The 2022 NFL draft, i.e. the league’s 87th annual “Player Selection Meeting,” and its myriad mysteries are finally here.
Perhaps appropriate that an event that leads so many teams to hit blackjack and comes up snake eyes for quite a few others is being staged for the first time in Las Vegas, which was originally supposed to host the draft in 2020 until the COVID-19 pandemic scrapped those plans. However, the Sin City backdrop should make the visuals uniquely spectacular this year.
The intrigue should also be rampant given the number of trades that have already impacted the draft with more sure to come.
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‘PUT THAT THING DOWN’:Jerry Jones’ antics highlight Cowboys’ explanation of drafting OT Tyler Smith
Now, to the picks:
What a year it’s been already for the 6-5, 272-pounder. After winning a national title with the Bulldogs, he took the NFL scouting combine by storm, laying down a 4.51 40 time and posting a 35½-inch vertical leap. Those physical traits and a sublime ability to move in space for such a big man vaulted Walker from little-known lineman all the way to the top of this draft. Walker’s three-year production in college (9½ sacks, 13 tackles for losses) was a red flag to some, however being part of such a deep rotation while often being asked to work inside or even drop into coverage certainly depressed his numbers to some degree. But the Jags are clearly banking on future potential over past production with this selection. And Walker plans to deliver the goods, telling me last week: “Whoever passes up on me – to each his own. But you’re definitely making a mistake if you don’t draft me.” This is the first draft since 2017 where a non-quarterback has been chosen No. 1.
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He’s the No. 1 overall player on many draft boards even if he might not have the ceiling of Walker. But Hutchinson is closer to a finished product, the All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist setting a Wolverines single-season record with 14 sacks in 2021 while also posting 51 hurries. Hutchinson, who has a non-stop motor, was also a two-time team captain in Ann Arbor – and should help establish the kind of culture coach Dan Campbell and the Lions are seeking. A 6-7, 260-pounder with 4.7 speed and an engaging personality, the Plymouth, Michigan, native could instantly become the face of a franchise that needs one. A 29th-ranked defense that had the league’s third-fewest sacks in 2021 (30) and recently let go of oft-injured DE Trey Flowers should reap the benefits. The last time defensive players went 1-2 in a draft was 2000.
Three years ago, he was perceived as a top-five talent following a stellar freshman season. Now that’s come to pass after a circuitous journey. His talents as a cover man are undeniable and were apparent for the 2019 national champions, for whom he had six interceptions, earning All-American honors for his efforts. But Lisfranc surgery limited him to three games in 2021 – a year after he was slowed by ankle issues. But a promising showing at LSU’s pro day – Stingley unofficially ran a 4.37 40 earlier this month – apparently allayed concerns about his health and readiness to play. GM Nick Caserio and new Texans coach Lovie Smith interestingly begin rebuilding their defense with a lockdown corner instead of a pass rusher.
A franchise that’s been looking for Darrelle Revis’ successor for the past half-decade should benefit greatly from the 6-3, 190-pound Gardner, who never surrendered a TD pass for the Bearcats. In fact, his interception-to-TDs allowed ratio in college was nine to 0. The 2021 AAC Defensive Player of the Year, who has 4.4 speed to go with his great length, didn’t surrender 60 catches in three seasons for the Bearcats. The consensus All-American allowed only 20 receptions in 2021, picked off three passes and – evidence of his all-around game – posted 40 tackles and three sacks. He’s not going to sustain that kind of shutdown rep in a division now featuring WRs Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs, but he’d certainly upgrade the league’s worst defense, both in terms of points and yards allowed in 2021.
Given his off-field aspirations, including a post-football career in broadcasting among other ventures (including crypto), the former Ducks star probably couldn’t hope to land in a better market … assuming, of course, he brings all of his prodigious talent to bear in The Big Apple. Perhaps the prize of the 2019 high school recruiting class, Thibodeaux might have more potential than any other player in this draft but will have to dispel questions about his dedication to the game and what appears a lack of hustle at times. In 30 games at Oregon, the 6-4, 254-pounder had 19 sacks and 35½ TFLs, thanks in part to the 2021 All-American’s tremendous first step. Big Blue had 34 sacks and 53 TFLs in 2021, so a difference maker of Thibodeaux’s stature will certainly be welcome. He and Azeez Ojulari (8 sacks as a rookie in 2021) should form a nice, young edge combo. The last time defensive players went 1-5 in a draft was 1991.
