This year’s NFL Draft is shaping up to be the most unpredictable we have seen in recent memory. With the draft just days away, scouts, analysts and fans everywhere are still split on the top few picks. A wild offseason involving the trades of league-defining players such as Russell Wilson and Tyreek Hill also throws a wrench into the equation. Teams have proven that a franchise quarterback and a franchise pass catcher are essential, so could we see those positions pushed up in draft boards? With a variety of pass rush prototypes sitting at the top of the draft, could we see the promise of players like Georgia’s Travon Walker win over proven commodities like Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson? With teams like the Texans and Lions having so many needs across the board, could we see teams try to trade back?
With all of these questions in mind, here is my projection for how the 2022 NFL Draft will play out this Thursday in Las Vegas. I promise you, there will be some shockers, but stick with me, because I guarantee that there will be just as many on draft night.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars — Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan
Standing at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, Aidan Hutchinson is the surest thing in this year’s draft class. He’s been the projected top pick since December, and while speculators have thrown in Walker’s name as the potential selection in recent weeks, Jags GM Trent Baalke grabs a cornerstone franchise player in Hutchinson with this pick. Scouts have described him as a “can’t-miss player,” bringing football character, size, athleticism and technical refinement that is unmatched in this year’s draft class. After holding the first overall pick two years in a row, the Jaguars cannot afford to miss.
2. Detroit Lions — Jermaine Johnson II, DE, Florida State
Here’s the first shocker of the draft. While Walker and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux rank higher than Johnson on most draft boards, Detroit’s front office will not tolerate their red flags. Detroit is committed to a culture of quiet, hard-nosed “football guys,” and while Thibodeaux would have been a perfect fit, it appears he has talked himself out of the conversation. Meanwhile, Walker is a developmental prospect who is too unproven to be taken so early. Johnson, on the other hand, ticks all of the boxes: at 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds, he ran a stunning 4.58 40-yard dash at the combine, evidencing all-world speed. He racked up 12 sacks in his redshirt senior season in 2021 and earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors, and he sets the edge just as well as he rushes the passer.
But what also gives Johnson the edge here is his familiarity and fit with the Lions coaching staff. Detroit staff coached the senior bowl this year and got a taste of Johnson’s talent up close. By all accounts, he dominated practices all week and captivated the Lions’ linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard, bringing attitude, focus and talent. Don’t be surprised if he’s the second player picked in this year’s draft.
3. Houston Texans — Kavyon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
No team in this year’s draft has more needs than Houston, which makes them the biggest wild-card in the draft. I have them taking Thibodeaux here, but they could easily go in any of four or five different directions with this pick. Even if the Oregon pass-rusher isn’t the pick here, Houston will certainly grab an edge somewhere in their first few picks; they simply can’t go into the upcoming NFL season with Kingsley Keke and Jonathan Greenard as their starting defensive ends. And while a cornerback or offensive tackle could serve them well, they will have a chance to grab a premier one with their No. 13 pick, which they received from the Cleveland Browns in the Deshaun Watson deal.
But back to the pick: Thibodeaux has everything you could want out of a pass rusher. A five-star recruit, he has been slotted into the top of the first round since he stepped foot on a college football field, and has dominated offensive tackles in the Pac-12 from the jump. Size, power, athleticism — you name it, and he’s got it. The one knock on him is his character. Teams have questioned his love for the game thanks to his plethora of endorsement deals, corporate partnerships and some ill-advised statements over the past few months. But he remains a top-tier prospect that easily could have gone number-one overall.
4. New York Jets — Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
The long, rangy Gardner is a lockdown man-to-man cornerback with the size and demeanor to shut down wideouts in the AFC East for years to come. He did not allow a single touchdown in coverage through his entire college career and will bring confidence and competitiveness to the Jets locker room. Comparable in body type and playing style to Richard Sherman, Gardner will immediately bring a struggling Jets secondary to the next level.
