The Best Franchise Building Blocks in the 2022 NFL Draft

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 20, 2022

The Best Franchise Building Blocks in the 2022 NFL Draft

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    The foundation of an NFL team is built with elite talent at the four premium positions.

    Quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher and cornerback have long been considered the most valuable investments across the league. How these four spots should be addressed has changed slightly over the years, with right tackle gaining in value, nickel corner growing in prominence and interior pass-rusher proving just as effective.

    But the premise remains the same: When a squad is found lacking in one of these areas, the foundation starts to crumble.

    The 2022 class is littered with talent in the trenches, as multiple potential franchise-changers are available along the offensive and defensive fronts. That's the obvious starting point since the quarterback class is suspect at best. 

    Bleacher Report has elite grades on five prospects at these positions. Each should be considered a franchise building block. 

    Of those with similar grades, USC wide receiver Drake London isn't included because of the overall quality of his position class. Georgia's Jordan Davis is excluded as well because of his low usage rate. Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson is another popular name as a potential top-three selection, but his ceiling isn't as high as those about to be mentioned. 

    The goal of the NFL draft is to find difference-makers who can change a franchise's fortune with one well-timed selection. Any one of the following prospects is a great starting point.

    Players ordered according to B/R Scouting Department's big board.

5. CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU

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    If not for a foot injury that required surgery and ended Derek Stingley Jr.'s final season on campus, the class' top cornerback prospect could very well be ranked higher than No. 8 overall.

    Stingley showed he can play against the nation's best from the moment he stepped onto campus as a true freshman at LSU in 2019. He became a consensus first-team All-American as an 18-year-old.

    The defensive back captured back-to-back first-team All-SEC honors before the aforementioned injury derailed his 2021 campaign. According to Pro Football Focus, Stingley is the highest-graded SEC cornerback since the start of the '19 campaign—which includes Patrick Surtain II, whom the Denver Broncos chose with the ninth pick in last year's draft. 

    The early entrant will still be 20 years old when drafted in April. Yet he's already considered the class' best man-cover corner. 

    "Stingley has the ideal length teams are looking for in cornerbacks," B/R scout Cory Giddings wrote of the 6'1", 195-pound prospect. "Paired with his elite athleticism, ball skills (six interceptions in 2019) and scheme flexibility, he should be an early pick for the cornerback position."

    Medical evaluations at the combine may be more important to Stingley than to any other prospect. If those are cleared, he'll be one of the most sought-after players at any position. 

4. OT Evan Neal, Alabama

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    If a general manager were asked to design the perfect left tackle, the result would probably look a lot like Alabama's Evan Neal. 

    A more physically impressive prospect can't be found in the 2022 class. The 21-year-old is a supersized 6'7", 350-pound blocker capable of completely overwhelming defenders at the point of attack or serving as a gigantic obstacle on a pass-rusher's way toward the quarterback. 

    "Neal's blend of physical traits, polish despite limited time at one position and youth make him an immediate-impact starter at either left or right tackle with Pro Bowl potential if he can play with better overall posture and hand placement in the run game," B/R scout Brandon Thorn wrote

    Neal does have a transition ahead of him since he's only played one full year at left tackle. He bounced from left guard to right tackle during his first two seasons on campus. He'll require some refinement, particularly in his hand usage in both the run and pass games. 

    However, his impressive size might be eclipsed by his staggering athleticism.

    "At his size, he is the most impressive lower body power athlete we have ever seen," Alabama director of sports science Matt Rhea told The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. "His jumping power is in the top 1 percent we have ever measured."

    According to Feldman, Neal's explosiveness and power translate to the weight room, where he has a 475-pound bench press and 650-pound squat. 

3. Edge George Karlaftis, Purdue

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    Many will be shocked to find Purdue's George Karlaftis on this list instead of Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson.

    The Heisman runner-up deserves every accolade he earned last season with the Wolverines. But collegiate production doesn't always translate the way some envision it will. Evaluations are heavily based on traits. From that perspective, the Boilermakers edge-rusher holds an advantage. 

    "Karlaftis has exceptional potential and will already have some ways to provide value early on as he continues to develop," B/R scout Derrik Klassen wrote of the 6'4", 275-pound prospect. "As a three-year starter, he got better each season at Purdue, which should bode well for him unlocking himself further in the NFL. Karlaftis has the size, explosiveness and run-pass versatility to be one of the most disruptive players in the NFL in a few seasons."

