Home Hand Games 2023 NFL Draft: Most intriguing prospects from Notre Dame, Clemson, rest of ACC

2023 NFL Draft: Most intriguing prospects from Notre Dame, Clemson, rest of ACC

0

We’ve already run through four out of five of what sort of remains known as (but not for long) the Power 5. There’s one conference, and one school, left to go.

The Atlantic Coast Conference and quasi-member Notre Dame are up today on our look at some of the most intriguing potential 2023 NFL Draft prospects. The ACC has its ups and downs with talent depth, though this year features plenty of explosive prospects with a lot of room to grow, especially in some of the younger classes. There have been coaching changes and transfers and shifting sands — and there will be much more before all is said and done — but for now, here is a look at the most interesting prospects from the ACC and Notre Dame.

And if you missed them, check out our breakdowns of the most intriguing players from the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12.


ACC Atlantic

Boston College: Zay Flowers, WR

Flowers (who reportedly turned down buckets of cash to stay with Jeff Hafley and BC this year) is a smallish slot/Z receiver with the type of attacking speed that can embarrass corners in any type of man coverage, be it press, off, whatever. If you can’t get your hands on him at the line of scrimmage as a defender, it might be over. From a dead stop, Flowers has the type of speed to beat just about anybody. He got behind Clemson’s defense on three different vertical routes last season, but none of the three targets were catchable balls. If two of those land, he’s a household name.

In time, especially with added strength, he should be one anyway. Flowers is a wide receiver whom defensive backs already respect, and he will wind up with easy yards as a result. But he must continue working on his overall route technique and be sure not to round off breaks at the top of his routes. His body control early in his route is too good to lose technique at his break point.

Love the speed, love the tracking ability and confidence. Definitely a name to watch in 2022. Boston College QB Phil Jurkovec (3,694 career yards, 26 TDs, nine interceptions) and defensive lineman Marcus Valdez (19 1/2 career sacks) are others to watch.

Clemson: Bryan Bresee, DL

If Bresee is healthy and everything’s clicking, he can be a 6-foot-5, 300-pound lightning bolt off the ball inside and a complete menace for any interior offensive lineman in college football. The former No. 1-ranked player in the country and No. 9 on The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s way-too-early 2023 mock from this spring, Bresee is entering 2022 with something to prove after playing in just four games last year due to injury. Really, he has sort of always had something to prove, as he’s been one of the most monitored and scouted high school defenders within the past five or so years. He pass rushes with violence, possessing long, powerful arms that swat and punch and do pretty much anything else he wants them to.

Bresee comes off the ball inside looking for work, not just to win his gap. He plays with his eyes in the backfield and at times will chuck an overmatched guard or tackle before sort of turning into a see-ball, chase-ball linebacker. He’s a special athlete with special gifts, but he still needs to work on maintaining leverage and not playing too high. He doesn’t have the field burst of 2022 first-round pick Jordan Davis, but everything else is pretty damn good.

Bresee ran a 4.21 shuttle at The Opening in 2019, which is bonkers. Among the others to watch for the Tigers in 2022: Myles Murphy (edge), D.J. Uiagalelei (QB), Tyler Davis (DT), Walker Parks (OT) and Jordan McFadden (OT).

Florida State: Robert Scott Jr., OT

A 6-5, 315-pounder with good feet and overall quickness, Scott made multiple starts at each tackle spot as a true sophomore in 2021 and handled himself very well. Scott plays with a lot of power, delivering a nice punch with solid hand speed that should only improve with time, as he’s just now entering his third year in school. He appears to have good length and recovery skills. He also plays with good football instincts as a blocker, both in the run game and pass protection (he’s tough to fool).

To improve, Scott must make sure he is sinking his hips and maintaining leverage to get the most out of his power and burst. Florida State will pull him in its counter scheme, and out in space, Scott’s technique can get inconsistent, which is another area for growth. Scott doesn’t need to be in any rush and has plenty of time to grow and develop. But he’ll be a name to remember.


There is plenty to like about Malik Cunningham’s game. (Jamie Rhodes / USA Today)

Louisville: Malik Cunningham, QB

A dynamic open-field runner with good speed and burst, Cunningham also has a proven ability to stand in the pocket, process and make reads in Scott Satterfield’s offense. Cunningham runs when he has to. Plenty of the damage he’s done as a runner at Louisville (2,619 rushing yards, 38 TDs) — especially last year — came as his bailout option, almost as his final read in a progression.

He’s a thin 6-1, 200 pounds and needs to get stronger in his lower half. When his feet are under him, he can uncork a really pretty deep ball. Like a lot of college QBs, his vertical accuracy needs continued attention, but there’s a lot to like with Cunningham’s arm. He does enough to make defensive coordinators nervous about what he can do through the air, which can create some one-on-ones for Cunningham to gash as a runner. He has played a lot of football and is at the nitpick stage of his career (8,092 yards, 62 TDs, 24 INT, 555 completions, 886 attempts). But if he can put together a clean, productive 2022, his stock will climb. Also keep an eye on Cardinals cornerback Kei’Trel Clark, who sees the game like a safety but holds up well outside at cornerback.

