Las Vegas will roar for 32 names on Thursday night as college football superstars take the stage for the first round of the 2022 NFL draft. It’s a unique year for the draft as there is little consensus on any singular pick or even position group.
The only guarantee is the clock. As teams prepare to enter their ballots, I’m here to throw mine in as well. For the third consecutive year, here are my predictions for Day One of the NFL draft.
1. The Jacksonville Jaguars select…
Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan
The rumor of the past week reflects the dysfunction in Jacksonville, as reports indicate that owner Shad Khan and general manager Trent Baalke are split between Hutchinson and Georgia’s Travon Walker, respectively.
I’ll stick with the better prospect — Hutchinson — whose elite burst off the line and strong handwork makes him a hassle for any offensive tackle. No other prospect has the motor that Hutchinson has, which would be a welcome change of pace for a Jaguars team picking first overall for the second-consecutive season.
2. The Detroit Lions select…
Travon Walker, EDGE, Georgia
The new betting favorite to go No. 1 overall should be perfectly content with the Lions, sliding right in as an instant starter for a Detroit defense that allowed the fifth-most rushing yards and finished 30th in sacks.
It speaks to the draft class that a player with just nine career sacks, six of which were in 2021, is going No. 2 overall. But Walker’s athleticism and length as a rusher are understandably endearing to NFL teams who believe that the sky is the limit for the former Bulldog.
3. The Houston Texans select…
Ikem Ekwonu, OL, NC State
The Texans could go a lot of different directions here — my personal notes have their team needs as “everything.” A good team needs a good foundation, and that tends to start on the offensive line. Quarterback Davis Mills deserves a shot as the starter given his strong progress over the second half of the season, but he won’t get far without help.
Ekwonu is a remarkable athlete, with strong speed and burst scores in a 310-pound build that supports winning initial pushes at the line. He should thrive on pull blocks and can slide in at guard or tackle, depending on how the roster shapes up. For a team with as many needs as Houston, this pick should be fairly easy.
4. The New York Jets select…
Jermaine Johnson II, EDGE, Florida State
One of the most undervalued players in this class is no longer flying under the radar. Johnson is the real deal.
Johnson is an elite athlete who gets after the quarterback quickly and with a vengeance. He has longer arms and good technique to pair with that burst, putting his upside in a Robert Saleh-led system through the roof. He can also drop into coverage as a linebacker as need be.
He only had significant production after transferring from Georgia, which some may pick out as a red flag. But Johnson’s fit as a Jet fills a dire need for a defense that finished 26th in sacks.
5. The New York Giants select…
Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon
What a wild draft process it’s been for Thibodeaux, who began the offseason vying for the top spot in the draft. Then he was rumored to be slipping outside the top 10. Now, he’s back in the sweet spot at No. 5.
The former Duck’s work ethic has been questioned, and a few lingering injuries also raised doubt surrounding his health. But the ship seems to have righted itself, and frankly, the narrative doesn’t show up on film. Thibodeaux’s ceiling is remarkably high as he relied mostly on sheer power and natural ability to dominate on the field. He missed two games in 2021 due to an ankle injury, but still finished as a first-team All-American. He won’t make it past the Giants come draft day.
6. The Carolina Panthers select…
Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh
In a draft class filled with “ifs” and “maybes,” this is the pick I’m most confident in.
Pickett is a good fit for head coach Matt Rhule’s system, as he is one of the more balanced quarterbacks in the class. For a coach on the hot seat like Rhule, Pickett also makes the most sense, as the Pittsburgh product is often touted as the most pro-ready quarterback.
I have my own doubts about Pickett, from his 1st percentile hand size to his late, fifth-year breakout. But when it comes to Carolina, who own only this pick prior to its next selection at the 137th spot, a quarterback will be the selection. That means Pickett will be donning Panthers colors as the first signal-caller off the board.
7. The New York Giants (via CHI) select…
Evan Neal, OT, Alabama
The Giants will be on the clock courtesy of the trade that yielded the Bears quarterback Justin Fields last year. And they will address a long-standing issue — offensive tackle.
