Week 1 NFL Practice Squad Power Rankings 2023: Lions edge rusher at No. 1; Jets, Seahawks represented in top 5 – CBSSports.com

I am locked and loaded for Year 5 (!) of The Practice Squad Power Rankings. You ready? 

From a pitch to editors I thought they’d never go for to my favorite article of the week to an itsy-bitsy but growing following every season, I am the most grateful football writer on the planet when I’m blasting away on the keys to complete this piece each week during the regular season. 

I’m so glad to have you — yes, YOU — back to read this piece to gain knowledge on the best practice squad players in the league. And, heck, practice squads actually matter now! Teams have tapped into them frequently over the past few years. Roster cuts aren’t the same as they used to be. And that’s good! Depth has never been more vital in professional football. In other words, the knowledge you’ll be gaining every Friday will not be useless! 

Last season, 32 Practice Squad Power Ranking players (PSPRs) were elevated to the 53-man roster for gameday. I’ll be tracking those who receive The Call every week. Here’s to the Call Up Tracker or “The CUT” eclipsing 32 this season. Any tips, send to me @ChrisTrapasso on X or Twitter or whatever you’re calling it these days. 

Now, for some crucial reminders: The expanded, 16-man practice squads are about the only good thing to come out of the pandemic, and they’re here to stay in the NFL. Because of this, I run the Practice Squad Power Rankings parallel to the league and write about 16 individuals every Friday, 10 officially in the rankings and six honorable mentions.

Further: I stay true to the origins of The PSPR, which were to highlight young players. That means I won’t be featuring “veterans” this season. Selecting someone like Phillip Dorsett — currently on the Broncos practice squad —  would not embody the fundamental intention of The PSPR.

So for the sake of The Practice Squad Power Rankings’ dignity, I’ll only be including practice-squaders who are rookies, second-year players, third-year players, or fourth-year pros. Players drafted from 2020 on. That’s it.  

Let’s have one hell of a season here at The Practice Squad Power Rankings and continue to carve a niche in the Internet’s ever-expanding football-media industry. 

Garner is built like an old-school strong safety at north of 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds with arms over 32 inches long. Unsurprisingly, he was a suffocating perimeter cornerback at LSU after a dazzling career at Louisiana. He ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash and had a 38-inch vertical. Garner had no business going undrafted. He wasn’t dominant in the preseason, but that’s OK. It’s incredibly early in his career. As Garner gets his footing as a lock-you-down-at-the-line corner in the NFL, he’ll be able to sneak onto the active roster and make plays for the Eagles, particularly underneath and on back-shoulder attempts. 

It was Buffalo’s eventual second-round pick O’Cyrus Torrence and Gouraige who had scouts’ attention entering Florida’s 2022 season. And it’s not like Gouraige had an abysmal final season for the Gators. In fact, he surrendered a pressure on just 3.9% of his pass-blocking snaps, down from a touch above 4.0% in 2021. And he looked the part of an eventually useful tackle in the preseason for the Bills after somewhat surprisingly going undrafted. Gouraige is nearly 6-foot-5 with arms over 34 inches. He does need to add weight to his frame. In Buffalo, he has the built-in bonus of an already established rapport with Torrence, who won the starting right guard gig this summer. 

Heyward was one of the defensive pieces to a Duke program that went 9-4 in 2022. His supreme length allowed him to disrupt the football often in coverage — six pass breakups and two interceptions — and he was one of the more sure-tackling linebackers in the entire 2023 class. He ran 4.53 at nearly 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, and those 34-inch arms provide Heyward with a tackling radius most second-level defenders would dream of. The coverage will take time. It always does. For every linebacker. But he can be a useful sideline-to-sideline tackler … right now.  

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You saw Rourke go full Patrick Mahomes on multiple occasions in the preseason, so I don’t need to explain myself all that much. Those plays got him on the list alone. Altogether, the former Ohio Bobcat gun-slinger turned CFL star completed nearly 66% of his throws at 9.9 yards per attempt with a touchdown and no picks in the preseason. At 25 years old with a MOC — Most Outstanding Canadian — under his belt, he’s ready to contribute to a team if it has a dire situation at quarterback. 

Vilain is a former No. 5 weak-side defensive end recruit in the nation who was a late bloomer at Michigan before erupting at Wake Forest after a transfer to the Demon Deacons program. Following a 2022 preseason that got him on the Vikings coaches’ radar, Vilain was even more productive getting to the quarterback — eight pressures on just 65 pass-rush attempts — but now finds himself on Minnesota’s practice squad. At 6-foot-4 and around 255-260 pounds, Vilain is built like a starting-caliber defensive end and has what I always describe as “slippery” pass-rush moves. Keep an eye on him if your club’s pass-rush stumbles out of the gate this season.

