the stars, the surprises and the lower-round gems


Is this a bad draft class or are there just no great quarterbacks?

This is a great draft class! It is Unusually loaded at edge rusher and offensive tackle, two of the game’s premier positions. Where discussing this class gets sticky is that there are such slender gaps between the upper tiers of any given position group: there isn’t an obvious ‘elite’ sect. There are 50 players this year worthy of going in the first round. It just so happens they don’t play the game’s most valuable position. OC

There is much talent to be had in the trenches and fascinating pass rush options. And a reminder that 2017 was also supposed to be a “weak quarterback class.” That’s the year Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson were drafted. (We’ll ignore the Bears whiffing on Mitch Trubisky at No 2 overall.) MJ

It’s an unsexy draft class that’s for sure: the most talented players are edge rushers and offensive line types, not guys likely to transform the course of a franchise. But that could lead to teams building a deeper pool of talent rather going all-in on a star quarterback. A draft for the true football geeksin other words. HF

This class may not have any great quarterbacks, but it does have depth. Lots and lots of depth, at key positions at that. Edge rushers, wide receivers, and offensive tackles taken early (and some picked long after most fans stop paying attention) will make huge impacts for years to come. TF

The No1 overall pick will be…

Travon Walker, edge, Georgia. Aidan Hutchinson, the favorite to go first overall, makes sense. He probably should go first overall. But Trent Baalke, the Jags’ chief decision-maker, is always liable to do Trent Baalke things. Walker is an outrageous athlete who can shift all along the defensive front. Baalke loves to draft toolsy prospects rather than those who have racked up college production. It would not be a shock to see him swing for the fences with a name other than Hutchinson. OC

Aidan Hutchinson, edge, Michigan. There’s a reason the Jags have the No 1 overall selection and are perennially picking in the top 10: they need a boatload of help. Hutchinson is a safe but polished player who should give the Jags’ pass rush a much-needed boost. MJ

Aidan Hutchinson. It’s not a complete lock, but the experts seem to have hitched their wagons to Hutchinson as the likely first pick, especially since the draft stock of his peer at edge rusher, Kayvon Thibodeaux, has fallen thanks to an early exit at the NFL scouting combine . HF

Evan Neal, offensive tackle, Alabama. Neal has been dominant throughout his career at Alabama while playing against elite competition, and he has also showed the versatility to play multiple positions along the offensive line. New Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson knows he must protect quarterback Trevor Lawrence to have even the slightest chance of success in Jacksonville. TF

The best quarterback is…

Kenny Pickett enjoyed a great season for Pittsburgh in 2021. Photograph: Adrian Kraus/AP

Malik Willis, Liberty. When sorting through this iffy quarterback class, the first thing to do is to look at who has an A+ skill. Only one quarterback does: Willis. In fact, he has two: arm strength and his ability to create on the fly. He plays in a style that fits with where the NFL is at and where it’s heading. The step-up from Liberty is a big one, and his development will take time. But in terms of raw talent, Willis stands above the rest. OC

Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh. Pickett is far from a sure thing but has a lot in common with Joe Burrow. He’s dynamic in the pocket, athletic, and mobile. He’s also coming off a sensational year in which he completed 67.2% of his passes and threw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns. If the Panthers take a QB at No 6, Pickett is the most pro-ready of the options. MJ

Kenny Pickett. It’s possible there won’t be a long-term starting quarterback in the first round of this draft, but there are always teams that are desperate enough that they feel it’s worth a gamble. Pickett maybe isn’t the first quarterback in most mock drafts, but he did a few things wrong last year for Pittsburgh. HF

Malik Willis. Willis may face a steep adjustment transitioning from Liberty to the NFL but he has a cannon disguised as a right arm and unparalleled explosiveness as a runner. TF

A lower-round gem to watch …

Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State. A former five-star recruit, Smith was cast in a wonky role at Penn State, but his game marries up better with the NFL than the college game. He’s expected to go in the fourth or fifth round, which could prove a steal. OC

Tyler Goodson, running back, Iowa. The first-round running back is becoming rare. But the sixth-round rusher who makes an immediate impact is on an upward trajectory. Elijah Mitchell (963 rushing yards in 11 games for the 49ers last season) and Chicago’s Khalil Herbert are last year’s examples. The versatile Goodson, who comes from Iowa’s pro-style offense, could very well follow suit. MJ

