The 2022 NFL draft is one day way – ample time to cobble together one more mock draft and hope to hit first-round blackjack before the proceedings officially begin Thursday night in Las Vegas.
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Yet even though teams’ draft boards are largely set, plot twists still await – some players perhaps getting a belated push, others dogged by newfound questions … Not to mention the possibility a major trade (Deebo Samuel, anyone?) Could significantly shake up Round 1’s outlook at the 11th hour.
But, based on what we think we know, here’s one more projection attempting to forecast how the opening night of the annual “Player Selection Meeting” unfolds:.
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1. Jacksonville Jaguars – DE Travon Walker, Georgia: He completes his pre-draft rocket ride all the way to the top. The gulf between his potential and production (9½ career sacks for the Bulldogs) represents quite a gamble, but his ability to line up wide or go head up on centers and guards is an asset on passing downs. Yet his hustle and dedication to stopping the run are especially alluring in a division featuring Titans RB Derrick Henry and Colts RB Jonathan Taylor.
2. Detroit Lions – DE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan: The Wolverines star and Plymouth, Michigan, native seems like a perfect match for his local NFL team … Though you wonder if the Jags might try to pry a pick out of the Lions to do a 1-2 flip first. But Hutchinson could be the needed face of a franchise that lacks one while juicing up a pass rush that produced just 30 sacks in 2021 and no longer has DE Trey Flowers.
3. Houston Texans – OT Ikem ‘Ickey’ Ekwonu, North Carolina State: Good luck finding an offensive line prospect this year with more upside. A devastating run blocker, he could start out at guard or right tackle – or settle in on QB Davis Mills’ blind side if the Texans decide to eventually move on from LT Laremy Tunsil as part of their ongoing rebuild. The 6-4, 310-pound Ekwonu ran a sub-5-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, one indicator of his elite athleticism.
4. New York Jets – CB Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, Cincinnati: A franchise that’s been looking for Darrelle Revis’ successor for the past half-decade would benefit greatly from the 6-3, 190-pounder Gardner, who never surrendered a TD pass for the Bearcats. The consensus All-American allowed only 20 receptions in 2021, picked off three passes and – evidence of his all-around game – posted 40 tackles and three sacks. He’s not going to sustain that kind of shutdown rep in a division now featuring WRs Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs, but he’d certainly upgrade the league’s worst defense, both in terms of points and yards allowed in 2021.
5. New York Giants – OT Evan Neal, Alabama: If Big Blue’s new regime wants to give QB Daniel Jones and RB Saquon Barkley a fighting chance at relevance in 2022, no better avenue than bolstering the offensive line with the 6-8, 337-pounder. Neal can play guard or either tackle spot and would help Jones remain much cleaner … Barkley, too, given the size of the running lanes Neal can create.
6. Carolina Panthers – OT Charles Cross, Mississippi State: Assuming GM Scott Fitterer – not scheduled to pick again until late in Round 4 – can’t find someone to take this selection off his hands, probably wiser and safer to address his gaping left tackle issue with arguably the draft’s premier pass blocker than roll the dice on a quarterback who may or may not be much better than Sam Darnold … Especially if he has to drop back behind this line as currently constructed.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers [PROJECTED TRADE with Giants] – QB Malik Willis, Liberty: A win-win for both teams, as trades are intended to be. Spinning off the pick acquired from the Chicago Bears in last year’s Justin Fields deal, rookie New York GM Joe Schoen could pull down the Steelers’ 2023 first-rounder (in addition to No. 20 this year), giving him an insurance policy in next-year’s quarterback-rich draft if Jones doesn’t lock himself into the starting job in what could be his final year with the Giants. On the other side, the Steelers make the bold move they’ll almost certainly have to try at some point in order to bring in retired Ben Roethlisberger’s successor, jumping ahead of other teams with a QB quandary. Willis has the bazooka arm to expand coordinator Matt Canada’s offense and the powerful running ability coach Mike Tomlin covets in a contemporary quarterback. And Pittsburgh will almost certainly need a potentially elite passer in a division that now includes Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. But Willis wouldn’t have to be an immediate savior given the presence of optimal Steel City bridge Mitchell Trubisky.