Another former monster recruit — No. 4 tight end in the country in the class of 2018 — Kuntz fizzled at Penn State before becoming the focal point of the Old Dominion offense late in his collegiate career. He genuinely moves differently than the vast majority of tight ends I’ve ever scouted and had six grabs for 41 yards and a score in the preseason for the Jets. Kuntz was, quite easily, the most athletic tight end prospect at the 2023 combine, with everything on-field, from the 10-yard split to the short shuttle, ranking in the 91st percentile or higher at the position since 1999, per Mockdraftable. 

Moon should not have gone undrafted. A travesty, really. At a somewhat spindly 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds, Moon nearly jumped out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a 41-inch vertical and 11-foot-1 inch broad jump. Ba-nanas. At Florida, he was Gumby-like around the corner, and while he cleary must add weight to his lower half for more torque generation, his explosiveness and hand work are legitimate assets to his game right now. He’ll eventually make an impact around the corner in Baltimore. Or somewhere else. 

At some point during the 2023 season, McBride will be the hottest waiver-wire add running behind the Vikings free-flowing Mac truck of an offensive line in Kevin O’Connell’s zone-blocking scheme. He doesn’t have the juice of, say, Alexander Mattison or Ty Chandler, the two backs in front of him on the depth chart now. He is more elusive and plays with better, more consistent contact balance. Among qualifiers, McBride finished seventh in all of FBS a season ago with 76 missed tackles forced. 

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Landers is such a Seahawks project. I absolutely love it. GM John Schneider loves himself a developmental freak of an athlete at seemingly every position, and he has that with Landers, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound burner with 4.37 speed and nearly 11-foot broad jump explosion in his lower half. Landers did essentially all one can do in college to prove he’s a phenomenal big-play threat. He averaged 21.1 yards per grab at Toledo and Arkansas in his last two seasons before inexplicably going undrafted. Pete Carroll does not care when you were drafted or if you weren’t at all, if you can play. Landers can. Especially when asked to get vertical.

Of course, the PSPR were born out of an innate desire to highlight underappreciated players, and it’s hard to get more underappreciated than Johnson. A Georgia Southern alum, he’s right around 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds and went undrafted in 2021. Since then, he’s rocked in three-consecutive preseasons with eight pressures in each of them on a mere 190 pass-rush opportunities. In 2023, the wins were outrageously good. The Bengals decided against keeping him, and, astutely, the Lions jumped on the chance to obtain his services. Johnson simply knows how to beat blockers with calculated pass-rush moves and leveraged power. 

Honorable Mention 

Whiteheart was a blast of a YAC specialist at Wake Forest over the past few years, and he flashed in the preseason. The Cardinals roster is the most underwhelming in the NFL, so don’t be surprised if he’s one of the first call-ups of the year. 

Zonovan Knight, RB, Lions

Knight was a pre-draft favorite of mine in 2022 but went undrafted out of North Carolina State. When given the opportunity with the Jets after Breece Hall’s injury, Knight ran hard. He nearly went over 100 yards from scrimmage in his first audition for New York last year, then averaged 6.0 yards per rush in the next game. The efficiency dwindled after that, but most of the reasoning was due to a deteriorating Jets front. 

Jalen Cropper, WR, Cowboys 

Cropper was a tiny, bouncy, big-play waiting to happen at Fresno State in 2022. He had 80-plus grabs in each of his final seasons for the Bulldogs and scored 16 touchdowns. Being that productive of a touchdown-creator at 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds indicates Cropper is a gifted separator. That indication is correct. He’s sudden at all three levels. 

Rayshad Nichols, DT, Ravens

Nichols is a wide-bodied force on the interior. He just feels like a Ravens defensive tackle. He did miss some tackles in the preseason, but I love his ability to shed blocks and get upfield when needed at 6-foot-3 and 305-310 pounds. 

Patmon was a seventh-round pick by the Colts a few years ago, and has an intriguing size-speed profile at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds with 4.48 speed. In Buffalo this summer, Patmon enjoyed a strong camp, as he had three grabs for 35 yards and touchdown against his former team to begin the preseason. 

Watkins led all players in receiving yards during the regular season, and I remember him being a blast at UAB. Decently twitchy — despite a blah workout — Watkins can eventually contribute for someone this season. He’s strong in contested-catch scenarios, too. 

This content was originally published here.

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