Football roundtable: 2022 NFL Draft preview

March 8, 2022, 10:08 p.m.

The NFL Combine ended on Monday, meaning that the NFL Draft is only seven weeks away. Cardinal players like defensive end Thomas Booker ’22 hope to soon join the ranks of former Stanford players in the NFL, but how do they fit into the broader landscape of college and professional football? 

Daily sports reporters Noah Maltzman, Shan Reddy, Tammer Bagdasarian, Drew Silva and Zach Zafran forecast the 2022 No. 1 overall pick, break down Booker’s prospects and evaluate the Cardinal currently in the league.

Cybele Zhang (CZ): The last time a Stanford player was selected first overall in the NFL Draft was in 2012 when the Indianapolis Colts took Andrew Luck. Which college player should be drafted first overall this year and why?

Noah Maltzman (NM): Before coming to Stanford, I was an avid Michigan football fan. As such, with very heavy bias, I think DE Aidan Hutchinson will be drafted first overall. His play this year was massive for Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh, who was Stanford’s head coach during Luck’s time on The Farm. Hutchinson plays with the heart and tenacity a rebuilding team like Jacksonville needs. In the most important moments, the Big-10 Defensive Player of the Year came up big — most notably his performances against Washington (three sacks), No. 2 Ohio State (three sacks) and No. 13 Iowa in the Big-10 Championship (one sack and named Big-10 Championship MVP). Do I want this to happen? Absolutely not. I am a Detroit Lions fan, and Hutchinson is my top prospect. He fits the Dan Campbell “we will bite them at the kneecaps” mentality, which would be helpful for an on-the-rise Lions squad. He also would complement DE Romeo Okwara and will no doubt be a leader for Aaron Glenn’s defensive scheme within a few seasons. Hutchinson stands at a monstrous 6-foot-6 inches and is 260 pounds of sheer muscle and determination. He is the embodiment of Harbaugh-coached players. Following Harbaugh’s tutelage, Luck reached multiple Pro Bowls and playoff appearances and recorded great stats, and I would not be surprised if Hutchinson did so as well. 

Shan Reddy (SR): Jags don’t have much of a choice here. With their starting left tackle Cam Robinson and both guards, A.J. Cann and Andrew Norwell, hitting free agency this offseason, the clear pick here is Alabama’s towering left tackle Evan Neal. Jacksonville desperately needs help on a depleted offensive line that allowed opposing defenses to sack its rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence 32 times last season. While Michigan’s Hutchinson and Oregon’s DE Kayvon Thibodeaux are arguably better talents, Jacksonville has used first round picks on pass rushers in two of its past three drafts; there’s no urgency to use a top pick on another one while the offensive line remains such a glaring need.

Tammer Bagdasarian (TB): If you could draft two generational players in one pick, would you? If you could add an eagle eye menace at safety — while also getting another man, nay, a machine, in the box at linebacker — would you? In case you’re witless and haven’t formulated an answer yet, I will provide it for you: Yes. Yes. One thousand times, yes. That player is Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton — the crown jewel of college football, who is currently being treated like fool’s gold. He is head and shoulders above anyone in this class. In case you were worried that he isn’t a generational talent, don’t be. Hamilton has the ability to transform almost any team’s defense because of his speed out of the gates and lightning-fast reaction time. He can be stationed in the backfield in single-high coverage as a safety and, in an instant, read the offense and meet the running back at the line of scrimmage as if he were a linebacker. In man coverage against tight ends, he is capable of completely taking them out of the equation. His vision and length are absurd at 6-foot-4 with a 40-inch vertical. It is more than reasonable for the Jaguars to approach the draft ready to pick Kyle Hamilton. They already have a centerpiece on offense in Trevor Lawrence. Now, they need one on defense. But they won’t do that. They will pick Evan Neal. Because they are the Jaguars.

