Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today’s installment explores seven vital draft questions …
The 2022 NFL Draft is just two weeks away, and questions abound in league circles. With the uncertainty surrounding this particular crop of prospects — and the opacity around various teams’ intentions — NFL evaluators are snooping around like detectives attempting to solve a mystery. The intrigue will continue to escalate as we hurtle toward draft weekend. So, bust out the deerstalker cap and pipe — it’s time to get our Sherlock Holmes on!
Below, I’ve supplied seven first-round mysteries. These are the burning questions hanging over the draft’s initial 32 picks. But you’re in luck: I have the answers!
OK, maybe they’re more educated guesses. We’re in the thick of lying season, after all, with smokescreens aplenty. But I digress. Let’s get to it.
1) Who will the Jacksonville Jaguars pick at No. 1?
A few weeks ago, I explored five potential options at No. 1 overall. Today, though, all signs point to the Jaguars taking one of two players: Michigan edge Aidan Hutchinson or Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker. Let’s start with the latter prospect first …
Walker has shot up draft boards during this process, especially after his eye-opening performance at the NFL Scouting Combine. At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Walker put some staggering numbers on the board in Indianapolis: a 4.51 40-yard dash, 6.89 three-cone drill, 35.5 vertical leap and 10-3 broad jump. Combine that explosive athleticism with Walker’s positional versatility along the defensive line, and NFL evaluators are at full attention. But here’s the rub: At this point, the Georgia product is more of a run defender than a pass rusher, with extremely raw technique in the latter pursuit. In three years at Georgia, he recorded a grand total of 9.5 sacks, with six coming this past season. Consequently, Walker’s a major projection, which isn’t exactly ideal when it comes to the No. 1 overall pick.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson not only provided significant production as a pass rusher in 2021 (a Michigan record of 14 sacks), but he also enters the NFL with a repertoire of pass-rush moves that should enable him to get to the quarterback consistently from the edges right off the bat. As a high-motor defender with elite athleticism of his own (a 6.73 three-cone drill at 6-6, 265 pounds is absurd), Hutchinson can bend, burst and explode like a premier pass rusher. With Hutchinson checking off boxes as an A+ leader with outstanding intangibles and football character, he appears to be a perfect fit for a franchise seeking to build a winning culture under new head coach Doug Pederson.
There’s no question that Walker is an enticing ball of clay with immense upside, but Hutchinson should be the pick, based on his more advanced skill set and Jacksonville’s need for proven talent. Final answer: Aidan Hutchinson.
2) Will anyone take a quarterback in the top 10?
At least two quarterbacks have come off the board within the first 10 picks in each of the last seven drafts, but will this draft have even one? Well, despite the fact that a number of teams picking in the top 10 have a serious need at the position, the 2022 class lacks a passer carrying an elite grade as a prospect.
Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett has been hailed as the most pro-ready prospect throughout the pre-draft process, as a highly experienced quarterback with 49 collegiate starts on the résumé. At Pitt, he ran an offense with pro-style concepts, and showcased a mix of swagger and intangibles that you like to see in a franchise cornerstone. That said, he lacks elite arm talent, and his collegiate career did not pop until his redshirt senior season. Pickett could be an effective starter playing in a managerial role, but he doesn’t project as a dynamic game-changer at the next level.
Liberty’s Malik Willis is the upside guy in this group, with raw talent and tools that make him an intriguing prospect for teams seeking a potential star at the position. He has unique traits that enable him to do things that others in the 2022 class are unable to do with the ball in their hands. Whether evading tacklers on designed quarterback runs or throwing the ball over the top of defenses on impromptu scramble tosses, Willis has the playmaking skills teams covet in today’s NFL. But he has a ways to go as a pocket passer. From his accuracy and ball placement to his processing and decision-making, Willis needs more seasoning before he is ready to step in as a starter.
Generally speaking, a top-10 pick is expected to be considered as a top-five player at his position within two to three years. I just don’t see that with any of this year’s quarterbacks. And seeing how the franchises picking in the top 10 have significant needs elsewhere, I do not expect a quarterback to come off the board early in Round 1. Final answer: No.
3) Which team could surprisingly draft a quarterback?
Keep an eye on the Tennessee Titans as a team that could jump into the quarterback derby. Ryan Tannehill, who turns 34 this summer, is heading into his 11th season. It is not wise to count on an aging quarterback to maintain a high level of play, despite the success of outliers like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
In addition, No. 17’s Divisional Round disaster against the Bengals spawned concerns about whether the one-time Pro Bowler can get the Titans over the hump in the postseason, when games are frequently decided by quarterback performance.
Surveying the 2022 QB class, there are a few options that could entice the Titans to make a move on Day 1 or Day 2. Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder or North Carolina’s Sam Howell could provide the team with a young, athletic quarterback possessing the developmental potential to become a starter down the road.
With all of that being said, the Titans would be wise to make it a priority — though quarterback is not a pressing need — while they have a veteran and time to groom a young player for a bigger role. Final answer: Tennessee Titans.
