Monday, February 6

Punt God and a 387lb Aussie: the 2022 NFL draft’s most intriguing prospects | NFL

The 2022 NFL draft is a little over two weeks away. It’s time to look at five of the upcoming class’s most intriguing (rather than the best) prospects.

Daniel Faalele, offensive tackle, Minnesota

At 6ft 9in (!) and 387lb (!!) Faalele looks more like a long-lost third Clegane brother than a starting NFL tackle. In fact, there hasn’t been an NFL starter in the 21st century built as big as the Aussie.

Faalele is from Melbourne, and an assistant coach for Hawaii on a scouting trip to Australia discovered him while he was rehabbing an injury at a local gym. The coach offered Faalele a scholarship on the spot. He wound up landing at Minnesota, using the Madden video game series to swat up on the rules and regulations. “I didn’t know what a first down was or anything,” Faalele told ESPN in 2018. “I didn’t know the positions or what roles they played. That was surprising.”

chatter among leaky scouts has suggested that Faalele may be too big to play tackle in the league, that he will struggle to dip and sink to wall off the league’s premier dip-and-rip pass-rushers. Can he shuffle his size-18 feet quickly enough to keep up with Von Miller off the edge? Can he step, drop, and reset to cut off Khalil Mack trying to knife inside?

A team will take the bet that Faalele can, probably in the first round. He isn’t a novelty: he’s an assured pass protector who has the huge frame that could make him special. The only question now is whether the franchise that selects him is stocked up on enough XXXXXXXL gear. Yep, that’s his shirt size for him and that’s eight Xs for those keeping score at home.

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Carson Strong, QB, Nevada

Carson Strong has a great arm but teams will worry about his injury history. Photograph: Butch Dill/AP

If this was 2005, Strong would be in play to be the first name called. He is a big-armed, big-bodied quarterback who plays in the classic, dropback, Carson Palmer style.

But that style is outdated in the modern NFL, where the last remaining stick-slide-climb thrower is the ever-ageless Tom Brady. The rest of the league has moved to embrace the off-script creators, players who can go and get a bucket all by themselves – with their arms or legs – when the offensive structure breaks down. And yet in a weak quarterback class, Strong remains the most gifted thrower of the bunch, a fact that should matter when a quarterback’s main responsibility is to pass the ball.

Clouding Strong’s status is a knee injury that he picked up playing basketball as a kid, one that saw him miss his senior year of high school football. The injury has continued to plague his career, forcing further surgeries in 2020 and 2021.

An immobile quarterback with a sketchy knee will be a no-no for most teams, and depending on how concerned teams are about the injury he could slip all the way to day three of the draft. But there can be no doubt that in a jumbled quarterback class, taking a punt on the best pure thrower would represent the best value play for quarterback-needy franchises.

Matt Araiza, pointer, San Diego State

The Punt God has a legitimate shot at being a day two selection. Indeed, it wouldn’t be jaw-dropping to see Araiza – a punter! – go off the board in the second round. If that seems confusing/odd/laughable (delete as applicable), think about this: In 2021 he hit 18 punts of 60-plus yards and a pair of 80-plus yarders. There have only been 10 points of 80 yards in the entirety of college football this century.

More important than the distance is Araiza’s unusual control of the ball, allowing him to pin opposing offenses deep in their own half rather than just booming the ball out the back of the endzone. That ability to flip the field – to pin opponents deep in their own half, no matter where his own offense stalls out – serves as a cheat code. It can bail out a sloppy offensive possession by turning it into a healthy defensive position.

Araiza sits neatly at the intersection of crusty old Football Guys and the new wave of analytically inclined general managers. Both batches of decision-makers agree on one overriding idea: Field position really, really matters.

Pro football is a game of land acquisition, played four downs at a time. So why not invest a valuable resource in a player who can boom the ball farther, higher, and with more accuracy than anyone else at his position?

David Ojabo, edge rusher, Michigan

Born in Nigeria, Ojabo moved to Scotland in 2007 before heading to the US to attend high school. He wound up at the same school as Odafe Oweh, a first-round pick for the Baltimore Ravens in last year’s draft. Upon arriving at the school, I knocked on the door of the football coach. “Hi coach,” Ojabo said. “My name’s David Ojabo. I’m tougher, stronger, more athletic than Odafe Oweh. Do you mind if I try playing football?”

From there, lift off. He had a scholarship offer before he even put a helmet on. At Michigan, he excelled as a partner in crime for Aidan Hutchinson, the projected first-overall pick in the upcoming draft. Hutchinson was an effort player; Ojabo the beat-them-out-of-their-cleats, vintage, get-off-and-go rusher. Together, they were unblockable.

Heading into the pre-draft process, Ojabo was projected to be a top-15 pick. An achilles injury at Michigan’s pro day has seen his stock of him take a hit – and served as an example of the dark side of the draft process. Ojabo is now anticipated to go in the late stages of the first round, though he could fall further if teams fear that some of the first-step quickness that made him such a tantalizing prospect has been sapped by the injury.

Jordan Davis, defensive lineman, Georgia

Jordan Davis combines size and athleticism
Jordan Davis combines size and athleticism. Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Davis was the force behind college football’s most dominant defense last season, fueling a Georgia group that carried their team to the national championship. He followed that up with a Thanos-like performance at the scouting combine: the 341 lb Davis ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds, the fastest for any player over 330 lbs. at the combine since 2006; Davis later had a standing broad jump of 10ft 3in, the record for a player over 300 pounds; he tacked on a 34in vertical leap for good measure, a doubletake-worthy figure for someone of his size from him.

But there are questions about Davis’ viability at the NFL level. He’s unlikely to be the first defensive lineman off the board. He probably won’t be the first defensive lineman selected from his own team. If we include the multi-faceted Travon Walker in the discussion, he may wind up being the third defensive lineman taken from Georgia’s all-world defensive front.

When and how often will Davis play? That’s what teams are still trying to figure out. He’s played fewer than half of Georgia’s defensive snaps in 2021 and played only 18% of third-down snaps. “Incredible run. But why wasn’t he on the field for Georgia on third down?” to general manager told NBC’s Peter King at the combine.

Of course, Davis didn’t need to play third downs at Georgia because the damage was already done on the first two downs. Getting off the field on third downs is a staple of shouty-man-on-TV analysis, but success on first downs is more predictive of long-term success. Winning the first down – forcing a negative play or creating a second-and-ten – is how defenses can keep up in the era of the chunk play offense.

Track the most effective teams on first down in the league, and you’ll notice they just so happen to be the most effective defenses. Teams worried about Davis’ role on third down should instead be focused on how he can tip the scales in their favor on the most important down of all.

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