Best Fits for 2022 NFL Draft's Latest Risers
With the conclusion of the Senior Bowl and other college all-star games, the 2022 NFL draft season is officially underway.
As teams get the opportunity to see prospects up close and interview them, there are bound to be players who utilize the process to shoot up draft boards.
Every year there are those who use the all-star games, combines and pro days to improve their stock. This year will be no different, and there are already some hot names that have emerged from the Senior Bowl in Mobile and the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas.
Here's a rundown of who has seemingly elevated their draft stock so far and which teams should be looking at them based on need and potential fit.
Edge Jermaine Johnson II, Florida State
Best Fits: New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys
Jermaine Johnson II (scouting report) made himself some money in Mobile. The former Last Chance U star made his way from the JUCO ranks to Georgia and then Florida State, where he notched 11.5 sacks in his only season with the Seminoles.
Johnson also answered any questions about whether he could get into the first round at the Senior Bowl. Dane Brugler of The Athletic was just one of many analysts who called him the best player there.
In January, Johnson had an average big board rank in the 40s. After dominating in the Senior Bowl, he's moved up to 29th and is a consistent presence in mock drafts.
There are plenty of teams who could use a 6'4" 259-pound edge defender who shows the kind of power and pass-rushing capabilities that Johnson has put on tape.
It wouldn't be surprising to see him go as high as the Jets—who generated the sixth-lowest pressure rate in the league—with their second first-round pick at No. 10. If he were to fall to 24, the Dallas Cowboys would have to think about pairing him up with Micah Parsons to form a deadly pass-rushing duo.
RB Pierre Strong Jr., South Dakota State
Best Fits: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins
The Shrine Bowl typically takes a back seat to the Senior Bowl, but it nonetheless produces some draft risers. This year's version served as a showcase for South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. (scouting report).
The 5'11" 202-pound running back put up huge numbers in his time at South Dakota State. He had over 1,000 rushing yards in three of his four seasons with the Jackrabbits, including 1,673 yards and 18 touchdowns in his final season.
But big numbers at the FCS level aren't going to mean much when it comes to draft stock. The way Strong stood out at the Shrine Bowl will, though.
He showcased a skill set in drills that many teams will find intriguing. Strong showed nuanced route running, soft hands and the ability to make plays after the catch.
He showed it off again in the actual game, breaking two tackles to take a simple screen pass 65 yards to the house. His size and general play strength might not allow him to be a three-down back, but those are few and far between in the NFL now anyway.
Teams like the Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins—who finished last and third-to-last in rushing yards, respectively—would do well adding the north-south back who can catch passes as a secondary weapon.
WR Christian Watson, North Dakota State
Best Fits: Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions
USC's Drake London has plenty of first-round buzz, but those that miss out on him should be quick to look up Christian Watson (no scouting report since he failed to crack B/R's top 150) following his Senior Bowl performance.
Watson has a similar build at 6'4" and 211 pounds with 32¾-inch arms and looked the part of NFL receiver in Mobile against a good group of defensive backs. He only had one catch for 38 yards in the actual game, but the practice performance is what's important.
Not only did he show the ability to go up and get the football, but he flashed serious speed. He clocked in at 20.7 miles per hour and recorded the fifth-fastest recorded time during practices, per Zebra Technologies. Those who attempted to cover him recognized his skills, he was voted as the player of the week by a group of cornerbacks in Mobile.
Watson could wind up sneaking into Day 2 and has made it clear he's at least worth an early Day 3 pick.
He would be a great fit for a team looking to add a big-bodied receiver who can win on the outside and has legit speed to stretch the defense vertically. That describes a lot of teams, but the Browns, Eagles and Lions make sense because he would have an opportunity to get on the field sooner.
QB Malik Willis, Liberty
Best Fits: Atlanta Falcons, Washington Commanders, Pittsburgh Steelers
Very few prospects have generated as much buzz through the all-star game process in 2022 as Malik Willis (scouting report).
According to the NFL Mock Draft Database, Willis held an average ranking of 35 on big boards on January 23. On February 7—after his performance at the Senior Bowl—his ratings had gone up to 21. Essentially, Willis made a good argument to be taken in the first round.
In the actual game, he showed off his wheels with 54 rushing yards on four carries.
Ultimately, Willis might be in the same boat as Trey Lance of the San Francisco 49ers. He has all the tools to be an NFL quarterback, but a year to learn his offensive system and adjust to the speed of the game could be beneficial.
A few teams could afford to do that. The Falcons can start Matt Ryan for one more year. The Commanders could roll with Taylor Heinicke for another season if they needed to. The Steelers could give Mason Rudolph a chance to show he can replace Ben Roethlisberger for a year.
However, all three franchises would benefit from the upside Willis brings to the table.
DL Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma
Best Fits: Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals
Perrion Winfrey (scouting report) is the perfect example of how these showcases can help a draft prospect. At Oklahoma, Winfrey was primarily a two-gap read-and-react defender.
That job makes it hard to rack up counting stats, and it would explain why Winfrey only had six sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in two seasons with the Sooners.
At the Senior Bowl, Winfrey showed what he could do when he's unleashed as a penetrating defensive tackle. He was a standout in practice but shined most in the game, winning MVP honors for his five tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss.
Winfrey might not have been considered one of the best defensive tackles in this class, but after his Senior Bowl week, it wouldn't be surprising to see him land in the latter half of Round 1 or the first half of Round 2.
Several teams in that range could use an explosive defensive tackle in the middle of their defense, preferably in a place that will utilize him as a three-technique and asked to cause havoc.
TE Jelani Woods, Virginia
Best Fits: Buffalo Bills, Las Vegas Raiders, Baltimore Ravens
Some of the biggest risers in the pre-draft process aren't the ones who move from the second to the first round—they are the ones who get on teams' radars and wind up as Day 3 picks after being almost complete unknowns.
For those looking for a mismatch weapon at tight end, Jelani Woods (scouting report) showed up in a big way at the Shrine Bowl. Though he didn't do much in three years at Oklahoma State, he posted 44 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns following a transfer to Virginia.
He further established himself at the Shrine Bowl as a developmental tight end to keep an eye on. Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski noted that he "couldn't stop raving" about Woods.
After Woods impressed with his athleticism and soft hands in Vegas, Joe Marino of The Draft Network compared the nearly 6'7" tight end to Dawson Knox and Blake Bell, who both transitioned to tight end from quarterback like Woods did.
Woods' best fit would be with an offense that has a mentor at the position who can help him hone his craft. With one year of production and raw skills, he isn't likely to be an immediate contributor. But it isn't out of the realm of possibility for him to have a Darren Waller-like career arc.