Predicting the first round of the NFL draft more than three months before it’s scheduled tends to be an exercise based more in impressionism than exactitude.
After all, how can one map out the possibilities with any precision when the full draft order hasn’t been set and players can still change their minds about declaring?
Regardless of the shifting parts, the 2022 NFL draft has already started to take form, even if not in a manner that’s anywhere close to complete. And with the season over for 18 of the league’s 32 franchises, it’s time to look ahead to what April might hold.
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Here’s our first look at how the first round of the NFL draft may pan out, with the order of the playoff teams determined by their seeding going into the postseason:
A down year for potential franchise passers would likely vex most teams that landed the No. 1 pick. Not so for Jacksonville, which is settled at quarterback, thanks to Trevor Lawrence, but not at many other spots. Although he’s not the prospect that Myles Garrett was at the same point in his career before being selected in the top slot in 2017, Thibodeaux looks like the early favorite for the honor this year. A game-wrecker when at his best, the 6-5, 258-pound edge rusher throws blockers off balance from the get-go with his explosive burst off the line. Not merely a one-note speed rusher, Thibodeaux also excels against the run and is developing his arsenal of moves for reaching the quarterback. Adding him opposite 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen would give Jacksonville a foundation on which to build the rest of its defense.
Scoring three wins in the final six weeks precluded Detroit from earning the No. 1 pick for the first time since 2009, but Lions fans need not worry about having to settle for a consolation prize. Thibodeaux and Hutchinson might be ranked as No. 1 and 1a by some, and Hutchinson presents a solid case that he’s not necessarily the latter. After returning for his senior season, the 6-6, 265-pound defensive end overwhelmed opponents from start to finish en route to 14 sacks, a College Football Playoff berth and recognition as Heisman Trophy runner-up. Whether it’s the local product or Thibodeaux who lands here, the Lions can’t lose in scooping up a top-tier edge rusher who will change the complexion of their front.
Third-round rookie quarterback Davis Mills’ surprising late-season surge left Houston with a degree of sorely needed optimism on another otherwise discouraging roster. Whether it’s Mills or another signal-caller who eventually takes the mantle as the Texans’ long-term solution, an upgrade in protection will be needed, particularly if the team moves Laremy Tunsil or slides Tytus Howard back to guard. Neal is best known for his massive 6-6, 360-pound build, which helps him plow holes in the run game and neutralize pass rushers. Additional refinement when dealing with counter moves will be required for him to avoid being victimized by the NFL’s craftier defensive ends, but he could still be a key piece for the Texans’ front.
Plagued by injuries the last two years, Stingley didn’t get to showcase his skills in a manner expected of a top-five pick. That shouldn’t matter to the Jets, whose secondary is in dire need of an overhaul. Stingley is the rare cornerback prospect who exhibits both phenomenal pure coverage ability and elite ball skills, not to mention an advanced feel for his opponents’ intentions.
Call it a Dave Gettleman tribute pick, as the outgoing general manager would surely admire the team taking one of his beloved “hog mollies.” After proving himself this season to be a skillful pass protector in addition to a bully in the run game, Ekwonu looks like just the kind of blocker Big Blue needs to bring on to stabilize a perpetually underperforming line that offers little long-term hope beyond left tackle Andrew Thomas.
After the failed Sam Darnold experiment and Cam Newton’s flameout as a substitute starter, Carolina seems like a strong candidate to be the first team to select a quarterback in the draft. But owner David Tepper’s sense of urgency for finding a franchise signal-caller might point the Panthers toward an answer in the trade market instead. Whoever takes over behind center will need a significant upgrade in blind-side protection, and Cross is an alluring candidate. The redshirt sophomore has showcased considerable tools as a pass blocker while still signaling substantial room for growth.
Opting for safety this high might seem a bit of a luxury for a Giants team that has finally embraced a full rebuild. But Big Blue needs to stock up on top-tier talent where it can get it, and Hamilton surely fits that bill. At 6-4 and 220 pounds with massive range both in coverage and as a tackler, the two-time All-American can be utilized in an array of different manners. Pairing him with emerging standout Xavier McKinney would give the Giants a formidable tandem on the back end of their defense.
Atlanta enters the offseason with one stat weighing on it above all else: its league-worst 18 sacks, 11 fewer than the next closest team. Karlaftis won’t solve that deficiency on his own, but he’s as good a starting point as any option available to the Falcons. Consistently double-teamed and occasionally even triple-teamed, the 6-4, 275-pound edge rusher didn’t post the gaudy numbers or dizzying highlights that Thibodeaux and Hutchinson accrued, but he beats blockers consistently with his power and varied set of moves.
