Fact or Fiction: Making Sense of Latest Buzz From 2022 NFL Draft's Lying Season

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 11, 2022

Fact or Fiction: Making Sense of Latest Buzz From 2022 NFL Draft's Lying Season

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    There are some annual rites of passage in the NFL in April.

    One is the NFL draft, where hundreds of players will find out where their careers will begin.

    The other is the weeks of speculation, rumors and outright lies that lead up to the draft.

    Partly, it's just a matter of the nature of today's never-ending news cycle. One guy hears a thing from another guy, it finds its way to Twitter, and next thing you know a rumor is breaking news.

    Partly, though, it's also intentional. Teams feign interest in players to throw other clubs off the scent of their true targets. Or leak criticisms of a player they hope will slide into their lap on draft day.

    Whatever the reason, there's no shortage of rumors flying about regarding this season's top prospects. Some are positive. Others not so much. Some are true. Others aren't even close.

    We're here to sift through some of the latest to see which are smoke and which might have some fire behind them.

Could Liberty QB Malik Willis Be Drafted as High as No. 2 Overall?

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    There has been no shortage of material written about the quarterbacks this year, and most of it hasn't been good. There's no no-brainer No. 1 pick a la Trevor Lawrence a year ago or Joe Burrow in 2020. This group of signal-callers is more likely to wind up driving a forklift at Home Depot than leading an NFL team to a championship.

    OK, that last part might be made up. And mean.

    Not only is there no surefire No. 1 pick at the position, but there's no consensus regarding who the top prospect is. Some draftniks favor the accuracy of Kenny Pickett of Pitt. For others, it's the athleticism of Matt Corral of Ole Miss. Or the potential of Malik Willis (B/R Scouting Report) of Liberty.

    Willis' stock has been on the rise since the 6'0½", 219-pounder dazzled at the Senior Bowl, shined at the combine and put on a show at Liberty's pro day. And per Chris Burke of The Athletic, Lions head coach Dan Campbell (who coached Willis in Mobile) has been very impressed with what he has seen.

    "I think he throws a nice ball," Campbell said. "I think he's pretty athletic. He's built better than [I thought]—from afar, you don't know. That's why [it's important] to be able to see these guys up close, and he's a good-looking player, man. He's built right; looks like he's built to last."



    Calling this a fact doesn't mean the Lions will draft Willis second overall. If the Jaguars pass on Aidan Hutchinson, Detroit would likely pounce on the Michigan star. Oregon edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton or one of this year's elite tackles are all possibilities as well.

    But picking Willis wouldn't necessarily be the reach it would no doubt be labeled.

    Yes, there are questions about the level of competition Willis faced in college and his readiness for the jump to the NFL. Just about everyone believes he would need a "redshirt" year to develop his game and understanding of pro offenses. But the Lions are stuck with Jared Goff for at least one more year anyway, and even the most diehard Lions fans don't expect Detroit to be competitive in 2022.

    Willis has maybe the best arm talent of any prospect in his class. He's as mobile as any prospect in his class. As Burke noted, Willis was by all accounts beloved by his teammates, impressed in interviews at the combine and was a quick study of the offense Detroit's coaching staff asked him to master in Mobile.

    Willis has the highest ceiling of any quarterback in the class of 2022. Period. And the Lions can afford to allow him a year to get his NFL legs under him.

    When the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017, some pundits blasted the pick. One said: "He's nowhere near ready to play in the NFL. And, honestly, he may never be."

    Mahomes sat out a year.

    And since then he's been pretty good.

Will Georgia Edge-Rusher Travon Walker Be the First Overall Pick?

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    When Roger Goodell steps to the podium amid a cacophony of boos in Las Vegas and opens the 2022 draft, it will be to announce that for the second straight season, the Jacksonville Jaguars are on the clock with the first overall pick.

    We know the Jaguars aren't taking a quarterback, but that's where the certainty ends. Despite the Jaguars franchise-tagging left tackle Cam Robinson, there has been talk that an elite tackle such as Alabama's Evan Neal could be the pick.

