Mel Kiper Jr. 2023 NFL draft rankings feature potential Lions targets; rising Michigan DE

After losing two linebackers/pass-rushers to first-day picks in the 2022 NFL draft, Michigan football may have another first-rounder on its hands.

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. released his latest top-25 rankings for the class of 2023 this week. This could be of interest to Detroit Lions fans, who will likely see their team draft in the top five once again, and possibly even first.

Just one player from Michigan or Michigan State football was ranked in the top 25, but several Wolverines made Kiper’s positional rankings. But some may be surprised at which UM star didn’t make the cut.

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Kiper Jr. isn’t as high on Michigan State players with just one — mighty-legged Bryce Baringer — making his top 10 positional rankings.

These rankings are sure to change over the college football season’s final month and offseason, but here’s what we found in Kiper’s latest:

Mike Morris rising up the draft board

Losing Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who combined for more than 20 sacks in 2021, would rock any defense. But Michigan has an apparent star waiting in the wings with Morris.

Morris, listed at 6 feet 6 and 292 pounds, had high expectations coming into his junior season. He’s met them and more, climbing into Kiper’s list at No. 22 after going unranked in his Week 3 top 25.

Michigan linebacker Mike Morris with the Paul Bunyan Trophy after Michigan’s 29-7 win over Michigan State on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Ann Arbor.

“It’s rare to see a guy as big as Morris playing on his feet as a stand-up edge rusher, but he moves extremely well for his size,” Kiper writes. “…he only had a half-sack in three starts in 2021. This season, Morris has 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble, and he pops when I put on the tape because of his size and traits.

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“He could keep rising as we get closer to the draft in April.”

Morris is ranked the No. 3 defensive end in the 2023 draft class. His linemate Mazi Smith is ranked the No. 5 tackles in the class.

Defense-needy Lions have options

While fans clamor for a franchise quarterback, the top two projected picks are defensive linemen: Alabama defensive end Will Anderson and Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter. Yes, they need to find a successor to Jared Goff, but the Lions also need to find players to pull their scoring defense out of the 30s, where it’s been ranked the past three seasons.

Anderson (33 pressures, six sacks and 14 total tackles for loss in eight games this season) has long been crowned the top prospect of the class and could help a Lions defense that struggles to both pressure the passer and stop the run. Anderson racked up 17.5 sacks in 2021.

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Carter, who missed two games in October because of a knee injury, moved up one spot since Kiper’s last rankings, swapping places with Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud.

“Even though he was on a snap count, his impact was apparent on passing downs,” Kiper writes. “Georgia had five defenders picked in Round 1 last April, and Carter arguably was more disruptive than all of them last season. He’s explosive at the snap and finishes well around the ball, even though he didn’t put up huge numbers (8.5 tackles for loss). He has a big frame and can play as a 3-technique tackle. I want to see him be a little more consistent, but NFL teams will bet on his ceiling.”

After the two linemen is a trio of quarterbacks, one of whom should be available to the Lions even if they win too many games to pick first. Stroud, at 6-3 and 215 pounds, has been great for the Buckeyes and is Kiper’s No. 1 quarterback, followed by Will Levis. Levis (6-3, 242) doesn’t have the numbers Stroud does but possesses a “rocket launcher” for an arm, which leads Kiper to compare him to former Lions Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford.

The smaller Bryce Young, listed at 6-0 and 194 pounds, touts the 2021 Heisman Trophy, impressive touch and could easily become the top quarterback in the class, Kiper said.

“He’s accurate, and he goes through read progressions to find his target. He’s an anticipatory thrower who knows how to hit receivers where they need the ball to run after the catch. He doesn’t make many mistakes,” Kiper said. “The knock on Young is size; he doesn’t have a huge frame, which NFL scouts will likely play up as we get closer to the draft. I don’t think he’s quite 6-foot. Still, his arm is more than good enough for him to be a great signal-caller at the next level.”

Little love for Blake Corum

Wolverine running back Blake Corum (1,078 yards and 14 touchdowns on 179 carries) is having a wonderful season, but he’s not one of Kiper’s top backs for the draft class. He isn’t even the top prospect in the Big Ten.

Bijan Robinson (920 rushing yards on 162 carries and an additional 280 receiving yards) is No. 1, thanks to an explosive season for the Texas Longhorns. He could be a top-10 pick, Kiper says, which is quite the compliment for a running back. Former Michigan back Zach Charbonnet, now with future Big Ten team UCLA, is ranked the No. 4 back ahead of Travis Dye, who plays for future Big Ten team USC.

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Michigan running back Blake Corum is forced out by Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr.  (9) during the second half of Oct.  15, 2022 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

Michigan running back Blake Corum is forced out by Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (9) during the second half of Oct. 15, 2022 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

Illinois running back Chase Brown, who leads the nation in rushing after transferring from Western Michigan, is the lone Big Ten player ranked among the top-10 RBs, coming in at No. 10.

Corum, who has garnered some Heisman buzz, is an honorable mention along with Minnesota star Mohamed Ibrahim.

Ryan Hayes was an honorable mention among offensive tackles and first-year Michigan player Olu Oluwatimi was ranked the No. 2 center, making him a fringe first-rounder.

Some special special-teamers in the state

The aforementioned Baringer was not alone in the top-10 punter rankings; Michigan punter Brian Robbins and Michigan kicker Jake Moody were ranked as well.

Kiper has Barginer ranked the No. 2 kicker or punter in the class, behind Iowa punter Tory Taylor who has an astonishing 47 punts in eight games — more than once a quarter. Baringer, the Waterford native punting for a struggling Michigan State offense, has been called to task “just” 34 times.

Jake Moody, a Northville native, was ranked the No. 4 specialist and the No. 2 kicker, behind Maryland’s Chad Ryland, who doesn’t have as many points or as high of a success rate as Moody, but is 5-for-8 the past two seasons kicking from 50 yards or more (Moody is 3-for- 4 in such situations). Robbins, with a strong 45.5-yard average and 62-yard long, is ranked No. 8 overall and the fourth-highest punter.

The NFL draft is scheduled for April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mel Kiper Jr. NFL draft rankings have Michigan football stars

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