    When trying to differentiate between talent, some nitpicking occurs. In Hutchinson's case, questions about his bend around the edge will arise. On the other hand, Karlaftis is a complete edge-rusher and has the ability to turn the corner or bull-rush blockers. He's also quite capable of working at end or reducing down over interior defenders. 

    Klassen continued: "Aside from ideal length, George Karlaftis has just about every trait necessary to bloom into a star power-rusher. Karlaftis coils and explodes off the snap even without having to time the snap perfectly. In turn, he often gets the jump on opposing offensive tackles, opening up the floor for him to show off his relentless bull-rushing or array of hand-fighting tactics. Blend that together with the ability to change directions and get skinny much better than any player his size should, and Karlaftis lands in special territory as an athlete."

    Franchises want a maximum return from a top-five draft pick. Karlaftis' upside provides more potential on the investor's return than Hutchinson's.

2. OT Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State

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    When North Carolina State's Ikem Ekwonu takes the field, it's clobberin' time.

    The unanimous All-American is a fantastic run-blocker. His dominance in that facet wipes out defenders so completely, they should be considered invisible. A path of destruction leaves numerous torched opponents in his wake. 

    "Ekwonu is able to hit, lift and drive defenders around the field and off the screen while imposing his will at an unmatched level relative to other Division I linemen," B/R scout Brandon Thorn wrote. "... His ability to track down smaller targets in space as a puller is special, and it results in at least a few spectacular blocks per game."

    The first-team All-ACC performer had the highest percentage of positively graded run-blocker snaps among tackles in the draft class, per Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle. He finished the campaign at 26 percent, and no one else at his position even reached the 20 percent threshold. 

    Ekwonu has the potential to be the No. 1 overall pick, depending on how teams view two factors. 

    The same aggressiveness found in the lineman's run blocking can be used against him as a pass-blocker. In the NFL, Ekwonu's next offensive line coach needs to clean up his technique a tad. 

    "He has the quickness to mirror against counters and ride rushers deep in the pocket past the QB's drop," Thorn noted, "but he has a recurring issue of oversetting that leaves him susceptible to losing inside. He also needs to stay square a little longer in his vertical set to avoid giving up two-way go's."

    Also, some teams simply won't prefer a 6'4", 320-pound tackle prospect, though the approach is clearly shortsighted, as Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule taught everyone with how he viewed Rashawn Slater after they passed on him at No. 8 in last year's draft. The 6'4", 315-pound rookie went to the Chargers instead at No. 13 and became a second-team All-Pro.

1. Edge Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

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    Eight edge-rushers have heard their names called with either the first or second overall picks since the turn of the century. 

    Of those eight, five went to multiple Pro Bowls. Julius Peppers is a future Hall of Fame inductee. Mario Williams played at a high level for two different franchises. Myles Garrett is one of the NFL's top defenders. Chase Young and Nick Bosa are two of the game's best young players. Jadeveon Clowney has flashed throughout his career. Chris Long proved to be a valuable longtime veteran. Courtney Brown has been the only outright flop among this group, but injuries derailed his once-promising career.

    These names are important to remember because Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux is B/R's top-ranked player for the 2022 class and on par with those from a pure talent perspective.

    "Thibodeaux checks every box for a high-end pass-rusher with potential through the roof," Klassen wrote regarding the two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection. "Primarily a speed-rusher, Thibodeaux shows threatening burst off the snap and accelerates as well as anyone through his next few steps, regularly giving him the outside edge against offensive tackles. While Thibodeaux's hand usage and pass-rushing plan could use some development, he already has the speed, strength and bend to regularly win around the outside in rare fashion. Few players can bend and explode the way he can."

    Box-score scouting will indicate the unanimous All-American wasn't as impressive as others in the class without taking into account the ankle injury Thibodeaux suffered at the start of the '21 campaign. The defensive lineman still led Oregon with 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks and eight more quarterback hurries. He also managed 46 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus

    The upside found in Thibodeaux's game, coupled with his positional value in a QB-deficient class, makes him the top building block for the '22 NFL draft.