I’ve barely even unpacked after a fun few days in Cleveland at the 2021 NFL draft, but yes, it’s already time for the first look at the potential prospects and first-round picks of the 2022 NFL draft. But to be clear, this is an extremely early prediction. I haven’t even spent much time with the tape for next year’s class yet — I’ll get into that later this month — and much of the following is based on what I’ve seen while watching prospects in person over the past two seasons and what I’m hearing already around the league. So much will change between now and when all 32 teams descend on Las Vegas next April.
Still, this is a useful exercise, and it gives us a good look at some of the names to watch and where they could land. My 2021 way-too-early mock last summer featured 14 prospects who ultimately were first-rounders and predicted five top-10 picks. But there is still a college season to be played and a long pre-draft process ahead. From last year’s way-too-early, two players returned to school, and both Wake Forest receiver Sage Surratt and Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses went undrafted. Expect plenty of change, risers and fallers over the next 12 months.
There’s also the matter of the draft order, which I did not decide here. We predicted the following 1-32 order by combining early 2022 power rankings from NFL analysts Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Mina Kimes, Seth Walder and Field Yates. And it was projected as the rosters are now; obviously, there’d be a shake-up if Aaron Rodgers were no longer in Green Bay, but we approached this as though he were staying put.
OK, let’s take a spin through Round 1, which includes five more quarterbacks, another receiver from Alabama and a bunch of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Note: Underclassmen are noted with an asterisk. Trades are shown below as well, including one projected conditional pick that could become a first-rounder.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon*
At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Thibodeaux is an extraordinary pass-rusher off the edge. Over 21 career games, he has 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss, and the 2019 No. 1 recruit generated pressure on 13.5% of his pass-rush snaps over the past two seasons, the 18th-best rate in the country. Following J.J. Watt‘s exit, the Texans could use a player with Thibodeaux’s high-end traits to jump-start their defense in their rebuild.
Kedon Slovis, QB, USC*
Current Lions QB Jared Goff was part of the return in the Matthew Stafford trade in January, and a lot of what the Lions do with their two first-rounders in 2022 will depend on how he performs in his sixth NFL season. Detroit does have a potential out on Goff’s contract after the 2022 season with a $10 million dead cap hit, so it could certainly be in the quarterback market next April. Slovis is 6-foot-3 with a strong arm, and his 70% completion percentage over 2019-20 ranks seventh among FBS signal-callers.
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU*
The Jaguars took Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell in the second round this year, and they used the No. 9 overall pick on CJ Henderson in 2020. But Stingley is special and would be an immediate starter for the Jacksonville defense. He has great size at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and produces in every area of the game. His six interceptions as a freshman in 2019 tied for the fifth most in the nation, and he was one of LSU’s best defenders in its national championship win that season.
Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State*
Let’s keep building this Jets offensive line around new quarterback Zach Wilson. Cross, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound redshirt sophomore, started 10 games for the Bulldogs in 2020. With Cross and Mekhi Becton bookending the line — which now also includes Alijah Vera-Tucker on the inside — Wilson could have time to create on throws downfield.
Zion Nelson, OT, Miami*
Nelson has started 20 games at left tackle for Miami and greatly improved over the past season. In 2020, the 6-foot-5, 316-pounder was attributed zero sacks against and allowed only three pressures on 336 pass-block snaps. After the Bengals drafted a dominant wide receiver in Ja’Marr Chase in the first round this year, I think they look to Joe Burrow‘s protection on Day 1 in 2022.
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame*
Imagine Hamilton — a 6-foot-4 safety with good ball skills and tackling ability — lined up next to Jeremy Chinn at safety for the Panthers? Carolina just added an impact starter at corner in Jaycee Horn, and now it can continue building up the secondary. Hamilton has five interceptions, 12 pass breakups and 104 tackles over two seasons.
One other thing to watch: If Sam Darnold doesn’t impress this season, Carolina could select UNC quarterback Sam Howell. He grew up in North Carolina and plays college ball there, so he’d be an immediate fan favorite for the Panthers.
