2023 NFL Draft Breakout Candidates at DB: D.J. Graham, Antonio Johnson lead the way

Which college football defensive backs best qualify as potential breakout candidates in the 2023 NFL Draft? Here's an early look.

Following an incredibly deep 2022 NFL Draft defensive back group, the 2023 class has a lot to live up to. Who are some 2023 NFL Draft breakout candidates at defensive back who might help the 2023 class live up to its predecessor?

2023 NFL Draft breakout candidates: DB

In truth, there are dozens of defensive backs who could break out during the 2022 campaign and add to the strength of the 2023 NFL Draft. But to be selective, let’s single out five defensive backs who have particularly strong chances to emerge as top playmakers on the college football stage.

Antonio Johnson, DB, Texas A&M

Texas A&M had two draft-worthy safeties in 2021 with the duo of Demani Richardson and Leon O’Neal Jr. Still, the best prospect in the Aggies’ secondary, by far, could end up being Antonio Johnson.

Johnson is one of the most exciting returning players in college football. He has some hype already, but with another leap like the one he took in 2021, he can dwarf his current expectations.

Johnson is 6’3″, 200 pounds, but primarily operates out of the slot for the Aggies. That role served him well in 2021, as he amassed 79 tackles, 8½ tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, and five passes defensed. Johnson’s combination of length and elite athleticism serves him well. But he’s also a smart defender and a constant communicator who shows great zone awareness and a willingness to come downhill and enforce in run defense.

Mekhi Garner, CB, LSU

Derek Stingley Jr. and Cordale Flott entered the 2022 NFL Draft. Eli Ricks transferred to Alabama. For LSU, there’s a massive void at cornerback — a spot that’s traditionally filled with NFL-level talent. The situation is uncertain, but the opportunity is also ripe for the taking for a player like Mekhi Garner, who transferred over from Louisiana.

Garner may be coming from the Sun Belt, but he certainly looks the part of an NFL prospect. Listed at 6’2″, 212 pounds, Garner has excellent length and a strong frame, which holds up well in contact situations. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive from LSU’s camp, setting the stage for what could be Garner’s ascent into the early rounds.

Garner may be a well-kept secret on the national stage, but he was a regular playmaker on the defensive side of the ball for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Through 2020 and 2021 combined, he accumulated three picks and 15 pass deflections. Garner is explosive and twitched up for his size, and his ball production emphasizes his proactivity at the catch point.

Sheridan Jones, CB, Clemson

With Andrew Booth Jr. and Mario Goodrich leaving, the Clemson cornerback room will need a new top dog. Sheridan Jones is easily the leading candidate, and it’s a role that could vault him into the upper echelon of the 2023 NFL Draft cornerback class.

Jones, now a senior, is one of the oldest members of Clemson’s cornerback room. He also happens to be one of the most naturally gifted defensive backs the Tigers have. Jones was the 108th-ranked recruit in the 2019 class, with offers from Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Ohio State. He’s always had the talent. He’s gained the experience over time. And now, he has the opportunity to emerge.

Jones does still have some refinement left to undergo. He could stand to respond quicker to breaks at times, and he can be overly physical when matching receivers. But Jones is an explosive athlete with good length who effortlessly sinks his hips on direction changes. It’s early, but he could be the next cornerback out of the Clemson pipeline.

D.J. Graham, CB, Oklahoma

Brent Venables’ scheme at Clemson was known for producing quality NFL defensive backs. Now, Venables is the head coach at Oklahoma, and he brought several quality defensive coaches with him. It stands to reason that more talent in Oklahoma’s secondary could now be unearthed — including that of cornerback D.J. Graham.

Graham has flashed brightly in his time at Oklahoma, but he hasn’t always been consistent. The 6’0″, 193-pound defender has the length and athleticism to be an NFL-caliber player. But to this point, there’s still a sense that he hasn’t reached his peak. Venables might be able to unlock the next level for him.

At his peak, Graham could be a special player. He can refine his technique and efficiency of motion, but his explosive athleticism is evident on tape. He’s sudden out of his stance, closes ground instantly, and can carry receivers upfield. And at the catch point, Graham may be one of the best in the 2023 NFL Draft with his acrobatic ability and ball skills.

Jarvis Brownlee Jr., CB, Louisville

Florida State has a quietly talented secondary. Jammie Robinson is a stud, and Travis Jay is another under-the-radar breakout candidate. But the Seminoles will be without Jarvis Brownlee Jr., who transferred to Louisville ahead of the 2022 campaign. Brownlee will join a Cardinals defensive backfield that includes Kei’Trel Clark, Chandler Jones, and Kenderick Duncan.

Brownlee doesn’t quite have the size others can boast, but there’s a reason he had more playing time in 2021 than prospects like Jay. Brownlee is a bit lighter and lacks elite length, but he more than makes up for it with his amped-up athleticism and playstyle. Brownlee has incredibly fast feet at the line. With his quickness and sudden mobility, he’s sticky in coverage, and he’s not afraid to impose his physicality, either. He’s assertive in press and can match receivers extremely well with his fleet-footed technique.

Brownlee can still be a bit more consistent with his timing, and his lacking length will get the better of him in tight situations. But he has tools that should translate to increased production, and his traits also translate to the next level.

Ian Cummings is a Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and follow him on Twitter: @ian_cummings_9