Generally viewed as this draft’s top tackle prospect, good luck finding anyone who thinks there’s a better run blocker coming out than Ekwonu. The All-American coming down Tobacco Road has some refinement to do in pass protection, but this 6-4 310-pounder has the sweet feet and athleticism (4.9 40 time) to fulfill his vast expectations. He addresses a huge need for Carolina, which isn’t scheduled to select again until late in Round 4, and might give QB Sam Darnold a fighting chance to succeed if the offense’s other weapons – namely RB Christian McCaffrey – are ready to go in 2022.
Yet another All-American – one who won a ring with the Tide in 2020 – the 6-8, 337-pounder might be the most user friendly of the incoming blockers. Taken with the pick acquired in last year’s Justin Fields trade with the Bears, Neal has extensive experience at left tackle, right tackle and guard and is effective both in the run game and pass protection. He’ll likely plug into the right side given 2020 first-rounder Andrew Thomas seems settled as the Giants’ left tackle. This new-look like line should give embattled QB Daniel Jones – his fifth-year option was declined Thursday – RB Saquon Barkley and a fleet of receivers a much better shot at success in 2022.
The 2021 trade of Julio Jones, 2022 suspension of Calvin Ridley and free agent departure of Russell Gage evidently moved wideout to the top of GM Terry Fontenot’s wish list. A 6-4, 219-pounder, London reminds many of Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, partially due to their basketball backgrounds. London and 2021 first-round TE Kyle Pitts should provide new QB Marcus Mariota quite a pair of capable rebounders – “twin towers” as London said Thursday. He had 88 catches for 1,084 yards and seven scores in eight games for the Trojans in 2021 before a broken ankle cut his season short.
Coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider hope the trade of QB Russell Wilson starts paying off here. It sure seems like Carroll wants to get back to running the ball and playing suffocating defense, things the Seahawks often struggled to do in the latter part of Wilson’s reign. However in Cross, a first-team all SEC selection in 2021, they get a 6-5, 307-pounder who excels in pass protection. That’s usually what he did in Starkville for Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. (Per PFF, Cross was in pass pro 719 times last season.) Should be good news for Drew Lock, or whomever is Seattle’s QB in 2022, and Cross takes over the post vacated by unsigned free agent Duane Brown. But remains to be seen if he can help take this offense back to what it was a decade ago.
GM Joe Douglas is banking a (Zach) Wilson-to-Wilson connection gets this sputtering offense on track in 2022. Garrett Wilson is widely considered to be the top receiver in this draft, featuring 4.38 speed. A 6-foot, 183-pounder, he’s effective both outside and from the slot and is especially dangerous after the catch, scoring 13 TDs last season (one as a rusher). He, second-year man Elijah Moore and veteran Corey Davis could make this air attack interesting.
The Saints make their second move up the board this month following an earlier deal with the Eagles. Thursday night, they sent the Commanders the No. 16 pick plus a third- and fourth-rounder in order to select Olave. This seems to feed the notion New Orleans is collecting players to compete in the NFC now rather than finding a long-term successor for retired QB Drew Brees. Olave’s speed and smooth route running could eventually make him a clear-cut No. 1 target, not to mention his ability to reach the end zone – that occurring 32 times in his last 33 games for Ohio State. But in the near term, he’ll be a dangerous complement to fellow former Buckeyes WR Michael Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara.
Detroit moves up by flipping the 32nd pick to the division rival Vikes – they also swapped second-rounders and Minnesota adds one in Round 3 – in order to upgrade their receiving corps with Williams, who might well have been this draft’s No. 1 wideout had he not torn an ACL in the Tide’s national championship game loss to Georgia. While healthy, Williams was remarkably productive in 2021, averaging 100 receiving yards and a TD catch per game. His explosiveness has drawn comparisons to Hill, and his recovery from that knee surgery seems to be ahead of schedule. Williams and Amon-Ra St. Brown, who caught 90 passes as a rookie in 2021, suddenly give QB Jared Goff a nifty tandem of outside targets to mix in with Pro Bowl TE T.J. Hockenson.