5. New York Giants — Evan Neal, OT, Alabama
With Gardner and Thibodeaux off the board, the Giants will pick an offensive lineman to shore up their right tackle spot currently manned by Matt Gono. The question is, Who will it be? With all three of the top tackles still on the board, newly minted Giants GM Joe Schoen will pick Alabama’s Evan Neal, a 6-foot-7½ behemoth that looks like the dictionary definition of “NFL offensive tackle.” Neal started with the Crimson Tide at both right and left tackle, so he’ll fit in on the Giants line seamlessly. His size, athleticism and experience indicate that he could be a 10-year starter and a Pro Bowler early in his career.
6. Carolina Panthers — Malik Willis, QB, Liberty
Analysts have claimed that Carolina head coach Matt Rhule is on the chopping block, and that he needs to grab a player with this pick who will help him win now to secure his job. But let’s be honest — no one’s winning games if Sam Darnold is your starting quarterback, even if you grab another great offensive lineman here. Carolina GM Scott Fitterer spent the last 20 years in Seattle, where he saw a dynamic talent at quarterback completely change the course of the franchise. He’ll be looking to create that kind of wave in the organization this offseason by bringing the uber-athletic Willis into the fold. Willis will be able to sit and develop behind Darnold before entering into an offense with weapons.
Willis, however, is a long way from being ready to lead a pro-style offense in the NFL. Nonetheless, if this offseason has taught us anything, it’s that there are teams with top-tier quarterbacks, and then there’s everyone else; the gap is massive. Carolina knows this, and knows that Darnold does not belong to the former group. But Willis could turn into a franchise quarterback, and in the modern NFL, those guys are getting pricier by the day and even more imperative to winning.
7. New York Giants — Travon Walker, DE, Georgia
Walker is one of the more impressive athletes to come out of college football in recent years and could go as high as number-one overall; evaluators project that he is far from reaching his ceiling as a player. The Giants have a history of hitting on high-upside fliers at the edge position (think Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka), and they will try for one again here. Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale would be the ideal coach for him, having spent his last few years as the linebackers coach in Baltimore developing players like CJ Mosley and Elvis Dumervil.
8. Atlanta Falcons — Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
The Falcons need a wide receiver in the worst way. Two years removed from having Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley as their one-two punch, the Falcons now boast a receiving corps headlined by Olamide Zaccheaus. Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson is the most pro-ready receiver in this class and will be a day-one Pro Bowl talent with best-in-class play strength, blazing 4.38 speed and punt-return ability.
9. Seattle Seahawks — Ikem Ekwonu, OT, NC State
This is the lowest you’ll see Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu in any mock draft; he’s been projected to go as high as number-one overall. Ekwonu is a terrifying road grader of a tackle whose football character piqued the interest of just about every coach and evaluator that interviewed him at the combine. He has rare raw power in the run game that indicates he could be an All-Pro guard, but the Seahawks will need his help on day one as their new franchise left tackle.
10. New York Jets — Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama
The Jets were reportedly second place in the Tyreek Hill sweepstakes a few weeks ago, but Alabama’s electric home-run-hitting Jameson Williams is an excellent consolation prize. Williams toasted cornerbacks in the SEC all season long before suffering an ACL tear in the national title game. He should be healthy and ready to go by training camp though, giving quarterback Zach Wilson another weapon to work with as he develops into the signal-caller the Jets have been awaiting for so many years.
11. Washington Commanders — Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
The Commanders nab one of the highest-rated players in the class with the 11th pick to round out an already-impressive young defense. I can already see the headlines across Washington media labeling the 6-foot-4, 220-pound safety as the next Sean Taylor. He has the coverage ability, size and football intelligence to become a standout player with All-Pro upside.
12. Minnesota Vikings — Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
If Stingley could have entered the draft after his freshman season, he would have been in the conversation for the first overall pick. That’s how dominant he was in the Tigers’ championship season, racking up six interceptions in the SEC and earning consensus All-American honors as an 18-year-old. With prototypical size and speed, three seasons of starting experience and an NFL bloodline — his late grandfather Darryl Stingley was a first-round pick of the New England Patriots in 1973 — Stingley Jr. has the makings of an All-Pro cornerback. If he can recapture the magic of his 2019-20 season, the Vikings will have the next Patrick Peterson manning their secondary for years to come.