4) Will Kayvon Thibodeaux slide out of the top 10?
Thibodeaux entered the 2021 season widely regarded as the top prospect in college football, but the NFL scouting community has seemingly cooled on the Oregon edge rusher. Critics have openly bemoaned his inconsistent production and motor, while also questioning his “love for the game.” With additional concerns about his focus due to his burgeoning brand as a businessman/athlete, there is a narrative out on Thibodeaux that overshadows his immense talent and potential as a player. All of this has led to some belief that he could fall out of the top 10 altogether.
Perhaps this chatter is simply a smokescreen put out by teams hoping to diminish his value and land him at a lower spot. If not, I believe scouts are missing out on one of the few true stars available in this draft. Sure, you would like to see the former five-star recruit play with fanatical effort on every play, but this can be corrected by a coach or team culture that demands more from players between the lines.
From a stylistic standpoint, Thibodeaux is an explosive speed rusher with A+ first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation. He pounces off the ball like a cat and displays a great feel for utilizing counter maneuvers when stymied at the line of scrimmage. Although his technique needs some refinement, Thibodeaux possesses a superpower (speed/quickness) that will make him a headache to deal with at the line of scrimmage.
Overall, Thibodeaux is a dynamic player with blue-chip qualities that are hard to find in pass rushers. He complements his natural gifts with a high IQ that is rarely discussed in his evaluation. If I am a team looking for “smart, fast and tough,” the Oregon standout holds prime real estate on my draft board. I find it very hard to believe everyone picking in the top 10 will allow the aforementioned criticisms to tarnish his potential as a game wrecker at the NFL level. Final answer: No.
5) Will this draft break the record for first-round wide receivers?
College football continues to supply the NFL with a collection of pro-ready pass catchers with the capacity to make an immediate impact on the game. Consequently, the 2020 draft saw six wideouts come off the board in Round 1, while last year’s first round featured five. Given the explosion of the receiver market this offseason and the depth of this year’s WR class, could this month’s draft threaten the 2004 record of seven first-round wideouts?
Although the 2022 class lacks a top-five talent universally viewed as a game-changer at the position (SEE: Ja’Marr Chase one year ago), six wideouts carry first-round grades in my evaluations: USC’s Drake London, Alabama’s Jameson Williams, Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson, Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, Ohio State’s Chris Olave and Arkansas’ Treylon Burks. Furthermore, playmakers like North Dakota State’s Christian Watson, Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore and Boise State’s Khalil Shakir, among others, offer intriguing skill sets. I know some people doubt the overall talent in this receiver crop, but not me. The 2022 class will undoubtedly produce some marquee playmakers in the passing game. As always, potential success will be tied to roles, scheme fits and quarterbacks. But I believe this group of wideouts will provide the type of production that we’ve become accustomed to.
That said, I think this group ends up producing five or six first-rounders. Final answer: No.
6) Do the Green Bay Packers finally draft a first-round receiver for Aaron Rodgers?
Do not count on the Packers deviating from their strategy of selecting pass catchers outside of the first round. The organization has a long track record of finding blue-chip wideouts outside of Round 1: Donald Driver (Round 7, 1999), Greg Jennings (Round 2, 2006), James Jones (Round 3, 2007), Jordy Nelson (Round 2, 2008), Randall Cobb (Round 2, 2011) and Davante Adams (Round 2, 2014).
Seeing how the team’s last first-round wideout (Javon Walker, 2002) failed to produce outside of one Pro Bowl season, it is hard for the Packers to see the value in drafting a receiver early, especially when they have enjoyed so much success with their developmental approach at the position.
Perhaps Aaron Rodgers is the reason for Green Bay’s Midas touch with wideouts, given his extraordinary arm talent and pinpoint accuracy/ball placement. He consistently hits the strike zone, making it easy for young receivers to emerge as playmakers on the perimeter.
Given the overall talent of the class, particularly in the Day 2 range, it is sensible for the Packers to stick with the recipe that has helped them identify and develop all-star talents at wide receiver. Final answer: No.
7) Will this be the third RB-free first round in common draft history?
The devaluation of the running back position has been a trend over the past decade, with teams finding better returns on RB investments in later rounds. In fact, the 2013 and ’14 drafts didn’t see a single back selected in Round 1 — the only two times that’s happened in the common draft era.
Although two running backs in the class — Iowa State’s Breece Hall and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III — carry borderline first-round grades based on their traits, performance and production, it is hard to project whether either player is an elite talent compared to the NFL studs at the position. In a league with a pass-centric focus, the running back position is increasingly viewed as a rotational spot where multiple players contribute to a team’s backfield production. Despite Hall and Walker thriving in workhorse roles at Iowa State and Michigan State, respectively, it appears that each player might be better suited to a rotational role in the NFL.
Long story short: It’s likely teams will wait until the latter two days of the draft to address their running back needs. Final answer: Yes.