Mel Kiper Jr. 2022 NFL Mock Draft: Kenny Pickett to Saints, Malik Willis to Steelers

Mike Chiari@@mikechiariFeatured Columnist IVApril 28, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 03: Kenny Pickett #QB11 of Pittsburgh throws during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 03, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. released his final mock draft Thursday morning before the 2022 NFL draft, and it featured only two quarterbacks coming off the board in the first round.

Kiper has Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett as the first quarterback off the board to the New Orleans Saints at No. 19, followed by Liberty's Malik Willis to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 20.

If only two quarterbacks are taken in the first round, it will mark the fewest signal-callers selected in the first 32 picks since 2015 when Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were the top two picks and another quarterback wasn't taken until the third round.

New Orleans is in search of its next franchise quarterback following the retirement of Drew Brees last offseason. Jameis Winston showed some flashes in 2021 before tearing his ACL, and he was re-signed in hopes of being the starter in 2022.

If the Saints aren't sold on Winston over the long term, selecting a player like Pickett, who could potentially be Brees-esque in his accuracy and precision, makes some sense.

The Steelers are also starting life after a future Hall of Fame quarterback, as Ben Roethlisberger retired following the 2021 season.

Pittsburgh signed Mitchell Trubisky to compete with Mason Rudolph for the starting job, but the Steelers could conceivably bring in even more competition in the form of a first-round quarterback.

Willis undoubtedly has a more impressive skill set than any other quarterback in the draft and likely has the highest ceiling. He would also bring a huge arm and top-notch mobility to the table, which are two things Big Ben didn't possess late in his career.

In addition to the quarterbacks, here is a rundown of the top 10 picks in Kiper's latest mock:

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Travon Walker, DL, Georgia

2. Detroit Lions: Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan

3. Houston Texans: Ickey Ekwonu, OT, NC State

4. New York Jets: Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, CB, Cincinnati

5. New York Giants: Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State

6. Carolina Panthers: Evan Neal, OT, Alabama

7. New York Giants: Jermaine Johnson II, EDGE, Florida State

8. Atlanta Falcons: Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State

9. Seattle Seahawks: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

10. New York Jets: Drake London, WR, USC

Kiper's top 10 features an even mix of offensive and defensive players. Six of the top 10 picks are linemen, along with two corners and two wideouts.

Multiple players have been speculated as the potential No. 1 overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars in recent weeks, including Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson, Ickey Ekwonu and Evan Neal.

While Kiper has all of those players getting taken in the first six picks, he believes Walker will be the selection for Jacksonville after turning in an NFL Scouting Combine performance for the ages.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Kiper's mock is Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux falling outside the top 10 and landing with the Minnesota Vikings at No. 12 overall.

Thibodeaux was considered the likely No. 1 overall pick when the 2021 season began, but he didn't produce at the level expected of him, which has perhaps dropped him down some boards.

Still, Thibodeaux has a chance to be the best player in the entire 2022 class, and Minnesota would be a great landing spot for him since it would allow him to form a scary pass-rushing duo with Danielle Hunter.

Some other surprises in terms of players sneaking into the first round include Tulsa offensive tackle Tyler Smith to the Dallas Cowboys at No. 24, North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson to the Green Bay Packers at No. 28 and Western Michigan wide receiver Skyy Moore to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 29.

The first round of the 2022 NFL draft will kick off Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET in Las Vegas.