The glitz and glamour of Las Vegas aside, the 2022 NFL draft was unlike any we’ve seen. The twists and turns that took place during the first round simply couldn’t have been predicted.
Since the turn of the century, this year’s draft became only the sixth time that a quarterback didn’t go No. 1 overall. A quarterback didn’t even hear his name until the 20th overall pick, which is the lowest since Jim Druckenmiller’s selection with the 26th overall pick in 1997.
The likes of Liberty’s Malik Willis, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral all fell outside of the opening frame. Instead, this year’s class has been defined by trench play.
The last two Super Bowls proved that teams must properly protect their quarterbacks and/or find ways to consistently rattle opposing signal-callers with pressure. As a result, prospects who affect quarterback play are more valuable than ever.
Follow along as Bleacher Report provides updates, analysis and grades for every single pick of the 2022 draft.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Travon Walker, DL, Georgia
Strengths: Premium athlete, versatility, sudden and violent, readymade run defender
Weaknesses: Nonexistent pass-rush plan, poor hand usage, inconsistent when disengaging from blocks
Courtney Brown, Mario Williams, Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett set the stage as the last four edge-defenders to hear their names called with the No. 1 overall pick. Travon Walker has now joined this select group.
The Georgia Bulldogs defense was so loaded with talent that Walker may have been the team’s fourth- or fifth-most discussed NFL prospect, even though he’s more physically gifted than anyone not named Jordan Davis among the group.
Walker’s raw data is staggering.
The 21-year-old prospect stands 6’5″ and weighs 275 pounds with 35½-inch arms. At that size, Walker posted a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, 35½-inch vertical, 10’3″ broad jump, 6.89-second three-cone drill and 4.32-second short shuttle. He finished top-four among defensive ends in the 40-yard-dash and both change-of-direction drills.
To better understand just how athletic Walker is for a man of his stature, consider that he posted the second-highest relative athletic score of any defensive end since 1987, according to Pro Football Network’s Kent Lee Platte.
Typically, a prospect profile requires more detail than just athletic testing. In this case, Walker’s raw upside drives his value, because his combination of size, wingspan and movement skills are rare. To his credit, the defensive lineman does play with a certain level of viciousness. He simply needs to put it all together by honing his craft and improving his technique.
Only 9.5 career sacks is scary, though.
“Testing-wise, he’s better than Myles Garrett,” an anonymous defensive coach told The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman. “He’s a freak and he is aggressive. With Myles, we didn’t really know how much he wants to set the edge against the run. His motor was up and down. This guy is an animal. He was playing on such a loaded team, but when the production isn’t really there, it does kind of scare you.”
The Jaguars are clearly banking on Walker’s potential. The physical tools are special. The next step is harnessing those capabilities and getting them to consistently translate to the field.
As a system fit, Walker should excel in Mike Caldwell’s scheme. It’s similar to the one Georgia employed. The new No. 1 overall pick can line up on an offensive tackle or even in a 4i. The versatility is part of the reason he topped the board.
Yet the continued questions of whether Walker will ever become a game-changer as an edge-rusher can’t be overlooked.
2. Detroit Lions
Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan
Strengths: Relentlessness, power at point of attack, varied pass-rushing plan, instant-impact run defender
Weaknesses: Somewhat stiff edge-rusher, inconsistent pad level, lacks top-end burst, short arms
Everyone knows what Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson brings to the table. He’s a 6’6⅝”, 260-pound defender who will give everything he has while serving as an excellent locker-room addition.
The biggest question surrounding the reigning Ted Hendricks Award and Lombardi Award winner is how much growth potential he presents. As previously mentioned, he’s a high-motor guy and excellent leader. His physical tools might be limited compared to other prospects at the position, though.
Despite being a potential first-round pick in 2021, Hutchinson returned to Michigan for another season last year. He then helped guide the program to its first College Football Playoff appearance while setting the school’s single-season record with 14 sacks.
There’s minimal downside to this selection, but the same could be said about his upside. Therein lies the rub: Scouts question both his athletic upside and ability to define a defense with the level of dominating play expected of a top pick.