8. Atlanta Falcons – WR Garrett Wilson, Ohio State: Given the myriad holes on his roster and dearth of cap space this year, GM Terry Fontenot should want to deal out of this spot to begin collecting assets for an overdue rebuild. But if Willis is gone, might be a lot tougher to vacate this slot given the quality depth available at most other positions. If Fontenot sticks and picks, the 2021 trade of Julio Jones, 2022 suspension of Calvin Ridley and free agent departure of Russell Gage may move wideout right to the top of his wish list. After laying down a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the combine, the 6-foot, 183-pound Wilson bolstered the argument he might be the top pass-catching prospect in a very extensive class of them. He’s effective both outside and from the slot and is especially dangerous after the catch, scoring 13 TDs last season (one as a rusher). He would pair very nicely in the pass game – in whatever form it takes – with last year’s first-rounder, TE Kyle Pitts.
9. Seattle Seahawks (from Denver Broncos) – CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU: His talents as a cover man are undeniable and were apparent for the 2019 national champions, for whom he had six interceptions, earning All-American honors for his efforts. But Lisfranc surgery limited him to three games in 2021 – a year after he was slowed by ankle issues. However a promising showing at LSU’s pro day seems to have allayed concerns about Stingley’s health and readiness to play. Coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider could certainly use a left tackle, pass rusher and, obviously, a quarterback. But Stingley could simply be too gifted to pass up, especially for a team that built its defense back to front during its heyday.
10. Jets (from Seahawks) – WR Jameson Williams, Alabama: With the final piece of the 2020 Jamal Adams trade, NYJ GM Joe Douglas needs a home run draft after failing to lure any blue-chip free agents this year and coming up short in the derby to pry Hill out of Kansas City. Williams could well become that caliber of playmaker for second-year QB Zach Wilson … Once he fully recovers from the ACL tear suffered in the national championship game against Georgia. So the reward could be worth the risk for a 26th-ranked offense that didn’t stretch the field enough when Wilson was on it. Williams was remarkably productive in 2021, averaging 100 receiving yards and a TD catch per game.
11. Washington Commanders – S Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame: He’s 6-4 and 220 pounds with sub-4.6 speed and can shore up deficiencies at the second and/or third levels. Hamilton can provide coverage, a box presence, blitzing ability and an intimidation factor – a varied skill set recently released S Landon Collins just couldn’t provide in D.C. Hamilton is widely regarded as a top-five talent in this draft who’s being undercut by the positional value of safeties.
12. Minnesota Vikings – OLB/DE Jermaine Johnson II, Florida State: A guy who grew up in the shadow of the Vikes’ old training headquarters comes home. Pass rushers are always at a premium, but especially for a team apparently counting on Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter, who combined to miss 26 games in 2021 – this after Hunter was injured for the entire 2020 campaign. A Georgia transfer, Johnson comes off a productive senior season that included 11½ sacks and 17½ tackles for losses.
13. Texans (from Cleveland Browns) – DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon: This is where Houston officially begins its post-Deshaun Watson recovery, though it’s fairly apparent Mills is the man under center for the foreseeable future. But the Texans also need to regenerate their pass rush after years of relying on J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Thibodeaux, who will probably be under consideration by Houston GM Nick Caserio at No. 3, is so talented, he once seemed ticketed for the No. 1 pick. But he still has to prove his commitment to the game is as important as the commitment to his brand.
14. Baltimore Ravens – CB Trent McDuffie, Washington: The latest in a long line of quality Huskies corners, he has 4.4 speed, elite cover skills, smarts and the versatility to play in just about any scheme. The Ravens have historically stockpiled first-rate DBs yet have developed a need with Tavon Young moving to Chicago and Marcus Peters, who’s got a year left on his contract, trying to rebound from a torn ACL.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (from Miami Dolphins) – WR Drake London, USC: Yes, this would mean a first-round wideout for a third straight year in Philly. But at 6-4, 219 pounds, London would bring a different element to a Smurf-ish group that hasn’t gotten enough from holdovers like Jalen Reagor or 2019 second-round bust J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who’s attempting a conversion to tight end. London’s size would be a plus for sometimes scattershot QB Jalen Hurts, who could use a Mike Evans-type target. London had 88 catches for 1,084 yards and seven scores in eight games in 2021 before a broken ankle cut his season short.