There is no current answer at right tackle, with free-agent signee Matt Gono the projected starter. For those who don’t know Gono, that’s OK. He missed the entire 2021 season due to injury and was a mediocre starter in Atlanta before that.
Neal is a monster of a man who has faced top-tier competition in the Southeastern Conference, consistently coming out on the winning end. He allowed a single sack in 2021 — on the last play of the season in a national championship loss to Georgia — and surrendered a pressure on just 1.1% of his pass-blocking reps. Neal’s a tremendous athlete and reliable starter whose floor is among the highest in the class, not to mention his ceiling.
8. The Atlanta Falcons select…
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty
The Falcons could go in a lot of different directions here, especially if one of the top EDGE rushers falls to No. 8. Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton is another name to watch here. But instead, Atlanta reunites A.J. Terrell with his high school teammate and selects Willis out of Liberty.
Willis, my QB1 of the class, is still a bit raw. His processing is flawed and his poise in the pocket needs work when under pressure. But his arm talent and mobility fits the modern NFL perfectly, and with Marcus Mariota under contract for two years, the Falcons can take their time with Willis.
Nobody should believe that Mariota is the future, and the team has two picks in both the second and third rounds to support Willis with the weapons he needs to succeed.
9. The Seattle Seahawks (via DEN) select…
Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
The Seahawks might be disappointed that both Pickett and Willis are off the board, but they will turn that frown upside down with the addition of “Sauce” Gardner.
Gardner did not allow a touchdown in his three years in college. He also didn’t allow a reception in the red zone in 2021. There’s a reason Cincinnati found itself in the College Football Playoff, and Gardner’s elite instincts and arm length were major contributors to the Bearcats’ Cinderella run.
It’s an easy pick for Seattle in an effort to avoid starting cornerback Artie Burns at all costs.
10. The New York Jets (via SEA) select…
Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
This is one of the toughest spots to predict. There’s a wide range of options for the Jets, from safety Kyle Hamilton to offensive tackle Charles Cross to cornerback Derek Stingley. Or heck, another receiver like USC’s Drake London or Arkansas’ Treylon Burks. But instead of focusing on who the Jets could take let’s look at Wilson, the Jets’ new WR1.
Wilson was a star at Ohio State despite a smaller build, and he has the yards-after-catch ability to thrive in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s system. He can win all across the field. While his play might mirror 2021 second-round pick Elijah Moore’s, it should not remove Wilson from the equation.
The Jets have highly sought out every wide receiver on the market, from Tyreek Hill to D.K. Metcalf to Deebo Samuel. They settle for Wilson, who is far from a consolation prize himself.
11. The Washington Commanders select…
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
The Commanders might be fuming. Wilson would have been a perfect fit for this team alongside former Buckeye Terry McLaurin. But when one of the best players in the draft falls this far because of a 40-yard dash time, the Commanders should march on up to pick Hamilton at No. 11.
Hamilton falls partially due to a slow 4.53 40-time and also because he’s a safety, a devalued position. What the Notre Dame product lacks in burst he makes up for in size and tackling ability, with the hit power to disrupt even the most reliable of receivers.
Washington cut safety Landon Collins earlier this offseason and lacks a trustworthy presence in the middle of the field. Hamilton can play in the box as needed and become just as much a threat in the secondary as defensive end Chase Young is on the line of scrimmage.
12. The Minnesota Vikings select…
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
Like many teams, the Vikings could go in a few directions here, with wide receiver being one of them. But I got the sense from new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah in his Tuesday pre-draft press conference that wide receiver could be addressed later than No. 12.
Not that it matters. Stingley would be an easy pick for a Vikings unit that allowed the fifth-most passing yards last season.
Stingley has been touted as a top prospect for years, and while injuries have derailed his play from being a top-five pick, that ceiling still exists. He’s well worth the risk and investment for the Vikings, who should not be relying on a complementary cornerback like Cameron Dantzler and soon-to-be 32-year-old Patrick Peterson.