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina*
This is another spot where the pick could go a lot of different directions based on this season. If Jalen Hurts proves he’s the guy, then don’t expect the Eagles to look QB. If he provides doubt, then Howell would be an excellent pick. Howell followed up his 38-TD 2019 season — an FBS record for true freshmen — with 30 more in 2020, and he improved his completion percentage and yards per attempt along the way.
Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan
The Giants get back-to-back picks here, and we’ll start them off with a pass-rusher. I loved the value of getting edge rusher Azeez Ojulari in the second round last week, but I’d like to see more on that defensive front. Enter Hutchinson, who was creeping up my 2021 board before suffering a fractured leg in November and returning to school for another season. He’s 6-foot-6 and 269 pounds, and he had 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2019.
Evan Neal, OT/G, Alabama*
In order to move up to draft Justin Fields in Round 1 last week, the Bears sent New York their first-rounder — and it could end up being a good one. After going defense at No. 8, the Giants can look to the offensive line at No. 9. Neal is versatile, with 13 starts at right tackle and 13 at left guard, and he’s 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds. There are plenty of spots up for grabs along that line, which should be the next area of focus on offense for the Giants.
Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida*
Elam is a 6-foot-2 speedy ball hawk — he played wide receiver and ran track in high school — who has picked off five passes over two seasons with the Gators. His 13 passes defended in 2020 tied for the fourth most in the country. The Raiders took corners inside the first three rounds in 2019 (Trayvon Mullen, Round 2) and 2020 (Damon Arnette, Round 1), but Elam would help shore up a unit that has struggled. Las Vegas tied for the fifth-fewest interceptions in 2020 with just 10.
Elam’s uncle, Matt Elam, played safety at Florida and was a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2013.
Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma*
The Broncos didn’t take a quarterback at No. 9 this year, despite Justin Fields and Mac Jones still being on the board. I was really surprised by that. Trading for Teddy Bridgewater just tells me Denver isn’t confident in Drew Lock, who has two more seasons under contract at a soft cap number, as its starter. But at the same time, Bridgewater isn’t the answer either, and he’s only under contract one more season. You need an elite QB in the passer-happy AFC West, and I think the Broncos could be looking for one next April. Rattler gives them a potential franchise guy at the position.
The redshirt sophomore starred last season with a 67.5% completion percentage, 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also added another six TDs on the ground. Rattler excels when throwing downfield and outside the pocket.
Check out the best plays from Spencer Rattler’s 2020 season with the Oklahoma Sooners.
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
Olave explodes off the line and shows soft hands. And he is incredible at creating separation vertically, thanks to solid speed and always having a plan as a route runner. I had him among the top receivers in the 2021 class before he decided to go back to Ohio State for another season. If the Falcons are indeed considering moving Julio Jones to save cap space, Olave could step into a starting role to keep the passing game strong alongside Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts.
George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue*
Karlaftis dominated in 2019 with 17 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 54 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. But the 6-foot-4, 275-pound edge rusher was limited to three games in 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. Patrick Jones II, the Vikings’ fourth third-round choice on Friday night, provides depth on the edge but isn’t likely to be a high-impact starter opposite Danielle Hunter. Karlaftis can be that. After being among the top five teams in sacks in 2018 and 2019, Minnesota ranked in the bottom five in 2020, with 23.
Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State
The Cardinals lost Patrick Peterson to free agency, and both of their starters outside — Robert Alford and Malcolm Butler — are on one-year deals. I did like the Day 3 selections of Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan, but I think Arizona could look at the cornerback pool next April. Banks has good size, length and speed.
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty*
Willis transferred to Liberty from Auburn and threw 20 touchdowns to six interceptions in 2020 after sitting out the 2019 season. He adds a dual-threat factor, too, considering he rushed for 944 yards and 14 more scores on the ground last season. Washington opted not to draft a quarterback, but current starter Ryan Fitzpatrick is turning 39 during this coming season. If the team wants to continue to be a playoff contender out of the NFC East, it needs a franchise starter.
Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati
Another QB! We just watched five go in the first 15 picks last week, and now we could see as many go in the first half of Day 1 again. Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger back for one more season (2022 is a void year on his contract), so it should absolutely be in the QB market at the draft. Ridder has done a little bit of everything at Cincinnati, throwing for at least 2,100 yards and 18 TDs in three straight seasons. And the 6-foot-4 redshirt senior averaged 6 yards per carry and scored 12 times on the ground in 2020.
Isaac Taylor-Stuart, CB, USC*
Cornerback continues to be an issue for the Eagles, as they lack depth behind Darius Slay, especially with Avonte Maddox on an expiring contract this season. Philadelphia used a Day 3 pick on Zech McPhearson but has not invested a first-round pick in the position since drafting Lito Sheppard in 2002. Taylor-Stuart has 6-foot-2 size and speed, and I think he will have a big year in 2021. He has a lot of talent.
DeMarvin Leal, DL, Texas A&M*
The Chargers don’t have a ton of depth on their defensive line, and DT Linval Joseph turns 33 during this coming season. Leal is very versatile, playing both defensive tackle and defensive end. At 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, he had eight QB hurries, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three passes broken up, an interception and a forced fumble in 2020.
George Pickens, WR, Georgia*
Despite it being a big need, the Saints waited until Round 7 to draft a receiver last week (Kawaan Baker). Their current WR depth chart beyond Michael Thomas has Tre’Quan Smith and Marquez Callaway in starting roles, and regardless of who the quarterback is, the Saints need receiving help. Pickens is a 6-foot-3 receiver with 14 TDs over the past two seasons. He tore his ACL in March, but he is still a top receiver in the class and could return late in the season for a final draft push.
Bubba Bolden, S, Miami
This pick isn’t Philadelphia’s just yet, but since we are projecting the Colts to make the playoffs, we’ll say Carson Wentz plays 70% of the snaps this season and the Colts’ second-rounder involved in the offseason trade becomes this first-round pick. After getting a cornerback a few spots earlier, the Eagles can add a big, experienced safety here. Both starters — Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod — could come off the books next spring. Bolden transferred to Miami from USC two years ago, and he had a big 2020 season, making 74 tackles and tying for second in the nation with four forced fumbles.
*This conditional second-round pick — part of the Wentz trade — becomes a first-rounder for 2022 for the Eagles if Wentz plays 75% of the Colts’ offensive snaps in 2021 or if Wentz plays 70% of the offensive snaps and the Colts make the playoffs.
Jalen Wydermyer, TE, Texas A&M*
There was some talk of the Cowboys wanting to move up the board for Kyle Pitts heading into this year’s draft, but it would have taken a massive trade package to get it done. Tight end remains the missing piece on offense for Dallas, and after it dedicated its first six picks to defense last week, it will now be able to look back to offense next year. Wydermyer has a great 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame and is productive. The Texas native has six TDs in each of his two seasons with the Aggies and has averaged 12.2 yards per catch over his career.
John Metchie III, WR, Alabama*
Wait, another Alabama receiver? Metchie would be the fifth to go in the first round over three years. He had a great year with the Crimson Tide, catching 55 passes for 916 yards and six touchdowns, and he played a big role in the national title game with eight catches for 81 yards. Metchie was born in Taiwan before moving to Ghana, Canada, Maryland and New Jersey. After one more season in Tuscaloosa, let’s send him to Tennessee to help repair a decimated receiving corps and give Ryan Tannehill a dynamic target.
Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State*
The Patriots got their franchise QB in Mac Jones, but they curiously did not pick a wide receiver until pick No. 242 (Tre Nixon). With Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne occupying the top spots on the depth chart at the moment, receiver will likely be on the team’s 2022 offseason wish list. Wilson finished second on the Buckeyes in receiving yards by 6 yards (723) and in touchdowns by one (six), both to Chris Olave. With both Wilson and Olave projected here, this would mark the third straight year that there has been a school with two Day 1 receivers (Alabama in 2020 and 2021).
