With the Super Bowl in the rearview, offseason preparations have already begun.
The deadline to franchise tag players is in less than two weeks. Eight days later, free agency begins. Then, five weeks after the market opens up, the best players that college football has to offer find new homes in the NFL.
Despite so much between now and then, it’s never too early to begin thinking about how the first day of the NFL Draft will play out on April 28. This year’s class is loaded with pass rushers and offensive linemen at the top, but embedded a bit deeper are receivers and cornerbacks that can convince a team to take a leap of faith. In just over two months, the Jaguars will make their selection at no.1 overall, followed by the Lions, Texans and Jets. How will the first few selections play out?
1. Jaguars: Evan Neal, OT, Alabama
Picking in the same spot a season ago, the Jaguars grabbed one of the most exciting quarterback prospects in recent memory in Clemson signal caller Trevor Lawrence. After a rookie season that saw a handful of highs and far more lows, Jacksonville’s top priority in this year’s draft will be to protect their diamond. Enter Evan Neal, a 6’7”, 350-pound behemoth who was nearly perfect in his junior year at Alabama. He immediately helps the Jags’ offensive line.
2. Lions: Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan
A Heisman finalist, Hutchinson emerged as the best available pass rusher on the board during the second half of the season – a throne that most assumed Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux would sit atop once Draft Day came around. Instead, it’s the Michigan edge rusher who has captured more attention from the top teams, and after posting the third-fewest sacks, third-fewest pressures, and the fewest quarterback knockdowns (despite blitzing at the ninth-highest rate in the league), the Lions should be locked in on whoever the best available pass rusher is.
3. Texans: Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
The Texans represent the first team in the draft order that could really go anywhere. As opposed to having one glaring weakness, Houston has a couple spots in the depth chart where 1) they need significant help and 2) there’s a prospect worthy of the third pick. I’ll go for Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton here – he’s a true do-it-all safety that can anchor the Texans’ secondary for the next ten years (or more). Hamilton is a refined tackler, a ball hawk, and a leader all packed into one.
4. Jets: Ikem Ekwonu, T/G, North Carolina State
Kayvon Thibodeaux will undoubtedly create some debate inside the Jets war room, but similar to the Jaguars, New York’s priority needs to be to protect the quarterback that they hope can be the franchise cornerstone. Ekwonu is one of the premiere offensive tackles in this class, and while the Jets could go for Thibodeaux here and gamble on a tackle at 10, there’s no guarantee that Ekwonu or Charles Cross will still be on the board. There’s a big drop off in talent after those three (including Neal) and helping Zach Wilson as much as possible is at the top of the Jets’ offseason to-do list.
5. Giants: Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon
Thibodeaux has fallen in the pecking order slightly since the start of the season, but he’s still a skilled edge rusher with fantastic upside. The Giants are in significant need of help on the edge after ranking in the bottom ten in quarterback knockdowns, sacks, hurries and pressures. Offensive lineman Charles Cross is an intriguing option, as are some options to bolster the secondary, but Thibodeaux at 5 is a steal that the Giants won’t pass up.
6. Panthers: Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State
There’s talk about the Panthers reaching for a quarterback like Kenny Pickett or Malik Willis at 6, but I can’t see it. Carolina just picked up Sam Darnold’s $18.9 million fifth-year option and there are plenty of other needs that can be filled more immediately. One of those holes is along the offensive line, where the Panthers have been in desperate need of help for some time. Cross is the best pass-blocking lineman in the class, so whether it’s Darnold under center or someone else, they’ll have a unit up front helping to keep the pocket clean.
7. Giants (via CHI): Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
The Giants will hope for Cross here (or whichever of the three offensive tackles is still available), but the Panthers might play spoiler. Having already grabbed Thibodeaux at 5, they won’t feel the need to snag Purdue’ George Karlaftis. And while they could go for an upset and snag a cornerback in Derek Stingley Jr. or Sauce Gardner, Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum is a starter from day one. Interior offensive line is a priority and they won’t pick again until pick 36, so getting the best IOL in the draft makes sense.
8. Falcons: George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue
Falcons fans will be praying that Thibodeaux will fall into their lap at 8, but even if he doesn’t, there’s a pretty good fallback option in Purdue’s Karlaftis. He may be a bit underrated because of how top-heavy this year’s edge rusher class is, but Karlaftis is still a skilled player with All-Pro upside. He’s quick off the line, explosive, and doesn’t run out of energy. That will be a welcome addition for the team that recorded the fewest sacks in the NFL a season ago.
9. Broncos: Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh
It’s clear that the Broncos and new head coach Nathaniel Hackett want a fresh start at quarterback, whether that’s by trading for Aaron Rodgers or drafting one of their own. Because Rodgers’ future is still so up in the air, we’ll operate on the assumption that he isn’t wearing Broncos orange when Week 1 rolls around. If that’s the case, look for Hackett to kickstart his tenure with selecting Pickett or Liberty’s Malik Willis. I’ve gone for the more NFL-ready quarterback, but both are in play. That is, if Denver even chooses to stay put at 9.
10. Jets (via SEA): Drake London, WR, Southern California
Having already added a big body up front to protect Zach Wilson, the Jets choose to bring in the best offensive playmaker in the draft in USC’s Drake London. London stands 6-foot-5, is a fantastic route runner, and has no problem making grabs in traffic. It’s unfortunate that his 2021 season ended after eight games with a foot injury – he was putting up massive numbers – but he’s still a physical beast, a matchup nightmare, and a future consistent 1,000-yard receiver in the NFL. This is our first edition of the 2022 NFL mock draft. The second version of this post will be released a few days leading up to the draft.
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