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Notre Dame Football

Part II: Ranking the positions Notre Dame has developed the best based on 2023 NFL success

January 16, 2024
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Here’s a ranking of the positions the Fighting Irish coaching staff can most easily sell to prospective recruits based on how former Notre Dameplayers performed in the 2023 NFL season.

The position groups are listed from worst to best.

There’s at least one current or recent star-caliber player in each of the top seven positions. Overall, Notre Dame has eight alumni who are 2023 pro bowlers or alternates, four of whom garnered first- or second-team All-Pro honors.

If you missed Part I, below is the ranking for the bottom six position groups:

▪️ No. 13 Quarterback

▪️ No. 12 Cornerback

▪️ No. 11 Wide Receiver

▪️ No. 10 Edge Rusher

▪️ No. 9 Defensive Tackle

▪️ No. 8 Center

No. 7 Offensive Line

▪️ Ronnie Stanley - Baltimore Ravens (Starter)

▪️ Mike McGlinchey - Denver Broncos (Starter)

From a financial perspective, selling Stanley’s and McGlinchey's success must be easy. In 14 combined seasons, they’ve made $150 million (with two-thirds coming from Stanley), 

It might be fair to drop them a spot or two on this list, but they’re two highly-paid starters at one of the NFL’s premier positions, which counts for a lot. 

Stanley only started 13 games this fall and hasn’t played every snap in a contest in October, splitting reps while recovering from various injuries. Those ailments limited him on the field.

A few years ago, he was arguably the NFL’s best pass blocker. Only this year, he allowed career worsts by allowing four sacks and 30 quarterback pressures. 

Based on Pro Football Focus grades, McGlinchey’s M.O. hasn’t changed. He continues to be an agile run blocker more than capable of getting to the second level, but he struggles in pass protection. 

In 16 games, he allowed 49 pressures (tied for the sixth-worst among tackles) and six sacks.

Maybe at times, he lacked the motivation to block for a notoriously lousy teammate in Broncos' soon-to-be ex-QB Russell Wilson (I’m kidding — mostly).

On the bright side, there are still four years and plenty of guaranteed money left on his deal. 

Marcus Freeman and Co. need little help convincing blue-chip offensive tackle prospects to come to Notre Dame, but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt to let them know there’s a chance they’ll one day make $100 million in the NFL. 

No. 6 Linebacker

▪️ Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah - Cleveland Browns (Starter)

▪️ Drue Tranquill - Kansas City Chiefs (Starter)

▪️ Jaylon Smith - Pittsburgh Steelers (Practice Squad)

Even among modern NFL backers, Owusu-Koramoah seems to be a unicorn. His third season with the Cleveland Browns was by far his best, with him amassing 101 tackles, 21.5 stuffs, 20 TFL, six pass deflections, 3.5 sacks, two picks and a forced fumble.

Simply put, he’s a DUDE who makes plays all over the gridiron, especially in the opponent’s backfield. 

He finished fourth in tackles for loss. The three players ahead of him were Maxx Crosby, Danielle Hunter and Khalil Mack — all edge rushers with at least 35 pounds on Owusu-Koramoah. 

Owusu-Koramoah was named an alternate for the 2024 NFL Pro Bowl, but I’d argue this is a snub (clearly, so would at least one NFL.com writer). 

In the offseason, Tranquill signed with Kansas City for $2.9 million to backup middle linebacker Nick Bolton.

Only Bolton spent a large chunk of the season on IR recovering from a dislocated wrist, providing Tranquill with an opportunity to lead the NFL’s second-best scoring defense. He finished the regular season with 78 tackles, 25 stuffs, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 7 QB hits, two force fumbles and a pass deflection.

He performed so well that Chiefs' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo moved him to outside linebacker once Bolton returned to keep Tranquill in the starting lineup

Tranquill also earned the respect of his uber-famous teammates. 