13. The Houston Texans (via CLE) select…
Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama
I’ll preface this by saying the Texans are in a prime “trade back” spot here. Moving back in the first round could yield them another second-round pick to give Houston a whopping six selections inside the first 80 picks. But if general manager Nick Caserio stays put, wide receiver makes sense.
There is very little beyond veteran Brandin Cooks. Second and third options, Nico Collins and Chris Conley, combined for 769 yards and three touchdowns in 2021. That would have been the 48th in terms of receiving yardage. Not good enough.
While Collins deserves a chance to start as a sophomore, he fits best out wide. Williams can fit in the slot and dominate after the catch with his game-breaking speed. Given how NFL teams love speed Williams seems like a sure bet to go high in the first round despite his January ACL injury.
14. The Baltimore Ravens select…
Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State
With a skip and a jump, the Ravens take Cross, a top-10 talent who slips a bit further than he should. Cross broke out in a major way in 2021, particularly as a pass blocker. The Ravens lack a stable option on the right as 31-year-old Morgan Moses took a big step back on the Jets in 2021.
Cross can slide in as an option if Moses continues his downward trend. He’s arguably the best player available and a no-brainer pick for Baltimore.
15. The Philadelphia Eagles (via MIA) select…
Drake London, WR, USC
The Eagles couldn’t get enough of J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, so they went out and got another one.
Jokes aside, London is a huge wide receiver who should fit well with DeVonta Smith on the other side. His size and length at 6-feet, 4-inches stands out, as does his high-point ability. While I have questions about his athleticism and ability against tougher competition than the PAC-12 has to offer, someone will take a shot on him being the unicorn prospect he appears to be.
To properly evaluate starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, the Eagles need to take a receiver early. And with the Saints and Chargers on deck, it makes sense to place that bet here at No. 15.
16. The New Orleans Saints (via IND through PHI) select…
Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa
Star offensive tackle Terron Armstead joined Miami this season after an injury-marred 2021 season. The Saints got a glimpse of what life could be like without Armstead, and it was not pretty.
Penning would slide in immediately as a starter opposite Ryan Ramczyk as a mean blocker who enjoys mauling players. He was a natural left tackle in college, so he should fit in well in Armstead’s place. At 6-foot 7-inches, Penning has an ideal build and a good cut relative to his weight, but he does need to clean up his handwork. Regardless, the Saints can figure it out with him as Penning dons the black and gold.
17. The Los Angeles Chargers select…
Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington
I know, I know. The Chargers just paid a king’s ransom to J.C. Jackson. They spent a second-round pick on Asante Samuel Jr. in 2021, who played well as a rookie. So why spend a first-round pick on a position of strength?
Well, teams need to be several cornerbacks deep. The Chargers are not. McDuffie is an ideal fit as a cornerback who is skilled at both man and zone coverage. They sought Jackson to fill a need, and McDuffie can help the team take a step closer toward sealing the cracks in the secondary.
18. The Philadelphia Eagles (via NO) select…
Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia
There are a lot of people with tremendous upside in this class. Davis might have the most of the bunch.
It’s simply unique to have a 6-foot-6-inch, 341-pound defensive tackle run a 4.78 40-yard dash. In fact, his speed score is in the 100th percentile. Absolute madness.
There are justifiable concerns on whether Davis can actually get to the passer on an every-down basis. He’s never exceeded 2.5 sacks in a season, and while Davis should easily clog rushing lanes, a first-round defensive tackle needs to do more. General manager Howie Roseman is exactly the guy to take a chance on Davis.
19. The New Orleans Saints (via PHI) select…
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
Some might be surprised to see Olave this high. Realistically, he could go even higher.
Olave would have been a first-round pick in 2021 if he declared, and that’s still true this year. The former Buckeye is a strong route runner on multiple levels of the field. He can take the top off a defense — perhaps not as well as Alabama’s Jameson Williams if available — but in a much more effective way than Tre’Quan Smith has in years past.
