In the 21st century, the NFL is an offense-driven league. Heading into the 2023 NFL draft, most of the conversation centered on the top quarterbacks. On Texas running back Bijan Robinson. On which wide receiver would be the first selected. It was no different in fantasy football.
Unless, that is, you play in big-boy fantasy leagues that have ditched boring team defenses for Individual Defensive Players.
In IDP leagues, there were much different conversations. There was talk of where the top linebacker prospects like Iowa’s Jack Campbell would start their NFL career. Where Alabama edge-rusher Will Anderson would start terrorizing quarterbacks. Which rookie safeties would have the most fantasy value.
Now that the 2023 draft has come and gone, we know the answers to those questions. Dynasty rookie drafts are already firing up. And IDP managers participating in those drafts need to know which defensive players to target. With that in mind, here’s a look at the top rookie defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs in 2023.
Before we get to the good stuff, a couple notes.
The first is that these rankings assume the growing “True Position” format. Long story short, 3-4 outside linebackers like Arizona’s BJ Ojulari are grouped with fellow edge-rushers as “defensive linemen.” It’s a change that has been long overdue in IDP, and the majority of fantasy providers have adopted some permutation of it.
The second is this—thinking 3-4 years down the line with offensive players who aren’t quarterbacks in dynasty leagues is problematic enough. A lot can change from one year to the next. In IDP, it’s a fool’s errand. Two years. That’s it. If an IDP can’t help your team by 2024, there’s no point in rostering him. And in most cases, my dynasty and redraft strategies are all but identical.
With those caveats out of the way, may I present the best and brightest of the Class of 2023.
The defensive linemen (and more specifically the edge-rushers) were the strength of the 2023 draft class on the defensive side of the ball. Five defensive linemen were among the first 15 players selected, and while there will likely be an acclimation period for many of them, quite a few defensive linemen drafted this year will go on to become valuable IDP assets.
1. Will Anderson Jr. – DE, Houston Texans: Anderson was an absolute game-wrecker at Alabama, piling up 27.5 sacks over the past two seasons. After playing as a rush linebacker in college it will be interesting to see if Anderson plays more with a hand on the ground under DeMeco Ryans, but he’s this year’s top DL prospect by a wide margin.
2. Tyree Wilson – DE, Las Vegas Raiders: At 6'6” and 271 pounds, Wilson certainly looks the part of an NFL defensive end. Wilson has power to spare, but his speed off the edge could be a question mark. Wilson’s snaps in 2023 could be scaled back a little, but Chandler Jones isn’t getting any younger—Wilson will be a full-time starter by 2024.
3. Nolan Smith – DE, Philadelphia Eagles: At some point, someone will have to explain how the Eagles managed to land Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith in the same draft class. Smith put on quite the show at the Combine, including a 4.39-second 40-yard-dash. He has the potential to become a Haason Reddick-esque edge-rusher/linebacker hybrid in a hurry.
4. Myles Murphy – DE, Cincinnati Bengals: Murphy has talent to spare—the 6'5”, 268 pounder movers very well for a man his size and peeled off a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine. The bigger issue here is Cincinnati’s depth chart—the Bengals have a pair of established defensive ends in Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson. Murphy may have to wait his turn.
5. Jalen Carter – DT, Philadelphia Eagles: Before off-field issues caused his stock to slip, some considered Carter to be the most talented prospect in the entire 2023 draft class. Landing in Philadelphia was a dream for the Eagles. But Carter’s snaps could be limited early on given how loaded the Eagles are along the defensive front.
6. Felix Anudike-Uzomah – DE, Kansas City Chiefs: A 6'3”, 255-pounder with great bend off the edge. Anudike-Uzomah could see quite a bit of playing time early after the Chiefs released Frank Clark. But pre-draft comparisons to Yannick Ngakoue weren’t completely complimentary-- Anudike-Uzomah’s run defense was spotty at Kansas State.
7. Lukas Van Ness – DE, Green Bay Packers: That Van Ness didn’t start at Iowa says a lot more about the Hawkeyes’ policies about seniority than the talent of the 6'5”, 272-pounder. Van Ness is probably never going to be a 15-sack player, but his ferocity against the run should equate to solid tackle numbers once he sees regular snaps.
8. B.J. Ojulari – DE, Arizona Cardinals: In terms of landing spot, Ojulari did as well as any edge-rusher in his class—the Cardinals desperately need to add talent on the edge. But that could be a double-edged sword for the 6'2”, 248-pounder. The playing time should be there early, but so will plenty of attention from opposing offenses.
