Column | Where Pitt football’s draft-eligible players may land in the 2023 NFL Draft


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Israel Abanikanda (2) and Calijah Kancey (8) celebrate a touchdown during Pitt football’s game vs. Miami on Oct. 30, 2021 at Acrisure Stadium.

By David Scott, Staff Writer

In an up-and-down season for Pitt football, the Panthers’ top players are still showing they have what it takes to join an NFL roster. Here is an evaluation of where some of Pitt’s draft-eligible players will end up and when they’ll hear a team call their name.

Defensive lineman, Calijah Kancey

Yes, Israel Abanikanda is the best player for Pitt this year. But he will not hear his name called before any other Panther. That honor is reserved for senior defensive lineman Calijah Kancey.

The defensive tackle earned first-team All-ACC honors in the 2021 championship campaign and is well on his way to earning the honor again this year. He played in 14 games last year and registered 34 total tackles and seven sacks. Appearing in nine games this year, he compiled 26 total tackles and four sacks.

Kancey has an incredibly high ceiling. He’s already explosive and has incredible control of his body. The only thing preventing him from going earlier in the draft is his size. At 6 feet and 275 pounds, he is considered undersized for his position.

Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs at No. 29 overall

People may think Kancey’s size is an issue, but I sure don’t. Kancey will make it back-to-back years with a Pitt Panther going in the first round of the NFL Draft. The Kansas City Chiefs don’t have many needs, but the trenches are a weakness for the Chiefs, and Kancey can help them remedy it.

Running back, Israel Abanikanda

The current MVP of the Pitt football season, junior running back Israel Abanikanda is rocketing up draft boards. With 1,086 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, he is the nation’s leading rusher and a prime candidate for the Doak Walker award.

Abanikanda brings a lot of upside to the table. To start, he is young, not turning 21 until October 2023, and he can play longer at a position that typically lacks consistency. He also is an ideal size for the position, at 5 foot 11 inches and 215 pounds, boasting a solid yet compact frame. To go along with that, he has explosive acceleration paired with a good top speed. 

The only areas of improvement NFL scouts will look for are his pass-catching and pass-blocking abilities. This year he has seven catches for 109 yards and one touchdown in the passing game, which aren’t bad numbers, but he can make more of an impact catching balls. 

Prediction: Miami Dolphins at No. 58 overall

If he continues at his current pace, I can see Abanikanda sneaking into the back of the second round to a team looking to take a flier on a potential franchise running back. The Miami Dolphins feel like a perfect landing spot for him. They haven’t had a true franchise back since Ricky Williams. Abanikanda could slot into a high-octane offense that heavily involves the running back position.

Safety, Erick Hallett II

Senior Erick Hallett II looks well positioned to become the next successful defensive back out of Pitt. Currently a semi-finalist for the Thorpe Award, Hallett is continuing his breakout since being named the MVP of the ACC Championship Game. He has three interceptions, nine pass deflections, three tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries in nine games this year.

Hallett has the ability to serve as a productive starter in the NFL. If he continues to be a lockdown safety for the remainder of the year he will only continue to rise up draft boards.

Prediction: Detroit Lions at No. 67 overall

Hallett fills a need for a Detroit Lions team that is desperate for defensive help. Besides an early quarterback, I can see the Lions using their draft picks to bolster their defense and Hallett being a part of that plan.

Linebacker, SirVocea Dennis

Senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis is consistently impressive and continues to improve from year to year. He put together a fantastic season in the 2021 championship campaign and has built upon that success in 2022.

In nine games he has 66 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and a forced fumble. His tackle for loss and sack totals have already matched and surpassed his 2021 totals. Dennis definitely has room for improvement in pass coverage, but he flourishes when he’s blitzing the quarterback. He has the upside to flourish into a well-rounded linebacker and rack up sacks in the NFL.

Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 69 overall

The Steelers find themselves in a dilemma that they don’t usually encounter — their defense is playing poorly. Behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, they don’t have any help to get at the quarterback. Dennis brings immediate help pressuring the quarterback in a city and stadium he already knows.

Defensive End, Habakkuk Baldonado

Senior Habakkuk Baldonado is in an interesting situation this year. Coming into the season, some saw him as a possible first-round pick after his impressive 2021. After a surprisingly slow 2022, he is plummeting down draft boards.

In 2021, he had 41 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss and nine sacks along with a forced fumble. In 2022, he is down to 22 total tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack. He’s played in five fewer games than he did last year, but the numbers are still substantially lower.

While this slump is unfortunately hurting his draft stock, I think whoever takes him is getting great value late in the draft. I think Baldonado presents an incredible amount of upside for someone who may not hear their name called until day two or three. He has a good size and frame, and with some refinement to his pass-rush moves, he is capable of returning to his dominant 2021 form.

Prediction: Seattle Seahawks at No. 140 overall

No one expected the Seahawks to be good this year, but now with a good offseason and draft, they can be great. They have a lot of picks in the 2023 draft and can take a risk on a guy who can become a cornerstone on their defensive line.