In our first NFL mock draft for 2022, which dropped close to Halloween, we landed five quarterbacks in Round 1. This time around, closer to Christmas, we’ve shown more restraint at the position. (Please don’t call us Grinch for this.)
Typically, the closer we get to the NFL draft, the more quarterbacks tend to get pushed up the board. But we found room for only three QBs in the first round this time around, wanting to learn more from Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Liberty’s Malik Willis and Nevada’s Carson Strong — all three of whom could be at the Senior Bowl.
Although our friends at BetMGM has yet to set a number for quarterbacks to land in Round 1, we’d guess 3.5 is a fair starting spot. Right now, we’re taking the under, but the Senior Bowl, NFL scouting combine and pro-day performances have a way of boosting that number in the months to come.
Here are our early projections for the top 32 picks, along with the top overall choices for the five teams that currently lack first-round selections.
Oregon EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux
With the Jaguars sliding into the draft’s top spot, it changes the profile for who’ll end up in this spot. When Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke was in San Francisco, the 49ers vacuumed up pass rushers in Thibodeaux’s mold as often as they could.
Thibodeaux might be a hair more explosive and versatile than the other most likely candidate for this spot, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, but that debate could go down to the wire. For now, a Thibodeaux-Josh Allen pairing could help juice up the Jaguars’ pressure up front.
Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson
You say the Lions can’t even win for losing. We say they’ll be fine with either Thibodeaux or Hutchinson. Either they take the local kid — who just so happened to be a Heisman Trophy finalist — or they double up with another Duck after taking OT Penei Sewell in the first round this past April.
General manager Brad Holmes’ maiden draft looks like a strong effort, and the Lions could be building a good d-line with 2021 draft picks Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike, and veterans Romeo Okwara and Charles Harris on the edges. Hutchinson might not quite possess the rare burst, handwork and finishing ability of the Watt brothers, but he’s pretty darned close to that level of prospect.
North Carolina State OL Ikem Ekwonu
There will be a strong battle for OL1 honors between Alabama’s Evan Neal, Mississippi State’s Charles Cross and Ekwonu. That fight remains too close to call now. All three have higher-end starting potential in the NFL, and it likely will come down to individual preference for who goes off the board first.
Ekwonu gets the nod here to Houston for his rare physicality, intense demeanor, and personal and football character. Whether at guard or tackle, Ekwonu profiles as a tone-setter, although — like we preached with 2021 first-rounder Rashawn Slater — that tackle might be his best spot, despite slightly less-than-ideal length.
LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.
After they used their first four draft picks in 2021 on the offensive side of the ball, the Jets must thoroughly address the other side. The defense ranks in the bottom five in yards allowed, points allowed (dead last by nearly three whole points per game), interception rate and first downs allowed.
Basically, they should be seeking playmakers of all shapes and sizes — there’s no spot on defense that doesn’t require upgrading. The NFL doesn’t have a wealth of tape on Stingley since his six-INT, 15-PD true freshman season, but his upside could be too good to pass up if his character and medical evaluations come out relatively clean.
There’s also a fun connection here, as Stingley’s father — who played nine years in the Arena League — had a cup of coffee with the Jets on their practice squad in 1999.
Alabama OT Evan Neal
Assuming the Giants move on from Nate Solder, it’s no guarantee that 2020 third-rounder Matt Peart (or reclamation project Isaiah Wilson) will take his place at right tackle. Andrew Thomas is starting to develop well on the left side, so Neal would be an excellent bookend on the other side.
Although Neal displays issues handling lateral quickness and will occasionally be slow to pick up and ID blitzes and stunts, his outstanding combination of balance and power is rare, especially for a player of his mass and length. Neal should be a top-10 run-blocking tackle and an above-average to very good pass protector in time.
Michigan EDGE David Ojabo
The pick the Giants received from the Bears in the Justin Fields trade in April could end up being used to help fetch a replacement for Daniel Jones, especially if there are major front-office changes (amid chatter that GM Dave Gettleman might not return). But drafting a quarterback here still feels high right now, even while we remind ourselves that:
1) Jones went sixth overall after entering the Senior Bowl as a possible Day 2 pick
2) QB prospects get pushed up to this range nearly every draft cycle out of need
Still, we’ll go a different direction for now and give the Giants a young, ascending pass rusher with Pro Bowl upside. The Ravens stole Odafe Oweh with the 31st pick in April, and Ojabo (Oweh’s former high school teammate) appears to be a similar projection, even with fewer snaps in basically a one-year breakout in 2021.
