Ultimately the NFL Draft is a crapshoot. Months of preparation through tape study, athletic testing, and interviews can make franchises believe they’ve found a sure thing, but every year players taken in the first-round bust. Those players are expected to become Pro Bowl stars and franchise saviours, however NFL Draft history is littered with stories of players not reaching their full potential — and it usually doesn’t take more than three years to know when a team has missed on a player. That’s just the nature of the beast; nobody can know for sure what a prospect will become in the NFL.
Alternatively, it can go the other way with Day 3 picks. Those prospects are viewed as developmental starters, depth pieces, and special teams contributors, yet every year a handful of them become so much more — heck, Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick. That’s what makes the NFL Draft so tantalizing as a fan, every pick your team makes can instil hope in the fanbase of that player becoming the next big thing… even if that’s rarely the case.
Still, finding a competent starter on Day 3 of the NFL Draft is an accomplishment in itself, even if they don’t become Rookie of the Year contenders. In the 2022 NFL Draft, Day 3 picks on offense like Brock Purdy, Dameon Pierce, and Chig Okonwko shocked the NFL world by becoming important pieces to their teams as rookies. So, which offensive players taken on Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft have a chance to do the same?
QB: Stetson Bennett, Los Angeles Rams (Round 4, No. 128)
Realistically none of the quarterbacks taken outside of the first three rounds will become anything more than competent backups. The class as a whole is very top-heavy with few Day 3 passers that really get the juices flowing, so this is more about who could actually have the opportunity to see the field this season.
Everything about Stetson Bennett says that he shouldn’t have made it this far. He shouldn’t have gotten a scholarship at Georgia, he shouldn’t have become the Bulldogs starter, he shouldn’t have been a Heisman finalist and two-time CFP National Champion, and he shouldn’t have been selected in the NFL Draft. But he keeps proving everyone wrong, and it just feels inevitable that he’ll start an NFL game as a rookie.
Instead of becoming a car salesman in Athens, Bennett will be out in LA backing up fellow former Bulldog Matthew Stafford. Given Stafford’s age and injury history, it’s unlikely he’ll start all 17 games for the Rams. That means if Bennett can beat out Brett Rypien for the QB2 job, he’ll likely be in line to start. He was apparently Rams GM Les Snead’s favorite QB in the class too, that counts for something.
With a good arm, consistent accuracy, the ability to create plays out of structure, and the mobility to pick up yardage as a runner, Bennett has NFL tools; he’s just really small and he’s set to turn 26 as a rookie. Backed by his college football legend and moxie, it’s not hard to imagine a near future where Bennett has looked competent in a few starts and has Rams fans thinking they’ve found their Purdy.
Honorable mentions: Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas Raiders; Clayton Tune, Arizona Cardinals
RB: Roschon Johnson, Chicago Bears (Round 4, No. 115)
A big part of the reason running backs have become devalued is because they can seemingly be found in any round. In the 2022 NFL Draft, three Day 3 running backs ran for at least 800 yards (Tyler Allgeier, Dameon Pierce, and Isiah Pacheco), and in 2021, three others had at least 700 yards from scrimmage (Elijah Mitchell, Michael Carter, and Rhamondre Stevenson). That means it’s more likely than not that at least one running back selected on Day 3 takes on a major role as a rookie.
In a deep running back class it’s not easy to single one back out, but Roschon Johnson provides the most obvious path to hitting the field. Not only did the Chicago Bears let David Montgomery walk in free agency — paving the way for 2021 Day 3 pick Khalil Herbert to start at running back — but Johnson has a skill set that should quickly translate to playing time.
Known for his high football character, Johnson is the best blocking back in the class and can provide a steady third down option for the Bears. Early on he should carve out a role thanks to his pass blocking prowess and trustworthy hands, and his contact balance and decisive running style should help him see more and more carries as the season goes on.
If any running back selected on Day 3 has a chance to get close to 1,000 yards from scrimmage, Johnson is the safe bet. He has a very similar player profile to that of Pierce coming out of Florida, whom the Houston Texans selected No. 107.
Honorable mentions: Chase Brown, Cincinnati Bengals; Eric Gray, New York Giants; Zach Evans, Los Angeles Rams
WR: Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams (Round 5, No. 177)
While the LA Rams may be in a disastrous roster situation, it’s going to at least be interesting because they’re going to be forced to play so many rookies. Right now, they have 13 rookies listed on their two-deep for offense and defense — not to mention the penciled-in starters at kicker, punter, and long snapper are all rookies — which lends to them being an easy team to pick rookies out from to make an impact.
Of all their Day 3 rookies who will likely see significant playing time, Puka Nacua is set up in the best situation. He’s walking into a Rams wide receiver room that’s iffy after Cooper Kupp and into a Sean McVay offense that’s known for putting its receivers in the best position to succeed.
Nacua’s best trait is what he can do with the ball in his hands. He’s a YAC monster with his physicality and vision after the catch; he was also frequently used as a ball carrier on jet sweeps at BYU (357 rushing yards and 5 TDs in 2021 and 2022). That ability as a creator is what makes him a great fit for McVay.
