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Mel Kiper 2023 NFL Mock Draft: C.J. Stroud Goes No. 2 to Texans, Bryce Young to Colts

Adam WellsJanuary 25, 2023

ATLANTA, GA  DECEMBER 31:  Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) runs with the ball during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl college football playoff game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Georgia Bulldogs on December 31st, 2022 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.'s first mock draft of the season is quarterback-heavy at the top with three signal-callers going in the top five picks.

Coming off an impressive final game against Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud is the first quarterback off the board at No. 2 to the Houston Texans.

Since Kiper didn't project trades in this mock, he has the Chicago Bears using the top pick to add Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter. After giving Alabama pass-rusher Will Anderson Jr. to the Arizona Cardinals at No. 3, Bryce Young is the second quarterback off the board to the Indianapolis Colts.

In a bit of a surprise, Kiper projects the Seattle Seahawks to use the fifth overall pick on Kentucky quarterback Will Levis.

Stroud's performance against the Georgia defense may have altered the quarterback market in this year's draft. He played at a different level with more mobility and poise under pressure than at any point in the season.

Joey Kaufman @joeyrkaufman

Looking through some <a href="https://twitter.com/PFF?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@PFF</a> stats from the Peach Bowl. When C.J. Stroud was blitzed by Georgia's defense, he completed 11 of 19 passes (57.9%) for 175 yards and a touchdown. He really handled pressure well.

The Ohio State standout finished 23-of-34 for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-41 loss. His 12 rushing attempts accounted for more than 25 percent of his attempts during the entire season (47).

"I usually don't put much stock into a single game evaluation, but Stroud's performance in the narrow loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals showed me something," Kiper wrote. "He was spectacular against an elite defense, carving up the Bulldogs with his arm and using his legs to maneuver the pocket and find receivers."

B/R's NFL scouting department has Stroud ranked as the best quarterback in the class. Young and Anthony Richardson are the only other players at the position rated as first-round prospects.

Despite concerns about his small size and frame, Young seems likely to go very high in this draft. The Colts have historically been a team that favors quarterbacks with more prototypical size, but those metrics have changed for every organization as players with more athleticism come into the NFL.

There was a time when a 5'10" quarterback who weighed 207 pounds wouldn't get much consideration as a first-round pick, but Kyler Murray has mostly been very good for the Cardinals since going No. 1 overall in 2019.

Kiper has been one of the loudest champions for Levis among NFL draft analysts. He has the Kentucky signal-caller ranked as the top quarterback and No. 3 overall prospect in this class.

"Turn on his tape, and you're going to see some poor interceptions and questionable decisions," Kiper wrote in his mock about Levis. "But you're also going to see rockets that should have been caught and tight-window throws that no other passer in this class can make. There will be a general manager in the top 10 who sees Levis' positives over the negatives. He also is ahead of the curve in learning a pro-style offense, because that's what he played in for the Wildcats."

From that perspective, the Seahawks getting Levis at No. 5 seems like a good outcome. Seattle has maintained it wants to bring Geno Smith back, but general manager John Schneider told ESPN 710 last week there is a "drop dead number" the team won't go past to re-sign him.

Smith is coming off the best season of his career, by far. There's always a danger of paying a player too much after a career year, but losing a 32-year-old quarterback with tremendous upside can set a franchise back a long time.

Levis fits the NFL prototype at 6'3" and 232 pounds, but he only had one good season at Kentucky. The 23-year-old finished the 2022 campaign with 2,406 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.