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An early look at UNC’s 2023 NFL Draft prospects

At risk of jinxing this year’s UNC headliner, let’s run through the players who might be joining the pros a year from now

NCAA Football: Duke’s Mayo Bowl-South Carolina at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s now been a week since the NFL Draft began, and we’ve all hopefully at least started to move past the shock of Sam Howell dropping all the way to the 5th round of this year’s edition, among 4 Tar Heels who were eventually drafted. And while we’ve still got a whole season of college football to preview, analyze, and experience first, it can’t hurt to take a look ahead and see who from UNC’s 2022 team might be putting on an NFL hat a year from now.

The Locks

Josh Downs, Wide Receiver

Downs is probably getting even more hype than Howell was last year from draft evaluators — while Howell was supposed to be among the best of a weak QB class, Downs is right at the top of another phenomenal wide receiver group (to be fair, I’m not sure we’re going to see a down year for receivers for some time). I’ve seen at least 3 way-too-early 2023 mock drafts that have him going in the first round, and one that even has him going top 10. Top 10 might be a little rich for him to me, but I think the first-round hype is completely earned, and unlike with Howell, there are a lot fewer questions he needs to answer to pay it off.

Downs’ incredible stop-start and change-of-direction acceleration, intelligent and nuanced route running, and very good top-end speed help him get open at all three levels versus zone or man and be absolutely lethal after the catch. He’s got insane body control (see this layout touchdown against Virginia) and better jump-ball ability than you’d think at his height, balanced out by a reported 42” vertical. There will be questions about his height and if it relegates him to the slot, but those questions are easier to answer in a post-Tyreek Hill world. He’s not a perfect prospect — his hands are fine, but not drop-proof, and he does body catch sometimes and limit his catch radius — but few are, and he’s got a lot going for him.

Projection: Late 1st - Early 2nd Rounds

Myles Murphy, Defensive Tackle

UNC’s defense was pretty bleak all-around last year, with several promising players regressing and the whole unit not really working as a cohesive whole. But one of the few bright spots was the emergence of Myles Murphy anchoring the defensive line. He led UNC’s defensive front with 38 tackles, was second on the team with 9 tackles for loss and 4 sacks, and batted down 3 passes in his first year of full-time action. Murphy impressed with his strength against the meat of opposing offensive lines, getting push as a pass rusher and run stopper. He struggled with his consistency and with finishing plays, but when the UNC defense made a good play in the offensive backfield, Murphy was nearly always involved.

He’s poised to really break out as a junior, with an offseason of knowing what works for him and what doesn’t, improving his conditioning for consistency, and getting better as a tackler. But a lot of his value, as a 2-gap defensive tackle, is going to become clear with a hopefully improved and more cohesive defensive front, and I fully expect that he’ll prove himself as an NFL-ready anchor for a defensive interior.

Projection: 4th Round

The Probably-Maybes

Tony Grimes, Cornerback

Grimes made an impact late in his true freshman season, when he should have still been in high school, with a couple of highlight plays including one ridiculous pick, and general excellence in coverage. A lot was expected of him in 2021, but the aforementioned defensive discombobulation certainly didn’t do him any favors. Grimes was still good, leading UNC’s passing defense by a wide margin in PFF Coverage grade, but he wasn’t the playmaker that had been promised, and found himself on the wrong end of a lot of big plays because he expected safety help where there wasn’t any. He did lead his team with 9 passes defensed, but didn’t record a single interception, and his physical style got him in penalty trouble, to boot. He also drew a lot of ire for his reluctance to get physical in the run game, often not making huge efforts to get off of wide receivers or turtling on the edge instead of trying to make a solid tackle. Despite all that, he’s clearly talented and has some lockdown ability as a cornerback, and a change of defensive coordinator could do him wonders and help him recapture some of that old magic.

Ja’Qurious Conley, Safety

Conley is an absolute beast around the line of scrimmage. He’s probably UNC’s best force defender in the run game and gets to outside screens in a hurry. He’s a ferocious tackler and plays with abandon with the ball in front of him. That’s more a linebacker’s skillset for the next level than a safety’s, though, and Conley’s a smidge small to play linebacker, even as the kind of moneybacker-type that’s gained some purchase in the NFL. Conley’s still working on his coverage ability, but he was very often torched by tight ends last year and is going to have to improve that part of his game a fair bit to make himself a legitimate NFL prospect. He’s also currently recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL, so that has to be taken into account.

The Long Shots

Antoine Green, Wide Receiver

Antoine Green’s career at UNC so far has been a combination of rotten injury luck and waiting for the light to come on as he recovered from those injuries and tried to recapture the traits that made him a 4-star prospect. In the back half of last year, though, something started to click for him, and in four of UNC’s five last FBS games, Green had at least 3 catches for at least 70 yards apiece, adding 4 of his 5 touchdowns in that span as well. For the season, he caught 31 passes for 612 yards (19.7 yards per catch), finishing the season with a respectable #2 line thanks to his end-of-season spurt. He’s still got promise as a next-level receiver with his speed, deep-ball tracking ability, and hands, but he’s got to put together a full season of productivity to have a chance at being drafted, and with a much less crowded receivers’ room than last year, he’s got every chance to make it happen. A good first step would be improving his short-intermediate route running.

Cedric Gray, Linebacker

Gray seized the reins of UNC’s second interior linebacker spot about a quarter of the way through the season and more than acquitted himself in his first time playing serious minutes, leading the team in tackles with 99 to go with 2 interceptions, 2.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss. Gray will be relied on to fill the on-field leadership void left by Jeremiah Gemmel, who’s now with the San Francisco 49ers, and could join the recent lineage of UNC linebackers to go pro if he continues to excel. I’m not sure how he’ll deal with an expanded role, though, and he might not be quite ready for the NFL after less than 2 years of starting.

The Rest

Kamari Morales at tight end is a pretty good blocker and was a reliable chain-mover for the Heels last year, but that might be his ceiling, and at 6’1, he’s more H-back than tight end for the next level — he’s good at what he does, but that might just end up being not enough for the NFL. Noah Spencer at edge defender and Corey Gaynor and Spencer Rolland on the offensive line are all graduate transfers who could end up prospering in new environments the same way Ty Chandler did. Des Evans put together some good games late last season and could be primed to break out in a reportedly simplified role where he’ll just be attacking the ball as a 3-4 defensive end rather than checking into coverage when it’s called for as an outside linebacker, but he’s still got to refine his technique and develop some real pass-rushing moves if he wants a shot at the next level.