16. New Orleans Saints (from Indianapolis Colts via Eagles) – OT Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa: A talented, nasty player for the blind side, he’d remind Saints fans of Kyle Turley and hopefully help them forget about departed LT Terron Armstead.
17. Los Angeles Chargers – WR Chris Olave, Ohio State: A tantalizing team that seems content to sling it on offense behind budding superstar QB Justin Herbert may as well take a polished playmaker like Olave given there really isn’t a glaring deficiency to address. With sub-4.4 speed, he has the juice and smooth route running to beautifully supplement rebounding WR Mike Williams and technician counterpart Keenan Allen. Olave is also adept at putting the ball in the paint, that occurring 32 times in his last 33 games for the Buckeyes.
18. Eagles (from Saints) – DT Jordan Davis, Georgia: A 6-6, 341-pound All-American who somehow ran a 4.78 40 at the combine, he can crush a pocket and is also a valuable run stuffer. Philadelphia will need such an anchor with DTs Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave headed for free agency next year.
19. Saints (from Eagles) – WR Jahan Dotson, Penn State: The 5-11, 178-pounder with 4.4 speed and supple hands might be an ideal complement to big-bodied possession WR Michael Thomas and do-it-all RB Alvin Kamara. Dotson, who could also add pop as a returner, would definitely – in conjunction with Thomas’ return – elevate what was the league’s worst passing attack in Year 1 post-Brees.
20. Giants [PROJECTED TRADE with Steelers] – LB Devin Lloyd, Utah: They got a first-hand look at the impact a multi-talented ‘backer can have after seeing what Micah Parsons, whom New York could have drafted in 2021, did for Dallas last season. Lloyd had seven sacks ands 22 TFLs for last year’s Pac-12 champions but is also stellar in coverage and the kind of leader the G-Men’s D could use. The draft’s best prospect at his position is more compelling than dipping into the next tier of edge rushers.
21. New England Patriots – CB Andrew Booth Jr., Clemson: Georgia LB Nakobe Dean is tempting, and maybe the Pats can move up in Round 2 to get him. But a fourth-ranked defense badly needs to replenish at corner after losing J.C. Jackson in free agency. Booth is the type of versatile player – comfortable in any coverage technique or scheme – this organization tends to value.
22. Green Bay Packers (from Las Vegas Raiders) – WR Treylon Burks, Arkansas: You wonder if a team that hasn’t taken a wideout in Round 1 since 2002 (Javon Walker) might try to bundle some of its early picks – the Pack have two firsts and two seconds – in a bid to get Garrett Wilson, Jameson Williams, London or Olave. But Burks might have to be the guy if the board falls this way, and that might be fine. Perhaps 4.55-second 40 speed is unremarkable for his position, but the momentum it generates for a 6-2, 225-pounder who’s been compared to Samuel could be distinctive. Like any rookie, Burks would have to earn QB Aaron Rodgers’ hard-to-gain trust, but that process could be facilitated by what he can do after the catch with some easy touches. Burks averaged more than 16 yards per reception in each of his three seasons with the Razorbacks, and he has 18 TDs among his past 117 grabs.
23. Arizona Cardinals – OL Zion Johnson, Boston College: Their O-line isn’t great and could be due for an overhaul anyway with several starters headed for free agency a year from now. Strong as an ox (combine-high 32 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press) but with light feet, Johnson can line up at guard or left tackle, valuable versatility for a team in this circumstance.
24. Dallas Cowboys – OL Kenyon Green, Texas A&M: He played every O-line position but center for the Aggies in 2021 but took most of his college snaps at left guard. That kind of versatility – and a nice streak of nastiness – would be a boon to a once dominant unit that lost two starters (RT La’el Collins, LG Connor Williams) in free agency and had shown signs of slippage anyway.
