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Mel Kiper 2022 NFL Draft Big Board: ESPN Guru Drops Updated Rankings After 1st Mock

Tim Daniels@@TimDanielsBRFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 25, 2022

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson remains the top-ranked prospect on the latest big board from ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ahead of the 2022 NFL draft.

Although Hutchinson retained the No. 1 ranking, which he also held on Kiper's big board in December, the longtime ESPN draft guru noted it'll be a "real battle" between the Wolverines standout and Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux for the top spot between now and the first round on April 28.

Here's a look at Kiper's top five prospects at this stage of the process:

1. Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan

2. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon

3. Evan Neal, OT, Alabama

4. Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame

5. Ikem Ekwonu, OT/G, NC State

Hutchinson and Thibodeaux are both coming off strong final college seasons, and in a year without a headline quarterback prospect, it's no surprise the top of the class is a battle between edge-rushers.

Let's check out how the duo compared in 2021:

  • Hutchinson: 62 total tackles, 14 sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games
  • Thibodeaux: 49 total tackles, seven sacks and two forced fumbles in 10 games

The Jacksonville Jaguars own the No. 1 overall pick for the second straight year, and their decision may hinge on which player performs better during the predraft process. Either prospect would represent a nice upgrade for a defense that tied for 27th with 32 sacks in 2021.

Ekwonu made the biggest jump in Kiper's rankings of any prospect inside the top 25, going from No. 18 into the top five. The versatile offensive lineman is among the most NFL-ready players in the class.

The All-American explained to Bryce Miller of the San Diego Union-Tribune the approach that's allowed him to shine in the trenches.

"Whether it's academic stress, personal stress, I turn it into anger almost," Ekwonu said in December. "I let it all out on the field. It's hard to describe it, really. It's more of a mindset. You have to want to dominate people."

The other notable aspect of Kiper's rankings is that the first quarterback doesn't appear until No. 16 in Pitt's Kenny Pickett.

While Pickett put together a terrific final season with the Panthers, tallying 42 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 13 games, he posted a far more modest 39-25 touchdown-to-interception ratio across his first four years with the program. It makes for a tough evaluation.

The other signal-callers in Kiper's top 25 are Liberty's Malik Willis (No. 17) and Ole Miss' Matt Corral (No. 25).

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