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett
We have questions about whether team owner David Tepper will keep head coach Matt Rhule and, if so, who the long-term replacement at offensive coordinator will be. If Rhule stays, Pickett or another QB could be in play here. Tepper’s patience has been tested, and he knows the team needs better play at the position.
What the team plans to do with Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and Co. is anyone’s guess. But Rhule was still at Temple when Pickett committed to the school in 2016, so the coach surely knows all about the Heisman finalist. There’s even a chance they could pair up at the Senior Bowl if Rhule stays. The Panthers coached the game last year and passed on taking Mac Jones, so perhaps they’ll not want to do something similar again.
We don’t have as high a grade on Pickett as we did on Justin Fields, whom the Panthers bypassed at No. 8 last draft, but the NFL doesn’t consult us on such trivial matters.
Georgia EDGE Travon Walker
Before you assume the Jets will use the pick they got in the Jamal Adams trade on another safety, we’d warn you that GM Joe Douglas might not value that position highly enough to consider it here. The highest that any team Douglas has been part has drafted a safety: Ed Reed, No. 24 overall with the Baltimore Ravens in 2002. Just some food for thought.
Walker should receive more buzz in the coming weeks and months when people realize some of the freaky things he’s capable of at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds. In addition to being able to hold his ground in the trenches, Walker can win inside with quickness, drop into coverage and be used to spy QBs. Plus, how many men his size can run down kickoffs, as Walker did in 2020? Freak, with a capital F.
Mississippi State OT Charles Cross
The Falcons have spent plenty of resources on the offensive line through the draft, but Kaleb McGary’s dreadful pass-blocking efforts (especially against speed rushers) make right tackle a spot in need of upgrade.
Cross has two years of good left tackle tape. He has taken a big leap in 2021, holding up well in some great matchups with quality SEC rushers. The Texas A&M and Alabama games in back-to-back weeks convinced me that Cross could go very high. Either he could be tried at right tackle, or the Falcons could move Jake Matthews to that side.
Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton
Perhaps Hamilton goes higher if he hadn’t suffered a knee injury that wiped out the second half of his season. A clean bill of health is still expected for Hamilton, and some team could take him before this, but keep in mind that in the past decade the only safeties to go top 10 have been Jamal Adams, Mark Barron and Isaiah Simmons (who is more like a linebacker).
The Eagles need defensive help on all three levels and easily could pounce on the 6-4, 210-pound playmaker who displays rare range, terrific coverage-matchup potential and an alpha mentality that plays deep and up close to the line of scrimmage.
Ole Miss QB Matt Corral
The Taylor Heinecke story has been mostly terrific, and yet there should come a time when it’s clear that there’s a ceiling to what he can accomplish as the team’s starter. Corral has some Zach Wilson-like traits as a runner and passer, and has faced better competition than Wilson did in college.
Our biggest concern with Corral is that he’s done most of his damage, near as we can tell, within the structure of the Rebels’ offense, run by one of the best college play-callers in Lane Kiffin. With time to develop his diagnostic skills, perhaps while Heinecke starts until the wheels come off, Corral has above-average starter potential … eventually.
Purdue EDGE George Karlaftis
Just as landing Hamilton at 10 would be good value, getting Karlaftis two slots later also qualifies. He might never be an elite pass rusher in the NFL, as he’s not quite the finisher that the EDGE prospects whom we have listed above are. But Karlaftis’ high motor, pass-rush versatility and stout frame to be a Trey Hendrickson-caliber rusher.
Assuming the Eagles move on from Brandon Graham and/or Derek Barnett, Karlaftis could step in nicely opposite speed rusher Josh Sweat as an ascending pair.
Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning
It’s possible that this pick, along with ammunition landed in the Von Miller trade, could be used to land a franchise quarterback. It’s also possible that the Broncos consider drafting one here if they can’t swing a deal for a quality veteran. Sam Howell or Malik Willis might be tough sells in this spot for a franchise that has most everything except a ready-made starting QB.
