid 35.5-inch vertical. The number that really gave him a boost though was his 11-0 broad jump, good for sixth among cornerbacks. To sweeten the pot, he did the second most reps on the bench for a corner with 17.

Shortly after leaving Indy, Purdue held its pro day and while his agility numbers don’t count towards his initial top-10 RAS from the Combine, they gave him a huge boost. Trice clocked a 3.96 short shuttle and 6.7 3-cone in West Lafayette. His 3-cone would have been the second best at the Combine and his short shuttle third best. That makes him an even more compelling prospect.

On the field, Trice has been a constant for the Boilermakers as a multi-year starter. After an injury in 2021, he really broke out this season with 10 pass breakups and 2 interceptions on his way to being an All-Big Ten honorable mention.

Spending a lot of time play off coverage in Cover 2, Trice is a physical patroller of the flats and uses his twitch to make plays in front of him whether it be by taking on ball carriers or closing on the football and disrupting the pass.

With his size he can struggle in man coverage against more refined route runners who cause him to take false steps with their stem work. He’s also not as fluid as you would want to see out of such an athletic tester. Still, the length, explosiveness, and demeanour make him an intriguing cornerback for teams that play a lot of Cover 2.

Given his absurd testing numbers, it’s hard to imagine Trice falling too far on Day 3 and he should have front offices interested in him as a developmental prospect.