2022 NFL Draft: Buying or Selling Latest Buzz, Rumors on Top Prospects

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 19, 2022

2022 NFL Draft: Buying or Selling Latest Buzz, Rumors on Top Prospects

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The beauty of the NFL draft is everyone views it differently. All 32 teams will have different boards based on how they project the available prospects, as will those who cover the event. 

    However, a general consensus tends to form over time as far as which prospects should go where. Those assumptions should be taken with a grain of salt this early in the process, however, as the majority of NFL teams enter the offseason with an eye toward talent acquisition.

    Months of film, not certain narratives or previously established expectations, should dictate how top prospects are viewed. Furthermore, some players experienced extenuating circumstances, particularly significant injuries, that could have changed the direction of their trajectory. 

    All of these things must be considered while digesting the latest buzz and rumors circulating around the event. 

    Over the course of the next month-and-a-half, prospects will have two significant opportunities to prove themselves at All-Star events and/or the NFL combine. The rumor mill will kick into high gear then. Now, a few hot-button topics should be addressed as the draft cycle picks up speed.  

Should Alabama's Evan Neal Be the No. 1 Overall Pick?

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    The 2022 NFL draft class is completely different than so many that preceded it. No surefire top-10 talent exists at the quarterback position. Furthermore, the team selecting No. 1 overall, the Jacksonville Jaguars, isn't searching for a quarterback after selecting Trevor Lawrence atop the '21 class. 

    The incoming crop of talent will be dominated by those who play in the trenches, and Alabama's Evan Neal should be under heavy consideration with the first overall pick. 

    Neal will have competition, though. Three defensive ends—Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, Purdue's George Karlaftis and Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson (more on him in a bit)—will be in the conversation. Neal may not even be the best pure O-line prospect in this year's class. North Carolina State's Ikem Ekwonu was dominant in his final year on campus, particularly as a bulldozing run-blocker.

    Two factors play in Neal's favor over those mentioned. 

    First, Neal is a traditional left tackle prospect with enormous upside. Ekwonu is a wonderful prospect, but his squattier frame (6'4", 320 lbs) may be just enough to differentiate between him and Neal, who is an impressive 6'7", 350-pound athlete. Neal's movement skills belie a prospect of his stature. The Athletic's Bruce Feldman named the consensus All-American the most physically gifted athlete in college football entering this past season. More importantly, Alabama head coach Nick Saban praised the offensive tackle's work ethic. 

    "This guy does just about everything that you would like for the best players in your program to do to set a good example for other players," Saban told Feldman. 

    Second, the Jaguars' primary offseason goal should be to properly build around Trevor Lawrence. Cam Robinson is an impending free agent, and he's been a middling blind-side protector at best. A proper bodyguard for the face of the franchise will go a long way toward aiding Lawrence's development. 

    Neal's awesome size, outrageous athleticism and immense potential—he doesn't turn 22 until after the start of the 2022 campaign—at a premium position give him the edge to be the No. 1 selection.

    Verdict: Buying

Should Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson Be Considered a Top-Three Prospect?

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson emerged as the Nagurski-Woodson (Big Ten) Defensive Player of the Year, Ted Hendricks Award, Lombardi Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy winner during his senior season. He also set Michigan's single-season sack mark with 14. 

    His performance vaulted him up draft boards into top-10 consideration and possibly even higher, particularly with the Detroit Lions owning the second overall pick. The idea of Detroit selecting a local product shouldn't be completely overlooked, and Hutchinson certainly warrants first-round consideration as a standout defender at a premium position. 

    But his regular slotting at this point in time may be a tad rich. 

    When compared to the class' other top edge-defenders, Hutchinson isn't as limber or athletic as Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux and doesn't possess the raw potential of Purdue's George Karlaftis. 

    "He still offers impressive strength, explosiveness and dominance against the run," Bleacher Report scout Derrik Klassen noted, "but it's hard to justify a top-five pick on a pass-rusher with middling bend and flexibility."

    To Hutchinson's credit, his polish, motor and strength give him the highest floor, and he's likely to contribute at a relatively high level from the onset of his pro career. The question about value really hinges on his ceiling and whether he'll become an elite pass-rusher. 

