2023 NFL Draft Wrap-Up: Bears, Wildcats, Fighting Illini All Solid

Written By C.J. Pierre on May 3, 2023
Darnell Wright, Chicago Bears and Devon Witherspoon Seattle Seahawks

The 2023 NFL Draft is in the books. And the state of Illinois was well represented over the weekend.

The Chicago Bears prioritized building around quarterback Justin Fields. The team appears poised to make a splash in the NFC North this upcoming season.

Meanwhile, both the University of Illinois and Northwestern University saw several players land on NFL teams — including the fifth and 11th overall picks, respectively.

Both the Fighting Illini and the Wildcats will have several holes to fill. However, a number of NFL teams have got to feel good about the additions they’ve made to their teams.

Bears had a very strong draft

The Chicago Bears drafted 10 new members to their roster. For general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus, this concludes their second draft together.

Day 1 (Round 1)

  • 1st round, 10th overall: Tennessee OL Darnell Wright

Day 2 (Rounds 2 & 3)

  • 2nd round, 53rd overall: Florida DL Gervon Dexter Sr.
  • 2nd round, 56th overall: Miami DB Tyrique Stevenson
  • 3rd round, 64th overall: South Carolina DL Zacch Pickens

Day 3 (Rounds 4-7)

  • 4th round, 115th overall: Texas RB Roschon Johnson
  • 4th round, 133rd overall: Cincinnati WR Tyler Scott
  • 5th round, 148th overall: Oregon LB Noah Sewell
  • 5th round, 165th overall: Minnesota DB Terell Smith
  • 7th round, 218th overall: Kennesaw State DL Travis Bell
  • 7th round, 258th overall: Stanford DB Kendall Williamson

It’s almost impossible to evaluate this rookie group considering they haven’t even stepped on a practice field, yet. However, it appears the Bears are bringing in some impact players to support Justin Fields and the rest of the squad.

Chicago used its first selection to shore up a glaring hole at right tackle with Darnell Wright with the No. 10 overall pick. They later added a couple of weapons in running back Roschon Johnson and wide receiver Tyler Scott on Day 3. Both possess big-play potential and could develop into starters down the road.

They also stocked up on defense, selecting players both on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield. They were not able to draft an edge rusher, so there is still one glaring hole that needs to be filled somehow. However, with Aaron Rodgers being traded from the Green Bay Packers to the New York Jets, the NFC North feels wide open.

The Bears will have to pay the piper as they retool this roster. The NFLPA released a memo detailing the allotment of money each team is slated to spend on the 2023 NFL draft class. On that list, the Bears finished with the 11th-most total money due to their rookies, coming in just under $68 million in total.

Seahawks draft Illini CB Devon Witherspoon with the No. 5 overall pick

The first Illinois connection to appear in the NFL Draft came quickly. With the fifth overall pick, the Seattle Seahawks selected Devon Witherspoon, a cornerback from the University of Illinois. Many draft experts rated Witherspoon as the best cornerback in this draft class. He should fit in just fine with head coach Pete Carroll.

The 5′ 11 defensive back became one of the top defenders on the nation’s top-scoring defense in 2022. Witherspoon received first-team Associated Press All-American honors and was named Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year after recording 17 pass breakups, three interceptions and 41 tackles in 12 starts.

Witherspoon is the highest draft pick out of the University of Illinois since 1996. In fact, only five players out of Illinois have been drafted higher than Witherspoon.

In 1996, a pair of Fighting Illini teammates went back to back at picks No. 2 and No. 3. Linebacker Kevin Hardy went No. 2 to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and pass rusher Simeon Rice went No. 3 to the Arizona Cardinals. There were two others taken with the third overall pick. Joe Rutgens was drafted third by the then-Washington Redskins in 1961, and Hall of Famer Dick Butkus was drafted by the Bears in 1965.

Only one fighting Illini player has ever been selected No. 1 overall. In 1990, the Indianapolis Colts selected Jeff George with the first pick. He didn’t have a spectacular career. However, he did go on to play in the NFL for 14 seasons. He was drafted ahead of future Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Shannon Sharpe. Let’s hope Witherspoon can reach success similar to what Butkus reached.