Justin Fields goes deep to Garrett Wilson, who goes full extension for the impressive catch.
Nick Broeker, OT, Ole Miss*
Broeker was a starter at left tackle this past season for the Rebels, and his 6-foot-4, 305-pound size would be welcome on the outside in Miami to help protect Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins drafted Liam Eichenberg in Round 2, but he is versatile. With a high-end defense and finally some playmakers on offense, this is a good spot to continue building the offensive line.
Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State*
We got the Jets a lineman earlier in Round 1, so let’s now add a big 6-foot-6, 268-pound defensive end with a lot of speed to come off the edge. Only Quinnen Williams — an interior lineman — had more than 3.5 sacks for the Jets last season. Harrison had only two in seven games last season, but look for him to get more production in 2021.
Rasheed Walker, OT, Penn State*
Despite losing Orlando Brown Jr., the Ravens’ only offensive line addition in the draft was a guard in the third round (Ben Cleveland). They signed Alejandro Villanueva, but he isn’t a long-term solution. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound Walker has 22 starts at left tackle in college, and the Maryland native could step into a starting role on the right side opposite Ronnie Stanley.
Drake Jackson, DE/OLB, USC*
The Browns still need a pass-rushing boost opposite Myles Garrett, especially since Jadeveon Clowney is on a one-year deal. Jackson already has eight career sacks and 17 tackles for loss, and he is versatile off the edge.
Mike Jones Jr., LB, LSU*
Detroit is back on the board after taking a quarterback earlier, and it gets a versatile high-impact linebacker. Before transferring to LSU, Jones played the nickel/Sam position at Clemson after Isaiah Simmons left for the NFL. He is 6-foot and 220 pounds, so his role in the NFL is still to be determined, but wherever he is, he will produce. In 10 games last season, Jones had 26 tackles, four tackles for loss, two interceptions, two passes broken up, half a sack and a forced fumble.
Christian Harris, LB, Alabama*
The Packers again did not draft an offensive playmaker in Round 1, this time amid reports that QB Aaron Rodgers does not want to return. If they weren’t going to target a receiver at that point, I don’t know that it will ever be a priority, so I won’t force it in my projections. But Green Bay still lands an impact player here, albeit on the other side of the ball. Harris started at Will linebacker last season and is a former high school wide receiver and safety. Over two seasons, he has 142 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama
Jobe started opposite Pat Surtain II last season and was an effective press-man corner with the ability to reroute receivers at the line of scrimmage. He attacks the ball in the air and broke up 11 passes last season, but he has just one interception over three seasons. After Buffalo took care of the edge rushing group at the draft, it will be able to focus on adding to the secondary next offseason.
Isaiah Spiller, RB, Texas A&M*
With no massive holes in the roster, Tampa Bay can look at the top running back on the board at the moment, the Aggies’ Spiller. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound back had 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and he has averaged 5.5 yards per tote over his career. Plus, he is a capable receiver, catching at least 20 passes in each of his two seasons. The Bucs have a handful of running backs on their roster, but it’s noteworthy that only Ke’Shawn Vaughn is under contract past 2021.
The Buccaneers have a year to evaluate Kyle Trask after using the final pick of the second round on him at the draft, but quarterback could obviously also be in play for them as they start to plan for the future.
Isaiah Spiller breaks tackles to get open for the 19-yard go-ahead touchdown.
Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
Another edge rusher would take this defense to another level, taking some pressure off Frank Clark and Chris Jones and creating problems for offensive coordinators up front. Thomas missed the first part of the 2020 season with persisting COVID-19 symptoms, but he returned to play seven games and record 3.5 sacks. Over his career, he has nine sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in three seasons.
ESPN’s Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Mina Kimes, Seth Walder and Field Yates power-ranked all 32 teams’ current rosters and outlook for the upcoming season to help create the order for this mock draft.