When Robert Woods was with the Rams he was used as a motion player with the threat of the jet sweep always being there (he ran for 427 yards between 2018 and 2020), and that’s been lacking in the Rams offense since he got injured in 2021. Nacua can take on that role.
It also helps his case that he flashes impressive ball skills and ability to win in traffic with his body control and aggressiveness at the catch point. In a loaded Day 3 wide receiver group, Nacua’s specificity and fit in the Rams offense is what separates him as a potential impact player.
Honorable mentions: Tyler Scott, Chicago Bears; Charlie Jones, Cincinnati Bengals; Parker Washington, Jacksonville Jaguars; Trey Palmer, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; AT Perry, New Orleans Saints; Colton Dowell, Tennessee Titans
TE: Elijah Higgins, Stanford (Round 6, No. 197)
When it comes to tight ends, not only do they take longer to adjust to the NFL and therefore make a tangible impact, but the Day 3 crop is hard to project both because of landing spots and due to nine being selected in the top-101 of the 2023 NFL Draft.
While other Day 3 tight ends could find themselves on the field in 12 personnel this season or even playing some fullback, they’ll predominantly be asked to block, Elijah Higgins is in the most precarious situation which makes it the most fascinating.
A wide receiver at Stanford, Higgins’ size has made him a potential tight end convert, and when the Miami Dolphins picked him in the sixth-round, he was announced as such. For the Cardinal, he was used as a jumbo slot where his size and YAC ability could overwhelm nickel defenders, now one of the best offensive minds in the NFL, Mike McDaniel, gets to deploy him how he pleases.
Temper expectations with Higgins, but there’s a clear path to him playing given the lack of talent in the Dolphins tight end room. Right now, it’s predominantly filled with Y tight ends who do their best work in-line as blocker. If McDaniel is looking for more of a move piece with an F or a mismatch player in the slot, Higgins could find a role. It helps his case that he has strong hands and frequently wins combat catches.
Honorable mentions: Josh Whyle, Tennessee Titans; Payne Durham, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Davis Allen, Los Angeles Rams
OT: Carter Warren, New York Jets (Round 4, No. 120)
Like the quarterbacks, the offensive tackle class in the 2023 NFL Draft was top-heavy. Four offensive tackles (if you include Peter Skoronski) went in the top-14 picks and five went in the first-round. After that not a single one went in the second-round and just two went in the third-round (if you include Tyler Steen who is likely a guard).
That lack of depth is reflected in the options for Day 3 offensive tackles who could make an impact as rookies. While bigger names at offensive tackle went ahead of Carter Warren, the Pittsburgh alum might be forced into action out of necessity while more talented prospects like Dawand Jones don’t have as clear a road to the field as rookies.
Unlike some of the other tackles taken on Day 3, Warren isn’t as lauded for his athleticism, but he’s a higher floor player due to his length, power, and anchor — and had he not been injured this season for the Panthers, he may have snuck into the end of Day 2. The New York Jets were frequently connected to offensive tackles during the pre-draft process, to help keep Aaron Rodgers clean, and Warren seems like the backup plan after they were unable to take one in the first-round.
Currently Duane Brown, who will turn 38 years old before the season, is slated to start at left tackle and the enigma that is Mekhi Becton is projected to be on the right side. Neither of them is a sure thing and Max Mitchell, last year’s fourth-round pick, was healthy for just six games as a rookie. The team did recently sign offensive lineman Billy Turner, another former Rodgers teammate with plenty of experience.
Realistically if all goes right for the Jets, Warren won’t see the field, but if he does he could be a pleasant surprise. His ability to move people in the run game with his strength and wash pass rushers out of the play with his length and hand placement will elicit Morgan Moses comparisons.
Honorable mentions: Blake Freeland, Indianapolis Colts; Warren McClendon Jr., Los Angeles Rams; Jaelyn Duncan, Tennessee Titans
IOL: Nick Saldiveri, New Orleans Saints (Round 4, No. 103)
Unlike the offensive tackle class, the interior offensive line group in the 2023 NFL Draft didn’t have any studs near the top, however it did have depth. So while no guards or centers went in the first-round, plenty of future starters went on Day 2 and 3.
Picking one interior offensive lineman isn’t easy with a handful of talented players landing in places where they’ll have a chance to start early, but the first player taken in the fourth-round isn’t just the most talented… he’s also the most versatile.
Nick Saldiveri played both right tackle and right guard at Old Dominion and he’s pencilled in as the backup guard to Cesar Ruiz, who had his fifth-year option declined, for the New Orleans Saints. But he’s also been working at center and should be expected to be the interior swing lineman for New Orleans. That means if Ruiz, Erik McCoy, or Andrus Peat go down he’ll see the field.
With only McCoy a proven commodity on the Saints interior offensive line, Saldiveri could potentially find his way into the lineup if either Peat or Ruiz struggled. Playing with great balance and bend, Saldiveri is a technician with athletic upside who plays with impressive body position, light feet, and a strong base. At worst Saldiveri is a starter in his second season as the replacement plan for Ruiz.
Honorable mentions: Anthony Bradford/Olu Oluwatimi, Seattle Seahawks; Chandler Zavala, Carolina Panthers; Jon Gaines II, Arizona Cardinals; Alex Forsyth, Denver Broncos