Four Illini taken in the 2023 NFL Draft, six sign as undrafted free agents

Along with Witherspoon, three other former Fighting Illini were selected in the draft. The Washington Commandeers took defensive back Jartavius Martin in the second round. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles selected safety Sydney Brown in the third round. Lastly, the Cincinnati Bengals took Sydney’s twin brother, running back Chase Brown, in the fifth round.

Chase and Sydney Brown became the ninth twins to be selected in the same NFL Draft and only the third set to be picked within the first five rounds.

Illinois was the only team to have three defensive backs off the board in the first three rounds. They also saw two top 50 picks from the school for the first time since A.J. Jenkins and Whitney Mercilus went in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Illinois’ four picks in the first five rounds ties the program record set in 2003 and 2012.

Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema has 51 NFL Draft picks during his head coaching career, which is among the top 10 in the nation for active head coaches. Witherspoon was Bielema’s seventh first-rounder and the second-highest pick of Bielema’s head coaching career.

Also, several former Illini players will look to keep their pursuit of an NFL career alive. Six were signed to undrafted free agent contracts, while two have received invitations to an NFL mini camp.

Post-Draft Signings – Illinois

  • DT Calvin Avery, Minnesota (UDFA)
  • LB Isaac Darkangelo, Detroit (UDFA)
  • QB Tommy DeVito, New York Giants (UDFA)
  • OL Alex Palczewski, Denver (UDFA)
  • OL Alex Pihlstrom, New Orleans (UDFA)
  • DB Kendall Smith, Washington (UDFA)
  • TE Luke Ford, New York Jets (Mini Camp Invite)
  • DT Jamal Woods, Indianapolis (Mini Camp Invite)

Four Northwestern players taken, including Skoronski 11th overall

Peter Skoronski (George Walker IV / AP Photo)
Peter Skoronski (George Walker IV / AP Photo)

For the first time since 1985, four Northwestern players were drafted. The group was led by 6’4″, 313-pound junior left tackle Peter Skoronski, who was taken 11th overall by the Tennessee Titans.

The All-American is the highest-drafted player from Northwestern since 1983. That year, offensive tackle Chris Hinton was taken fourth overall by the Denver Broncos.

The last Wildcat to go in the first round was cornerback Greg Newsome II, who was taken 26th overall in 2021 by the Cleveland Browns.

The other Northwestern players taken this year were:

  • DL Adetomiwa Adebawore — Indianapolis Colts, Round 4, Pick 10
  • DB Cameron Mitchell — Cleveland Browns, Round 5, Pick 142
  • RB Evan Hull — Indianapolis Colts, Round 5, Pick 176

12 Illinois prospects have their dreams come true

One final nod to the local prospects living out their dreams after being drafted. Twelve players selected in the 2023 NFL Draft played their high school ball in Illinois.

  • Lukas Van Ness, Barrington
  • Cameron Mitchell, Bolingbrook
  • Zaire Barnes, Carmel (Mundelein)
  • Charlie Jones, Deerfield
  • Antonio Johnson, East St. Louis
  • Sam LaPorta, Highland
  • John Michael Schmitz, Homewood-Flossmoor (Flossmoor)
  • Peter Skoronski, Maine South (Park Ridge)
  • Raymond Vohasek, McHenry
  • Jayden Reed, Naperville Central (Naperville)
  • Nick Broeker, Sacred Heart-Griffin (Springfield)
  • Aidan O’Connell, Stevenson (Lincolnshire)
Photo by AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh and Lindsey Wasson
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C.J. Pierre

C.J. Pierre is a Lead Writer at Play Illinois. He has been covering news and sports for over a decade for both online and TV broadcasts. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN and is an alum of Minnesota State University: Moorhead. He recently dove into tribal casino and online gambling news. He also covered the launch of sports betting in Arizona. C.J. has experience as a reporter and videographer and has covered high school, college and professional sports throughout his career, most notably following Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Vikings and North Dakota State University football.

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