College Football Underclassmen Who Should Declare for the 2022 NFL Draft

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2021

College Football Underclassmen Who Should Declare for the 2022 NFL Draft

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    College football's new allowance of NIL money is nice and all, but for most college football players, nothing compares to living out their dream of playing at the next level.

    Several players such as Ole Miss' Matt Corral, Purdue's George Karlaftis and David Bell and Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux already have declared for the 2022 NFL draft. Many more will follow. 

    Who are the guys making the right decisions, though? Not everybody's draft dream winds up with a happy ending, after all. 

    The players on this list have developed all they need to and have a strong chance of being selected in the first round. When that's your ceiling, you can't risk getting injured. Go make your millions, young men.

    Those who just missed the list were Georgia's Jordan Davis, who needs to prove he can be a three-down lineman, Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, who has a huge upside but needs more development, North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, who struggled at times, and Iowa offensive lineman Taylor Linderbaum, who just had several offensive linemen over him with higher ceilings.

    That's not to say those guys should stay; only there were 12 others who were better selections.

    Let's take a look at some of the top undeclared collegiate players who should forego any remaining eligibility and jump right to the NFL.

Andrew Booth, Clemson Cornerback

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    When you consider all the sterling defensive back talent that has come out of Clemson during the Dabo Swinney era, it's quite a statement to say Andrew Booth may possess the most raw talent.

    But it's true.

    At 6'0", 200 pounds, the star junior is built like a safety but has the skill set of a cornerback and all the quality traits to be a shutdown star. Looking at the big first year former teammate A.J. Terrrell is having with the Atlanta Falcons this year is another feather in the cap of taking Booth early.

    The Dacula, Georgia, native would be a great fit opposite Terrell in his home town, but he may not slip down to the bottom half of the top 10. He'll be right there in the mix with Derek Stingley Jr. to be the top cornerback taken overall, and while Stingley may have more sheer talent, Booth has the reps.

    He's excelled during his time playing under coordinator Brent Venables, too. This year, Booth has 24 tackles, three interceptions and five passes defended. ACC coaches have been smart and largely stayed away from him.

    "I like Booth's game a lot," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "He does a nice job locating the ball while running in phase with receivers, and he is at his best in press coverage. Booth has a smooth back pedal and quick feet, but he does overreact at times to a receiver's first move. The ball skills are top notch."

    While another season at Clemson would be huge for the Tigers, Booth needs to go. With Venables gone to be the head coach at Oklahoma, it's uncertain what the future looks like on that side of the ball for the Tigers, and he can capitalize right now.

    Booth was on the Pro Football Focus first-team All-ACC and closed his season with a pair of interceptions against rival South Carolina.

Charles Cross, Mississippi State Offensive Tackle

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    There may not be a better athlete on the offensive line in the 2021 NFL draft than Mississippi State's Charles Cross if he declares.

    At 6'5", 311 pounds, Cross has a lean build but is one of the most seasoned pass-blockers in the nation. He got a lot of practice, too, blocking for coach Mike Leach's Air Raid in Starkville. 

    Though he hasn't made anything official, Cross looks to be a top-10 pick, so it wouldn't be wise for him to return for another season.

    He is going to make a ton of money locking down one side of an NFL team's offensive line, and he has the versatility to play tackle or guard at the next level (but should definitely be the blind-side stalwart at left tackle).

    Just how good was Cross this year, and why does he make this list over guys like Iowa's Taylor Linderbaum, Georgia nose guard Jordan Davis, Liberty quarterback Malik Willis and Michigan edge David Ojabo? Not only does he have elite athleticism, he has the numbers to back it up.

    "When looking for a guy who doesn't give up any sacks, Charles Cross is the answer," Cowbell Corner's Alex Gomez wrote back in mid-November. "One could argue that the numbers couldn't be more clear on a prospect that than those on Cross.

    "Mississippi State has passed the ball 544 times this season, so far. In 544 pass-blocking attempts, Cross has not surrendered a single sack. He has only given up a quarterback pressure five times this season, which is less than 1 percent of the time."

    The Laurel native and former top-rated player from the state of Mississippi is about to get paid.

Nakobe Dean, Georgia Linebacker

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    A few seasons ago, Georgia coach Kirby Smart won one of the nation's most hotly contested recruiting battles when he went into the Magnolia State and convinced the second Mississippi native on this list to come to Athens.

