NFL Draft 2023 – All-Athlete Defensive Team Via Relative Athletic Scores

The 2023 NFL Draft is full of elite athletes across every position. This article breaks down the top athlete at each position on defense, building a full 11-man lineup. Keep reading to learn more about some of the most athletic prospects at defensive positions in this year’s draft class and check out the offensive lineup here.

NFL Draft 2023 All-Athlete Defensive Team

Last year, I put together an article highlighting some of the best athletes in the NFL Draft. It was a hit, and I’m excited to bring the same content back to you guys for the 2023 draft class. This time around, I built a full lineup of 22 of the best athletes in this class.

I split this into two articles highlighting the best athletes among offensive and defensive players in this draft. In this article, you’ll find the all-athlete defensive lineup. You can find the offensive roster here.

I cheated a bit here as you would normally expect to see a 3-4 or 4-3 lineup, but I went with a 4-2-5 look. NFL defenses are playing nickel as their base formation more than ever before, and there were three cornerbacks I felt I had to include, so I went that direction.

I also included an “athletic comps” section at the end of each player breakdown. Keep in mind that these aren’t necessarily comps regarding a player’s projected production or scheme fit. Rather, they are focused on which pro players the draft prospects most resemble athletically.

Without further ado, here’s the defensive all-athlete lineup in this year’s NFL Draft:

  • Defensive End – Nolan Smith, Georgia
  • Defensive Tackle – Mazi Smith, Michigan
  • Defensive Tackle – Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh
  • Defensive End – Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
  • Linebacker – Trenton Simpson, Clemson
  • Linebacker – Owen Pappoe, Auburn
  • Cornerback – Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
  • Cornerback – Deonte Banks, Maryland
  • Cornerback – Julius Brents, Kansas State
  • Safety – Jartavius Martin, Illinois
  • Safety – Sydney Brown, Illinois

Resources used:

georgia bulldogs

Nolan Smith – Defensive End, Georgia

When you’re significantly undersized for a position in the NFL draft, you’d better be an elite athlete, and Smith fits the bill. The Georgia product came in at the 2nd percentile among defensive ends for weight (238 lbs), the 15th percentile for height (6’2 ¼”), and the 5th percentile for hand size (9”).

However, Smith was a superstar at the combine. He led all defensive ends with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash and a 1.52-second 10-yard split, both of which were in the 99th percentile all-time. In addition to that speed, he led all defensive ends with a 41 ½” vertical jump, which was in the 98th percentile.

Smith often draws comparisons to Haason Reddick, who is coming off his first All Pro season. Like Reddick, Smith is an undersized but excellent athlete who should be highly productive off the edge. In the modern NFL, Smith’s lack of size is less of an issue whereas his athleticism should shine.

Athletic Comps: Haason Reddick, Vic Beasley, Eli Harold

NFL RAS Card Nolan Smith 2023

michigan wolverines

Mazi Smith – Defensive Tackle, Michigan

There were some medical complications that prevented Mazi Smith from participating in anything other than the bench press at the combine, but he certainly made his mark in that event. Smith repped 34 times on the bench, more than any defensive player.

That shouldn’t have come as a surprise – Smith topped Feldman’s Freaks List last year as he noted Smith could rep 22 times with 325 pounds. He also reportedly close-grip benched 550 pounds.

It’s unclear as to why Mazi Smith didn’t participate in the 40-yard dash, short shuttle, or 3-cone drill, even at his pro day. In Feldman’s Freaks List last summer, he noted that Smith’s 4.41 shuttle time and 6.95 3-cone time would have been the best by any defensive tackle in last year’s combine.

I included the shuttle and 3-cone numbers in the RAS card below for reference. The bench press comes from the combine and the vertical and broad jumps come from his pro day. It’s worth noting that Feldman reported Smith could do a 33-inch vertical jump and 9-4 ½” broad jump last summer, significantly more than what he came in at.

Athletic Comps: Dexter Lawrence, Vita Vea, Christian Wilkins

NFL RAS Card - Mazi Smith 2023

pitt panthers

Calijah Kancey – Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh

At the combine, Calijah Kancey just ran the 40-yard dash, but he did it in style. He ran it in 4.67 seconds, which is in the 99th percentile and the fastest of any defensive tackle since 2003. Kancey came in 9th on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List last summer, and he was reported as having benched a whopping 425 pounds.

