Who’s No. 1 in the N.F.L. Draft? Depends on Who You Ask.
There is a thriving industry that hinges on scouts and N.F.L. prognosticators confidently declaring how the draft’s top prospects will fare as pros and which teams will select them.
But ahead of Thursday’s first round, the experts can’t quite agree on who the No. 1 pick will be.
This year marks the first draft in five years in which a quarterback is not expected to be chosen first overall. The Jacksonville Jaguars have the No. 1 pick for the second consecutive year, and after drafting quarterback Trevor Lawrence in 2021, they have a number of other positions to improve — offensive line, defensive line and wide receiver — to build on a 4-13 record.
The Jaguars are not alone in their rebuilding efforts: The teams picking in the top five — the Detroit Lions, the Houston Texans, the Jets and the Giants — have deep needs, a factor in the mock drafts’ instability.
Adding to that, the 2022 N.F.L. draft is instead loaded with talent at lower-profile positions like defensive edge rushers and on the offensive line, tougher-to-scout groups that could be just as crucial to a franchise’s future.
Edge rushers will have a big night.
Most mocks have tabbed defensive linemen as the top pick, though they’re split on who will shake Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand first.
The Ringer, The Athletic, Yahoo Sports and readers of Bleacher Report all tabbed Aidan Hutchinson, an edge rusher from Michigan and the runner-up in Heisman Trophy voting, as the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-6 Hutchinson had 62 tackles as a senior and would be a centerpiece of the Jaguars’s defensive line. Hutchinson had a solid performance at the league’s scouting combine in March, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.74 seconds.
ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Fansided are banking on Travon Walker, a junior defensive end from Georgia, being the top selection. At 6-foot-5, with a wingspan of 7 feet, Walker used his length for leverage against offensive linemen as a starter on Georgia’s national championship team. He had a mere 9.5 sacks in his college career (he played on a loaded defensive line), but his combine numbers fueled his late rise up several mocks. He ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and had a 123-inch broad jump. If Walker is selected first overall, it could provide an odd moment for the televised broadcast, since he is expected to participate remotely.
As many as three defensive linemen are predicted to go within the top five picks if Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux finds a suitor there. Thibodeaux, a 6-foot-5 defensive end, finished his last season with 49 tackles and seven sacks, but he did not participate in drills besides the 40-yard dash at the combine.
The offensive linemen in this draft have very different skill sets.
Three offensive linemen have risen in mocks. CBS Sports has Ikem Ekwonu of North Carolina State at No. 1. Ekwonu, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound all-American offensive tackle, has experience playing on both ends of the line and is considered a solid run blocker. Ekwonu, a former high school wrestler, ranked fourth at the combines and is known for using his size to inflict aggressive strikes.
In March, Bleacher Report had Evan Neal, a 6-foot-7, 337-pound offensive tackle from Alabama, at the No. 1 spot. Neal is considered one of the best offensive tackles in the 2022 draft and has extensive experience against the best competition in college football, including going head-to-head with Walker at the national championship game in January. A three-year starter with the versatility to play both left and right tackle, Neal was one of the bigger names to not participate in the combine.
Charles Cross, a Mississippi State offensive tackle, consistently used his 6-foot-9 wingspan to help with his pass blocking. Most mock drafts have him being taken within the top 10, and teams may be considering him for his quick lower body skills. Mocks slot him anywhere from the top three picks to the bottom half of the first round.
Quarterbacks could slip to the second round.
Only two quarterbacks are likely to be taken in the first round — Liberty’s Malik Willis and Mississippi’s Matt Corral are the only signal-callers who are expected to attend in person — and not before the Carolina Panthers’ No. 6 pick.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, drafting at No. 20, could also be looking for quarterback help after Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement in January and the death of Dwayne Haskins this month.
The Athletic’s most recent mock draft has only one quarterback, Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh, being taken in the first round.
Analysts consider this year’s draft class to be weak at passer, (unlike last year, when five quarterbacks were chosen within the first 15 picks) and some teams have already found starters after a frenzied free agency period saw Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Drew Lock and Deshaun Watson all change teams.
Without surefire QBs, stars at other positions could rise.
Ahmad Gardner of Cincinnati could be the highest-selected cornerback. Gardner, who is known as Sauce, is arguably the best cornerback in the draft, with Louisiana State’s Derek Stingley also vying for that distinction. Gardner had 40 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups in 14 starts in this last season alone, and never allowed a receiving touchdown in his collegiate career.
Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, a safety, could also sneak into the top 10, though safeties don’t usually go that high and no team seems sure how to use him. Hamilton received the highest grade at the combine, edging out Hutchinson by a tenth of a percentage, but his stock has dropped in recent weeks, and only Yahoo Sports and Fansided have Hamilton going in the top five picks.
The biggest wild card may not even be a question of talent but whether teams picking in the top 10 stay in their designated position. The Jets and the Giants, for instance, both have two top-10 picks but their needs are vast and might be better addressed by trading for veteran players.