Instead, we’ll pencil in the freakish Penning, who might not be a reach going this high if he can show out at the Senior Bowl and NFL scouting combine. Right tackle Bobby Massie is on a one-year deal, and Penning easily could be tried as his replacement despite mostly playing left tackle in college. If Penning isn’t the pick for Denver, he’ll end up going somewhere in the teens range.
Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson
It wouldn’t be a complete mock draft without the Saints grabbing a receiver in Round 1 or taking yet another Buckeyes player. Why not two birds with one stone? They already have seven Ohio State players on the roster, but that includes Michael Thomas, who in essence Wilson could replace.
Neither big nor blazingly fast, Wilson is nonetheless one of the best all-around receivers who plays bigger than his listed size of 6-foot, 186 pounds and is field-fast, with his sharp cutting ability, rare body control and terrific YAC ability. He’d be a beast in a Sean Payton system, feasting on the slants, shallow crossers and option routes that Thomas once gobbled up.
Georgia DT Jordan Davis
This is a trickier pick to project than some are making it out to be. It’s possible that GM Andrew Berry doesn’t value the WR position the way some fans in Cleveland hope he does, so this isn’t as simple as penciling in the top wideout on the board (even though there are some good ones available here).
Then again, would the analytics-driven Berry and his staff be smitten enough in this spot to take a nose tackle who averaged 23.5 defensive snaps per game and who doesn’t really generate a pass rush? That’s a fair question. With a theoretically big drop down to the next-best DL prospect, the Browns could justify using a mid-teens pick on a 6-foot-6, 340-pound behemoth who can collapse the line in a division with some talented running backs.
Arkansas WR Treylon Burks
This was a tricky pick to put a stamp on, as we considered addressing the offensive line, front-seven help and cornerback. But we landed on the Arkansas receiver because he could be an excellent complement to the Raiders’ passing game alongside Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow.
Burks looks like a mashup of Deebo Samuel and DK Metcalf, as odd as that pairing might sound to the naked ear. But hear us out: The bull-in-a-china-shop Burks can do all the multi-positional stuff Samuel can yet also possesses enough size, 50-50 catch ability and vertical prowess to do a decent Metcalf impression. He’s physically mature and highly competitive, two big boxes Mike Mayock (assuming he’s still GM) might want to check off.
North Carolina QB Sam Howell
The Steelers might end up clearing the decks entirely at quarterback. One possible method forward at the position could be to sign a veteran (or perhaps keep one of Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins on board) and draft someone like Howell to have on ready-alert when the time to make a switch is right.
It would hurt on some level to take a small step backward with a young quarterback, especially for a team that has not finished below .500 since 2003 — when Howell was 3 years old. But his toughness as a runner, deep-ball potential and natural leadership skills would be a good fit in Pittsburgh. GM Kevin Colbert has traveled to view Howell on more than one occasion this season.
Clemson CB Andrew Booth Jr.
The Ravens have been worn thin at corner with Marcus Peters on IR and Jimmy Smith seldom available. So adding help there would be a smart move, even if there are other spots (such as offensive line) that also make sense in Round 1.
Assuming the Ravens clear some character concerns with Booth, he’d be an excellent fit. Although he has not been a big playmaker in college and has had consistency issues with tackling, Booth plays with a chip on his shoulder and is an excellent man-cover corner — a great fit for a team that blitzes more than pretty much anyone else.
Texas A&M DL DeMarvin Leal
The Vikings rank 30th in the NFL in yards per rush allowed and have only 45 tackles for loss, close to the bottom of the league as well. Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce are fine as nose tackles, but there’s a big need for an interior penetrator up front.
That’s Leal’s game. He hasn’t been quite as productive as we thought he might this season, and his Alabama tape was sub-par. But Leal uses his quickness off the ball, powerful hands and block-shedding ability to penetrate and cause disruption up front. He can play multiple techniques and be a factor on all three downs.
Iowa C Tyler Linderbaum
The highly decorated Linderbaum falling to the 20th pick wouldn’t be the crime some might want to make it out to be. After all, draft history shows that this position isn’t typically highly valued; no true center has been taken higher than the 18th overall pick since 1999. Plus, Linderbaum — believe it or not — has had some pass-blocking issues and isn’t the perfect prospect many might have you believe.