13. Houston Texans — Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington
As with their earlier pick, the Texans could go a variety of different ways here. Picking Washington’s McDuffie fills a premier position for Houston with a top-10 player in this draft. McDuffie is on the smaller side for an outside corner — he measured just under 5-foot-11 and weighed in at 193 pounds at the combine — but has outstanding tape. He has been rising up draft boards as of late and could go even earlier.
14. Baltimore Ravens — Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
Baltimore’s recent signing of Morgan Moses steadies their tackle needs and allows them to instead steady their interior linemen. Picking Marshal Yanda from Iowa years ago gave them a stalwart blocker that racked up several Pro Bowl nods; they go back to the well here and pick Iowa’s Linderbaum, who was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded FBS center in both 2020 and 2021, earning a whopping 95.4 overall grade this past season. Linderbaum will do for Baltimore what Creed Humphrey did for the Kansas City Chiefs as a rookie last season: clear gaping holes in the run game and dominate in pass protection.
15. Philadelphia Eagles — Drake London, WR, USC
The Eagles use a first-round pick on a wideout for the third year in a row and land a stud in USC’s Drake London. Reminiscent of former Eagle Alshon Jeffery, London has a truly rare ability to dominate in contested catch situations and will become quarterback Jalen Hurts’s best friend. Offensive-minded head coach Nick Sirianni will line Drake up all over the field to play jump ball over the heads of NFC East cornerbacks for years to come.
16. New Orleans Saints — Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State
This is a dream scenario for the Saints, who traded up earlier this month into the middle of the first round. They are rumored to be targeting a pass catcher and pass protector to put together the last two pieces of the puzzle for a Saints playoff push with Jameis Winston under center. Cross could easily go as high as No. 7 and is arguably the most natural pass protector in this draft class.
17. Los Angeles Chargers — Jordan Davis, IDL, Georgia
Another dream scenario. After making some massive moves this offseason, the Chargers get a future star at one of their last positions of need: interior defensive line. Georgia’s Jordan Davis is one of the largest, most dominant run-stuffing defensive tackles in college football history and never gets moved off the line of scrimmage. With Davis plugging up the middle alongside free-agent acquisition Sebastian Joseph-Day and the tandem of Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa rushing off the edge, the Chargers will have built one of the best defensive lines that the league has seen in years.
18. Philadelphia Eagles — Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson
The Eagles added linebacker depth in free agency and re-signed Derek Barnett, so linebacker and edge are not as urgent as they were a few months ago. Booth gives Philadelphia a technically impressive, scheme-friendly cornerback to pair up with Darius Slay.
19. New Orleans Saints — Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
The Saints get a steal in Ohio State’s Chris Olave here, adding an experienced and highly athletic pass catcher who runs the best routes of any player in the class. With this pick and Michael Thomas returning to the fold, the Saints could have one of the best offenses in football next season.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers — Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa
Penning was a three-year starter at left tackle for Northern Iowa and has a nasty, throwback disposition that will fit right in at Heinz Field. Penning can be a day-one starter at right or left tackle opposite Chukwuma Okorafor to protect newly acquired Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky. In a division rife with talented pass rushers, the Steelers need to invest more assets into their offensive line if they are to compete.
21. New England Patriots — Daxton Hill, CB/S, Michigan
Daxton Hill just feels like a Patriot to me. He has the versatility to play inside or outside as a cornerback or to take over a safety spot. A former five-star high school recruit, Hill has the versatility, athleticism, range and style of play to fit perfectly into Bill Belichick’s offense. In a division with Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs, the Patriots need more help in the secondary.
22. Green Bay Packers — Zion Johnson, IOL, Boston College
While the Packers desperately need wide receiver help, they will remain true to form and wait it out before picking one up in the draft. They instead prioritize the offensive line, picking up a versatile and rock-solid Zion Johnson, a star at the Senior Bowl who would be able to play any of the three interior offensive line positions for Green Bay. The 6-foot-3, 312-pound Johnson would own the guard spot, freeing up Elgton Jenkins to stay put at the right tackle spot after moving around often over the past few seasons.