"When you think of a football guy, this is who I’m talking about, man,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said of Tranquill. “He has every brace. he doesn’t give a f$#%# how he feels. He’s gonna go out there and play some @$#%# football, and he’s gonna do it for the guy next to him. That’s my kind of football player right there, man.

"Tranq has brought the mentality. He’s brought the smarts. He’s brought the athleticism and just fits into this defensive mold, especially with a stud like Nick Bolton going down. It’s going to be awesome to have both of those guys on the field at the same time."

Smith has bounced around the NFL ever since the Dallas Cowboys released him in 2021. He began the season on the New Orleans Saints practice squad. On Nov. 2, the Las Vegas Raiders signed to its active roster to play in one game before releasing him by the end of the month. 

He’s on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad.

The trio has earned less up to this point in their careers than McGlinchey, but it’s impossible to ignore their on-the-field production for two of the NFL’s best defenses. Besides, Notre Dame has signed a borderline-five star linebacker in the last three classes, so clearly linebacker recruiting isn’t lacking. 

No. 5 Specialists

▪️ J.J. Jansen - Carolina Panthers (Starter)

▪️ Scott Daly - Detroit Lions (Injured Reserve)

▪️ Brandon Aubrey - Dallas Cowboys (Starter)

▪️ Blake Grupe - New Orleans Saints (Starter)

Maybe it’s cheating to include Aubrey, a former Notre Dame soccer player who never actually donned a gold helmet for the Fighting Irish, but the program often features him in social media posts, so I will, too!

Aubrey produced one of the greatest rookie seasons by a kicker ever. He made the first 35 field goal attempts of his career, setting an NFL record for consecutive kicks made in the process before the Washington Commander’s Joshua Pryor blocked his 32-yard attempt in the regular-season finale.

The Cowboys' rookie finished the season connecting on 36 of 38 field goal attempts (95%), which included making a 60-yarder and all 10 attempts of 50 yards or greater. His success garnered him first-team All-Pro honors.

Jansen carved out another quality season in Carolina and continues to cash NFL paychecks. The 38-year-old has amassed $15.1 million in 16 seasons, making the former Pro Bowler the biggest career earner among active NFL long snappers. He also owns the record for the most games played in Panthers’ uniform.

Meanwhile, Grupe experienced an up-and-down rookie campaign, making 81% of field goal attempts (27th) without missing an extra point, but he remained the Saints starter for the entire season and made his final six field goal attempts of the year. 

Daly served as the Lions’ long snapper for the first eight games of 2023 before suffering a season-ending knee injury

Still, the Irish boast two of the premier specialists in the league (I’m not sure who is technically the best long snapper, but as long as Jansen isn’t shanking snaps over the punter’s head, I think career earnings is the most critical barometer in his profession), which I assume means something to high school kickers and long snappers.

No. 4 Tight End

▪️ Cole Kmet - Chicago Bears (Starter)

▪️ Michael Mayer - Las Vegas Raiders (Starter)

▪️ Durham Smythe - Miami Dolphins (Starter)

▪️ Tommy Tremble - Carolina Panthers (Starter)

▪️ Brock Wright - Detroit Lions (Second String)

Four different former Notre Dame tight ends were the everyday starters for their respective teams in 2023. The fifth, Brock Wright, garnered a significant role with the Detroit Lions.

                                     2023 Stats for Former Notre Dame Tight Ends in the NFL
Tight End Games Catches Yards Scores
Cole Kmet 17 73 719

6

Durham Smythe 16 35 366 -
Michael Mayer 14 27 304 2
Tommy Tremble 16 23 194 3
Brock Wright 14 13 91 1
Total: 77 171 1,674 12

Kmet is the best of the group by far. This fall, he ranked sixth among NFL tight ends with 73 receptions during the regular season for 719 yards (9th) and six touchdowns (T-2nd). 

I don’t think I’m alone in my suspicion that Kmet’s numbers could be even better in a more efficient offense. Bears quarterback Justin Fields showed promise but completed just 61.4% of his passes (43rd among NFL signal-callers).

