2022 Draft Prospects Who Can Fill Holes for NFL's Worst Teams

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2021

2022 Draft Prospects Who Can Fill Holes for NFL's Worst Teams

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    While some NFL fans have the luxury of focusing on playoff seeding, many get to turn their attention to the 2022 NFL draft with four weeks left in the regular season. 

    The calendar turning to December typically means an opening of the floodgates when it comes to mock drafts. That means it's time for fans of the NFL's worst in 2021 to start getting familiar with the top-end prospects in the upcoming draft class. 

    It's arguably the most interesting draft class we've seen in years, too. As of this writing, only one quarterback really sticks out as a possible top-10 pick in a loaded defensive class. That's always subject to change—and fast—given the nature of the position. 

    But right now, it's mostly about the defensive prospects for the NFL's six teams that haven't managed to reach the five-win mark. Here's a look at the top prospects whose production, upside and pro outlook seem likeliest to accelerate the rebuilds of the NFL's worst squads the fastest. 

Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Aidan Hutchinson has used the last few weeks to plant himself as the new favorite for the No. 1 pick. 

    The Michigan defensive end earned MVP honors in the Big Ten title game in a win over Iowa and for the season boasts 58 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, two forced fumbles and three passes defended. 

    Hutchinson, a prototypical NFL edge at 6'6" and 265 pounds, has earned a stunning 94.6 overall grade at Pro Football Focus this year, and his ability to beat edge protectors and kick inside across different formations makes him a rare prospect. 

    There isn't an NFL team that wouldn't love to add Hutchinson to its rotation. But he'll be especially impactful for Detroit, current owner of the No. 1 pick that has just 20 sacks on the season, the NFL's second-worst mark.

    Jacksonville, owner of the second pick, has mustered just 24 sacks. Hutchinson's consistent pressure could have a positive ripple effect for either defense. 

    Best Fits: Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars

Kayvon Thibodeaux, Edge, Oregon

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    Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux spent most of the 2021 season as the favorite to go first overall, and he could still end up being the first pick ahead of Hutchinson. 

    Not hard to see why. The unanimous All-American posted 49 tackles in 10 games this year, 12 of those for loss with seven sacks and two forced fumbles. Over three seasons (30 games) he tallied 35.5 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, three forced fumbles and seven passes defended. 

    Thibodeaux, 6'5" and 258 pounds, has the sort of bendy, lengthy frame that had experts like NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah comparing him to former NFL great DeMarcus Ware:

    "They have the same long, wiry build and they both have an explosive first step. I would give Ware the edge as a pure bender at the top of his rush, while I see a little more power from Thibodeaux at the same point in their development. Ware had a Hall of Fame-caliber NFL career and Thibodeaux has the potential to become a similar player."

    That upside is why a team like Jacksonville won't be able to resist Thibodeaux despite already rostering 2020 first-round pick K'Lavon Chaisson—the two rushing together would mask a whole host of other problems. Thibodeaux would also be a great pick for Detroit if it wants to go that route at No. 1.

    The Houston Texans and New York Jets, which cough up an average of 27.4 and 30.5 points per game, respectively, (bottom-three marks) would also benefit greatly from adding such a prospect. They currently own the third and fourth picks. 

    Best Fits: Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, New York Jets

Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    That LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. hasn't been knocked out of the consensus top cornerback slot despite only appearing in three games this year says it all about his pro potential. 

    Stingley, who aggravated a summer foot injury that shut down his 2021 campaign, is a bigger corner (6'1", 195 pounds) with a rare blend of speed to go with it.

    His freshman season alone, in which he piled up 38 total tackles, six interceptions and 15 passes defended over 15 games, was enough to prove he's the ultra-rare pro corner who doesn't need a ton of safety help over the top while mirroring an offense's best wideout. He's allowed a 41.1 completion percentage over the course of his college career, per PFF

    Without a major projected quarterback rush, Stingley doesn't figure to last long in the top 10. He'd be an obvious must-have if one of the top three teams in the current order decides to prioritize coverage over pressure.

    But the Jets at No. 4 are intriguing considering head coach Robert Saleh, who helped pioneer elite defenses in Seattle and San Francisco, knows all too well the value of a shutdown corner. He has a defense allowing an average of 254 passing yards per game (sixth-worst) and 30.5 points per game (worst). 

    Best Fits: Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets

Evan Neal, OT, Alabama

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Were pressure not so important in the NFL, Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal might be the first player off the board. 

    And he still could be. 

    Neal is something video-game players would dream up. He's 6'7", 350 pounds but moves like he's much lighter and has experience at both left and right tackle (after starting his college career at guard). His resume includes largely shuttering most of a stacked SEC, as he entered the SEC Championship Game having allowed just 22 pressures over his last two seasons by PFF's count. 

    While it couldn't hurt for Detroit to go after Neal at No. 1, it spent a first-rounder on Penei Sewell last year. At No. 2, the Jaguars have Cam Robinson on the left side.

    Houston's offensive line has let up 37 sacks in 13 games, and the roster needs talent across the board regardless of Laremy Tunsil's presence. Most interesting might be the New York Giants, currently owners of two picks in the top six. Their line has allowed 28 sacks (and might need to protect a high-profile rookie passer), though they did invest the fourth overall pick on Andrew Thomas in the 2020 draft.  

    Best Fits: Houston Texans, New York Giants  

George Karlaftis, Edge, Purdue

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    Rebecca S. Gratz/Associated Press

    George Karlaftis isn't a household name like other mentioned pass-rushers, but rest assured he's huge on the NFL radar and will undoubtedly demand attention in the predraft process. 

    Karlaftis, 6'4" and 275 pounds, separates himself from the other two top-five pass-rushers here because of the seamlessness he has when it comes to kicking inside and using power-rush moves to collapse offensive lines. 

    There's a reason the Draft Network graded him at an 86 out of 100 with a comparison to former Cincinnati first-round pick Justin Smith, who from 2001 to 2014 drummed up 87 sacks and five Pro Bowls, among many other honors. 

    The every-down outlook for Karlaftis presents drafting teams with some intriguing matchup options. The New York Giants, owner of those two picks in the top six, would see their outlook change dramatically if Karlaftis rushed from the interior while speed-rusher and 2021 top-50 draftee Azeez Ojulari worked from the edge. 

    If Karlaftis were to fall to the Atlanta Falcons, currently owners of the ninth pick, he'd be an immediate upgrade for a defense with a league-worst 16 sacks.

    Best Fits: New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons

Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Today's NFL effectively demands teams take risks on quarterbacks early even if there isn't a standout. 

    Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett has been the hottest-rising name in a mild class, though. He completed a career-high 67.2 percent of his passes with 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions while averaging a gaudy 8.7 yards per attempt. He also scored five times as a rusher. On Thursday, he opted out of the Peach Bowl to prepare for the draft. 

    A Heisman finalist, Pickett enjoyed a Joe Burrow-esque rise as a senior who has been with Pittsburgh since 2017. His quick-firing mentality with accuracy has film-watchers impressed. Conor McQuiston of PFF noted the following: "His accuracy was well above average at all levels of the field. He also dealt with an average pressure rate, which is likely helped by the bevy of short passes but could also indicate quick decision-making skills."

    The sheer lack of talent on the roster in Detroit makes drafting a quarterback right now pretty questionable, especially if Pickett isn't viewed as a guy who can elevate those around him. And Jacksonville at No. 2 clearly won't be drafting the position after using the first pick on Trevor Lawrence last year. 

    That leaves Houston at No. 3, a team likely on the hunt for a new long-term answer at the position. Skipping over the New York Jets at four thanks to Zach Wilson, the Giants across town in the Big Apple make a ton of sense—Daniel Jones has again flopped, but surrounding pieces like Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney are built to help a rookie passer along. If Pickett were to fall outside the top seven, Carolina would make sense at No. 8, as the Sam Darnold experiment has been a bust.

    Best Fits: Houston Texans, New York Giants, Carolina Panthers