Drew Silva (DS): One criticism of this draft class is that there is no clear generational, franchise-altering player. As Tammer touched on, this is simply not true. The issue is that this year’s generational talent is not a quarterback or defensive end; he is a safety, and his name is Kyle Hamilton. Although Jacksonville’s offensive line was more of a problem than its secondary, there are other ways to fix this problem. However, there are not many ways to add a potentially once-in-a-lifetime talent to a young team. For a team that will have about $56 million in cap space to spend this offseason, they should be able to address some of the team’s problems in free agency. With last year’s No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and a running back duo that features surprise stud James Robinson and 2021 first rounder Travis Etienne, the Jaguars’ only offensive worries should be addressing the wide receiver and offensive line positions. The Jaguars also have the first pick of the second round, as well as two early third round picks (33, 65, 70 overall), all of which could be used to address these offensive weaknesses. With some solid young pieces on the offense, along with having a lot of money and draft picks at their disposal, the Jaguars should feel content with drafting the best overall player. As Tammer argued, Kyle Hamilton is that best player, and it doesn’t seem to be particularly close. But who knows who will be selected by a team that hired Urban Meyer. 

Zach Zafran (ZZ): As already discussed, the Jaguars hold the first pick, and they need to do everything they can to build the right team around Trevor Lawrence. Even if there are more glaring team needs, I hold firm that the offensive line is the most important place to address. Although recent years have been characterized by a quarterback-craze early in the first round, I think this year we’ll see fewer skill position players selected in the top 10. And to start it off, I have my eyes set on offensive tackle Evan Neal from Alabama too. One could argue that NC State’s powerful Ickey Ekwonu should be selected before him or even Mississippi State’s Charles Cross. Both may have a higher ceiling than Neal, but if I’m in the Jaguars’ shoes, I can’t afford to gamble too much. Upside is an essential to the first overall pick, and Neal has plenty of it for my liking. He showed what he was capable of last year in a dominant showing with the Crimson Tide, and I expect it to largely translate to the pros. When you draft an Alabama player, you know what you’re getting. Neal is no exception.

Thomas Booker is the Cardinal’s most touted draft prospect. What round, if any, do you see the defensive end being drafted in? On what team would he be a good fit, and why? Who is a player he might be comparable to?

SR: Booker offers high upside with impressive intangibles, strong effort and great athleticism for his size. However, he wasn’t able to put it all together during his time at Stanford. He was often washed down the line of scrimmage by double teams or larger guards and is underdeveloped in pass rushing technique. Nonetheless, his versatility, attitude, decent showing at the NFL Scouting Combine (he led all participating defensive tackles in the 20-yard shuttle) and Stanford degree will push him up draft boards. He could go as high as the end of the fourth round out of a weak class for defensive line talent. Teams like the Patriots, Cardinals and Browns that play a hybrid 3-4 front would appreciate Booker’s versatility and upside. My comparison for him is Davon Godchaux, another prototypical 3-4 defensive end/4-3 defensive tackle hybrid with similar measurables and a comparable play style and athletic profile. 

NM: Booker will be overlooked in the upcoming draft. Oftentimes, he was paired against the opponent’s best lineman and thus could not produce as much as expected. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound defensive end is built for a typical 4-3 or 3-4 defensive style and will probably be used as such. I also foresee teams potentially bulking him up and making him play interior defensive line to plug up the middle. Booker is versatile and will most likely be a rotational player, being a second or third option behind someone else. With these predictions in mind, my best guess is that he will be a middle to late day three draftee or an undrafted free agent. I have a gut feeling Booker will end up in the Southeast — maybe Atlanta or Miami. As far as a player comparison, my best estimate is Titans DE Da’Shawn Hand. Both Hand and Booker have similar body types and have many similarities in play style; they fit the 3-4 or 4-3 style really well and can take multiple guys at once, allowing other rushers to tackle in the backfield. 

Which current Stanford player in the NFL do you think has been most valuable to their respective team?

