It is January. There are still NFL decisions to be made and some players will enter the portal. I am willing to make some guesses but know this will all be fluid. Some position groups are already pretty obvious, some are a complete crapshoot. But Michigan is looking at arguably its best roster in a long time. The defense is going to be a lot tougher to project than the offense with some decisions harder to project.
Let’s have some fun and see how the depth chart sits today.
READ: Way too early depth chart prediction for Michigan offense
You could argue the EDGE is the most important group in Michigan’s multiple defense. When they are playing well, with rotational depth, the Wolverines are one of the best defenses in the country.
Coming into 2022, Michigan had to replace Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. There were moments when the group was better than last year’s and when Michigan lacked the impact a force like Hutchinson can provide.
Mike Morris stepped in and had an incredible season in the strong side role replacing Hutchinson. Today, I have him entering the NFL Draft. His return would be welcomed as he would be one of the best pass rushers in the nation day 1 in 2023. Braiden McGregor and Derrick Moore would share reps if he does not return. I give the edge to McGregor right now, but I also think Moore has the potential to add weight and play a role more similar to what Hutch played in 2021, where he could play two point, 5T, or slide into 3T.
On the other side, Michigan is loaded. Eyabi Okie is returning and should take a big leap after his first full offseason with the team. Jaylen Harrell returns in his SAM role, he had flashes in the pass rush this season and continues to be one of Michigan’s better run defenders. In the transfer portal, Michigan added one of the better players available in Josaiah Stewart. Stewart has been a tackle-for-loss machine at Coastal Carolina, but he could be perfect for this defense and has double-digit sack potential.
Those five will get a significant share of the snaps, with TJ Guy and Kechaun Bennett pushing for more reps past being depth pieces. Enow Etta and Aymeric Koumba are high-ceiling prospects joining the group, but not likely to make an impact like Moore was able to make as a freshman.
The defensive line is an interesting group. The major decision here is, of course, Mazi Smith. For now, I have him entering the NFL, but like Morris at EDGE, you can’t underestimate what his return would mean.
In terms of starters, I like what Michigan has here. Mason Graham was a freshman phenom and already looked like a multi-year starter by the end of the season. He will start next year regardless of Mazi’s return, and he can play at multiple spots on the line.
The player most impacted by Mazi’s decision would be Rayshaun Benny. Benny was very good this season but not talked about as much behind Mazi and Graham. He would be the DT in Michigan’s base 3 set but is likely to face serious pressure from Kenneth Grant. Grant is a monster and with some improved leverage would be a force at the nose.
Kris Jenkins announced that he will return to Michigan, which is a massive win for the Wolverines. Long labeled a tweener, Jenkins found a home in this defense playing the end of Michigan’s 3DT fronts. The versatility he and Graham will bring is ridiculous.
Regardless of the “starter” label, those 4 would play and rotate a lot. Where things get tricky is the depth behind them. Cam Goode will return to Michigan, he is a valuable experienced depth piece that Michigan does not have a lot of. Ike Iwunnah has been praised by coaches but has not seen the field much. Michigan is adding Brooks Bahr and Roderick Pierce. I think Pierce has a chance to make an impact early, but nothing on the level of Graham.
I think the starters will be elite whether Mazi returns or not, but the depth takes a massive leap if he is back in 2023.
Decent amount of flux still with the linebacker group. The player to watch here is Michael Barrett. Harbaugh made it no secret that he would like to see Barrett return, while Barrett joked that he isn’t sure he wants to be the old man around the team. For now, I have Barrett leaving, but Barrett’s value goes far beyond his play on the field, it doesn’t get much better than him.
The WILL spot he occupied this season would be filled by Nebraska transfer Ernest Hausmann. Arguably the best portal addition of the offseason, Hausmann’s usage peaked towards the end of the season where he had 28 tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery in the Husker’s last three games. Nikhai Hill-Green will compete here as he bounces back from a brutal hamstring injury that kept him out of the 2022 season. Hill-Green is versatile and will see tons of snaps in rotations at either the WILL or MIKE in 2023.