Drafting an off-ball linebacker in the top 10 can be a dangerous proposition given concerns about positional value. What Dean can do for a team, however, might help alleviate concerns about that and his 6-0, 225-pound frame. With a knack for rapidly processing plays and chasing down ball carriers in the open field, Dean has the potential to fortify the heart of any defense he joins. That package should be a draw for the Broncos, who know the value of a savvy defender after nabbing standout rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II in this slot last year.
While Hutchinson seemed like a good bet one year ago to elevate his game to this level in 2021, no one could have predicted the similar for Ojabo, who made just one tackle in his career before this season. Fast forward through an 11-sack, second-team All-American campaign, and it’s easy to see why the 6-5, 250-pound pass rusher now has the attention of NFL teams. The Jets’ defense was one of the league’s worst at generating pressure, and Robert Saleh needs more than the return of Carl Lawson from an Achilles injury for the unit to approach the level of his former San Francisco 49ers groups.
Should Washington be the first team to select a quarterback at this slot, this draft would go down as a modern anomaly, as a passer has been taken in the top three picks in every year since 2013. No matter how the market pans out, Washington should establish itself as a buyer after learning in a Week 17 drubbing just how far this team is from catching the Cowboys in the NFC East. Corral’s ankle injury in the Sugar Bowl might complicate his draft projection, but he elevated himself into the QB1 conversation thanks to the strides he made with his ball placement and risk calculation.
Recently fired coach Mike Zimmer didn’t hide his displeasure with Minnesota’s defense the last two years, and dismissed GM Rick Spielman’s various botched investments at cornerback played a large part in the unit’s downfall. “Sauce” could help set things straight in the secondary, as the 6-3, 200-pound coverage maven looks ready-made for the pros after never giving up a touchdown in college.
Cleveland appears content to sign up for another year of Baker Mayfield at starting quarterback, but that doesn’t mean the passing attack should be status quo. The receiving corps will need to be reworked, particularly if Jarvis Landry ends up a cap casualty. Electric after the catch, Wilson is exactly the kind of target Mayfield needs to make life easier on every down.
A singularly calamitous spate of injuries this past season makes the Ravens particularly difficult to read. But even after Lamar Jackson missed five games, it’s readily evident that the team’s protection is in disarray after the line allowed 57 sacks, the second-highest total in the NFL. Though true centers seldom earn this consideration – the last to be taken in the top 15 picks was Steve Everitt to the Browns in 1993 – Linderbaum is a uniquely talented blocker who can unlock even more possibilities in the Ravens’ diverse run game.
Yes, the Eagles have only taken one linebacker in the first round since 1980. If there were a time to break from that tendency, however, it would be for Lloyd, an active presence at the second level who’s equally comfortable chasing down running backs, blitzing the quarterback or taking on coverage assignments.
Philadelphia’s pass rush looks due for a changing of the guard. By adding the superbly athletic and still-developing Walker opposite a potential budding star in Josh Sweat, the Eagles would give themselves one of the league’s most physically imposing pair of defensive ends.
It’s impossible to ignore just how damaging the shoddy front seven has been to the Chargers’ cause this season after the unit’s inability to stop the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs in an obvious running situation essentially bumped the Bolts from the playoff field. An antidote might be waiting in the form of Davis, a 6-6, 340-pound force who does far more on the interior than merely eat space.
Sean Payton seemingly pushed New Orleans as far as it could go without some semblance of consistency at quarterback. Identifying more than a patchwork solution has to be the foremost concern this offseason, and Payton won’t find a better package of experience and accuracy in the draft than Pickett. The four-year starter’s accelerating growth into a Heisman Trophy finalist highlighted that he can thrive in a scheme that helps him harness his aggressiveness.
Even after hitting it big with DeVonta Smith last year, Philadelphia shouldn’t be done remaking its receiving corps. A former basketball player, the 6-5, 210-pound London routinely bullied defensive backs on jump balls this season before a fractured ankle cut his campaign short. He would be a fitting running mate for Smith and an option Jalen Hurts would no doubt find immediate value in.