Mayer had a solid rookie season, but other first-year tight ends overshadowed his performance. Dalton Kincaid (Bills) and Sam LaPorta (Lions) both doubled Mayer’s production this fall, but the former Irish tight end saw a noticeable uptick in targets once coach Josh McDaniels was fired, so there’s still hope for the future. 

Smythe, Tremble and Wright were used primarily as blockers and are putting together solid NFL careers doing so. That’s especially true for Smythe, who’s on his second NFL contract and is set to make a cool $3.3 million each of the next two seasons.

The biggest knock against this group is that they’re falling short of Notre Dame’s “Tight End U” moniker compared to other prominent programs like Iowa and Miami. The Hurricanes have a Pro Bowl tight end in Cleveland’s David Njoku, while both NFC tight ends played for the Hawkeyes.

On the bright side, that probably won’t hurt tight end recruiting much, even when Iowa is in the mix. Just ask rising junior tight end Eli Raridon. 

No. 3 Running Back

▪️ Kyren Williams - Los Angeles Rams (Starter)

▪️ Tony Jones, Jr. - Arizona Cardinals (Futures Contract)

Maybe I’m ranking this position too high based on the success of one player, but Williams was magnificent this fall. 

He produced the best season by a former Irish running back in 25 years. 

In just 12 games, Williams racked up 1,350 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. The latter is the third most among NFL skill players in 2023 and the most touchdowns by a Notre Dame running back in at least 30 years (I only had time to go back so far in my research).

He picked up 1,144 yards and 12 scores on the ground while averaging 5.0 yards per rush, which tied for third among running backs with at least 150 carries. 

Who is the last former Notre Dame running back to go over 1,000 rushing yards in a season? 

Ryan Grant ran for 1,253 and 11 touchdowns in 2009 for the Green Bay Packers.

In the last 30 years, only six Notre Dame running backs have produced a 1,000-yard season in the NFL: Williams, Grant, Julius Jones, Jerome Bettis, Ricky Watters and Anthony Johnson.

I’d still argue that Williams’ 2023 season is the best by a former Notre Dame running back since 1997 when Jerome Bettis finished among the top five in NFL MVP votes in back-to-back seasons (Incredibly, Bettis, Watters and Johnson each eclipsed 1,000 rush yards in 1996. Watters also made his fifth-consecutive Pro Bowl that fall while leading the league with 1,855 yards from scrimmage.).

Williams was immensely valuable to the Ram's success this fall. 

“I don't think it's by mistake that we're at our best when he's a part of this offense and when he's playing,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “It's apparent. You can just look at all the games when he's been there and when he hasn't, and it's very different. I'm very grateful for him. 

“I love the approach that he has every single day, and this guy is exactly what we want in Rams.”

Jones Jr. has struggled to find a home since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2020. In seven games split between the Cardinals and Saints this fall, he registered 132 yards from scrimmage and two scores. 

Still, that means in 19 games, Williams and Jones have a combined 1,482 yards and 17 touchdowns. That’s five more scores and less than 200 yards fewer than all five tight ends over 77 games. 

For that reason alone, I gave the third-place spot to Notre Dame’s former running backs. 

No. 2 Offensive Guard

▪️ Zack Martin - Dallas Cowboys (Starter)

▪️ Quenton Nelson - Indianapolis Colts (Starter)

▪️ Aaron Banks - San Francisco 49ers (Starter)

▪️ Tommy Kraemer - New Orleans Saints (Second String)

Martin continues to pad his already Hall-of-Fame-ready resume. The Dallas Cowboys right guard and 10-year NFL veteran garnered first-team All-Pro honors for the seventh time in his career. He also owns two second-team All-Pro designations.