Then again, he’s one of the finest run-blocking center prospects to come along in years, and his intangibles are through the roof. Kirk Ferentz has cranked out the OL prospects for years, and Linderbaum might be one of his best ever, right up there among Marshal Yanda, Bryan Bulaga, Eric Steinbach and Brandon Scherff.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott wants to be more physical up front, able to dominate opponents when they run the ball, and Linderbaum could be an upgrade over Mitch Morse, who has had some concerning patches this season.
Texas A&M OL Kenyon Green
The Dolphins have carpet-bombed the OL with recent draft picks, producing decidedly mixed results. Collectively, this offensive line is among the bottom-10 units in the NFL, and yet there might be a talented starting five if they can add another piece and determine who works best where. That part hasn’t come easily.
Green could be a perfect solution. He has played inside and outside for the Aggies and has even started games (out of necessity) this season at four of the five OL spots, everywhere but center. He’s a barroom brawler whose body type suggests a move inside, similar to the Packers’ Elgton Jenkins. Green might be talented enough to factor at multiple spots.
San Diego State EDGE Cameron Thomas
The Chargers could use a bookend opposite Joey Bosa, as they’ve rotated several players in that spot but received middling results at best. If it’s indeed an end they seek in Round 1, it could come down to a pair of Southern California rushers, USC’s Drake Jackson and Thomas. We unironically went with Thomas from the franchise’s former city.
By PFF’s count, Thomas led all college rushers in total pressures in 2021. He’s a well-built, long-armed rusher with seemingly endless reserves of energy, along with sophisticated pass-rush moves considering he often lined up inside earlier in his career. We won’t be shocked if Thomas ends up a first-rounder when it’s all said and done.
Utah LB Devin Lloyd
We’re going to stop you right here and note that yes, we know the Eagles do not take linebackers in Round 1. At least they haven’t since the Dick Vermeil days. Yet that’s not going to stop us from giving them Lloyd — a top-20 overall talent — in what would be a clean sweep in Round 1, attacking all three levels of the defense.
Some have speculated the Eagles could give Jalen Hurts another year and sell this first-rounder for 2023 NFL draft ammo, and that approach makes sense. If they were to land Lloyd, they’d be getting a complete, intense defender whose improvements in pass coverage make him a first-round prospect.
USC WR Drake London
Yes, there’s a quarterback-of-the-future need to address (Desmond Ridder? Carson Strong?), but the Lions also own the second pick in Round 2 that could help them do so. There’s a void at receiver, however, even with Amon-Ra St. Brown emerging in the slot and Josh Reynolds appearing to be found art on the outside.
London is a tantalizingly raw prospect whose best football is in front of him. After wavering between basketball and football at USC, the 6-foot-5 wideout stuck with the gridiron and caught a ridiculous 88 passes in eight games before suffering a broken ankle. The injury is believed to be a short-term worry, so that could end up the Lions’ long-term gain if he fell this far.
Ohio State OT Nicholas Petit-Frere
How Joe Burrow is doing what he’s doing without a functional offensive line is anyone’s guess. He has been terrific. If the Bengals want to preserve this gem of a quarterback, they’re going to need to insulate him better — sound familiar?
Now, Petit-Frere isn’t necessarily whom we’d pick here, as we have questions about his balance and ability to handle power (take a look at his reps vs. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson for evidence of this). But he has desirable length and athleticism, and has played both OT spots, profiling similar to the type of blocker the Bengals traditionally have sought.
Alabama WR Jameson Williams
The Titans rank dead last in the NFL in 20-yard pass plays with 27; more than half the league has at least 40 such plays this season. Granted, some of that has been because of injuries, not just to A.J. Brown and Julio Jones but also to Derrick Henry, whose presence often draws a safety into the box.
Tennessee could stand to add an injection of speed to this offense and help revive the play-action potential the Titans have shown in the past with Ryan Tannehill. The long-term health concerns of Jones also help make this a need pick. Williams has a lean frame, but his rare acceleration and deep speed could be a much-needed asset in Nashville.