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

Matt Araiza, punter, San Diego State. As someone obsessed with the singular art of punting, I’m intrigued at the idea that we could see Araiza targeted in the second or third round. Since the Bengals may have discovered a generational kicker in the draft last year, it feels like a punter is now due. HF

Marcus Jones, cornerback, Houston. The cornerback out of Houston has all the athleticism and instincts to make an impact as a slot defender. But regardless of that he will absolutely, positively, be an elite punctual return. Jones tied the NCAA record with nine punt returns for touchdowns and has even played some snaps at slot wide receiver on the offense. TF

The team most in need of a good draft is …

The Baltimore Ravens. Lamar Jackson has yet to sign a contract extension. The defense is getting a complete overhaul (and needs pieces at the deepest position in the draft: pass-rush). And it’s three year of talk of the Ravens diversifying their passing game. In a stacked AFC North, the stakes are high for Baltimore. OC

Lots of options given that eight teams have two first-round picks. But the Green Bay Packers are most in need of using their two picks (No 22 from the Davante Adams trade and No 28) on rookies who can help 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers win now. Will the Packers double up on wideouts? MJ

The New York Giants have both the fifth overall pick and, via the deal that handed quarterback Justin Fields to the Chicago Bears in last year’s draft, the seventh. That’s especially interesting since this might be their last opportunity to see if they can build a workable team around their guy at quarterback, Daniel Jones. HF

The Kansas City Chiefs are tied for the most draft picks this year with 12 and need to make a few of them count. The rest of the AFC West has finally built rosters that can compete with KC and the Chiefs need to retool at multiple positions if they wish to stay atop the division. TF

The team that drafted best last year was …

The decision to draft Ja'Marr Chase helped Joe Burrow and the Bengals reach last season’s Super Bowl

The decision to draft Ja’Marr Chase helped Joe Burrow and the Bengals reach last season’s Super Bowl. Photograph: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

New England Patriots. Mac Jones proved to be the most consistent quarterback from a much-balllyhooed class. Christian Barmore, the team’s second-round pick, is as exciting and explosive a young interior rusher as anywhere in the league. Add to that, they selected Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth round, who wound up being the team’s lead running back. OC

The Denver Broncos had phenomenal results from last year’s draft class. First round cornerback Pat Surtain II is a star in the making, who ended his rookie year with four interceptions and 14 passes deflected. Second day players like guard Quinn Meinerz, linebacker Baron Browning and running back Javonte Williams all developed into key contributors. MJ

I’m going to give credit to the Cincinnati Bengals. During last year’s draft, I mocked them for not taking Penei Sewell to protect their quarterback Joe Burrow. Instead, they went with Burrow’s old college receiver Ja’Marr Chase. While they still could have used a Sewell-type for their offensive line, they probably don’t make it to the Super Bowl last season without the Burrow-Chase matchup. HF

As a wise man once said, “How ’bout them Cowboys?” Defensive rookie of the year Micah Parsons has already proven to be a demon and one of the best players in the NFL. But beyond that three other 2021 picks made an impact in the starting lineup and several more played important support roles. TF

The top five will be …

1) Jacksonville Jaguars: Travon Walker, edge.

2) Detroit Lions: Aidan Hutchinson, edge.

3) Houston Texans: Ikem Ekwonu, offensive tackle.

4) New York Jets: Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, cornerback.

5) New York Giants: Evan Neal, offensive tackle. OC

1) Jacksonville Jaguars: Aidan Hutchinson, edge.

2) Detroit Lions: Travon Walker, edge.

3) Houston Texans: Ikem Ekwonu, offensive tackle.

4) New York Jets: Kayvon Thibodeaux, edge.

5) New York Giants: Charles Cross, offensive tackle. MJ

1) Jacksonville Jaguars: Aidan Hutchinson, edge.

2) Detroit Lions: Kayvon Thibodeaux, edge.

3) Houston Texans: Ikem Ekwonu, offensive tackle.

4) New York Jets: Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, cornerback.

5) New York Giants: Evan Neal, offensive tackle. HF

1) Jacksonville Jaguars: Evan Neal, offensive tackle.

2) Detroit Lions: Aidan Hutchinson, edge.

3) Houston Texans: Kayvon Thibodeaux, edge.

4) New York Jets: Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, cornerback.

5) New York Giants: Ikem Ekwonu, offensive tackle. TF



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