The offseason is here for the Atlanta Falcons, and that means it’s time to go full-throttle into free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft. With my colleagues taking the lead on the free agency front, I’m going to be focusing my efforts over the next few weeks on the draft. Atlanta secured the 8th overall pick for 2023, the second year in a row that the team will hold that selection.
The next event on the Draft Season calendar is the Reese’s Senior Bowl—a showcase of the top draft-eligible seniors (or players who graduated early) that takes place in Mobile right around the first week of February. To get everyone ready for the week to come, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch for the Falcons and the league at large.
Next up in the positional previews is offensive tackle, where the Falcons have a long-term but aging stalwart in Jake Matthews on the left side and a big free agent decision to make with Kaleb McGary. If McGary isn’t re-signed or is franchise tagged, OT could be one of the top choices at 8.
While the defensive back classes at the Senior Bowl were a bit lackluster, the offensive tackle group is phenomenal in 2023. Most of the top Day 2 prospects are in attendance, along with a potential first-rounder in Ohio State’s Dawand Jones. Here are some of my favorite players to keep an eye on.
Matthew Bergeron, Syracuse
A player I’ve seen up close here in Syracuse, Matthew Bergeron has been a stalwart on the Orange’s offensive line since his freshman season. He has played both left tackle and right tackle extensively and brings plenty of experience to the position. Bergeron has an NFL frame at 6’5, 320, and his mobility and overall athleticism immediately stand out. He’s got quick feet and always plays under control, with an advanced understanding of leverage and how to use his positioning to win as a run and pass blocker. My questions with Bergeron stem from his overall play strength: he’s solid in this area and is rarely driven back, but doesn’t have a lot of pop in his hands. Bergeron is a pro-ready tackle who would be a great fit for Atlanta’s offense early on Day 2.
Jaelyn Duncan, Maryland
An exciting developmental tackle prospect, Jaelyn Duncan has steadily risen up draft boards over his career at Maryland. A four-year starter at left tackle, Duncan absolutely looks the part of an NFL tackle at 6’6, 330. He’s an excellent athlete for his size, with the requisite movement skills to be an impact player in a zone-scheme rushing attack and in pass protection. Technically, Duncan has a lot of issues that affect his down-to-down consistency. His hand usage is all over the place, and he plays far too upright. Duncan is a flashy, high-upside tackle prospect that likely needs a year of seasoning as a swing tackle before being elevated to a starting role.
Blake Freeland, BYU
Another offensive tackle with tremendous size, BYU’s Blake Freeland’s 6’8, 310 frame immediately stands out. An elite run blocker with excellent straight-line speed and explosiveness, Freeland frequently dominates the opposition with his combination of strength and length. That length also has it’s benefits in pass protection, where Freeland is very difficult to get around. His stature presents issues with leverage and lateral mobility, however, as Freeland has consistently struggled when asked to change directions quickly or mirror speed rushers on the outside. Freeland’s limitations probably make him a zone-scheme only player, and he’ll need a good OL coach to help him continue to work on his technical flaws. All that being said, the physical talent is undeniable and a good week at the Senior Bowl could see his stock rise significantly.
Dawand Jones, Ohio State
Probably the most physically imposing player at the Senior Bowl, Ohio State’s Dawand Jones is a “first off the bus” type of player. His 6’8, 360 frame brings to mind Daniel Faalele from last year’s class, and I think Jones is actually a more pro-ready prospect. As you might expect, Jones is an overwhelming run blocker with absurd power and length at his disposal. He’s a nasty, determined player at the point of attack who will not hesitate to pancake his opponent. Jones is also a pass blocker that understands his size and how to use his length to his advantage. While Jones is a terrific athlete for his size, I do wonder if he has the athletic traits for a zone-scheme attack like Atlanta’s. He’s also only got experience at right tackle so far in his career. If Jones is able to drop some weight and improve his foot quickness, I think he could wind up as the best OT in the class when all is said and done.
Darnell Wright, Tennessee
One of the biggest risers this season and a name to keep an eye on at the Senior Bowl, Tennessee’s Darnell Wright is a prototypically-sized NFL tackle prospect at 6’6, 335. He’s big, long, and powerful as both a pass protector and run blocker. Wright is dominant at the point of attack and has one of the stoutest anchors in pass pro that I’ve seen in the class. I also think he’s one of the more technically advanced tackles—he uses his hands very well, plays patient and under control, and understands how to use his size to his advantage. The questions with Wright have everything to do with his athleticism: does he have the requisite movement skills for a zone-scheme attack, or is he a gap-scheme tackle only? How he performs at the Senior Bowl and tests at the Combine will be big for his evaluation.
Other players to watch:
Tyler Steen, Alabama
Warren McClendon, Georgia
Ryan Hayes, Michigan
I hope you enjoyed this entry in our Senior Bowl 2023 preview series. I’ll be in Mobile to cover the Senior Bowl for The Falcoholic from Tuesday, January 31 through Thursday, February 2. Stay tuned for some skill position previews, starting with wide receiver and running back on Sunday.