Before the season, Martin held out for more money. He incurred over $1 million in fines, but the decision to sit out paid off. He signed a reworked deal for $36 million between 2023 and 2024. That’s an $8.5 million pay bump, all of which is guaranteed (Oh, and it still only makes him the eighth-highest paid guard in the NFL, so clearly the greatest interior lineman of the last decade was justified in sitting out.).

It’s unclear how much longer the 33-year-old will play, but he’s already cemented himself as an all-time great.

Nelson once seemed like the logical choice to carry on Martin’s legacy. He made first-team All-Pro in each of his first three seasons and second-team All-Pro in 2021.

Only, he’s taken a step back in recent years. In 2022, he allowed five sacks — more than he gave up in his first four seasons combined. 

This fall, he returned to form in pass protection, but he still isn’t the dominant run blocker he was three years ago. 

That said, Nelson still made his sixth Pro Bowl, but seeing him regress is odd.

Banks started 14 games for the San Francisco 49ers this fall, creating gaps in the defense for the NFL’s leading rusher, Christian McCaffrey, to run through. The 49ers were tied for first in rushing touchdowns this season.

Lastly, Kraemer went back and forth between the Saints’ practice squad and active roster, playing in four games in 2023. 

In my initial article draft, I ranked offensive guard No. 1 overall. How could I not? 

Then, I did the research.

If Nelson were still playing at an All-Pro level, that’d probably still be the case, but the players at my No. 1 overall position group were too good in 2023. 

No. 1 Safety

▪️ Harrison Smith - Minnesota Vikings (Starter)

▪️ Kyle Hamilton - Baltimore Ravens (Starter)

▪️ Julian Love - Seattle Seahawks (Starter)

▪️ Alohi Gilman - Los Angeles Chargers (Starter)

▪️ Matthias Farley - Carolina Panthers (Second String)

▪️ Brandon Joseph - Detroit Lions (Practice Squad)

▪️ Jalen Elliott - Pittsburgh Steelers (Practice Squad)

The position group has it all. A budding star. A future Hall of Famer. A gritty, often-overlooked pro bowler. A quality starter. A journeyman. A pair of practice squad members. 

Hamilton is making general managers look foolish for passing on him in the 2022 NFL Draft, where he fell to the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 14 overall pick.

In 2023, he produced a ridiculous stat line over 15 games, recording 81 tackles, 13 pass deflections (T-1st among safeties), four picks, 10 TFL (1st among safeties), 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble. 

Sheesh. No wonder he earned first-team All-Pro honors in his sophomore campaign. 

He’s also a media favorite in Baltimore, which matters far more than his on-the-field accolades. Am I right?

Love gets a bit overshadowed, but he finished the season fourth among safeties in total tackles with 123 tackles, to go along with four interceptions, 10 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and a tackle for loss.

His play this fall earned him his first Pro Bowl nod.

Love also currently looks like a genius for his hot take on Nick Sirianni last fall, claiming the Eagles' head coach “was getting a free ride” due to the immense talent on his team. 

Philadelphia began the fall 10-1 before finishing the season 1-5 and losing to quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the playoffs. 

Gilman also had the best season of his career over 14 games, registering 73 tackles, 10 pass deflections, three forced fumbles, two picks and two tackles for loss. 

Maybe Smith isn’t playing at an elite level anymore, but the former first-team All-Pro safety is still damn good. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate in his 12th season.

Farley went undrafted in 2016, and few expected him to have an NFL career. Yet here we are eight years later, and he’s still worked his way onto an active roster. He played in five games for the Panthers this fall, started one of them and recorded nine tackles. 

Joseph and Elliott spent most of the season on their team’s respective practice squads. 

In 2023, Notre Dame’s safeties garnered a first-team All-Pro nod and two Pro Bowl invites while totaling 379 tackles, 36 pass deflections, 15 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions (more than eight NFL teams had this fall), nine forced fumbles (more than four teams) and 6.0 sacks.

Simply put, it’s difficult to imagine a group of safeties from any other school producing at the same level Notre Dame did this fall.

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