Three Illinois Fighting Illini football players heard their names called in the 2022 NFL Draft: Kerby Joseph (3rd round, Detroit Lions), Vederian Lowe (6th round, Minnesota Vikings), and Doug Kramer (6th round, Chicago Bears). Kramer and Lowe were both expected to be drafted, as they had the experience and measurables necessary for the next level. But at this time last year I would’ve been stunned if someone had told me that Kerby Joseph would be a 2022 third-round draft pick.
As Joseph showed last year, you never really can know who’s going to burst onto the scene and emerge as a top draft candidate, but as it stands today, these are the top-2 most draft-ready Illini on offense and defense.
Palcho has been on NFL draft radars for years now, and he likely could’ve been drafted late or signed a UDFA deal in 2022 if he chose to do so. But he has a lot more to gain by showcasing his talents at Illinois for another full season. Rated the No. 13 run-blocking tackle in the country by PFF at the end of last season, Palczewski could hear his name called in the earlier rounds next year if a run-heavy NFL team like the Philadelphia Eagles or New Orleans Saints needs help on the offensive line.
His ability to play both the guard and tackle positions should help to increase his draft stock as well, since he has 36 starts at the tackle position and 16 at guard.
At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Luke Ford has the measurables that NFL scouts look for in a tight end. Ford will likely shoot up many draft boards if he can build on his 2021 production of 15 catches for 114 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Now with the departure of Daniel Barker, Ford will likely be the go-to receiving target at the tight end position. As long as he can stay healthy, keep run blocking at a high level, and become a consistent threat in the passing game, then he should garner plenty of NFL interest ahead of next year’s draft.
If any Illinois defensive player is going to make the a Kerby Joseph-like jump this season, then my money would be on Devon Witherspoon. He wasn’t the most heralded recruit coming out of Florida in 2018, and Illinois was his only Power-5 offer. But Witherspoon burst onto the scene in Illinois’ 2019 bowl-bound season, starting three games at corner while also leading the team with 13 tackles on special teams.
And who can forget the effort he showed to keep Illinois in the game against No. 6 Wisconsin that year.
Devon Witherspoon & the D saves 4 points early in the 4th quarter. 1st & goal from the 3, Badgers had to settle for a FG pic.twitter.com/5gNJ8wYj49— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 19, 2019
When a player earns multiple starts as a true freshman on a good defense, he’s going to turn heads. If he can stay healthy and continue to build on his impressive 2021 production (9 PBUs, 8.0 TFLs, and 52 tackles), then I think Witherspoon will get plenty of attention from NFL teams looking for quick and athletic corners in 2023.
With 38 starts under his belt, Brown has been an anchor in the Illinois secondary since he first saw the field as a true freshman in 2018. Last season he led the Illini with 81 total tackles, and played a role similar to former Illini and current Miami Dolphins safety Clayton Fejedelem, in that the defense was often designed in part to funnel the ball in his direction. That’s a testament to both his athleticism and his sure tackling.
Brown also displays flexibility, having started games at both safety and nickel under the previous coaching regime. The ability to master a few different looks in the secondary is definitely a plus for Sydney Brown’s draft stock, since it means that he can quickly embrace new defensive schemes at the next level.
Who will be the first Illini off the board in 2023? I think it’s one of the players above, but it could just as easily be Isaiah Williams, Chase Brown, Keith Randolph Jr., Johnny Newton, or someone else entirely.
Watching players succeed on the field and achieve their professional dreams is easily one of the best parts of following Illinois football.