Auburn CB Roger McCreary
The Cardinals waited until Round 4 to select a corner, Florida’s Marco Wilson, and he has been pressed into major duty in Year 1. He is struggling of late, so the Cardinals could use more talent here. Robert Alford is a pending free agent, and Byron Murphy Jr. is entering a contract season.
McCreary is one of our favorite corners in this class, solid across the board. He’s not very long and had a tough time sticking with Bama’s receivers, but that’s hardly a deal breaker. McCreary is scheme-diverse, instinctive and has quality ball skills, something the Cardinals’ secondary (only five INTs by corners) could use.
Ohio State WR Chris Olave
With free agent-to-be Chris Godwin suffering a torn ACL, and Antonio Brown continuing to be a talking point for the wrong reasons, it might behoove the Bucs to consider adding talent at receiver. The smooth-operating Olave would be a nice fit in Bruce Arians’ system, either as a slot or outside option. Helping the OL and DL depth are options, too, but Olave might be too good to pass up here.
Michigan DB Daxton Hill
Devin McCourty and J.C. Jackson are pending free agents, so the secondary is a spot the Patriots likely will address in some notable way this offseason. Hill has positional versatility (deep safety, box safety, nickel corner), plays with a fiery temperament and has three years of special-teams experience. His tackling has been concerning at times, but he’s a competitive and useful defender.
Penn State S Jaquan Brisker
Starting safeties Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee are headed for free agency, so the Cowboys could use a heady, rangy defender to help patch the back end if one of those veterans walks. Brisker has great range, outstanding length and the kind of athleticism that could push him up higher in the draft once he tests. But if he falls to this range, he’s a good fit for a Dan Quinn defense.
USC EDGE Drake Jackson
His production this season has been slightly disappointing, but Jackson’s length, quickness and upside make him an interesting pick in this spot. He has the quickness to be an impact pass rusher in time, and the Chiefs must plan for life after Alex Okafor, find someone to push Frank Clark and upgrade over Michael Danna.
Georgia LB Nakobe Dean
If this is how it shakes out, perhaps Green Bay entertains a trade down to a team wanting to nab a quarterback here. There might not be a receiver or edge rusher worth taking in this spot, so Dean could be an option. De’Vondre Campbell has been a revelation, but he’s a free agent-to-be who could price his way out of Green Bay. If Dean meets the Packers’ size threshold for the position, he could be an instant factor in the team’s dime defense with his speed and coverage ability.
NFL teams without 2022 first-round draft picks
38. Chicago Bears
Cincinnati CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Gardner end up a first-round pick, but if he fell to this spot, the Bears would be smart to snap up a long man corner to line up opposite Jaylon Johnson and move their smaller CB options into an open nickel competition.
40. Seattle Seahawks
Liberty QB Malik Willis
What the Seahawks plan to do with Russell Wilson is anyone’s guess. There could be major organizational changes coming in the months ahead. So we have no idea what the team’s QB plans are, but if Willis were to linger to this range, his vast upside and atypical style could play in Seattle as well as almost anywhere. He just needs time to percolate before he’s ready to take over.
52. San Francisco 49ers
UTSA CB Tariq Woolen
If the 49ers want to roll the dice on a talented but raw CB prospect with plus length and athleticism, they might not be able to wait too much longer to nab Woolen. Woolen — who transitioned from receiver to corner full-time after the 2019 season — could be a serious draft riser. Corners who stand nearly 6-foot-4 with 33-plus inch arms typically don’t make it deep into drafts.
54. Indianapolis Colts
Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann
Raimann could end up going higher than this if he tests well and shows out at the Senior Bowl. But if he were to slide amid what looks like a solid-to-good OT class, this is the type of emerging prospect GM Chris Ballard could fall for. The Colts need more long-term security at left tackle.
101. Los Angeles Rams
North Dakota OT Matt Waletzko
Digging deep here. The Rams will receive a compensatory pick near the end of Round 3 (for losing Brad Holmes to the Lions) after trading away their own first-, second- and third-round picks next year. Seldom shying away from smaller-school prospects, the Rams find a long-term OT project with rare length (legitimate 6-foot-7 with 36-inch arms and a 85 5/8-inch wingspan) and good athleticism to groom.