    Nakobe Dean has been proving ever since why everybody wanted him.

    This year, he capped a terrific season by winning the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker. He's been the fearless, fearsome heart and soul of the nation's top-rated defense, and while the Bulldogs certainly would love to forget last Saturday's game against Alabama, they've been brilliant all year.

    Dean is a big reason why they've got the chance to play for a national championship.

    "Nakobe Dean is a playmaker with a special combination of strength, coverage ability, playmaking flair and leadership skill," the Butkus committee said in a statement. "He consistently makes his presence felt on the field and in the community, elevates the defense with his command and is a complete linebacker who has made a tremendous impact on Georgia’s program."

    The 6'0", 225-pound bowling ball of a 'backer has 61 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He's added two interceptions, four passes defended, two forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown. On coordinator Dan Lanning's loaded unit, Dean still stands out.

    He is the quarterback of the defense, making all the calls and flying around the field, and he's going to make an NFL team extremely happy. Though linebackers aren't often the most coveted prospects in the draft, Dean is nearly a lock to be a first-rounder.

    The kind of physicality he possesses on the second level of his defense makes him seem like he's a 10-year NFL veteran. He rarely takes plays off and does all the little things you want to see. Plus, he's supremely talented.

Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State Offensive Tackle

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    The ACC is going to be more than happy to watch Ikem Ekwonu leave for the NFL.

    The scary thing for the conference is the redshirt freshman offensive tackle for North Carolina State actually could have two years of eligibility remaining if he wants them, but there's no real reason to stay. He has everything you want in a pro offensive lineman and can be a franchise blind-side blocker.

    The Charlotte, North Carolina, native is a super athlete for his size. His father is a 6'6" doctor who played college basketball before coming to the United States from Nigeria, according to his NC State profile, and his brother is a linebacker from Notre Dame.

    You simply don't normally get this type of athleticism in a 6'4", 320-pound package, and when you factor in he has been entrenched as a starter since his freshman season, has produced in a big way and possesses the fearsome nasty streak every NFL team is looking for, he's a can't-miss prospect.

    Ekwonu's intelligence, versatility and intangibles make him a beloved player, too. The Fayetteville Observer's David Thompson told about Ekwonu's softer side, but on the field, a transformation occurs.

    "He's one of those guys that puts his helmet on and changes," NC State coach Dave Doeren said of the Outland Trophy semifinalist. "He wants to finish people."

    There are a lot of elite offensive linemen in this year's class, but Ekwonu has the highest ceiling of them all.

Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati Cornerback

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    With a nickname like "Sauce", you've got to be awesome. Cincinnati junior cornerback Ahmad Gardner lives up to his moniker, too, bringing the heat as one half of the Bearcats' impenetrable cornerback tandem.

    He and teammate Coby Bryant were both named semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back. They are outstanding talents who have bright futures in the NFL. But Gardner's upside may be a bit higher.

    Even in a year loaded with secondary talent, Gardner stands out.

    Considering he is leading a storybook season for the Bearcats that has them in the College Football Playoff with a chance to play for a national title, it doesn't get any better than this, either. He needs to strike while everything is hot, capitalize on the big year and head to the NFL.

    He just hopes that will come after hoisting the national championship trophy.

    Gardner has an elite skill set and does everything the right way. Per The Athletic's Justin Williams, Gardner said Navy is the team that tested him the most this year, thanks to its triple-option attack and noted just how teams won't throw in his direction.

    Gardner added that one coach told him, "'Our job is just to stay away from you.' It made me realize that’s probably how other schools are thinking."

    The 6'3", 200-pound cornerback has NFL size and speed and has 26 tackles, one forced fumble, three interceptions and four passes defended this year. He's going to be tested against Alabama's capable stable of receivers, and with a strong performance, he could go from surefire first-round pick to the top of the list.

Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame Safety

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    If Kyle Hamilton leaves South Bend for the NFL, it's definitely not going to be the way he envisioned heading out of his college career.

    The elite safety from Atlanta hasn't played since late October after suffering a knee injury that derailed what was shaping up to be an All-American season. The 6'4", 220-pound defender had 19 tackles, three interceptions and four passes defended.