    As we have moved through the draft season, though, an overwhelming favorite has emerged: Michigan edge-rusher and Heisman trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson. In a recent mock draft tracker done by John Oehser of the team's website, 20 of 21 draftniks pegged Hutchinson, who amassed 16.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks a year ago, as Jacksonville's selection with the first pick.

    However, per Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network, another candidate has emerged as a potential target at No. 1 overall after his phenomenal performance at the combine: Georgia edge-rusher Travon Walker (B/R Scouting Report).

    "Sources have confirmed that the Jaguars have targeted Walker as a player they could take with the first pick. Sources have also confirmed that Walker will be sitting down with the front office and top brass of the organization in the coming weeks. The team will do its due diligence on Georgia's defensive lineman. Walker comes off a sensational 2021 season and shook the world with a dominant Combine performance in Indianapolis earlier in March. His rise up draft boards has been meteoric but justified. It is reminiscent of the way Solomon Thomas and Dante Fowler shot up boards, though Walker is a much better, much more complete prospect."



    It can't be entirely ruled out that the Jaguars might roll the dice on the 6'5", 272-pound Walker, whose ridiculous outing in Indianapolis included a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and 35" vertical. He was a big part of the Bulldogs' national title run last year.

    But Fowler and Thomas should serve as cautionary tales regarding draft-season risers.

    Can it be argued that Walker has a higher athletic ceiling than Hutchinson? Yes. But Hutchinson may have the highest floor of any player at any position in the entire draft class. He's technically sound with a nonstop motor. There's no such thing as a bust-proof prospect, but Hutchinson is about as close as you're going to get.

    He'll be the first player to hear his name called April 28.

Could LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr. Slide Outside the Top 10?

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Among the top prospects at the cornerback position, none are harder to figure out than Derek Stingley Jr. (B/R Scouting Report) of LSU.

    When Stingley looked good, he looked great. As a freshman in 2019, he starred on LSU's national title team, leading the team with six interceptions. After failing to participate in the scouting combine, Stingley showed well at his pro day, peeling off a 40-yard dash time in the low 4.4s and displaying excellent change-of-direction skills. Per Nick Shook, Stingley told James Palmer of the NFL Network that he thinks that showing should allay any doubts about his status as a top-15 pick.

    "I'd say I had a good day, but I knew the whole time that I just had to come out here and treat it like a normal workout because I've been doing this my whole life," he said. "There's nothing that has changed over the past couple of years, nothing that's changed since I've been a little kid."

    However, those doubts persist. Stingley's game tape in 2020 wasn't as good as the season before. The 6'0", 190-pounder missed the majority of the 2021 season after suffering a Lisfranc injury—the same injury that prevented him from working out in Indianapolis.

    Peter King of NBC Sports called Stingley the best cornerback talent of this draft class, but he also reported he has heard that some teams, including the New York Jets, are "leery" of investing an early pick in him after his "super-weird career in the SEC."

    King slotted Stingley to the Seattle Seahawks at No. 9 overall, but Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com has Stingley falling to the Baltimore Ravens at No. 14.


    Here's a bit of breaking news for you: that trepidation King reported from the Jets and other teams could be a load of bunk. It's not exactly unheard of for teams to poo-poo (it's a technical term) a player in the hopes they will slide a few spots.

    Those dirty fibbers.

    It's still possible that Stingley could leapfrog Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner of Cincinnati and be the first player at the position drafted this year.

    It's every bit as possible (if not more so) that Gardner will be the first cornerback drafted and that Stingley will fall outside the top 10, if not the top 15.

    For all his talent, Stingley hasn't played consistently at an elite level since 2019 and is coming off a major injury. Is the potential there? Absolutely. And all it takes is one team smitten enough with that potential to make the move.

    But the risk is there with Stingley, too. For every Patrick Surtain II who pans out as a top-10 pick, there's a C.J. Henderson who doesn't. And an Eli Apple. And a Justin Gilbert.

Will Arkansas WR Treylon Burks Drop out of Round 1 Altogether?

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    This year's class of wide receivers has loads of talent and oodles of depth. What it doesn't have is a no-doubt top dog. For every draftnik who loves Ohio State's Garrett Wilson, there's one bullish on USC's Drake London.