9. Will McDonald IV – DE, New York Jets: The 15th overall pick in the 2023 draft, McDonald is one of the most athletic edge-rushers in his class. But at just 239 pounds, he could stand to both add some weight and refine his pass-rushing moves. McDonald will likely play more of a situational tole on passing downs in the early-going.
10. Bryan Bresee – DT, New Orleans Saints: Bresee is an imposing physical specimen—a 6'6”, 298-pounder with 32.5” arms with excellent quickness for a man his size. But Bresee struggled with injuries and some inconsistent play at Clemson, so it may take some time for him to realize his considerable potential.
Linebackers are the lifeblood of IDP leagues, but the rookie class of 2023 at the position wasn’t especially impressive. That isn’t to say this year’s rookie crop was bereft of talent though, and the first off-ball linebacker drafted this season will probably slide into a three-down role from the get-go—and serve as a viable fantasy LB2.
1. Jack Campbell – ILB, Detroit Lions: That first off-ball linebacker drafted was Campbell, who the Lions selected 18th overall after he amassed 265 total tackles over the past two seasons at Iowa. Campbell isn’t an elite athlete, but he’s smart, tough and has the range and coverage skills necessary to be a three-down player in the pros.
2. Daiyan Henley – ILB, Los Angeles Chargers: At 6'2” and 225 pounds, Henley is a tad undersized, and that shows at times at the point of attack. But Henley has plenty of speed, athleticism and range, he topped 100 total tackles at Washington State last year and the only thing standing between him and a starting role in Los Angeles is first-round bust Kenneth Murray.
3. Dorian Williams – OLB, Buffalo Bills: Williams wasn’t an especially highly-regarded prospect, but the Bills saw enough to take the former Tulane standout late on Day 2. Much of the IDP appeal with Williams is situational—after the departure of Tremaine Edmunds in free agency, there’s a viable path to significant playing time early in Williams’ career.
4. Drew Sanders – ILB, Denver Broncos: Sanders is one of the more interesting prospects at linebacker this year—he played both off-ball linebacker and edge-rusher at Arkansas. The Broncos have a pair of established inside linebackers in Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton, but Sanders’ athleticism and versatility may be hard to keep off the field.
5. Trenton Simpson – ILB, Baltimore Ravens: Size. Speed. Athleticism. Range. Ferocity. You name it, Simpson has it—it can be argued he was the most talented off-ball linebacker prospect in the class. There have been trade rumors swirling around Patrick Queen for weeks, and if he is moved Simpson would rocket up this list.
6. DeMarvion Overshown – ILB, Dallas Cowboys: Overshown certainly looks the part of an NFL linebacker, and he has the athleticism to stay on the field in subpackages. His technique, instincts and pursuit angles are a work in progress, but the Cowboys aren’t exactly loaded at the position. There’s a path to early playing time in things break the right way.
7. Owen Pappoe – ILB, Arizona Cardinals: Pappoe was a four-year starter at Auburn, and he showed off impressive speed in Indianapolis with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash. There’s also some uncertainty at linebacker in Arizona with the Cardinals experimenting with moving Zaven Collins to the edge and passing on Isaiah Simmons’ fifth-year option.
8. Marte Mapu – ILB, New England Patriots: Mapu isn’t an especially easy player to project, because at just 217 pounds there’s some question as to what his role will be at the NFL level. He could wind up playing safety, but his best chance of seeing the field in New England likely lies as a “hybrid” type who plays some safety but kicks to linebacker in subpackages.
9. Henry To’oTo’o – ILB, Houston Texans: To’oTo’o is something of a throwback despite weighing just 227 pounds—a downhill thumper who is outstanding against the run. The Texans depth chart at the linebacker position is muddied, so there’s opportunity here—but To’oTo’o’s lateral movement skills raise questions about his ability to thrive in a three-down role.
10. Noah Sewell – ILB, Chicago Bears: Fifteen years ago, Sewell may have been a first-round pick—he’s a 246-pound mountain of an inside linebacker who excels against the run. But his range and coverage skills leave something to be desired, and playing behind T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds likely leaves his best case as a two-down player—at least for now.
Cornerback remains a premium position in the NFL, and the 2023 draft was no exception—beginning with Devon Witherspoon of Illinois at No. 5 overall, five corners were selected in Round 1. But in IDP leagues, safeties are generally far more valuable, and this was an unimpressive class at that position. No safeties were drafted inside the first round, and only two came off the board inside the top 50.
1. Brian Branch – S, Detroit Lions: Branch was the consensus top safety in the 2023 class and the first player at his position drafted. The question for IDP managers will be whether his role as a deep safety or slot defensive back offers enough opportunities for statistical production for his IDP value and NFL value to be comparable.