23. Arizona Cardinals — Devonte Wyatt, IDL, Georgia
The Cardinals get a twitched-up defensive tackle here who can disrupt the pocket alongside JJ Watt. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound Wyatt has prototypical size and blazing 4.77 speed; he’ll start as a rotational pass-rushing three-technique with the upside to be a three-down player.
24. Dallas Cowboys — George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue
Karlaftis should go much higher than this but is pushed down the draft due to this class’s depth at defensive end. He boasted one of the highest pass-rush win rates in college football last season and brings high effort to every single play. While he may not have the upside of other players in the draft, he has some bend and redirect ability when rushing off the edge and has the versatility to move inside in a 3-4 alignment. The Cowboys need a steady rusher to pair up with DeMarcus Lawrence; Karlaftis will give them stout play against the run and a steady eight sacks a year for the next decade.
25. Buffalo Bills — Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State
Iowa State’s Breece Hall is an explosive back with home-run ability from anywhere on the field. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Hall has NFL size and lightning 4.39 speed. He’s a versatile, three-down talent who will add a dynamic new element to the Bills offense, taking the load off of Josh Allen in both the running and passing game.
26. Tennessee Titans — Kenyon Green, IOL, Texas A&M
A road-grader with a five-star pedigree and the versatility to play anywhere on the line, Texas A&M’s Kenyon Green has the size and experience to start opening holes for Derrick Henry from day one in Nashville. At 324 pounds, he has a strong anchor that allows him to drive defenders off the ball with ease. Green could become a Pro Bowl guard very quickly in the NFL.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Travis Jones, IDL, Connecticut
The Bucs lost several players from their defensive line to free agency and could stand to pick up some younger talent. UConn’s Travis Jones dominated at the Senior Bowl and will take over for Ndamukong Suh on the Tampa Bay defensive front without a hitch. At 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, he’s built like a brick house. Alongside Vita Vea, no team in the NFC South will be able to rush against the Bucs.
28. Green Bay Packers — Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas
The Packers break their long-held streak and finally pick up a skill position player in the first round to help out quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Arkansas’s Burks has lost some steam in the pre-draft process but remains a talented, high-upside player with the opportunity to dominate as a number-two receiver in the pass-happy Green Bay offense. Built like a linebacker with the speed of a running back, Burks will play a DK Metcalf-esque role with a limited route tree early on.
29. Kansas City Chiefs — Bernhard Raimann, OT, Central Michigan
With their work in free agency, the urgency of Kansas City’s wideout need is lessened. They instead continue to shore up their offensive line for Patrick Mahomes with Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann, who would enter the starting lineup at the right tackle spot for Kansas City. Raimann is a nimble athlete with prototypical NFL tackle size who should become a longtime starter in the league.
30. Kansas City Chiefs — David Ojabo, DE, Michigan
If David Ojabo hadn’t torn his Achilles at Michigan’s pro day, he likely would have been a top-10 pick in this year’s draft. The Chiefs have the draft capital to take Ojabo at the end of the first round and let him sit while he recovers from his injury before getting him on the field as a potential replacement for fellow former Wolverine Frank Clark.
31. Cincinnati Bengals — Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
After a rough showing against Matt Stafford in the Super Bowl this past February, the Bengals secondary needs an upgrade. Florida’s Kaiir Elam has NFL bloodlines and prototypical measurables to play outside corner. He has work to do on his technique, but he also has the traits of a strong future press and zone corner. Elam would step in and compete on day one for the second cornerback spot opposite Chidobe Awuzie.
32. Detroit Lions — Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah
The Lions steal the class’s best off-ball linebacker with the final pick of the first round, adding a rangy, athletic and experienced all-around player in Utah’s Lloyd. At 6-foot-3 and 237 pounds, Lloyd would add juice and versatility to a middling Detroit linebacking corps.
And that’s all, folks! This would be the first time three edge rushers were drafted with the first three picks, and the first time eight teams picked twice in the first round. Records were set, teams were rebuilt, and six more rounds remain.