    For Luke Easterling of Draft Wire, the best of the bunch is Arkansas' Treylon Burks (B/R Scouting Report), who caught 66 passes for 1,104 yards and 11 scores for the Razorbacks last year.

    Bleacher Report's Nate Tice indicated there are absolutely some things that the 6'2", 225-pounder does well:

    "Burks is a big-bodied receiver who aligned across the formation for Arkansas but projects as an outside receiver at the NFL level. Burks is a very good overall athlete who consistently shows burst, balance and body control to smoothly start and stop on routes. His very good burst also shows up when he gets north with the ball in his hands."

    However, what Burks didn't do was test well at the combine, running a sluggish 4.55-second 40-yard dash. And while appearing on Pro Football Network's Draft Insiders, Tony Pauline said that he's hearing talk that a bad combine (and flaws in Burks' game tape) could send him tumbling out of Round 1 altogether:

    "When you watch his game, he's very rough around the edges. Poor route runner, very undisciplined with his routes. Not very fast. Goes to the Combine and can't break a 4.5 and doesn't look sharp running routes. He's a very unpolished receiver. And the fact is, we've seen it time and time again. These bigger-bodied receivers who went up for the contested throws every Saturday tend to fall in the draft. Because you have to be able to separate at the next level, separate through your route running and separate through your speed. Burks, right now, doesn't have any of that."



    Is Burks the best wide receiver in this class? No. For this writer that's Wilson, who may not be the best in the class at any one trait but seemingly excels in all of them. Burks is not the fastest wideout of the lot. It's accurate to say that his route-running needs refinement. And barring a draft-day surprise (which is always possible), Burks isn't going to be the first player at his position drafted.

    But it would be an even bigger surprise if he falls all the way to Day 2.

    It wouldn't necessarily be unprecedented. Seattle's DK Metcalf had some of the same knocks against him coming out of Ole Miss—that he was an unpolished receiver who just fell back on his size and went up for the ball. Metcalf fell to the late second round, and he had 4.33 speed.

    We know how that worked out for the Seahawks.

    Throw out Burks' 40 time in Indianapolis, even with him choosing not to run at Arkansas' pro day. There is plenty of tape of him getting behind SEC defensive backs. He's not blazing fast, but he's certainly fast enough. He also has the size and length that makes NFL teams dizzy.

    There are just too many teams picking in the back half of Round 1 like the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers, who desperately need an outside receiver, for one not to gamble that with some polish Burks' physical gifts can be molded into a Pro Bowl pass-catcher. 

Could Oregon Edge-Rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux Fall from the Top 10?

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    Andy Nelson/Associated Press

    There was a time, not that long ago, when Oregon edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux (B/R Scouting Report) was being talked up as not just the top pass-rusher in the class but also the No. 1 prospect overall.

    "There wasn't a dominant edge-rusher in the 2021 class, but that's not the start of a trend, ESPN's Mel Kiper said of Thibodeaux in May 2021, per Marcus Mosher of Raiders Wire. "Thibodeaux, who was the No. 1-ranked high school recruit in 2019, is a stellar talent. He's the clear best pass-rusher in the 2022 class. He had nine sacks as a true freshman two seasons ago, and he had three sacks and 9.5 total tackles for loss in seven games last season. Thibodeaux is an elite prospect."

    In at least one person's opinion, nothing has changed. Thibodeaux believes all the recent criticism leveled at him has been full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    "The most ridiculous thing I've heard is that I'm not the best player in this draft," he told reporters. "I really don't listen to anything else, but that to me, that's outrageous. With the film, with the numbers and what I can do, as far as my ability, I have confidence in what I can do."

    However, as ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller wrote recently, those concerns have only become amplified the closer we get to the draft.

    "Thibodeaux didn't show the quickness and burst expected (in 2021) on his way to seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss -- good numbers, but not those expected of a player deemed a front-runner for the No. 1 pick. Beyond those numbers, scouts and front-office execs with whom I've spoken have praised his talent but consistently questioned his motor. 'Lack of fire' is not the type of label prospects want."

    Given all that has been said and written about Thibodeaux of late, he's been falling in mock drafts, and Miller posited that it's a real possibility he could drop out of the top 10 altogether.