Philly offloads some mid-round picks to Houston to come up two spots for Davis, perhaps the best-known player from the Bulldogs’ epic 2021 defense. A 6-6, 341-pound All-American who somehow ran a 4.78 40 at the combine, Davis can crush a pocket and is an elite run stuffer. Philadelphia will need such an anchor with DTs Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave headed for free agency next year. However Davis will probably need to keep the weight down to blossom into a star who doesn’t have to regularly come off the field, particularly on passing downs.
He’s 6-4 and 220 pounds with sub-4.6 speed and can shore up deficiencies at the second and/or third levels. Hamilton can provide coverage, a box presence, blitzing ability and an intimidation factor – and easily toggles between every level of the field based on the versatility he displayed for the Irish. He and newly signed Marcus Williams give Baltimore a sweet new safety combo in a division that will mean constant matchups with Cincy QB Joe Burrow and Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson. Many draft observers rated Hamilton as a top-five talent who was undercut by the general positional value of safeties. While the Ravens were at it, they traded WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and a third-rounder to the Cardinals for the 23rd pick.
He played every O-line position but center for the Aggies in 2021 but took most of his college snaps at left guard, where he’ll probably remain in Houston. Still, that kind of versatility – and a nice streak of nastiness – will be a valuable asset to an offense under construction after ranking dead last in 2021.
The 5-11, 178-pounder with 4.4 speed and supple hands is either a great complement to established Commanders WR Terry McLaurin … or his eventual replacement as WR1 in D.C. Dotson, who should significantly expand the field for new QB Carson Wentz, can also add pop as a returner.
Strong as an ox (combine-high 32 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press) but with light feet, Johnson can line up at guard or tackle. Whether he goes inside or mans right tackle opposite last year’s first-rounder, stellar LT Rashawn Slater, budding superstar QB Justin Herbert and an offense that likes to sling the rock are thankful beneficiaries.
The AFC South champs submit a shocker, shipping Pro Bowl WR A.J. Brown to Philadelphia for this selection (and a third-rounder). Per reports, Brown also signed a contract extension with the Eagles. Back in Nashville, Burks is a similar (if bigger) player to Brown, able to make things happen once the ball’s in his hands. Perhaps 4.55-second 40 speed is unremarkable for his position, but the momentum it generates for a 6-2, 225-pounder who’s also been compared to Deebo Samuel could be distinctive. Burks averaged more than 16 yards per reception in each of his three seasons with the Razorbacks, and he has 18 TDs among his past 117 grabs. As a rookie he should see a fair share of man coverage against defenses designed to stop RB Derrick Henry.
A talented, nasty player for the blind side, he’ll remind Saints fans of Kyle Turley and hopefully help them forget about departed LT Terron Armstead. The 6-7, 325-pound Penning comes with bad intentions, his play-to-the-whistle mentality evident at the Senior Bowl, where he ruffled some feathers. But QB Jameis Winston and teammates should love him … assuming Penning makes a smooth transition from the FCS level.
After so many (including this analyst) connected Liberty QB Malik Willis to Pittsburgh for months, the Steelers opt to go with Pickett, who’s trained in the facility they share with the Pitt Panthers for years. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin had expressed a desire for a mobile quarterback, and Pickett’s athleticism is certainly underrated. But the calling cards of perhaps this draft’s most NFL-ready passer are poise, accuracy, a quick release and production (4,319 yards and 42 TDs passing in 2021). It will be interesting to see how long Pickett, who will be 24 in June, sits behind veteran Mitch Trubisky, who came aboard during free agency on a two-year, $14.3 million deal. Fascinating times as the Steelers forge ahead into the post-Roethlisberger era.
The latest in a long line of quality Huskies corners, he has 4.4 speed, elite cover skills, smarts and the versatility to play in just about any scheme. K.C., which moves up here for McDuffie, lost Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes in free agency and clearly desired more corner help given all the offensive firepower that’s migrated into the AFC West.
