After months of analysis and forecasting, what do we really know about the 2022 NFL draft?
In short, not much. While this year’s class has been ridiculed for its apparent shortage of top-tier talent, especially at quarterback, the outlook for the first round is significantly murkier than it has been in recent history. And for an event predicated on its lack of predictability, that dynamic could up the entertainment factor differ for the beginning of the festivities on Thursday in Las Vegas.
Ahead of the first round, here are 10 possible twists that could create chaos in this year’s NFL draft:
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1. The Jaguars do anything but select Travon Walker at No. 1
A week ago, Walker’s name likely would have been replaced by Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. But the buzz around the Georgia defensive end has grown loud enough that he has become the widespread favorite to be the first player to hear his name called Thursday by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Yet the Jaguars have made this selection more uncertain than it has been in years. Last week, general manager Trent Baalke said the team was considering four players for the top spot, and coach Doug Pederson noted Hutchinson is “a person that would fit culturally.” If the Walker hype turns out to be a late mislead, it would be a stunning way to kick off the draft, with heavy ramifications for the other pass rushers and teams making the first several selections.
2. The Lions bypass Aidan Hutchinson at No. 2
Having Detroit turn away Hutchinson, the local product who seems like a custom fit for a Dan Campbell locker room, is hard to envision. But it’s still worth entertaining as a hypothetical. General manager Brad Holmes has been outspoken about his desire for landing a “game-changer” with this pick. Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux certainly fits that bill, and he joked Wednesday that he was in such constant contact with Campbell that the coach has him “on speed dial.” However unlikely this scenario is, it certainly would register as one of the defining twists of this draft if it came to fruition.
3. The Texans opt for defense ahead of Ikem Ekwonu at No. 3
Maybe this one isn’t so outlandish, as I had Houston going with LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. in my final mock draft. Still, many had connected the Texans to North Carolina State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu. If they instead opt for Stingley Jr. or Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner, the decision will create dilemmas for the next few teams in the order.
Would the Jets take Ekwonu over Gardner or a pass rusher? If not, how would the Giants rate Ekwonu against Alabama’s Evan Neal and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross? And might the Panthers actually have a decision to make at the position rather than just taking the last one of the three available at No. 6? If one lasts past Carolina’s selection, the floor becomes unclear, with the Seahawks at No 9 and the Texans’ second pick at No. 13 perhaps the next possibilities.
4. Kayvon Thibodeaux falls
While Thibodeaux is seemingly in play as early as No. 2, it’s hard to figure out where a potential slide might end. To the Falcons at No. 8? Or the Seahawks at No. 9? Maybe he’s not in for a precipitous fall, though USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis projected in his final mock draft that Thibodeaux wouldn’t be selected until the Texans’ second first-round choice at No. 13. That would be quite the surprising result for a player once seen as the premier talent in this class.
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5. Any team in the top 10 takes a quarterback with its slotted pick
There hasn’t been a draft class without a top-10 quarterback since 2013, when EJ Manuel was the first signal-caller taken at No. 16 overall. But with many teams having scrambled in the offseason to establish an answer behind center, this year’s inauspicious collection of passers could be in for an extended wait.
Still, settling for a bridge quarterback plan can be difficult for general managers and coaches to stomach. Would any of the teams in the top 10 talk themselves into pulling the trigger, likely on Libert’s Malik Willis or Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett? The Panthers seem more inclined to do so if they could move back into the teens. The Falcons, meanwhile, shouldn’t have much motivation to put a clock on their rebuild by reaching for a quarterback. And the Seahawks also have a wide variety of other deficiencies that would point them elsewhere. But maybe one team falls in love with a particular prospect at the position.
6. A team trades into the top 15 for a quarterback
So if none of the teams in the top 10 set their sights on Willis or Pickett, where – and when – would the quarterbacks finally find their fit? The Saints (Nos. 16 and 19) and Steelers (No. 20) are both potentially in the market to add a young gunslinger with a premium pick. But if either team is drawn to one of the passers, waiting in place seems like a dangerous decision. New Orleans certainly has the ammo to leap up, and outgoing Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert might have to break from his habits by making an aggressive move for Ben Roethlisberger’s successor. Given that the quarterback situations are all interconnected, any deal would send ripples throughout the rest of the first round.
7. Other potential first-round deals
Entering Thursday, 11 first-round picks have already changed hands at least once, with eight teams owning multiple Day 1 choices. More action appears to be, at the very least, a strong likelihood.
Ultimately, the level of movement is expected to be determined by the interest of the buyers, as the relative weakness at the top of this class should leave more teams wanting to move back or load up for the 2023 draft, which is expected to be more robust with marquee talent. But one spot to watch could be at the end of the first round, with some teams potentially interested in either grabbing a quarterback of their choice or another player who would be subject to the fifth-year option. And a team like the Eagles might have the means and motivation to move up for a receiver, which connects to the next point.
8. The run on wide receivers ramps up early
After an offseason defined in part by marquee pass catchers on the move, there once again appears to be a heavy demand from returning contenders and playoff hopefuls alike. The consensus top prospects – Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, USC’s Drake London and Alabama’s Jameson Williams – have been widely projected to go in the range of 8-22. But it’s possible that three could be spoken for within the first 11 picks.
If all four are off the board by the 15th selection, could the run continue with the next tier of wide receivers in the back half of the first round? Arkansas’ Treylon Burks and Georgia’s George Picks seems like the best bets to make the cut as well, but there’s also an outside chance for one or more of Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore and North Dakota State’s Christian Watson to sneak into one of Thursday’s final slots. And that would leave several receiver-needy teams potentially in the market for a Day 2 solution – think the Bears or Colts – in an unfavorable spot.
9. Deebo Samuel gets traded
San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch wouldn’t engage this week on trade speculation after his star wide receiver’s demand to be moved, saying, “I just can’t ever imagine moving on from him.” But that wasn’t a full” never.” While it’s difficult to envision San Francisco relenting so shortly after Samuel’s demand, who knows what price some team might be willing to pay to bring on the multi-dimensional threat? This seems like one of the less likely propositions on this list, but maybe a massive offer changes the outlook for the 49ers, who don’t select until No. 61 and are also without their first-rounder in 2023 after the Trey Lance trade.
10. Other veterans are dealt to new teams
There’s always potential for some established players to get moved once picks start rolling in and certain situations start to crystallize. After months of inaction, maybe Day 2 will yield enough quarterback clarity for a buyer to materialize for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo. And the Giants still seem headed for a split with veteran cornerback James Bradberry.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ten twists that could create chaos in NFL Draft 2022 first round