After a storied run as the Steelers’ general manager, Kevin Colbert is in line to step down after one more draft, according to multiple reports. The most pressing task left: Bring on a quarterback who can keep Pittsburgh in playoff contention upon taking over for Ben Roethlisberger. Like many other passers in this class, Howell might prove to be a divisive prospect, as his highlights in the deep passing game come with questions about how his decision-making will translate to the NFL. While Pittsburgh might have to endure growing pains if the team turns to him as a starter early, going with Howell has to be a serious consideration for a team that lacks many readily apparent options for a successor to its longtime signal-caller.
If New England is unable or unwilling to retain J.C. Jackson after his star turn, cornerback will be New England’s unquestioned most glaring offseason need. Regardless of how the team handles the impending free agent, Elam offers the dynamic playmaking skills and smothering approach in press coverage that Bill Belichick would relish utilizing.
Miami’s offensive line is in such disarray that the front needs help almost everywhere. It would only be natural, then, for Miami to be drawn to Green, who started at four different positions during his first-team All-American season in 2021.
Rookie first-round pick Alex Leatherwood’s stint at right tackle was unfruitful and short-lived. At 6-7 and 321 pounds, the powerful Penning has not only the frame but also the athleticism to thrive at the position in the pros, even if he requires an extended acclimation period after arriving from the Football Championship Subdivision.
Arizona’s pass rush has at times hinged on four-time Pro Bowl selection Chandler Jones and the underrated Markus Golden, who combined to record 21 ½ of the defense’s 41 sacks. With Jones ticketed for free agency and likely seeking a hefty deal, the Cardinals would be wise to take a long look at Thomas, an ascendant prospect who was one of college football’s most consistently disruptive defenders.
The Ja’Marr Chase-Penei Sewell debate was at least temporarily settled by the Bengals wide receiver when he embarked on his record-setting rookie year. Still, Cincinnati must have been on edge when Joe Burrow was dinged up after taking four sacks and 10 hits in the penultimate game of the regular season. No one will confuse Kinnard’s pass protection skills with those of Sewell, but the Southeastern Conference standout is a stable option at either right tackle or guard.
Jared Goff ended the season on an upswing, thanks in large part to Amon-Ra St. Brown’s late breakout. Maybe it would be a shrewd move, then, to invest in another polished and prolific target who can upgrade an otherwise flimsy receiving corps. Olave offers savvy beyond his years in his precise route-running, and he should add a needed vertical element to the passing attack.
Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane built the NFL’s top-ranked defense by finding value across the board, which is what they could do here with Booth. Aggressive both when finding the ball in the air and against the run, he would make a worthy counterpart to Tre’Davious White.
Even if defensive coordinator Dan Quinn lands a head coaching job elsewhere, Dallas no doubt will want to keep alive the playmaking approach he has installed, which has resulted in a league-best 34 takeaways. While Hill only recorded four interceptions in three years, his rare speed and extensive range indicate his best is yet to come in this area, positioning him as a worthy option at a spot in which the Cowboys have long underinvested.
The offseason questions are piling up in Tampa Bay, with the likes of wide receiver Chris Godwin, cornerback Carlton Davis, tight end Rob Gronkowski, center Ryan Jensen, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston all set to hit free agency. While the Buccaneers might be able to retain many of their key pieces, the last two veterans might be among those they end up parting with. The multi-talented Leal would help the defending champions undergo a refresh up front with an interior presence adept at creating disruption.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament in the national championship game might take a significant toll on the draft stock of Williams, the Ohio State transfer who otherwise would have had a solid chance to be the first receiver selected, even ahead of former teammates Wilson and Olave. So long as Williams’ medical evaluations check out, though, it’s easy to imagine the speedy receiver who averaged 19.9 yards per catch doing significant damage in Andy Reid’s offense, even starting out as a tertiary option to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
Never a bad idea to equip Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill with more support, especially following a season in which Tennessee’s offensive line depth was put to the test by injuries and COVID-19. Raimann, a fast riser and converted tight end from Austria, could provide some much-needed flexibility for a front that needs closer evaluation after allowing 47 sacks
If Green Bay is able to complete its reconciliation with Aaron Rodgers, what better way to celebrate the repaired relationship than by granting him his long-awaited first-round receiver? With his go-up-and-get-it play style and strong hands, Burks could endear himself quickly to Rodgers as a jump-ball target and complement to Davante Adams, who also has to address his future in Green Bay amid his expiring contract.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
Predicting the first round of the NFL draft more than three months before it’s scheduled tends to be an exercise based more in impressionism than exactitude.