North Carolina State: Devin Leary, QB

Leary has quiet feet in the pocket and is in control of everything around him. He will stand in there and take a hit while making an accurate, on-target downfield throw. When NC State offensive coordinator Tim Beck spreads the field and lets Leary make vertical reads, he can hurt defenses — he’s similar to 2022 Patriots fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe in that regard. It’s sort of shocking that Leary had only five interceptions in 431 attempts last season. If Leary (6-1, 212 pounds) can prove that ratio is legit in 2022, pro GMs will be happy.

Leary’s throwing motion can come with a bit of a windup that might bother some teams. At times it can feel like the ball is taking too long to get out, but he shows nice touch and an ability to change speeds. His medium-to-deep shots have plenty of zip when his feet are underneath him. Leary’s not a runner, but he’s from the Matthew Stafford school of scrambling: If you give it to him, he can take it. Another name to watch from the Wolfpack: linebacker Payton Wilson (108 tackles, 11 1/2 tackles for loss in 2020; appeared in just two games last season).

Syracuse: Sean Tucker, RB

Tucker plays a lot bigger than 209 pounds. He is stacked in the lower half and will run through arm tackle attempts in the box. He has a lot of burst and balance, running low to the ground while always moving forward, never backward. With 2,122 yards on 383 career carries, he’s one of the more underrated talents in the country. He’s also still very young, entering his third year at Syracuse without a ton of work on his body.

Tucker runs with plenty of vision and IQ. He can freeze defenders with stutter steps and set up defenders for moves well ahead of time. He still has to prove he has a home run gear in there, though.

Tucker’s work as a pass catcher has grown a bit in his two years at Syracuse, and that could be an area where he sees more work in 2022. But this is a good-looking young prospect who, with another good year as a junior, could be looking at a decision come winter. Also keep an eye on Orange corner Garrett Williams and linebacker Stefon Thompson.

Wake Forest: A.T. Perry, WR

Perry is a super-long target (6-5, 206) who sports a pretty crazy catch radius with good body control and hand speed. He had a bonkers one-hander versus Florida State, reaching back to snare a crossing route that was thrown behind his body. But Perry’s length doesn’t stop him from being able to adjust his body in the air to off-target throws. If a defender is in press and can’t get his hands on Perry’s chest, Perry will eat up that defender. His 2021 season (71 catches, 1,293 yards, 15 TDs) is evidence of that — along with a growing route tree. He can beat corners on comebacks and slants as well as the deep stuff.

ACC Coastal

Duke: Graham Barton, OL

Starting to find his groove as a left tackle at Duke, the 6-6, 315-pounder is long and lean and can move. He plays with great bend, except for when he’s tired, which can lead to poor leverage, especially in the run game on combinations and climbs. When he’s locked in, though, it can look pretty. He had an outstanding lead block on a screen touchdown last season at Northwestern — his agility and ability to move with, target and finish smaller defenders were on display. There’s plenty of potential for versatility in here, too. He could be a right or left tackle at the next level, and I wouldn’t rule out guard down the road, either. He’s not maxed out in the strength department.

The best news: He’s a true junior. If his power takes a big jump in 2022, he could have a decision to make. But he could also take a year or two and just keep developing his game. His punch can at times be erratic. His hands will get wide, which can be problematic, and he’ll overextend at times.

Georgia Tech: Jeff Sims, QB

Sims (6-3, 210) can run through defenses like a good punt returner coming out of the pocket. That’s what it looks like when it’s all the way on. When it’s not? It can be a mess. And that’s sort of where the intrigue comes in. Can he be consistent with everything? His day against Pitt last season was a terrific example of everything that is Jeff Sims as a prospect right now. He had a scintillating scramble to open the game before immediately throwing a ball into the outstretched arms of a defensive lineman for a tipped interception. Not long after, he chucked a ball into the middle of the field while avoiding a sack, leading to a pick-six.

Sims has a soft delivery and can make nice and easy throws on the move underneath as a passer. He’s a smooth athlete who can get rid of the ball on the run. He’s not afraid to take a hit in the pocket, and when he’s settled into the game, he can be effective. After that start versus Pitt, he settled down and threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns. He’s just entering his junior year, so he can continue to add strength. He likely needs more time in school, but he’s on plenty of radars.

Miami: Zion Nelson, OT

The answer here is probably quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who has all the goods and was terrific last season, especially late. But I’m going to be an offensive line homer and pick Nelson. He’s intriguing on his own at 6-5, 316 pounds with a reported arm length of 35 inches. He plays with good feet and agility. When he bends his knees, steps with power and gets himself under a defender, he makes it all look textbook up front as a run blocker. We have to see consistency with that, though, like many other areas of Nelson’s game.

