The dream for any college football player is to go on stage and hug NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — a classic sign they have been picked for the spring NFL draft. While there has been a lull in success for Virginia players over the past few years, 2023 looks to be a much more promising cycle for the Cavaliers. This year’s Virginia prospects heading to the pros have each taken unique paths to get to the NFL, but are flying under the radar in a talented crop of future NFL stars..
Senior wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks
Wicks — who set Virginia’s single-season receiving yards record in 2021 with 1,203 yards -– is projected to be drafted as high as a late third-round pick. He may slip out of the third round entirely, but any team that takes a chance on Wicks will be rewarded with a high-effort instant playmaker. His deep play ability and athleticism are already above average for an NFL wide receiver.
Wicks tallied an impressive 27 catches of more than 20 yards in his phenomenal 2021 season, showcasing the aforementioned elite deep play potential. Joe Marino of the Draft Network praised Wicks’ work ethic as well.
“Wicks is ultra-competitive and tough on the football field,” Marino said. “He features exceptional ball skills and the ability to stack corners with the speed necessary to get behind them.”
Three other ACC wide receivers are currently projected to be drafted higher than Wicks, but none have more yards per catch. North Carolina’s Josh Downs, Wake Forest’s A.T. Perry and Boston College’s Zay Flowers — a potential first-round pick — averaged a career 12.3, 15.6 and 15.3 YPC respectively. Wicks’ impressive 18.8 YPC is above all three and is truly elite.
At the NFL Combine, Wicks tested in the 94th percentile in the broad jump with a 10'10 " mark — tied for ninth among this year’s wide receivers — and the 88th percentile in arm span among all wide receivers who have attended the combine since its inception in 1982. His arm span is crucial to making contested catches, which is a strong yet immensely underrated aspect of his game.
Potential landing spots for Wicks include the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears — he has pre-draft meetings scheduled with the latter two teams. Wicks’ ability to catch contested jump balls will be valuable to these offenses who like to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly.
Senior cornerback Anthony Johnson
Johnson is projected to be a late fourth-round pick, but could quickly establish himself as one of the better defensive backs from this class. At 6’1” and 205 lbs, he ranks in the 81st percentile for height and 91st for weight compared to the history of cornerbacks that have competed at the NFL Combine. Scouts have mentioned that he does not have any glaring weaknesses in his game and offers elite coverage in zone schemes.
Johnson was awarded First Team All-ACC honors this season. He may very well be the first teamer with the least hype, which is unbelievable considering he did not allow a touchdown on 361 plays in coverage — a remarkable achievement for a collegiate defensive back.
Marino compared Johnson to Rasul Douglas of the Packers, a defensive leader with a knack for making big plays. Scouting service Pro Football Focus also gave Johnson a consistent coverage grade of 82.5 for his 2022 season. Johnson was crucial in helping the Virginia defense move up an impressive 70 spots in FEI rankings from 2021 to 2022.
As a big and physical cornerback, Johnson defends on the boundary well. He is an intelligent defender with strong play recognition — skills that should serve him well at the professional level. Potential landing spots for Johnson include the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Commanders and New York Giants. He also has a pre-draft meeting scheduled with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans. These teams have historically been defense-first, but have significant holes in their defensive backfields currently — a reason to add Johnson into the fold.
Graduate student wide receiver Keytaon Thompson
As a transfer student in his fifth year of college football, Johnson’s journey to the NFL has been an interesting one, which fellow transfer Thompson can relate to.
The No. 1 quarterback recruit in Louisiana in 2017 via 247sports, Thompson chose to fill the vacancy left by Dak Prescott at Mississippi State over offers from other powerhouses like his hometown Louisiana State. After three years at Mississippi State, Thompson spent his next three at Virginia as a playmaker in whatever position was needed for the Cavaliers but will enter the draft as a wide receiver.
At 6’5”, he ranks in the 94th percentile for wide receiver height. Thompson is projected to be a seventh-round pick and could be a steal for any team looking for a versatile weapon on offense. He brought in the fourth most receptions in the ACC in 2021 and also boasts a fantastic 6.2 yards per carry as a runner. Potential landing spots for Thompson include the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens. These teams feature strong offenses full of creative sub-packages, which Thompson is able to contribute to due to his experience running gadget plays.
Former athletic quarterbacks that have transitioned to a gadget role have found success in the NFL, such as Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints. Thompson’s athleticism and ability to read a defense like a quarterback are desirable skills for professional football and are arguably the best in this class. His experience is also unparalleled as a six-year college athlete.
This batch of Virginia prospects is highly athletic and has crossed paths with significant NFL contributors. They have shown excellence at every collegiate opportunity, and are worthy of the media recognition their prospect peers have been getting.
The NFL Draft runs April 27 to April 29 on ESPN, NFL Network and ABC.