NM: If you asked me this question at the beginning of the season, it would have been a no-brainer for me: New York Giants linebacker Blake Martinez ’15. Since entering the NFL, Martinez has been a machine, recording 140+ tackles in every healthy season except as a rookie, when he played behind former USC linebacker Blake Matthews. However, with questions about his long-term health putting his roster spot in jeopardy, I cannot confidently say he is the “most valuable” currently. I am hesitant to answer running back Christian McCaffrey ’16 because of his injury concerns, as well as the fact that running backs are easier to replace than most other positions. Currently, I think the most valuable player to their respective team is quarterback Davis Mills ‘21. While his future with the Texans is unknown, his rookie season was remarkable, although he was overshadowed by other rookies like New England quarterback Mac Jones. Mills was one of the bright spots on a dismally bad Texans roster amidst a dumpster fire of coaching changes and player disputes. Mills was second in rookie passing yards only to Jones and threw for 16 touchdowns. Whether he will stay the Texans starter is unclear, but the one thing I know for sure is that he truly impacted their 2021 season in a positive way. Mills exceeded all expectations and was a joy for Stanford and Texans fans to watch. 

SR: The stats head in me immediately thinks of the only Stanford alumnus that started at the league’s most valuable position this year: Davis Mills. Mills was arguably the second-best rookie passer in the league this year after New England’s Mac Jones, as Noah notes, putting up a QBR of 35.5 good for 26th in the NFL. Mills was horrendous against pressure, but he flashed impressive accuracy from the rare clean pockets he got behind a makeshift Houston offensive line. While expectations for him couldn’t have been much lower, he performed well enough that no one expects the Texans to draft a replacement this year; all signs point to Mills being the Texans’ franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future.

ZZ: I’m inclined to say Christian McCaffrey. The image of him returning every kickoff and punt he received for a touchdown in Stanford Stadium runs on repeat in my head, but it’s not enough to nominate him for this answer. When the dynamic, do-it-all back is on the field, he is absolutely among the most valuable players in the league. The only issue is McCaffrey is not on the field often. He’s only appeared in 10 games over the last two seasons, and even when he’s out there, his lingering health issues have held him back. A truly healthy McCaffrey, which we only saw in the first three weeks of the 2021 season, helped the Carolina Panthers win in each game he played. But until he, hopefully, makes his long-term return, I have to say Bobby Okereke ‘18 has been most valuable to his team. The 2018 Stanford team captain came into his own this past season, starting all 17 games last year for the Indianapolis Colts. Okereke led the team with 132 tackles, which is impressive considering he lines up alongside players like First Team All-Pros Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner. The best part is, he’s just getting started. Okereke’s ceiling is sky high, and with only one full season starting under his belt, his future is bright. 

The 2022 NFL Draft will be televised beginning on Thursday, Apr. 28.

Cybele Zhang '22 J.D. '26 is a Senior Staff Writer from Los Angeles. As an undergraduate, she double majored in English Literature with Honors and German Studies and served as Sports Editor — Vol. 255, 257 and 258.Noah Maltzman is a staff writer for the sports section. He is originally from Philadelphia but has lived in the Bay Area since 2015. Noah is a sophomore who plans on majoring within the STEM field. He is a Michigan and Detroit sports fan, despite never living in the state of Michigan. In fact, he initially brought more Michigan paraphernalia to college than Stanford apparel. Contact him at sports 'at' Reddy '22 is The Daily's Financial Officer, Business Team Director and a desk editor for the sports section covering Stanford football and tennis. Contact him at sreddy 'at' Zafran was the Vol. 262 managing editor for the sports section. Now a senior staff writer, he has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE. You can find Zach around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at' Bagdasarian '24 is an Executive Editor for The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. He previously served as a News Managing Editor. Contact him at tbagdasarian 'at' stanforddaily.comDrew Silva is a writer for the sports section. He is a junior from Pawtucket, Rhode Island studying computer science and symbolic systems. In his free time, he enjoys watching Executive Editor Tammer Bagdasarian play blackjack. You can find him watching NFL Redzone on Sundays.

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