    This is another situation where the caveats of draft season apply. The criticisms of Thibodeaux's motor could be coming (at least in part) from teams that want him to drop just far enough to snatch him up. It only takes one team to decide Thibodeaux is "the guy" to halt a draft-day slide.

    When Thibodeaux is healthy and on his game, he has generational potential as a pass-rusher. He has ridiculous bend and burst off the edge and has things that cannot be taught. And for what it's worth, there were concerns about Myles Garrett's motor back in 2017.

    Those seem rather silly now.

    However, Thibodeaux isn't Garrett. There is more than one red flag. There's the inconsistent (and underwhelming) production. The effort concerns. A series (per Miller) of poor interviews with NFL teams.

    The more flaws that keep popping up, the harder it is for teams picking early in Round 1 to ignore them.

    It may be that Thibodeaux will go on to make the teams that passed on him regret the decision.

    But it's looking increasingly likely that several will.

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers Make a Big Move Up for a Quarterback?

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    It's the dawn of a new era in the Steel City. For the first time since 2003, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play a season without Ben Roethlisberger as the team's quarterback.

    The Steelers took steps to replace Roethlisberger in the short term at least in free agency, signing 2017 No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky.

    Per Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, colleague Mark Madden stated that if things break the right way, these Steelers could be a playoff team.

    "Do you know the one factor that could make the Steelers a playoff team? It's if Trubisky realizes his potential as a No. 2 overall pick all these years later. While that may seem dumb, I wouldn't entirely rule it out either," Madden said.

    However, there's a healthy level of skepticism that Trubisky will have more consistent success in Pittsburgh than in Chicago. And ESPN's Jordan Reid wrote recently that he's hearing the team might view Trubisky as no more than a stopgap:

    "Some people in the league believe that adding Trubisky is more about the team having a veteran option in place because of the desire to take a swing on a rookie. The Steelers own the No. 20 overall pick, which means they are likely out of range for Malik Willis and Kenny Pickett. They could stand pat and select a passer who's available to them at No. 20, or they could get aggressive and trade up."



    By no stretch of the imagination can it be ruled out that the Steelers could consider a quarterback at No. 20 if one of this year's top five or so prospects (Malik Willis of Liberty, Kenny Pickett of Pitt, Matt Corral of Ole Miss, Sam Howell of North Carolina and Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati) make it that far.

    It's also not inconceivable that the Steelers could trade up in Round 1, although that's admittedly rare. Back in 2019, the Steelers sent three picks to Denver to move up to No. 10 overall and draft linebacker Devin Bush.

    But the Steelers aren't known for being aggressive like that in the draft, and the Bush trade has been a bust to date. The Steelers have had considerable success drafting because they let the draft come to them. Pittsburgh doesn't reach based on need. The Steelers take the best player available.

    That makes an expensive move up the board unlikely.

    Although to be fair, the notion of a polished, talented, athletic young quarterback like Ridder in black and gold should terrify the rest of the AFC North.

Could Mississippi State OT Charles Cross Be a Top-6 Pick?

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    There's little question that the top two offensive tackles are Alabama's Evan Neal and NC State's Ikem Ekwonu. Both are widely regarded as top-five picks.

    However, not everyone believes that Neal and Ekwonu are the top dogs at the position. Per Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus, it's actually Charles Cross of Mississippi State (B/R Scouting Report) who is the best of the edge protectors in 2022.

    "After flashing traits in his first year as a starter in 2020, Cross became a dominant pass-protector in 2021," he said. "After allowing 44 pressures on 574 pass-blocking snaps last season, he gave up only 16 pressures on 719 pass-blocking snaps this year."

    However, there are also those who have doubts about Cross' draft stock. As Crissy Froyd reported for Cowbell Corner, in a recent mock draft at The Athletic, Bruce Feldman didn't list Cross within the first 32 picks.

    "Feldman had seven offensive linemen coming off the board on Day 1: Ikem Ekwonu (NC State) to the Houston Texas at No. 3, Evan Neal (Alabama) to the New York Jets at No. 4, Trevor Penning (Northern Iowa) to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 20, Zion Johnson (Boston College) to the Arizona Cardinals at No. 23, Tyler Linderbaum (Iowa) to the Tennessee Titans at No. 26, Kenyon Green (Texas A&M) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 27 and Bernhard Raimann (Central Michigan) to the Green Bay Packers at No. 28."