“He’s more of a technician,” an anonymous scout told Go Long’s Bob McGinn. “… The guy’s strength is going up the field. I don’t know how much he can improve. Guys with better hips and flexibility might be able to improve more.”
Another said, “Not the most gifted athletically but he maximizes everything he’s got.”
Hutchinson has arguably the fewest drawbacks out of any prospect this year. However, he may never develop into a difference-maker.
The Detroit Lions keep Hutchinson in-state. The speed with which the organization chose to make this decision says how highly general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell think of the Michigan product.
Hutchinson brings the type of attitude that fits beautifully within Campbell’s “biting kneecaps” mentality. The defensive lineman helped elevate a Michigan program that had been stuck in a lull. His production, tenacity and leadership set the tone for everyone else.
What is Hutchinson’s ultimate upside? This question is what takes this selection from a slam-dunk A to just outside of that range, because Hutchinson may never develop into one of the league’s elite pass-rushers. But he’s exactly what the Lions need.
3. Houston Texans
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
Strengths: Fluid hips to sink and turn, burst to close space and drive on routes, hair trigger with route recognition, ball skills are evident
Weaknesses: Injury history, engagement, consistency within coverage when not regularly tested and run support
Derek Stingley Jr. was a star from the moment he stepped onto the LSU campus. During the Tigers’ 2019 national championship run, he earned first-team All-SEC honors and was a consensus All-American.
A few issues arose over the last two seasons, though. According to ESPN’s Matt Miller, NFL scouts have serious concerns about the 6’0″, 190-pound cornerback staying healthy and “locked in” at the professional level.
Stingley did require Lisfranc surgery and played in only three games last year. In fact, he participated in only 10 games over the last two seasons combined. However, he fully recovered from his foot injury and participated in LSU’s pro day three weeks before the draft.
When healthy and on point, Stingley has shutdown potential. He flourishes in man coverage, though he’s also comfortable with zone principles.
At his very best, Stingley sizzles with outstanding ball skills. In 2019, the defensive back snagged six interceptions and defended 15 passes. He’ll need to be that version of himself in the NFL on a weekly basis to return positive value on this selection.
Stingley is never going to be the most physical or engaged participant on the field, particularly against the run. He doesn’t need to be as long as his coverage remains top-notch.
Star power is exactly what the Houston Texans needed. The franchise has been sorely lacking it since the transition under the supervision of general manager Nick Caserio began.
Prior to Stingley’s selection, the Texans’ cornerback room consisted of Lonnie Johnson Jr., Desmond King II, Steven Nelson, Tremon Smith and Tavierre Thomas. The entire defense lacked a true difference-maker. Stingley changes everything in how the Texans are being built. Houston’s defense will be built from back to front, as the franchise is set to face Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill and Trevor Lawrence twice per season.
An elite cover corner who has the tools to completely lock down a top receiver changes a team’s entire defensive approach. This won’t be the same old Lovie Smith defensive scheme.
4. New York Jets
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
Strengths: Rangy defender, shutdown coverage in press, zone flexibility, burst to drive onto passes, steps up against the run
Weaknesses: Questionable change-of-direction movement skills, grabs too much, too many technique breakdowns
In early April, Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner proclaimed himself to be the best player in this year’s draft class.
That declaration shouldn’t be viewed as brazen or even unrealistic. His confidence is exactly what a team should want from a top-rated cornerback who’s expected to cover the NFL’s best receivers in a pass-friendly league.
More importantly, the consensus All-American can back up his statement.
Gardner never allowed a touchdown reception during his collegiate career, according to Pro Football Focus. His career quarterback rating allowed into coverage was lower than if the quarterback intentionally threw incomplete passes his way, per PFF. He surrendered only one pass completion over 10 air yards during the 2021 campaign, per ESPN’s Seth Walder. Recruiting Analytics also noted Gardner allowed only 1.8 yards of separation.
The reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year leaves college football as a truly dominant cornerback. He has the physical tools every team wants at the position, too.
Gardner is 6’3″ and 190 pounds with 33½-inch arms and 4.41-second 40-yard-dash speed. He’s an aggressive press-cover corner who plays a physical brand of football, which can be a potential pitfall at the next level.