    He is everything you want from a back-level defender and could be the next Justin Simmons-caliber player in the NFL. Hamilton is big and physical enough to sneak up on the second level, be a force in the box and make plays in the running game.

    But he's also fast and athletic enough to be a ball-hawking safety who closes on the ball and knows how to high-point and intercept it once he gets there. The type of athleticism he possesses is unreal. According to The Athletic's Bruce Feldman, he has a 42-inch vertical.

    "Every NFL team is looking for long, rangy, versatile and explosive athletes to add on defense. Hamilton is right out of central casting,"'s Daniel Jeremiah wrote back in the summer. "He can play as a high safety, a force player in the box or match up one-on-one with tight ends. He has excellent anticipation and takes ideal angles to the ball versus the run and the pass. He is an outstanding open-field tackler, too."

    It's possible Hamilton elects to return and play for Marcus Freeman, helping him try to maintain the Irish's sturdy program left behind by Brian Kelly. But it's a major gamble if he does return, especially after missing much of this season with an injury.

    A player of Hamilton's ilk doesn't stick around to the second round, so he needs to go.

Devin Lloyd, Utah Linebacker

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    Nakobe Dean may have won the Butkus Award and been the orchestrator of what was by far the nation's best defense, but he didn't have as big of an impact this season as Devin Lloyd.

    Of course, if you put Dean on a team like the Utes, he may have gobbled up more tackles, but Utah is no slouch. The Pac-12 champions improved throughout the year and dominated Oregon twice on their way to the Rose Bowl. Lloyd was the biggest catalyst.

    The finalist for the Butkus Award and Pac-12 defensive player of the year had 107 tackles, seven sacks, four interceptions, six passes defended and two touchdowns. At 6'4", 235 pounds, the Chula Vista, California, native is huge, fast and is a difference-maker on defense.

    He's going to be a long-time NFL player with All-Pro potential. His ability and what he's meant to Utah isn't lost on coach Kyle Whittingham.

    "Devin is a special football player, he's the best defender that's ever come through the University of Utah, at least in the modern era," Whittingham told KSLSports' Trevor Allen. "There may have been someone in the 30s or 40s, or whatever that I don't know about but in the modern era, he is going to be most likely and I think without a doubt the highest drafted defensive player that we've had."

    It's just a matter of time before Lloyd makes it official and heads to the NFL, and he's the type of player who is going to show out at the combine and "Wow" everybody with his size and speed. This is the kind of elite athlete who can grade out high and surge up draft boards.

Evan Neal, Alabama Offensive Tackle

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    At this point, there's not much more for Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal to accomplish in college.

    It's just a matter of time before he's selected as an All-American this year, and the junior is a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, as well. He was a starter on last year's national championship team, and after enjoying his best season in 2021, he'll get another opportunity to win a title.

    The former IMG Academy standout is the latest in a long line of Crimson Tide offensive linemen who is going to have a long, stellar career in the NFL, and while he certainly could come back for another year in Tuscaloosa (several have under Nick Saban), why would he?

    Neal is expected to be selected at the very top of the first round, perhaps even in the top five. It's possible he becomes Alabama's sixth Outland winner under Saban, joining Alex Leatherwood (2020), Quinnen Williams (2018), Cam Robinson (2016), Barrett Jones (2011), Andre Smith (2008).

    Neal has been a mainstay in the Tide's offensive line and a centerpiece of title run after title run. It's time for him to go make his millions.

    In dominating Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, Neal and his offensive line counterparts may have played their best game of the season. It's games like that which can become catalysts for the next level, and if you're a top-five pick, there's no reason to stick around.

Derek Stingley Jr., LSU Cornerback

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    Forgot about Derek Stingley Jr.?

    It's easy to do. The electric LSU cornerback who was a first-team All-American as a true freshman on the Bayou Bengals' national championship team looked like he could be a generational talent. But injuries have taken their toll on him the past two years, and he's barely played at all.

    For most, that would mean he needs to return to college and prove to NFL scouts that he can stay healthy through the grind of the season. But for Stingley, that isn't the case. Pro teams are still salivating over the type of talent he possesses.

    Because he's sat much of the past two years, there's not a lot of mileage on those tires, either. That's why some mock drafts (like this one from CBS Sports) have Stingley as a top-10 pick and call him the best cornerback in the draft.