    Good-to-great edge-rushers without Robert Quinn's bend can be found. A prospect doesn't need to be Dwight Freeney to turn the corner consistently. These little things tend to separate prospects based on long-term projection when an organization has an opportunity to invest a premium pick near the very top of the draft.

    Verdict: Selling

Will Pittsburgh Steelers Pass on Hometown Product Kenny Pickett?

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    As much as the general public wants to will an elite quarterback prospect into existence with this year's draft class, it's not going to happen. 

    However, multiple teams are still searching for a quality option behind center, and they can invest in prospects with long-term starting potential. The Pittsburgh Steelers are chief among those in need of a new triggerman. They already have one who calls Heinz Field home, but they need to draft him. 

    "They've got [Pitt's] Kenny Pickett in their own building," an AFC executive told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "They have intimate knowledge of him, so if they believe he's got a chance to be great, expect them to look awfully hard there."

    Currently, the organization's plan involves moving forward with Mason Rudolph as Ben Roethlisberger's replacement. 

    "If the Steelers don't add a veteran high-end quarterback via trade in March, you can be assured that it will be Rudolph's job to lose heading into training camp," The Athletic's Mark Kaboly wrote. 

    The Steelers did sink a third-round pick into Rudolph during the 2018 NFL draft, but the front office shouldn't be beholden to sunk cost fallacy. Yes, Rudolph has been in the building. Surely, the players and coaches respect him. At the same time, he showed absolutely nothing to warrant the starting job being his to lose, particularly when head coach Mike Tomlin remains adamant about needing a more mobile quarterback. 

    Pickett may not be the first quarterback a person thinks of when a team wants to improve its mobility at the position. But he shows good pocket presence and the ability to produce outside the pocket.

    More importantly, he's arguably the most pro-ready option in the class. If the Steelers were to smarten up and strongly consider him with the 20th overall pick, he might still be available.

    Verdict: Selling

Is Alabama WR Jameson Williams Still a First-Round Prospect?

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The number of NFL prospects who opt out of college bowl games to prepare for the draft grows with each passing season, and what happened to Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams is exactly why. 

    Williams suffered a torn ACL in the CFP National Championship against the Georgia Bulldogs. Granted, a top prospect isn't going to walk away from an opportunity to participate when a title hangs in the balance. But the moment proves why so many don't participate with far less on the line. 

    Despite the long recovery time, Alabama's leading receiver still declared for the NFL draft. Prior to the knee injury, Williams looked like a first-round lock as the class' most explosive target. 

    Now, his future is murkier. 

    Everyone remembers Willis McGahee overcoming a similar experience during his final collegiate game only to hear his name called in the first round. As talented as Williams is, his path will likely diverge slightly. McGahee was probably going to be a top-five selection until his knee bent backward upon contact. So, significant value existed when the Buffalo Bills chose the running back with the 23rd overall pick in the 2003 draft. 

    Williams isn't as highly regarded in a position class loaded with talent. Also, concern over his dynamic speed and how long it takes to fully return should arise. This isn't to say Williams will be unable to take the top off defenses like he previously did. An organization will simply require patience before it gets to see the same player the receiver was prior to the ligament tear. 

    As such, a first-round investment, which is often viewed as an instant-impact contributor, will probably be too much for the majority of franchises when other opening-round options exist in USC's Drake London, Arkansas' Treylon Burks, Penn State's Jahan Dotson and Ohio State's Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson

    Some team will eventually get excellent value when Williams' considerable talent overcomes trepidation, which will likely occur at some point during the draft's second day.

    Verdict: Selling

Is Drake London Clearly WR1 in This Year's Draft Class?

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    John McCoy/Associated Press

    Drake London is a 6'5", 210-pound wide receiver. Naturally, detractors automatically say he's just another contested-catch marvel who lacks speed and struggles to create separation. 

    Neither could be further from the truth. 

    "The 20-year-old already shows polish with his route-running," Bleacher Report scout Nate Tice said. "He also has the athleticism to sink and come out of his breaks, which is even more impressive given his size. London's natural hands and large catch radius allow him to consistently snatch throws that are away from his body. Plus, his ability to genuinely create yards after the catch on underneath routes and screens is another asset."

    Is the former college basketball player adept at using his body and length to go up and pluck the ball out of the air? Absolutely. In fact, he led the nation with 19 contested catches even though he didn't play in USC's final four games because of a broken ankle. 

