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2023 NFL Draft Matchup Preview: 5 Games in California to Watch This Season – Sports Illustrated

In preparing for the NFL draft, professional scouts travel the country to find talent. This year, like every other year, plenty of scouts will flock to the west coast to get a better sense of which college athletes merit a pick in the draft. In particular, California is always a hot spot for scouts—the Golden State boasts seven FBS-level programs, a few of which regularly produce NFL-caliber players.
This week’s 2023 NFL Draft matchup preview takes a geographical angle. In this piece, I preview five of the best upcoming matchups this season in college football between top 2023 NFL Draft prospects. But there’s a catch: each matchup must take place in a game that will be played in the State of California. If you’re in California during football season this year, consider getting out to one of these games.
The games are listed in the order in which they will be played. As a quick refresher, the following FBS programs are based in California:
My colleague Jack Borowsky wrote up an excellent preview of the top FCS prospects in the 2023 NFL draft class, which I highly recommend. One of the players he discussed was UC Davis tight end McCallan Castles, who garnered second-team All-Big Sky conference honors in 2021. Castles has an NFL frame and impressive athleticism for the position, and he will likely be the most difficult player on UC Davis to cover this season. When UC Davis upset Tulsa to start off last season, Castles scored the team’s only touchdown while racking up 44 yards on four catches. With his big body and reliable hands (he makes some terrific catches), Castles should at least be a hot commodity as an undrafted free agent. This game is actually a return for Castles, who started his career at Cal.
He is not going to have an easy day when UC Davis opens up the season against Cal. Daniel Scott is one of the best (yet least talked-about) safeties in America, and Cal would be wise to assign Scott to shadow Castles for the length of the game. Scott is older than most prospects (he will turn 24 during the season), but his sheer ability will keep him on draft boards across the league. Curiously, he did not earn any all-conference honors, despite leading Cal in tackles and pacing all safeties in the Pac-12 in the category as well. To its credit, Pro Football Focus named Scott a first-team all-Pac-12 player. Scott is an instinctive safety and a sure tackler who plays a well-rounded game. He could end up getting picked anywhere from the third to the fifth round, although his advanced age may be a reason he falls. In this game, keep an eye on linebacker Jackson Sirmon, a transfer from Washington who is trying to break into the conversation of linebacker prospects.
Get ready for the Jordan Addison show this season in Los Angeles. Addison’s matchup with Kelly is not the only one that will be worthwhile viewing—I also highlighted his upcoming battle with Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III as one to watch. That game, however, will be in Utah. A preview of the California-based draft prospects would be incomplete without mention of Addison, but the main question here was whether to pick the Stanford game or Addison’s matchup against Notre Dame corner Cam Hart at home in November.
In the end, the tie went to the other California team. The case for Addison is easy: He’s the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner and the crown jewel of a USC transfer class that is arguably the best in college football. He’ll pair with quarterback Caleb Williams in new head coach Lincoln Riley’s offense and should put up big numbers; he looks like a first-round pick, at least for right now. As for Kelly, he is a well-built, physical corner who promises to cause fits for Addison. Kelly is a bit handsy in coverage, which can be a good or bad thing depending who you ask (he likely would have been a great fit, for example, in the old Seahawks Legion of Boom defense alongside Stanford alum Richard Sherman). If the draft were today, he would probably be a second-round pick in this loaded class of cornerbacks. But he has the potential to rise if he can demonstrate mastery of the technical aspects of playing corner, and his matchup against the slippery Addison will be a great test.
It’s not yet clear what position Vorhees will play at the next level, but he probably projects best as an interior offensive lineman. He is a mammoth blocker who has played well at both guard and tackle for USC. Now back for his redshirt senior season, he is well-positioned to shoot up draft boards. Depending where he ends up playing this season for the Trojans, Vorhees will have some intriguing matchups. If he finds his way to left tackle, his games against Colorado (with EDGE Terrance Lang) and UCLA (with EDGE Grayson Murphy) will both give us some important tape on Vorhees. But assuming he plays inside, the Arizona State game should be meaningful. Vorhees could go either on Day 2 or early on Day 3 in next year’s draft.
The Sun Devils landed Silvera in the transfer portal this offseason from the University of Miami. Silvera started most of the season last year for the Hurricanes and figures to slot in immediately at the nose tackle position for Arizona State. He checks in at over 300 pounds but carries his weight well, and he was a productive player last season for Miami. Silvera is trying to break into the back end of the draft, and if he puts up a good game against Vorhees, he’ll be well on his way to doing so. The most impressive thing about Silvera, past his size, is his ability to move with impressive lateral quickness when tracking ballcarriers behind the line of scrimmage. If a rusher attempts to switch gaps, Silvera does a nice job of sticking with the play and mirroring the ballcarrier—not an easy task for someone of his size.
In all honesty, I have no idea where McKee will end up getting picked. Some eminently serious draft analysts see McKee as a first-round talent. I’m not prepared to go that far about McKee, from whom we probably need to see more. He is a big-bodied signal caller to be sure, but in his first full season last year, he only went 206 of 315 (65.4%) for 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. That said, put on the tape of McKee and you will find an accurate passer who is unafraid to fit balls into (very) tight windows. He’ll probably need a few bigger receivers at the next level who like to run fades, make back-shoulder catches, and compete for jump-balls. I probably see McKee as a third-round talent right now, but he has real upside.
McKee has a few big games coming up this season that will matter greatly for his draft stock. Unfortunately, they are mostly not in California. In particular, Stanford’s trips to Oregon and Notre Dame will be consequential for McKee. But of the games played in the Golden State, Oregon State should be a good matchup. For a quarterback who challenges cornerbacks as aggressively as McKee does, Oregon State presents a difficult situation. Two of Oregon State’s corners, Rejzohn Wright and Jaydon Grant, could get picked in next year’s NFL draft. In particular, Wright has mid-round potential; he’s a former Last Chance U standout and bigger cornerback who does an excellent job of getting his body between receivers and the football. McKee will be wise to be careful with the ball when throwing his direction.
Fresno State’s home game against Oregon State on September 10 is an honorable mention here, as Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener and wideout Jalen Cropper are both 2023 NFL Draft hopefuls. I wrote about their upcoming matchup with J.L. Skinner and Boise State here.
USC-UCLA is up there with Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma, and Alabama-Auburn as one of the best rivalries in college football. This year’s game will feature a few players who could be NFL draft picks. In a bit of a crowded running back class, Charbonnet has the tools to stand out. He is a powerful running back with a tremendous center of balance. When he’s not trucking defenders, he’s falling forward to gain every possible extra yard. Charbonnet does a good job of trusting his offensive line and running the ball within his blocking scheme—rare yet important traits for a young rusher. He seems like a fifth or sixth-round prospect, simply by virtue of the declining value that NFL teams place on the running back position.
If Charbonnet does run within his blocking scheme, he may have some trouble when running at Tuipulotu. The Trojan defensive lineman is one of the best at his position in college football. He has solid explosiveness off the line of scrimmage and does a good job diagnosing plays as they develop. For Charbonnet to make an impact against USC, he is going to have to showcase a bit of speed, elusiveness, and wiggle to get around Tuipulotu, because getting through him might be an impossible task. Tuipulotu is on the cusp of first-round consideration and figures to bully the UCLA offensive line. He’ll attempt to build on the 7.5 tackles for loss he racked up in 2021 and disrupt the Bruin running game.


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