    It's quite the disparity, especially since Tony Pauline reported recently that there's growing smoke that if Ekonwu is off the board when the Carolina Panthers pick at No. 6 overall (a very real possibility), the team is prepared to make the 6'4¾", 307-pound Cross its first selection.



    Cross isn't a prospect without flaws—many of which are borne of the scheme he played in in college. Run-blocking isn't something linemen do with regularity in Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense.

    But as Duncan Reilly wrote for Cat Crave, it can be argued (fairly convincingly) that there isn't a better pass protector in this class:

    "There is a reason why the Mississippi-raised tackle had one of the pass-protection win rates in college football last season. Cross has incredibly smooth, quick feet, and his anchor against a straight bull rush is outstanding.

    However, his best quality is the use of the catch technique.

    This technique is a way to limit a pass-rusher's ability to swim, rip or spin past a blocker. By allowing the defender to come into him first, Cross can latch his hands onto the outside of the defender's shoulder pads to trap the defender in his grasp."

    Back in February, there were actually mock drafts that projected Cross could go first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. If most mocks are to be believed, that won't happen. There are also no shortage of mocks that believe the Panthers will draft a quarterback at No. 6.

    But there is a case to be made that five of the top-six teams in this draft have a need at offensive tackle. For one of them, Cross' athleticism and pass-pro acumen will be too much to pass up.

Will the Kansas City Chiefs Make a Blockbuster Trade into the Top Five?

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The 2022 offseason has been loaded with massive trades involving everything from Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks to arguably the two best wideouts in the league. Perhaps the most surprising of them all was the deal that sent Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins.

    Sure, the Chiefs netted quite a haul for the 28-year-old—five draft picks, including first- and second-round selections in 2022. But a Super Bowl contender just lost arguably its most dangerous offensive weapon.

    Now, the Chiefs have already taken steps to address Hill's departure, signing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency. But neither is in the same stratosphere as Hill, and as Bob Fescoe of 610 Radio in Kansas City reported, he's hearing that Chiefs general manager Brett Veach could be planning some major draft-day shenanigans to further bolster the wideout corps:

    "I got a call last night from somebody who floated this rumor out that they heard about the Chiefs. And it was that the Chiefs trading both ones and their second-round pickswhether it's 40 or 50, depending on how high they want to move upto get to around top 5 in the draft. Now to get to top five in the draft, they would have to trade their two ones and that first second-round pick. If they want to get to seven-eight in the draft, they can trade their two ones and their second second-round pick and move up to there. And the target, from what I heard yesterday, appears to be Garrett Wilson, the wide receiver out of Ohio State."

    The 5'11¾" Wilson (B/R Scouting Report), who caught 70 passes for 1,058 yards and 12 scores for the Buckeyes in 2021, is Bleacher Report's sixth-ranked receiver in the class of 2022.



    A trade-up from the Chiefs can't be ruled out—Veach has shown in the past that he's more than willing to leverage draft capital to get the player he wants. And Wilson is undoubtedly a talented pass-catcher who Charles Davis of NFL.com expects to be the first wideout off the board.

    But there are a couple of reasons why a trade by the Chiefs into the top five isn't going to happen.

    The first is that a move that far up the board just really isn't necessary. A less expensive move into, say, the top 15 could be enough to land a receiver such as Ohio State's Chris Olave or Penn State's Jahan Dotson. Dotson or Alabama's Jameson Williams (who is rehabbing from a knee injury) could ostensibly be on the board when Kansas City picks at 29 and 30.

    Given how deep this wide receiver class is, North Dakota State's Christian Watson or Cincinnati's Alec Pierce might even be there when the Chiefs are on the clock at No. 50.

    The second is that while Kansas City does indeed have a need at wide receiver, it's not the only issue facing the team. The Chiefs could also badly use help on the edge and at cornerback.

    The Chiefs just aren't hard up enough at receiver to justify spending four top-50 picks to get a player who may not be measurably better than the one they could stand pat and acquire.