    At 6'1", 195 pounds, Stingley has size, blazing speed and showed the wise-beyond-his-years coverage skills as a true freshman that made scouts salivate. Though he was up-and-down the past couple of seasons when he played sparingly, he was never really healthy.

    If he heads to the NFL, you can expect Stingley to take off the bubble wrap and give everything he has, and the same star we saw in 2019 can emerge again. Is it a gamble to take somebody so high in the draft who has essentially been a glorified spectator for two seasons?

    Not when you're as talented as Stingley.

Carson Strong, Nevada Quarterback

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    This isn't the best year for quarterbacks in the NFL draft, and many of those who are near the top of the draft have a lot more potential than production.

    While guys like Matt Corral and Kenny Pickett have enjoyed terrific college careers with huge numbers, and Sam Howell fits that category too despite an up-and-down junior year, there are also a few high-risk/high-reward guys.

    Players like Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder and Liberty's Malik Willis have major upsides but are far from guarantees. A player on the opposite end of that mobile spectrum is Nevada's Carson Strong, a pure drop-back passer who isn't really a threat to move the pocket.

    At 6'4", 215 pounds, though, he is a big-bodied signal-caller and possesses one of the biggest arms in all of college football. When he lets it rip, people take notice.

    "There are elements of the scouting community that believe Strong could be the best QB in the 2022 NFL Draft class," Pro Football Network's Oliver Hodgkinson wrote. "The Nevada signal-caller fits the quarterback archetype that the NFL has been in love with throughout the years. 

    It's why he needs to go ahead and leave the Wolfpack despite having a season to go. When you've got a golden arm, somebody is going to draft and develop you, and Strong has a lot of the traits you love from a quarterback, even if it is a bit more of a throwback than the dual-threat dominance in the league today.

    Strong has won the Mountain West Conference's offensive player of the year twice, and he has very little left to prove on the college level, though he hasn't led Nevada to a conference title.

    In a year where there aren't many sure things at QB, Strong's strong arm is one of them.

Jameson Williams, Alabama Wide Receiver

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    All Jameson Williams needed was a chance.

    Though he was a fast, dynamic athlete, he was buried on the depth chart in Ohio State's loaded wide receiving corps, thanks to guys like the next player on this list. So he bolted Columbus. It just so happened he found opportunity with college football's best team on the biggest stage.

    After Nick Saban lost all that receiving talent a year ago led by Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, he took on Williams, who immediately burst onto the scene, wound up with a huge year and is a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's top receiver.

    As the season progressed, he was quarterback Bryce Young's biggest weapon, catching 68 passes for 1,445 yards and 15 touchdowns. Anybody who doubts his importance to Alabama's offense need only look at the second half of the Iron Bowl when he was out after a targeting call.

    The 6'2", 189-pound St. Louis native is a dynamic pass-catcher who went from afterthought to the top of wide receiver boards across the country. 

    In a year with stars like David Bell and Jordan Addison, perhaps nobody shines the brightest with game-breaking ability like Williams, which is why somebody is going to snatch him up and make him a first-round draft pick.

Garrett Wilson, Ohio State Wide Receiver

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    Garrett Wilson's receiving 2021 receiving stats were exceptional. When you look at them through the lens of just what the Ohio State Buckeyes were this year, they're perhaps even more impressive.

    After all, the junior from Texas had 70 catches for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. Factor in that he shared a receivers room with superstars Chris Olave and Jaxson Smith-Njigba, and it makes those numbers stand out.

    Quarterback C.J. Stroud was able to distribute the ball to all of those weapons, and there were still touches left over for TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams.

    Individually, there's nothing left for Wilson to prove in college. Though he hasn't declared for the NFL yet, he doesn't sound like somebody planning on returning.

    "I'm still figuring it out," Wilson told Eleven Warriors' Dan Hope when asked whether he was going to opt out of the Rose Bowl. "Between me and my family, we've been talking about a lot of different things, and we're trying to figure out all the different circumstances, all the different factors."

    Honestly, it wouldn't make a lot of sense for Wilson to come back when he is pretty much a unanimous top-20 pick on NFL draft boards. He has the speed to stretch the field and, though he's only 6'0", 188 pounds, he plays bigger.

    There were plenty of times over his career where he proved he could win battles at all three depth levels of receiving, and those are the kinds of traits that show out on film. He has the makings of a longtime NFL receiving threat.