The 2021 NFL regular season hasn't even commenced yet, but ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. is already looking ahead to the 2022 NFL draft with his big board of the top college football prospects.
Topping his list is Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. He called the junior "an elite pass-rushing talent with the quickness and bend to get double-digit sacks annually at the next level."
In his first two seasons at Oregon, Thibodeaux has posted 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 20 games. As Kiper noted, the last non-quarterback to go No. 1 overall in the NFL draft was edge-rusher Myles Garrett in 2017.
Thibodeaux may not end that trend in 2022—if a quarterback-needy team lands the top overall pick, Thibodeaux will drop—but he may very well be the most talented player in the country this season.
He certainly has high expectations for himself.
"Perfection. Winning every game. Being able to play for a national championship, and winning in fall camp," Thibodeaux told reporters about his goals for the upcoming season in early August. "Me personally, I am trying to be in the Heisman race and be in that Heisman conversation, so 20 sacks would be a blessing for me, but just kind of growing and winning every game with my team."
Kiper didn't wait long to get a quarterback on his big board, however, listing "Heisman Trophy favorite" Spencer Rattler at No. 2. Oklahoma's third-year sophomore "has a big arm and can also beat teams with his legs, though he'd much rather sit in the pocket and dice up defenses."
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If the 2022 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NFL?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NFL</a> Draft was today.. Which QB would come off the board first? Mike Renner (<a href="https://twitter.com/PFF_Mike?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@PFF_Mike</a>) explains why he'd go with Spencer Rattler of <a href="https://twitter.com/OU_Football?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@OU_Football</a> <a href="https://t.co/3nQ5yY34Ma">pic.twitter.com/3nQ5yY34Ma</a>
He did so in 2020, throwing for 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 11 games while completing 67.5 percent of his passes and rushing for another 160 yards and six scores. If he builds on those numbers, the Heisman Trophy and top overall selection in the NFL draft will be within his sights.
Rounding out Kiper's top five were LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal and Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. Kiper had three quarterbacks in his top 25—Rattler, North Carolina's Sam Howell (No. 7) and Liberty's Malik Willis (No. 15).