A versatile ‘backer from that elite Bulldogs D, Travon Walker told me that Quay Walker was the ‘Dawg to look out for once he reached the pros. Quay Walker can line up off the ball, on the edge or even handle occasional slot duty. Look for him to settle in next to All-Pro LB De’Vondre Campbell on a Pack defense that should be formidable in 2022.
The Bills rise two spots, at the expense of a fourth-rounder, to get Elam, who has extensive NFL bloodlines. His father, Abram, played in the league for seven years; his uncle, Matt Elam, was a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2013. Kaiir Elam is a big (6-2, 191), fast (4.39 40) corner who should not only become an instant starter for the NFL’s No. 1 defense, but provides insurance as Pro Bowl CB Tre’Davious White recovers from ACL surgery. Elam was slowed by a knee injury himself last season but broke up 11 passes in 12 games in 2020.
Jerry Jones and Co. embark on needed repairs to a formerly elite offensive line. Smith was exclusively a left tackle for the Golden Hurricane but is probably headed for the right side in the NFL – at least as long as perennial Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith remains in Big D. A good omen for Tyler Smith? The Cowboys have drafted a future Pro Bowler with 10 of their past 12 first-round selections.
After a bit of maneuvering, Baltimore adds last season’s Rimington Trophy winner to their O-line. Though knocked for his short arms, Linderbaum is a plus athlete who might remind some of Eagles C Jason Kelce.
New York gives up a second-rounder and a Round 5 choice to Tennessee, along with a flip of thirds, to secure Johnson for a pass rush that badly needs a player of his caliber. Johnson blossomed into the ACC Defensive Player last season after transferring from Georgia. The 6-5, 262-pounder could form a nice bookend opposite Carl Lawson, assuming the veteran recovers from the Achilles tear suffered during last year’s preseason. Johnson dazzled at the combine with a sub-4.6 40 time, that coming off a season when he tallied 11½ sacks and 17½ TFLs. The Jets had only 33 sacks in 2021.
The Jags climb back into Round 1 for the Pac-12’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Lloyd had seven sacks ands 22 TFLs for last year’s Pac-12 champions but is also stellar in coverage and the kind of leader this team needs on the defensive side. He’ll immediately fill the void created after LB Myles Jack was released in March. Sure appears this franchise is getting on track after a disastrous 2021.
He’ll reunite with Bulldogs teammate Quay Walker with the NFC North champs. Cat quick despite his 6-3, 304-pound build, Wyatt can operate in multiple fronts and roles. And, like former linemate Travon Walker, his stats (5 sacks, 12 TFLs in four seasons) at Georgia probably suffered due to the Bulldogs’ rotation. The Pack don’t have quite the same depth, but a quartet of Wyatt, Kenny Clark, Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry ain’t bad.
29. Patriots (from San Francisco 49ers via Dolphins and Chiefs) – OL Cole Strange, Tennessee-Chattanooga
A highly competitive interior lineman – though he did play some left tackle in 2021 – who distinguished himself at the Senior Bowl, he probably takes over at right guard following the trade of Shaq Mason. Strange only allowed one sack over the past three seasons.
He might not be that twitchy or nuanced as a pass rusher but is strong and relentless. Karlaftis could do a lot of damage breaking in on passing downs and augmenting a rush led by DE Frank Clark and DT Chris Jones. In two full seasons (2019, 2021) for the Boilermakers, Karlaftis compiled 13 sacks, 32 QB hits and 64 hurries. Maybe in a year, he’s ready to replace Clark and his $21 million salary for 2023.
Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin recently said the AFC champs didn’t need any starters, and Hill might have to sub in behind established players like FS Jessie Bates and nickelback Mike Hilton. Hill’s 4.38-second 40-yard-dash speed is an asset from the slot, box or center field and probably ensures his snap count steadily increases over the course of his rookie year. And with Bates on the franchise tag, Hill could take his spot permanently in a year.
So a first round that began with a Bulldogs defender also ends with one. A 6-2, 200-pounder with 4.4 speed, Cine is an enforcer in the deep half. But he can also operate near the line or cover from the slot. He and Harrison Smith ought to be a formidable safety duo for a Minnesota team that’s been betrayed by its defense in recent seasons.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism