2022 NFL Draft: Players Who Can Turn Franchises Around Next Year

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2022

2022 NFL Draft: Players Who Can Turn Franchises Around Next Year

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    There's one week to go in the NFL regular season, and by its conclusion, 14 teams will be preparing for the postseason and a chance at bringing home the Lombardi Trophy. 

    However, 14 other teams' playoff hopes have already been dashed, and by Sunday, that number will be up to 18. A couple of those teams will have winning records; most won't. And we don't typically talk about them this time of year. 

    But the fact remains that for a majority of the teams (and their fans), the Super Bowl is not what's consuming their energy right now. They're thinking ahead to clean slates, of contending another time.

    Some of these franchises are just one cornerstone player away from being above .500; some need a little more work. But there are players in the 2022 NFL draft class who, when paired with the right team, could accelerate a window of contention—for some, considerably.

    When we talk about "turning franchises around," we're by definition talking about teams that aren't headed in the right direction. So, for our purposes, we only considered teams who had records of .500 or below in 2021 and will be near the top of the draft order, looking for their next franchise star. 

    With that, let's dive deep into five players and the teams that would welcome them with open arms come April's draft in Paradise, Nevada.    

Jacksonville Jaguars: Edge Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars have had a rough go of it in 2021.

    From the fallout of the Urban Meyer coaching hire to (most likely) finishing with the worst record in the league to fans' demonstrated displeasure with the team retaining general manager Trent Baalke, it was far from a banner year. 

    Though the Jaguars' problems can't be solved in one offseason, the club can begin righting the ship.

    The Jaguars are tied for the second-fewest sacks this season, with just 26 after Week 17. The average passer rating against the Jags is 102.3, per Team Rankings, 30th in the league. 

    Jacksonville needs help on both sides of the ball if it's going to become a contender, but it's clear the best thing the front office can do is to draft an elite pass-rusher. 

    Jacksonville, meet Aidan Hutchinson.     

    You're going to see a lot of handwringing over the coming weeks about whether Hutchinson deserves to be the top pass-rusher (or top overall player) off the board in April. His quiet performance in the Orange Bowl as the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs defeated the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines 34-11 has unnerved some draftniks. Hutchinson had four total tackles, no sacks and just one quarterback pressure after posting seven sacks in the four games leading up to the Orange Bowl.

    But that doesn't undo the Michigan captain's stellar season in which he set a new single-season sack record (14) and ended up a Heisman Trophy finalist. He also landed at No. 2 on The Athletic's Bruce Feldman's "Freaks List."

    Some think the Jaguars will select an offensive lineman with the No. 1 overall pick, and that wouldn't be a bad investment. (And the Detroit Lions would surely love to see hometown star Hutchinson fall to No. 2.) But the defensive end could make an immediate impact for a team that wants to turn things around now.

Detroit Lions: Edge Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Like the Jaguars, the Lions struggled to generate pressure against quarterbacks in 2021. Detroit is tied with Jacksonville for 26 sacks on the year after Week 17, the second-fewest in the league, and opposing passers posted a 101.4 rating against the Lions, the fourth-highest in the league, per Team Rankings.

    Coming into the 2021 college football season, Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux was the near-consensus No. 1 overall pick. In a mock draft released Monday, Pro Football Focus wrote that he "has every trait NFL teams want on the edge at the next level."

    As his college career progressed, the 6'5", 250-pound Thibodeaux continued to refine his game, presenting the perfect package of raw athletic talent and polished technique.  

    Hutchinson took the edge (bad pun intended) in the prospect rankings because of the consistent production he displayed all season (and that consistency is why teams likely won't overreact to his performance in the Orange Bowl).

    But many teams would love to be burdened with the Jaguars' or Lions' "problem" of deciding which edge player to draft first overall. 

    If the Jaguars retain the No. 1 overall pick and Thibodeaux comes off the board first, the Lions would surely love to bring in Michigan's own Hutchinson. But Detroit's front seven desperately needs some help generating pressure, and Thibodeaux has proved through his stellar three-year college career (126 tackles, seven passes defended, 19 sacks, three forced fumbles) he can satisfy that need. 

Carolina Panthers: QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

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    If this were a mock draft, we would be exploring the trades down the Carolina Panthers could make with their top-10 pick (currently No. 6 after Week 17), giving them a stockpile of selections that they desperately need.

    And Carolina will most certainly do that if it doesn't find a quarterback or offensive linemen to its liking that early.

    But we're looking specifically at individual players who can turn franchises around in 2021, and given the Panthers' two big needs on offense, there's no question hitting on a quarterback in this draft would change their fortunes in a big way. 

    There has been much ado about the weakness of this year's quarterback class. After we saw signal-callers go 1-2-3 overall in 2021, we may only see one in the entire top 10 in 2022.

    But even teams that swear they don't draft for need will reach for a QB come draft day; the position is too crucial to leave solely to free agency. The Panthers could have selected Justin Fields or Mac Jones in 2021; instead, they went all-in on Sam Darnold (and, in a tragicomedy, re-signed Cam Newton).

    Now, Matt Rhule's coaching future in Carolina may rest on the position. 

    Kenny Pickett may not be the first quarterback off the board, but he's a good fit for the Panthers. B/R's big board lists him as the most pro-ready quarterback in this class, which would enable the Panthers to start him his rookie season. 

    And as the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler pointed out, Pickett "orchestrated more touchdowns in Bank of America Stadium than any other Panther QB has this fall" as he threw for two and rushed for another. Of course, we can't compare college defenses to NFL defenses; the point is more that Panthers fans got a glimpse of the excitement and dynamism Pickett could bring to their home stadium in 2022 and beyond with his poise and mobility. 

    Moreover, the Pittsburgh product had committed to Rhule at Temple, and Rhule has demonstrated his interest in adding players with whom he shares familiarity.

    Ahead of the 2021 season, NFL Research pointed out Rhule had brought in nine players whom he'd previously coached during his tenures at Temple and Baylor. 

    The Panthers still may go the free-agency route to land their quarterback of the present, if not the future; but Carolina's future continues to hang in the balance absent a franchise signal-caller.   

Cleveland Browns: WR Garrett Wilson, Ohio State

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    The Cleveland Browns will end their 2021 season in one of the most frustrating positions a team can find itself in.

    After going 11-5 in 2020 to post a record above .500 for the first time since 2007, they will conclude this season with only seven or eight wins. There was even a moment when the Browns were hanging in the balance between advancing to the playoffs or landing a top-10 pick.

    But as one of the first teams out of the playoffs, the Browns' draft pick currently sits at 13th. That's high enough to add an impact player, but can they find a franchise-changer? 

    Ohio State wideout Garrett Wilson could be that guy. The Browns are so close, hanging around the playoff bubble every season with Baker Mayfield at the helm, but he needs a clear-cut, go-to weapon.

    The Browns are among 14 teams that have not had a 1,000-yard pass-catcher this season. (The Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers each had two!) After Week 17, a Browns player is not in the top 25 in receiving yards or touchdowns. 

    If a rookie wideout can slot in as the team's No. 1 receiver the year he's drafted, that typically means there's some serious work for the team to do on its depth chart. And that would be the case with Wilson in Cleveland.

    Jarvis Landry has a cap hit of $16.6 million next season, per Spotrac, but a dead cap hit of just $1.5 million if he's released. It will forever be strange to look back and marvel that Odell Beckham Jr. was released by the Browns midseason and cleared waivers to become a free agent, but he's gone all the same.

    It's time for the Browns to begin a new era at wide receiver and give Mayfield the tools he needs to succeed.

Baltimore Ravens: T Darian Kinnard, Kentucky

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    Like the division rival Browns before they were eliminated, the Baltimore Ravens have also been hovering on the playoff bubble this season. Heading into Week 18, the Ravens are at No. 11 in the playoff picture, needing a small miracle to earn a seed. 

    If the season ended today, the Ravens would have the No. 16 pick in the draft. When we look at what transpired this season to even put Baltimore in this unenviable position, the offensive line stands out. It's something the team must address this offseason, whether it makes the playoffs or not. 

    Heading into the 2021 season, Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 12th in the league thanks to addition of free-agent tackle Alejandro Villanueva to play on the right side and high expectations for Kevin Zeitler at right guard.

    But the season went off the rails as injuries and poor play along the unit dictated games, with a particularly ugly seven-sack blemish against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13. In the all-important game against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 17, Baltimore let a win slip though its hands in the fourth quarter when Tyler Huntley was sacked on 3rd-and-goal from the 5-yard line, leading to the Rams' game-winning touchdown on the next drive. 

    Lamar Jackson has been sacked 38 times, the fourth-most among quarterbacks (even though he's only played in 12 games). The Ravens have given up 54 sacks, the most in the league. 

    Baltimore has to stop putting itself in situations where a win is wrested from its grasp because of a badly timed sack. Kentucky's Darian Kinnard could be part of the solution. 

    Pro Football Network lauded the Kentucky product's "surprising mobility" despite his monster 6'5", 345-pound frame. Starting his Wildcats career on the left side, he moved to right tackle and steadily improved, earning All-SEC recognition in 2020. 

    And it isn't just in keeping the quarterback upright that Kinnard can add value. Upgrading the offensive line in time for J.K. Dobbins' return from a season-ending ACL tear will change the entire look of this offense in 2022.