25. Buffalo Bills – RB Breece Hall, Iowa State: It’s strongly worth considering. Buffalo hasn’t had a 900-yard rusher since QB Josh Allen was drafted in 2018, and he’s had to shoulder too much of the run game’s responsibilities. For a team that appears primed for a Super Bowl run, especially amid Kansas City’s loss of Hill, why not add one more difference maker? Hall (5-11, 217) could be an every-down option whose 4.39-second 40-yard-dash burst could bust many games open while limiting further wear and tear on Allen. Hall had 3,526 yards from scrimmage and 46 TDs during his last two seasons with the Cyclones.
26. Tennessee Titans – QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh: He might be the most NFL-ready passer in the draft … Though Nashville isn’t a place Pickett would have to play immediately. However change may be necessary sooner than later as Ryan Tannehill’s playoff shortcomings continue to mount. A four-year starter for the Panthers, Pickett has poise, accuracy, a quick release, production (4,319 yards and 42 TDs passing in 2021) and solid athleticism – perhaps enough NFL traits that he could slide into the driver’s seat for a capable outfit like Tennessee, which wouldn’t need its offense to revolve around him in the short run.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DB Daxton Hill, Michigan: The Bucs are suddenly thin at safety and slot corner. Hill can kill two birds with one stone. His 4.38-second 40-yard-dash speed is an asset at nickel, the box or center field and would create more options for newly promoted head coach Todd Bowles, who will remain intimately involved with the defense.
28. Packers – DE George Karlaftis, Purdue: He might not be that twitchy or nuanced as a pass rusher but is strong and relentless. He could do a lot of damage breaking in on passing downs and augmenting a rush led by OLBs Rashan Gary and Preston Smith. In two full seasons (2019, 2021) for the Boilermakers, Karlaftis compiled 13 sacks, 32 QB hits and 64 hurries.
29. Kansas City Chiefs (from San Francisco 49ers via Dolphins) – WR George Pickens, Georgia: He suffered an ACL tear in spring practice a year ago but made it back in time to participate in the Bulldogs’ 2021 championship drive, averaging 21.4 yards on five catches. But a 6-3, 195-pounder with sub-4.5 speed offers plenty of intrigue and has even been mentioned favorably in the same breath as former Dawgs legend A.J. Green. Imagine that kind of impact on a K.C. Offense trying to move forward without its Cheetah.
30. Chiefs – DE Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State: After transferring from Temple last season, he burst onto the scene in Happy Valley by posting 9½ sacks and 18 TFLs. He’s not the stoutest guy (6-2, 250) and might benefit by focusing early on what he does best – hunt quarterbacks – as a sub package stud alongside DE Frank Clark and DT Chris Jones. Maybe in a year, Ebiketie is ready to replace Clark and his $21 million salary for 2023.
31. Cincinnati Bengals – CB Kaiir Elam, Florida: The AFC champs can actually look to improve other areas of their roster after getting three new offensive linemen for Burrow in free agency. Elam is a big (6-2, 191), fast (4.39 40) corner who could immediately push to replace Eli Apple as a starter for Cincy’s defense … Which couldn’t slow down the Rams’ passing game in the pivotal moments of Super Bowl 56. Elam was slowed by a knee injury last season but broke up 11 passes in 12 games in 2020.
32. Lions (from Los Angeles Rams) – DE/OLB David Ojabo, Michigan: What could be better than one Wolverines pass rusher in Detroit? Two, naturally. Ojabo and Hutchinson combined for 25 sacks in 2021, the former exploding for 11 while seeing significant snaps for the first time. A native of Nigeria who grew up in Scotland, he had one tackle as a sophomore in 2020, so a bit of an understatement to deem Ojabo raw. The 6-4, 250-pounder, who once seemed headed for the top half of Round 1, is also coming back from an Achilles injury suffered at his March pro day. But given he might have benefited from a limited role as a rookie anyway, why not invest in Ojabo here – ensuring you potentially have him for at least five seasons with the option year – and hope he and Hutchinson can recreate their Ann Arbor magic in Motown?
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.