Pair the Ohio State guys together in Olave and Michael Thomas to give a receiving duo that can actually pose a threat, something the Saints have sorely missed.
20. The Pittsburgh Steelers select…
Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss
For better or for worse the Steelers are taking a quarterback here. And it’s not Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder.
Corral’s big concern entering 2021 was his ball security, which he handled by dropping his 15 interception figure all the way down to a mere five. He’s a mobile quarterback who should fit well in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense with the arm to make every throw the Steelers ask of him.
Corral’s decision-making still needs some fine-tuning, and he needs to learn how to protect himself from injury given his slight frame at 6 feet, 2 inches, 214 pounds. His ankle injury in the Sugar Bowl was proof of it.
21. The New England Patriots select…
Devin Lloyd, MLB, Utah
Projecting a middle linebacker to New England is the popular move, and this pick sticks with the pack. Bill Belichick likely considered Georgia’s Nakobe Dean, whose pectoral injury limited his offseason workouts, but Lloyd has better size and production.
The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American would fit right in for New England who needs a smart linebacker to fill the gap. Lloyd is a polished player with plenty of experience as a sound tackler that is much needed in a dominant AFC.
22. The Green Bay Packers (via LV) select…
Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas
If it was up to me, Burks would be the first wide receiver off the board. But fortune favors the Pack here as Green Bay fills a huge need with a tremendous value.
Simply put, Aaron Rodgers cannot enter the season with Allen Lazard and Sammy Watkins out wide or Amari Rogers in the slot. Competition and pure talent is needed, and Burks would immediately contribute. He dominated the tough SEC with his yards-after-catch ability and pairing that with his contested catch talents it’s a wonder he’s not going higher.
Given that Burks largely worked the slot in college that’s where he can kick off his NFL career, giving Rodgers a huge target to help fill the 224 targets vacated by Davante Adams (169) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (55).
23. The Arizona Cardinals select…
George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue
I would not be shocked if Penn State’s Arnold Ebikete popped in here despite his name being more synonymous with Day 2. But Karlaftis, a powerful force for the Boilermakers, becomes a Cardinal in this mock as Arizona seeks another edge presence opposite of J.J. Watt.
Don’t match Karlaftis against a tight end, because his strength is among the best in this class. He’s a reliable run stuffer off the edge who can still get to the passer. Concerns exist — he can be too tall out of his break and struggled against a good team in Ohio State — but his tools and ability are still attractive to any team seeking a pass rusher.
For the Cardinals and their poor run defense, that makes this fit a sensible one.
24. The Dallas Cowboys select…
Kenyon Green, G, Texas A&M
Green stays in Texas as the Cowboys add some much-needed help. With 2021 starting guard Connor Williams now in Miami and a plethora of injuries in recent years besmirching Dallas’s reputation of solid offensive line play, Green provides an important starting piece in the search for an elusive Super Bowl ring.
Green does an excellent job of getting low with good bend, which is never a given for 323-pound linemen. He is a mauler of a blocker who thrives in run-blocking, a good fit for a Dallas team that rely heavily on running backs Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. Green will also help protect quarterback Dak Prescott, whose injuries could quickly become a major concern without more help up front.
25. The Buffalo Bills select…
Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson
Don’t be surprised if the Bills draft a receiver here, or even trade up for one.
Booth is a good talent that fills an important team need for Buffalo, who lost Levi Wallace to free agency and has star Tre’Davious White coming off of an ACL tear. The Clemson product faced strong competition in the SEC and often came away better for it, with the size and talent to be a starting cornerback on the outside.
Booth has his own injury history to be concerned about, but the upside and production is worth the risk.
26. The Tennessee Titans select…
Zion Johnson, G, Boston College
If you want to run the ball, it helps to win at the line of scrimmage.
The Titans did the former well for the most part, but the latter needs improvement. That’s where Johnson slides in as a talented guard in a zone-run system. His lateral movement is seamless and will help when asked to pull. Johnson also played a season at tackle and while he’s a better guard, it helps to have that versatility.