At times he relies too much on brute strength instead of technique. His hands are still too late and erratic, and he gives up his chest far too early in pass pro reps. That can cause all sorts of problems for an otherwise impressive athlete with a lot of potential. There might not be another player on this list who benefits from a coaching change more than Nelson could with incoming offensive line coach Alex Mirabel. That’s a terrific pairing.

Others from Miami to watch: Will Mallory (TE), Akheem Mesidor (DL), Tyrique Stevenson (DB) and Jalen Rivers (OL).


North Carolina WR Josh Downs can run. (Sam Navarro / USA Today)

North Carolina: Josh Downs, WR

Joystick Downs (a nickname I just gave him) is small (5-10, 171) but fast — scary fast. Downs runs with a forward lean and total body control before the break point of his route. If a defensive back is playing Downs in off coverage, he’s often left guessing, as Downs’ ability to change direction without warning is terrific. First-round terrific, perhaps. Despite his size, his catch radius is impressive. Downs’ full package as an athlete allows him to bend down and scoop low throws or get up in the air and pluck high ones.

When he’s in full gear in the open field, he looks like a track sprinter. He leans into turns and does not slow down. This guy is a lot of fun and should only get better with added play strength and technique work. He’s just a junior but also further proof to NFL teams that wide receivers are entering college with more technique polish than ever before. Others to watch for UNC: corners Tony Grimes and Storm Duck (great name).

Pitt: Habakkuk Baldonado, Edge

Baldonado didn’t pick up football until 2017, and that still shows on his tape, but less and less with time. The 6-5, 260-pounder can still get a lot stronger, especially in his lower half, and should be able to hold a lot more weight without losing his athletic gifts. His punch is there and comes with a lot of power; he just doesn’t quite know how to throw it with consistency yet. That could be said about several parts of Baldonado’s game, but his instincts are good.

He had nine sacks and 41 tackles last season, showing an array of developing moves off the edge as an active-handed speed-to-power threat. Baldonado can and likely will become a better run defender simply by gaining strength and working more reps on the field. Others to watch at Pitt are Calijah Kancey (DL), Carter Warren (OT), Kedon Slovis (QB) and Konata Mumpfield (WR).

Virginia: Brennan Armstrong, QB

Possessing a sturdy frame and good height (6-2, 215), Armstrong had a hugely productive year on 500 pass attempts in 2021: 4,449 yards, 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 65.2 percent completion rate. The left-handed throwing QB is a quick processor who made full-field reads in the offense of offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who is now at Syracuse. Armstrong should also mesh well with what Tony Elliott and new OC Des Kitchings want to run at UVA. Armstrong has shown an ability to hold and move defensive backs with his eyes. His pocket work is always patient, and he shows an ability to move the pocket to avoid pressure without losing his ability to throw.

Sometimes he’ll stick on a read too long, and it feels like he needs to be quicker with the trigger. He also has to be more careful with the ball in the pocket, as he can get loose with it and fumbles will follow. And he needs to be mindful of not sailing the ball too much with his over-handed delivery. When his feet are under him and he’s set, though, everything can look good. He’s a smart player who should keep improving, along with receivers Keytaon Thompson and Dontayvion Wicks.

Virginia Tech: Dorian Strong, CB

Entering his junior year, Strong is a long and rangy cornerback whose dad is a competitive weightlifter — which should come in handy, as Strong still needs to add more strength to his frame before he’s ready for the NFL. But there’s a lot of press potential with Strong’s length and ability to mirror receivers. He also has potential as an outside corner who will play the quarterback’s eyes, rather than a patch of grass, in zone coverage. Strong is not afraid to make a play on the ball and shows good instincts with the ball in the air. Good recovery skills, too, as shown on a touchdown-saving rep against Flowers during a 2021 game versus Boston College.

A lot of growth has to happen first, though. He made a terrific interception in coverage during that same game against Boston College, only to lose the ball on a fumble while carelessly trying to get more yards on a return. He hasn’t shown a great willingness as a tackler yet, either. Another Hokie defender to watch is Alan Tisdale, a savvy, experienced coverage linebacker.


Notre Dame: Isaiah Foskey, Edge

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer ranks higher on Brugler’s early first-round board, for context. And that could be how this plays out — we’ll see. Foskey (No. 17 on Brugler’s 2023 list) is interesting on his own, though, with a long and growing frame and all sorts of burst. In The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s 2021 freaks list, he reported that Foskey owns a 1.58-second 10-yard split, which is just a tick quicker than edge rusher Haason Reddick, who recently signed a $45 million deal with the Eagles. Foskey has burst, length, agility and fluid movement skills in space. There are serious Boye Mafe vibes here, but Foskey’s a bit bigger.

He has a lot of skill work to do. His pass-rush game needs refinement and more versatility. He moves well in coverage but is still sort of robotic and learning. He’s such a good athlete, though, and coach Marcus Freeman isn’t afraid to move him around. He can almost stand up and work as a stack linebacker at Notre Dame if Freeman wanted him to — he’s that quick. Very interesting player. As is Mayer, who could be another first-rounder for the Irish.

(Top photo of Clemson’s Bryan Bresee: John Byrum / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)