While Gardner has spent the majority of his career in press coverage, he excels in zone as well. However, he must refrain from getting overly handsy and rely more on his technique since NFL pass interference rules are far stricter than they are in college.
With the Houston Texans selecting Derek Stingley Jr. one pick earlier, the New York Jets pulled the trigger on Gardner maybe a little earlier than expected.
Gardner isn’t a reach at this juncture by any means. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been on the board with the 10th overall pick. But the opportunity to upgrade the secondary had to come now. The Jets knew they had to upgrade last year’s secondary after finishing 30th in pass defense, especially when they face the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and Miami Dolphins’ explosive wide receivers on the regular.
Gardner’s physicality is a dream for Robert Saleh’s defensive scheme in which he can beat up wide receivers near the line of scrimmage like Richard Sherman once did.
5. New York Giants
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Edge, Oregon
Strengths: Tailor-made NFL edge-rusher, explosive, lateral agility, flexibility
Weaknesses: Inconsistent pass-rush plan, hand usage, on-field commitment?
Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux had the potential to be the preseason No. 1 overall prospect—which he was in most cases—and stay there until the draft began. Instead, he hit a few road bumps.
Thibodeaux has the physical tools every team wants in a modern pass-rusher. The 6’4″, 254-pound defender presents the explosivity and quickness to blow by offensive tackles. He did so regularly.
Unfortunately, the edge-defender suffered an ankle injury that hampered him throughout the first half of the 2021 campaign. As a result, his overall production didn’t match the hype. He managed seven sacks, and four of those came in two games.
Also, NFL evaluators question Thibodeaux’s competitive fire. Some may view this as predraft posturing to drive down a top talent’s value, but others may think there are legitimate concerns about his commitment.
Whatever the case, if Thibodeaux maximizes his growth potential, he could very well be one of the game’s best pass-rushers in short order.
Bleacher Report never wavered on Thibodeaux’s potential. He’s been the highest-ranked player by the site’s scouting department throughout the entire process.
The ability and traits aren’t in question. Obviously, other factors came into play. But Thibodeaux will now be placed in Don “Wink” Martindale’s aggressive scheme. He can play from a two- or three-point stance. His versatility is ideal for the system.
Thibodeaux opposite Azeez Ojulari gives the Giants two highly athletic and explosive ends to pair with a big and physical defensive front to set the tone in the NFC East.
6. Carolina Panthers
Ikem Ekwonu, OT, North Carolina State
Strengths: Bulldozing run-blocker, punch packed with dynamite, lateral agility, inside-out versatility
Weaknesses: Oversets, hand placement can be all over the place
North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu has some Incredible Hulk in him.
As a result, NFL offensive line coaches won’t be able to help but fall in love with the 310-pound blocker. Ekwonu is aggressive on the field and has a level of violence in his blocks not often seen from line prospects. Off the field, Ekwonu brings an affable personality, which invites everyone to congregate around him.
Of any offensive line prospect in this year’s class, the unanimous All-American posted the most dominant performance. Ekwonu buried opponent after opponent, particularly in the run game. His fearsome demeanor derives from overwhelming power at the point of attack. Ekwonu can crush defenders or just wash them completely down the line. His highlights from the 2021 campaign are something to behold. Bodies fly everywhere.
Athletically, Ekwonu is such an easy mover. The Wolfpack employ a zone-heavy scheme in which the line prospect excelled with his ability to reach and destroy defenders at all three levels. His movement skills showed up at the NFL combine, where he ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash and floated through the position-specific drills.
Issues arise with the fact that Ekwonu is so athletic yet unrefined. Sometimes, his athleticism allows him to reach landmarks quicker than he should based on the opponent. He must become more patient in pass protection and far more sound with his overall technique. If an offensive line coach can harness his skills, a dominant force will emerge at the NFL level.
A little home cooking can certainly help in Ekwonu’s development. Situations matters. Those on the outside forget these are young men in new situations and new systems. They have to deal with new coaches and newfound fame and riches. It can be a lot.
For Ekwonu, the transition should be a little smoother than it is for a typical rookie since the Charlotte native gets to play close to home.