At his pro day, Kancey registered a 4.33-second 20-yard shuttle and a 6.82-second 3-cone drill, both of which would have been the best of all defensive tackles at the combine by far. The 3-cone time would have also been the best number by any defensive tackle since at least 1999.

It’s a little unfair to Calijah Kancey, but he’ll never be able to escape the Aaron Donald comparisons. Kancey was Pitt’s first unanimous All Pro selection since Donald, and they’re both undersized interior pass-rush with elite athleticism. It’s a glowing endorsement of Kancey’s profile, but there’s merit to the comparison however lofty it may be.

Athletic Comps: Aaron Donald, Ed Oliver, Clinton McDonald

NFL RAS Card - Calijah Kancey 2023

iowa state cyclones

Will McDonald IV – Defensive End, Iowa State

A former high school basketball player and track star, Will McDonald IV has been on the radar as an elite athlete for quite some time. He checked in at #5 in Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List last year, and his head coach Matt Campbell called him “an elite athlete who can do backflips standing still and has videos jumping over cars.”

McDonald lived up to the hype with an 11’0” broad jump that was the third-best among defensive ends at the combine since 2009. That’s even more impressive when you factor in that he had come down with a fever of 104 degrees in the days leading up to the combine and had lost weight prior to the event.

At his pro day, McDonald rounded it out with a 6.85-second 3-cone and 4.22-second short shuttle, both of which would have been the best at the combine at his position. McDonald is undersized like Nolan Smith – he weighed in at 239 lbs which checks in at the third percentile – but his length (34 ⅞” arms, 90th percentile) help make up for it.

Athletic Comps: Andrew Van Ginkel, Drake Jackson, Arnold Ebiketie

NFL RAS Card - Will McDonald IV 2023

clemson tigers

Trenton Simpson – Linebacker, Clemson

Checking in at #29 on Feldman’s Freaks List last year, Trenton Simpson predictably excelled throughout the pre-draft process. His 4.43-second 40-yard dash was in the 97th percentile and his 1.48-second 10-yard split would be the fastest of any edge rusher at the combine, let alone linebackers.

Simpson also did 25 reps on the bench press, tied for the fourth-most of any linebacker. Last year, Feldman reported Simpson could bench press 375 pounds and power-clean 355 pounds. You can see that strength translate on the field in Simpson’s vicious tackling.

Simply put, Simpson has a rare combination of speed and strength. It’s easy to see that translating into a versatile skill set that sees him playing both on the edge and at inside linebacker.

Athletic Comps: Roquan Smith, Mike Croel, Marquis Flowers

NFL RAS Card - Trenton Simpson 2023

auburn tigers

Owen Pappoe – Linebacker, Auburn

Despite coming in at just 6’0” (13th percentile) and 225 lbs (5th percentile), Owen Pappoe had a huge presence on the field for Auburn. That’s partially because of how much ground he covers – he led all linebackers at the combine with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash (98th percentile) and 1.52-second 10-yard split (96th percentile).

Pappoe also has plenty of strength as he repped 29 times on the bench, which also led all linebackers at the combine and is in the 92nd percentile all-time for the position. It was reported in Feldman’s Freaks list that he benched 435 pounds at Auburn.

Pappoe was known as “The Freak” inside the Auburn program, and for good reason. It will be fascinating to see how teams evaluate his elite speed and strength in contrast with his diminutive stature.

Athletic Comps: Jatavis Brown, Christian Harris, Malcolm Smith

NFL RAS Card - Owen Pappoe 2023

oregon ducks

Christian Gonzalez – Cornerback, Oregon

Christian Gonzalez absolutely obliterated the combine. A 4.38-second 40-yard dash (89th percentile) was just the beginning as he smashed the explosiveness drills, registering a 41 ½” vertical jump (96th percentile) and 11’1” broad jump (95th percentile).

All of that elite athleticism consistently showed up on film, so it was exciting to see it come to fruition at the combine. Gonzalez possesses that athleticism in a 6’1 ¼”, 197 lb frame that’s plenty sturdy to hold up in the NFL.

For some fun added context, Gonzalez’s older sister Melissa (who is interestingly married to quarterback David Blough) is an Olympic athlete specializing in the 400 meter hurdles. I suppose you could say it runs in the family.