    But that's not all he is. 

    The points about his polish and sink are important. London is very fluid for a bigger target. He can drop his hips in and out of his break so that he runs routes like a much smaller receiver. At the time of his injury, the eventual Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year ranked second overall in yards after the catch, per Pro Football Focus. He was also consistently able to beat man coverage (h/t Feeling Dangerous Podcast's Tyler Johnson). London is effective working either inside or outside the numbers. 

    On top of the impressive skill set and traits he's already shown, London, who will be 21 through the entirety of his rookie season, will continue to grow and mature. His upside exceeds everyone else's in his position group and places him among the class' best overall prospects. 

    As long as he's fully healthy by the time of the draft—there's currently no indication he won't be, since the injury didn't involve ligament damage—there's nothing holding London back from being a top-10 draft pick and the first wide receiver off the board.

    Verdict: Buying

Will Georgia's Nakobe Dean Be the First Linebacker off the Board?

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Micah Parsons was a unicorn in last year's draft class, and the Dallas Cowboys took full advantage of his unique skill set after selecting him with the 12th overall pick. 

    This year's class won't have the same unanimity regarding the linebacker position. 

    Georgia's Nakobe Dean is the most high-profile prospect as the most recent Butkus Award winner and the leader of a national-championship-winning defense. He's not viewed as an ideal NFL defender, though. 

    "Really small and short-armed. I don't think he's 6-foot. Don't think his arms are long enough at all," a scout told ESPN's Matt Miller. "And I don't think he's the 4.4 you need to be at that size."

    The official Bulldogs website lists Dean at 6'0" and 225 pounds. The lack of size only feeds into potential concerns and even perceived strengths of the unanimous All-American's game. 

    "Dean plays with great speed and a head-on-fire demeanor, especially against the run," Bleacher Report scout Derrik Klassen stated. "He is also one of the best blitzers at the position over the past few years."

    Basically, Dean is an undersized linebacker who's at his best playing downhill. His effectiveness could become limited against NFL blockers and offensive schemes. Of the three scouts Miller asked, none of them had Dean as the top linebacker in April's draft. 

    Conversely, Bleacher Report ranked Dean as the class' top linebacker. Is he graded significantly higher than others so as to not worry about his current standing? Absolutely not. 

    Both Alabama's Christian Harris and Utah's Devin Lloyd are found among the B/R's top 32 prospects. Harris is a little better working in space against the pass, while Lloyd is more versatile overall. Dean could be a very good second-line defender at the next level, but he definitely won't fit the mold to play for every squad.

    Verdict: Selling

Should Liberty's Malik Willis Be Considered a 1st-Round QB Prospect?

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Liberty's Malik Willis is the epitome of a toolsy prospect. You won't find a better combination of athleticism and raw arm strength than what Willis brings to the table. 

    However, significant limitations can be found within his development as a passer. 

    "He wins using his legs instead of hanging in the pocket to progress through passing concepts," Bleacher Report scout Nate Tice said. "It is great that he has that ability, and it is a true plus trait. But he will need time and reps to become comfortable in an NFL offense versus complicated pro defenses."

    To Tice's point, Willis' 2021 performance led all Division I players since 2014 in missed tackles forced per attempt, per Pro Football Focus. No one questions his athleticism or physical capabilities. 

    All anyone has to do is turn on the Ole Miss tape to see a quarterback who made poor decisions, missed late and threw into coverage multiple times. Liberty's offensive scheme certainly didn't help matters because it's simplified with predominantly half-field reads and a lack of pro-style concepts. Hugh Freeze's system and what's asked of a quarterback are not Willis' fault, but they are something he'll need to overcome at the next level. 

    A comparison to the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen will be made in Willis' favor, because the Wyoming product needed a ton of work and ultimately turned into an elite quarterback. The argument doesn't take into account that Allen 1) played in a full-read system at the collegiate level, 2) put in an extraordinary amount of work during the last few offseasons to improve his mechanics and 3) played under the same staff in the same system for four straight years to become the player he is today. 

    Willis does present first-round physical traits. But he's much further behind on the developmental curve than his peers in what's already seen as a weak quarterback class.

    Verdict: Selling

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