The Panthers rightly passed on a quarterback. The team didn’t need to force the selection of a signal-caller in what’s clearly a weak position group. Instead, the organization now has a complete offensive line to protect whomever is behind center.
Carolina’s addition of this year’s sixth overall pick, as well as veterans Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett, should significantly elevate the Panthers’ trench play.
7. New York Giants
Evan Neal, OT, Alabama
Strengths: Massive frame, extraordinary athlete, excellent working in space, plays low and drives defenders off the ball
Weaknesses: One year at left tackle, inconsistent hand placement, can get caught playing over toes
At one time, an elite tackle prospect was the closest to a sure thing the NFL draft could produce.
Between the 1993 and 2000 drafts, the tackles selected among the top 10 consisted of Willie Roaf, Lincoln Kennedy, Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Willie Anderson, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Kyle Turley and Chris Samuels. Five of them—Roaf, Boselli, Ogden, Pace and Jones—went on to become Hall of Famers.
Since then, the likes of Leonard Davis, Robert Gallery, Jason Smith, Matt Kalil and others evened out the batting average a bit. But the 2022 NFL draft class should veer much closer to the former than the latter.
Alabama’s Evan Neal represents what an NFL tackle should look like. He stands 6’7½” and weighs 337 pounds. His frame naturally holds his bulk, and he looks like he could easily add 50 pounds while not being overly burdened.
Neal has slimmed down a bit over time. Alabama listed him at 350 pounds. But his current build is a testament to the work he’s done since joining the Crimson Tide.
The board couldn’t have set up better for the New York Giants. First, they chose the highest-rated player in the class with the Kayvon Thibodeaux selection. Neal’s addition might even be better simply because he’s the top-rated offensive tackle, per Bleacher Report’s Scouting Department. The Giants desperately needed to upgrade their offensive line, which trumped every other need.
Neal had been in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick. What makes him so valuable at this juncture is the fact he’s an NFL-ready blocker who can immediately slide into right tackle opposite Andrew Thomas.
Some may sneer about a top-10 pick at right tackle, but the position is more valuable than ever. Elite edge-rushers come off both sides. Defensive coordinators find the weak link and place them there. There’s no longer a weak link at offensive tackle in the Giants lineup.
8. Atlanta Falcons
Drake London, WR, USC
Strengths: Nimble feet for a bigger target, sinks hips in and out of routes, basketball background is evident, massive catch radius, good body control, plays big
Weaknesses: Questionable top-end speed, coming off a season-ending fractured ankle, inconsistent run-blocker
Whenever an oversized wide receiver comes up through the ranks, the same old argument is often used against him: He can’t separate.
Despite numerous examples on film to prove otherwise, that knock hounded Drake London throughout the predraft process. Upon closer inspection, though, he’s an elite target with a series of traits that should delight his new quarterback.
From a physical standpoint, the former USC basketball player brings a little hardwood to the gridiron. His footwork belies his 6’4″, 219-pound frame. London also sinks in and out of his routes. He isn’t some stiff who uses his large frame to overwhelm defensive backs.
From a statistical standpoint, London ranks first in the entire wide receiver class in percentage of targets per route run against man coverage, per Pro Football Focus’ Dwain McFarland. He consistently got open and got fed the ball when teams tried to lock him down with a single corner.
London missed four of the Trojans’ games after suffering a season-ending fractured ankle and still won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. In fact, his average of 135.5 yards per game would have ranked second overall last season had he qualified.
London is never going to be a burner, but he’s 20 years old with only one full year of purely concentrating on football. He’s a special talent.
Like the Carolina Panthers before them, the Atlanta Falcons decided quarterback wasn’t worth a top-10 selection. London certainly is.
Now he’ll play alongside Kyle Pitts, who pieced together one of the best rookie campaigns ever for a tight end. The duo is a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, because they simply won’t be able to match up with that much size and athleticism in the passing game.
Sure, the Falcons still need a triggerman to take full advantage of these elite targets. Maybe Marcus Mariota surprises. Or, the Falcons are setting up for their next franchise quarterback, whomever it may be. Whatever the case, the cockpit is now exceptional with a true WR1 on the roster.m