Mel Kiper, McShay's 3-Round NFL Mock Draft: Willis to Panthers, Pickett to Steelers

Tim Daniels@@TimDanielsBRFeatured Columnist IVApril 19, 2022

MOBILE, ALABAMA - DECEMBER 18: Malik Willis #7 of the Liberty Flames reacts during the LendingTree Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Liberty's Malik Willis was the first quarterback off the board, landing with the Carolina Panthers at No. 6 overall, in a joint mock draft featuring ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay released Tuesday.

Joining Willis as QBs predicted to land in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft were Pitt's Kenny Pickett going to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 20 and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder to the Detroit Lions at No. 32.

What order the class' top quarterbacks will be selected is one of the biggest remaining questions heading into the draft, which gets underway April 28.

Willis and Pickett are most commonly projected to come off the board first, but even that's not a lock, with Ridder and Ole Miss' Matt Corral also in the conversation.

A lot will depend on what each team is seeking.

For example, the Panthers front office and coaching staff are facing a lot of pressure to show progress in 2022 after winning just five games each of the last three seasons.

That might push Carolina more toward Pickett, who's coming off a standout senior season at Pitt and may be the QB group's most NFL-ready player. In this case, however, Kiper believes the Panthers will opt for the "more talented" Willis.

The Panthers could open the season with Sam Darnold or P.J. Walker as their starter to take a bit of pressure off Willis, but he'd likely be thrust into the No. 1 role quickly, even though that may not be the best thing for his long-term development.

For his part, Willis said he's not worried about any potential outside criticism.

"Somebody's always going to think [you're] trash," he told reporters in March. "That's just the way the game goes. It is what it is. I'm going to just keep on going. I'm not playing for their approval."

Meanwhile, the one quarterback-team combination that makes all the sense in the world is Pickett landing with the Steelers. He spent the past five years playing in the city at Pitt and could serve as the heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger, who retired after 18 years.

Pickett tossed 42 touchdowns and just seven interceptions across 13 appearances in 2021 and could compete with free-agent signing Mitchell Trubisky for the starting job right away.

Of course, all the other front offices likely see the same connection, and a quarterback-needy team could trade up ahead of the Steelers if Pickett is still on the board outside the top 10.

All told, there's a lot of intrigue around the QB class, even though there isn't a surefire Pro Bowl signal-caller available.