2. Jordan Battle – S, Cincinnati Bengals: Battle isn’t the biggest safety in his class. Or the most athletic. Or the most talented. But he’s a highly experienced player with excellent instincts who landed on a Bengals team that lost both starting safeties in free agency. There’s a real chance Battle opens his rookie season as the Bengals starting box safety.
3. Sydney Brown – S, Philadelphia Eagles: Brown was a staple of the Illinois defense the past few years, where he played all over the secondary. He’s not an elite talent, but he has plus instincts and defends the run well. The Eagles have questions at safety, and it’s not that hard to imagine Brown winning a starting job in training camp.
4. Devin Witherspoon – CB, Seattle Seahawks: There wasn’t really a consensus top cornerback prospect this season, but Witherspoon had his supporters. Now, he’s a top-five pick who will likely open the season as a starter in Seattle opposite Tariq Woolen. Witherspoon has the physicality to post solid tackle numbers and the ball skills to make big plays.
5. Ji’Ayir Brown – S, San Francisco 49ers: There isn’t much that Brown wasn’t asked to do at Penn State, and that versatility appealed to the 49ers. Brown is no threat to Talanoa Hufanga after his breakout season, but Tashaun Gipson is well the wrong side of 30 and the Niners lost Jimmie Ward in free agency. There’s opportunity to be had in Santa Clara.
6. Antonio Johnson – S, Jacksonville Jaguars: As is the case with so many of the top safety prospects in 2023, Johnson is a player who wore many hats at Texas A&M, whether it was as a box safety, deep safety or defending the slot. The Jaguars appear set at box safety with Rayshawn Jenkins, but there is opportunity elsewhere in the Jaguars secondary.
7. Joey Porter Jr. – CB, Pittsburgh Steelers: There may not have been a more fitting pick in the whole 2023 draft than Porter landing with the team his father starred for for so many years. Porter’s a long, physical cornerback who has the potential to be fantasy relevant as a rookie given Pittsburgh’s unsettled cornerback situation.
8 J.L. Skinner – S, Denver Broncos: A small-school standout from Boise State, Skinner is a 6'4”, 209-pound thumper of a box safety with the talent to be an IDP standout. The Broncos re-signing veteran Kareem Jackson muddies the waters at safety in the Mile High City, but it wouldn’t be a stunner in Skinner works his way into a real role as a rookie.
9. Chamarri Conner – S, Kansas City Chiefs: Conner was picked outside the top 100, but don’t sleep on the 6'0”, 202-pounder—he’s an experienced player who tallied over 300 total tackles at Virginia Tech, playing a variety of roles, from box safety to subpackage linebacker and even the slot. Justin Reid and Bryan Cook aren’t world-beaters at safety—if Conner impresses in camp, there could be some “sleeper” appeal here.
10. Christopher Smith – S, Las Vegas Raiders: A 2022 Nagurski Award finalist, Smith played a key role for a Georgia defense loaded with talent at all three levels. He’s a tad undersized and lacks top-end speed, but Smith played a variety of roles for the Bulldogs and joins a Raiders team with one of the more unsettled safety depth charts in the NFL.
TOP 25 ROOKIE IDP OVERALL
- Jack Campbell – ILB, Detroit Lions
- Will Anderson Jr. – DE, Houston Texans
- Daiyan Henley – ILB, Los Angeles Chargers
- DorIan Williams – OLB, Buffalo Bills
- Drew Sanders – ILB, Denver Broncos
- Tyree Wilson – DE, Las Vegas Raiders
- Nolan Smith – DE, Philadelphia Eagles
- Trenton Simpson – ILB, Baltimore Ravens
- Myles Murphy – DE, Cincinnati Bengals
- Jalen Carter – DT, Philadelphia Eagles
- Felix Anudike-Uzomah – DE, Kansas City Chiefs
- Brian Branch – S, Detroit Lions
- DeMarvion Overshown – ILB, Dallas Cowboys
- Lukas Van Ness – DE, Green Bay Packers
- Owen Pappoe – ILB, Arizona Cardinals
- B.J. Ojulari – DE, Arizona Cardinals
- Jordan Battle – S, Cincinnati Bengals
- Will McDonald IV – DE, New York Jets
- Sydney Brown – S, Philadelphia Eagles
- Marte Mapu – OLB, New England Patriots
- Bryan Bresee – DT, New Orleans Saints
- Tuli Tuipulotu – DE, Los Angeles Chargers
- Henry To’oTo’o – ILB, Houston Texans
- Calijah Kancey – DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Noah Sewell – ILB, Chicago Bears
Gary Davenport (“The Godfather of IDP”) is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year. Follow Gary on Twitter at @IDPSharks.