Plus, head coach Mike Vrabel’s son was roommates and teammates with Johnson. How’s that for an inside scoop?
27. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers select…
Boye Mafe, EDGE, Michigan
Todd Bowles is back as a head coach, and defense is the name of the game. While the Buccaneers did spend a first-round pick on linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka in 2021, there’s no harm in doubling down when the talent is right.
Mafe is a freakish athlete who will, at least early on, be best used in small spurts. The pick gives the Buccaneers a fantastic rotation of linebackers where Mafe can be thrown in on third-down blitzes. It’s important for Tampa Bay to maintain the strong pass rush it’s had over the last few years, and Mafe can keep that trend going. It also offers the team flexibility down the line as Shaquill Barrett’s contract will eventually bear down on the Buccaneers’ cap space.
28. The Green Bay Packers select…
Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded center ever, Linderbaum is a perfect pick for a Packers team that sorely missed the talent of Corey Linsley, who joined the Chargers in free agency in 2021.
Talent-wise, there are not many in this class that have perfected their position like Linderbaum, who didn’t even start as a center. Originally a defensive tackle, Linderbaum flipped sides like a game of Madden and began making defenders pay. An All-American who won the Rimington Award given to the nation’s best center, Linderbaum is a great pick if Green Bay cares about protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Center is an undervalued position, so if Linderbaum slips like Creed Humphrey did last year no one should be surprised. But given how much Humphrey helped the Chiefs, maybe teams learned their lesson.
29. The Kansas City Chiefs (via SF through MIA) select…
Kyler Gordon, CB, Washington
Gordon is a supreme athlete whose upside has to intrigue defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The former Husky would be a dream fit in the zone-blitzing system that Spagnuolo employs, and offers the type of upside a championship-caliber team can take a chance on.
The team needs help in the secondary and should address it with one of its two first-round picks. Gordon is the name that fits best with how the Chiefs run their defense.
30. The Kansas City Chiefs select…
David Ojabo, EDGE, Michigan
Ojabo tore his Achilles in the pre-draft process at his Pro Day March 18, and while taking an edge rusher with this severe of an injury is a huge gamble the Michigan product might be worth it.
The former Wolverine was set to be an early pick in the first round, with both the leadership and production to back it up. He set a school record with five forced fumbles in a single season in addition to his 12 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks in 2021. Ojabo’s concerns lie in the run game, as he has primarily rushed the passer, but no one could deny his effectiveness at doing just that.
Teammate and fellow pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson kicks off this draft, and Ojabo comes close to finishing it.
31. The Cincinnati Bengals select…
Daxton Hill, S, Michigan
Who would’ve thought the Bengals would be picking here? Not me.
Anyway, Hill slides in as a safety that can also play cornerback, killing two birds with one stone. The Bengals need cornerback help and someone to challenge starting cornerback Eli Apple for snaps, but they also need to consider the increasing likelihood that safety Jessie Bates could walk in free agency next offseason.
Hill, a versatile talent with good speed and athleticism, can help solidify a Bengals secondary that was often prone to embarrassing mishaps. For a team without too many holes, the former Wolverine helps the team win now and later.
32. The Detroit Lions select…
Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati
I genuinely believe the Lions are content with Jared Goff under center. But at No. 32 the team has a chance to take their franchise quarterback while keeping a fifth-year option available — that’s a risk worth taking.
I’m not the biggest fan of Ridder, but it’s easy to see why teams like him. He’s incredibly mobile and thrived at the Senior Bowl in February. His accuracy, particularly downfield, leaves something to be desired. But Detroit will have the luxury of letting him develop for at least a year should it choose to, and Goff is obviously not the savior Lions fans are seeking.
UNC quarterback Sam Howell is another name to watch here for the same reasoning — that fifth-year option — and the competitive fire he brings that head coach Dan Campbell would appreciate in both Ridder and Howell.