Michigan had a talented freshman of their own rise late in the season in Jimmy Rolder. Rolder will be the primary MIKE backup to leading tackler Junior Colson. Rolder’s ascension was what allowed Kalel Mullings to finally make the move to running back in the last few games of the year. Much like the EDGE starters and backups will rotate and pair in different sets, the top 4 linebackers will get their fair share.
If Barrett does not return, this group is still rather thin. Deuce Spurlock has already entered the transfer portal and more could come from this group. Micah Pollard is the name to watch as a player who could rise and become a serious contributor. I also believe RJ Moten could see a role carved out here as an almost Viper like LB in certain packages. Moten lost the starting safety job to Makari Paige this season but saw more snaps in the box late in the year.
Michigan has a talented group of freshmen coming in, but it is never fair to expect a player to break out at LB in their first year. Although, Michigan has seen success the last two seasons from rookies with Junior Colson and Jimmy Rolder each having different levels of impact.
Another group that will come into better focus in the next few weeks. Both season-opening starters are still making their decision on whether to return to Michigan. I do think one of Green or Turner will return, but I wouldn’t be surprised if both or neither do. Getting back one or two multi-year starters on the outside is a great thing.
Either way, Will Johnson will be CB1. Johnson had an incredible freshman season that was overshadowed for the first part of the year with the play of Green, Turner, and nickel Mike Sainristil earning so much attention. By season’s end, Johnson was covering the opponent’s best receiver, leading in snap counts, and finishing as Michigan’s best-graded defensive player. Not freshman, not corner, best overall defensive player for the 2023 season.
Speaking of Sainristil, we know he is returning to Ann Arbor. Sainristil will no doubt be captain again, and the vocal leader of the Michigan defense. The success of the Sainristil transition to defense was discussed at length all season. Just an incredible job by him. His pass deflection of Ohio State TE Cade Stover will be replayed for decades.
Things get complicated behind the top 4. This is a group that could still see attrition, or possibly an addition, with the transfer portal. Ja’Den McBurrows is a talented physical corner who has struggled to stay healthy and see the field since his injury late in 2021. He has the potential to be a serious contributor if he can get to the field in 2023. Kechaun Harris saw decent snap counts in a depth role this year.
The Wolverines bring in talented freshmen Jyaire Hill and Cameron Calhoun who will be pushing for playing time early and throughout the season. Michigan could also use Rod Moore at corner more in 2023, or players I currently have at safety like Zeke Berry and Keon Sabb.
As I said with corner, there is a chance of transfer portal loss here, but it’s a group with a good mix of experience and up-and-coming talent.
Rod Moore leads the group, a versatile secondary member and arguably Michigan’s best tackler. Moore and Sainristil essentially split the Dax Hill role this last season, and it will be interesting to see that mix and usage in 2023.
There weren’t many stories better than Makari Paige this season. Paige had been the subject of transfer rumors since his difficult 2020 season, but instead, he pushed through, earned a starting role, and at many points during the season was playing more and grading out better than Rod Moore. He could be in line for a huge season as the strong safety in this versatile defense.
RJ Moten is an intriguing name here. I mentioned him earlier as a player who could carve out his role as an LB/S. Michigan runs a lot of 3 safety looks and Moten’s versatility is valuable. I expect Caden Kolesar to return from injury as well. Michigan’s best special teams player, Kolesar was looking at a solid rotational role in the defense before getting hurt last year.
Behind all this experience are some talented sophomores looking to earn their roles in the defense. Keon Sabb is a player too good, and Michigan simply needs to find a place for them. Much like Moten, Sabb has the physical tools to play a hybrid-like position, but he has higher potential in coverage. Zeke Berry is another young player with tons of versatility, solid in coverage but with speed and physicality. Damani Dent spent 2022 recovering from an injury but should not be slept on either.
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