There was a strong debate for the top cornerback in the class prior to the combine, but I don’t believe that should be the case anymore. Gonzalez has elite film, elite production, and elite athleticism – he should be a lock for the top ten.

Athletic Comps: Jalen Ramsey, Jaycee Horn, Akhello Witherspoon

NFL RAS Card - Christian Gonzalez 2023

maryland terrapins

Deonte Banks – Cornerback, Maryland

In an absolutely loaded cornerback class, Deonte Banks made himself some serious money at the combine. There were questions about his length with just 31 ⅜” arms, which ranks in the 47th percentile, but his athletic numbers were off the charts.

Banks makes up for that relative lack of length with his elite verticality – his 42-inch vertical jump was the sixth-best by a cornerback since 2006. Add that to his 11’4” broad jump that was the third-best ever at the position.

His 4.35-second 40-yard dash ranked in the 92nd percentile and wasn’t quite in the same class as his jumps, but it’s still an elite number. Only two cornerbacks posted a faster 40-yard dash in this class.

While Banks might not be the most polished player in coverage as compared to some of the other cornerbacks in this class, his elite athleticism gives him tremendous upside and likely makes him a first-round player in this draft.

Athletic Comps: Byron Jones, Marshon Lattimore, Zyon McCollum

NFL RAS Card - Deonte Banks 2023

Kansas State Wildcats logo.svg

Julius Brents – Cornerback, Kansas State

There were three cornerbacks with an RAS of 9.95 or better, and Julius Brents rounded out that group along with Gonzalez and Banks. The Kansas State product is coming off an excellent season as part of the Wildcats’ Big 12 conference championship.

Brents is unique in his size – he’s 6’2 ¾” (96th percentile) and broke the NFL combine record for cornerbacks with an 82 ⅞” wingspan. As you’d expect, that translates to excellent ball production.

Brents has plenty of explosiveness, as well – he was second among cornerbacks with a 41.5” vertical and first among all defensive backs with an 11’6” broad jump, 6.63-second 3-cone drill, and a 4.05-second 20-yard shuttle.

This was one of the most difficult players to find proper athletic comps for due to how rare Brents’s combination of length, explosiveness, and agility is.

Athletic Comps: Kevin King, Carlton Davis, Akhello Witherspoon

NFL RAS Card - Julius Brents 2023

illinois fighting illini

Jartavius Martin – Safety, Illinois

Jartavius Martin put the world on notice at the combine when he hit 44 inches in the vertical jump, the best mark for any player at the event and tied for the highest of any safety since 2007. Only five defensive players have ever come in above a 44” vertical, according to MockDraftable.

In addition, Martin recorded an 11’1” broad jump, which was first among all safeties. He also ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, which was third among all safeties, and a 1.47-second 10-yard split which led all safeties.

Martin is a bit undersized for a safety at 5’11”, 194 lbs, but he has all of the athletic attributes to be a highly capable nickel back or deep zone defender. He played all over the secondary for Illinois and it will be tough to pass on his athleticism on Day 2.

Athletic Comps: Nick Scott, Juan Thornhill, Bryce Canady

NFL RAS Card - Jartavius Martin 2023

illinois fighting illini

Sydney Brown – Safety, Illinois

I had to put both Illinois safeties in this article as they are both absurd athletes that headlined one of the best defenses in the country. Brown didn’t quite challenge Martin’s historic vertical, but he cleared 40 inches and ranked in the 93rd percentile for the drill.

Brown also did 23 reps on the bench (91st percentile), which was the second-most among all defensive backs at the combine. Brown rounded out his combine with a 10’10” broad jump that was in the 92nd percentile and only bested by Martin among safeties at the event.

At just 5’10”, there will be plenty of questions as to where he fits best in the NFL. However, like Martin, Brown played all over the secondary for Illinois and uses his athleticism to fuel elite versatility and production. Brown could benefit from the scarcity at safety as his athleticism could make him a surprise late first-round pick.

Athletic Comps: Donte Whitner, Josh Metellus, Shamarko Thomas

NFL RAS Card - Sydney Brown 2023

I've been a huge sports fan for as long as I can remember and I've always loved writing. In 2020, I joined the Lineups team, and I've been producing written and video content on football and basketball ever since. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. My goal is to tell enthralling stories and provide meaningful insight on the sports I write about while helping you cash some bets along the way.

Hot NFL Stories