The Biggest Game-Changers in the 2022 NFL Draft Class

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2022

The Biggest Game-Changers in the 2022 NFL Draft Class

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    While there's something to be said for consistency in the NFL, it's a big-play league. 

    The team that creates the most such plays on offense and forces turnovers on defense will win more often than not. 

    With that in mind, prospects who can make either of those things happen find themselves in high demand this time of year. 

    Put another way, there are players who are good. And then there are players who force opposing coaches to come up with a plan. Whether it's a pass-rusher who commands double-teams to keep him from living in the backfield or a speedy receiver who has to be found by the secondary at all times, these players change the game with their presence alone.

    Here are the most notable heading into the April 28-30 draft.


    Players listed in alphabetical order.

WR Treylon Burks, Arkansas

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    Treylon Burks (scouting report) is not the best deep threat in the class. That title likely belongs to Jameson Williams. He is, however, the best in the crop after the catch.

    According to Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus, Burks was one of the few college receivers who averaged nearly 10 yards after the catch last year.

    The 6'2", 225-pound Arkansas product brings a running back's build to the wide receiver position and looks a lot like the former after he's made the catch. 

    It's always popular to compare a prospect to the latest breakout star in the NFL, and those comparisons are seldom true. However, it's hard not to see the connection between Burks and 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel. 

    Matt Bowen of ESPN and The Athletic's Dane Brugler are among the respected analysts who have seen the potential for Burks to play a similar role to Samuel. His ability to play all over the formation and pick up tough yards makes him a rare weapon.

CB Sauce Gardner, Cincinnati

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    Plenty of numbers get thrown around during draft season, but the most impressive one for Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner (scouting report) is 37. That's the number of times teams targeted the cornerback in coverage last season, according to PFF

    For context, Coby Bryant (scouting report)—who is a draft prospect himself—defended 75 targets while playing opposite Gardner, per PFF

    Bryant was no slouch. He recorded three interceptions, allowed a passer rating of 61 and won the Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's best defensive back. 

    Despite Bryant's success, teams were twice as likely to target him than Gardner. That's a corner who clearly has an impact on the game. He shut down his half of the field and left whatever receiver he was covering a non-factor.

RB Breece Hall, Iowa State

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    Breece Hall (scouting report) is not only the best overall running back in the draft class, but he also claims the title of most explosive. He led all backs in plays of 30 or more yards with 13 last season.

    It's hard for a running back to be considered a "game-changer" in an era when the position is continually devalued. Hall can be an exception. 

    His athletic testing backed his big-play ability. The Iowa State product earned a relative athletic score of 9.95, which is good for ninth-best since 1987, per Kent Lee Platte

    To take it a step further, his two most comparable athletes in relative athletic score are Edgerrin James and Ahman Green. Both were four-time Pro Bowl running backs and had at least one season of over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. James is a Hall of Famer.

    Hall has that kind of potential and should be considered a game-changer even if the overall value of running backs has declined. 

Edge Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan

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    There's a reason Aidan Hutchinson (scouting report) is the odds-on favorite to be taken with the No. 1 pick over at DraftKings Sportsbook.

    A disruptive pass-rusher is a valuable commodity, and no one in this draft class wreaked as much havoc as the Michigan edge-defender. He was third in the nation with 14 sacks and chipped in another 16.5 tackles for loss. 

    Hutchinson's 2020 campaign was cut short by a leg injury, but his 2019 season showed he isn't just a one-hit wonder. He only had 3.5 sacks as a sophomore starter for the Wolverines but also had 10 tackles for loss, six passes defended and three forced fumbles. 

    The 6'7", 260-pounder showcased his game-wrecking potential against Ohio State in November. He racked up 15 pressures, per PFF, and was a huge factor in Michigan beating the Buckeyes for the first time since 2011. 

    That's the definition of game-changer.

LB Devin Lloyd, Utah

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    If you're going to take an off-ball linebacker in the first round, he had better do more than rack up tackles. 

    Utah's Devin Lloyd (scouting report) can do just that. The linebacker showcased the ability to impact the game in several ways. Specifically, offensive coordinators will have to account for his playmaking in the backfield as a blitzer.

    Two statistics from PFF can explain the value Lloyd will bring: He was the second-highest-graded Pac-12 linebacker in zone coverage last season and ranked No. 1 among Pac-12 linebackers in pass-rush grade

    Splash plays litter Lloyd's film. He racked up seven sacks, 22 tackles for loss and six passes defended in his final season with the Utes. That's a rare stat line for one of the most disruptive defenders in college football. 

WR Jameson Williams, Alabama

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    Over his career, DeSean Jackson has been the embodiment of a game-changing receiver. He might not be the most well-rounded player, but his ability to create big plays has tilted the field for the offense. 

    He happens to be the pro comparison that Nate Tice made in his B/R scouting report for Alabama's Jameson Williams. 

    A torn ACL ended Williams' season in the national championship game, so he hasn't had the opportunity to undergo athletic testing during the predraft process. But one look at his film shows those numbers would have been impressive. 

    The speedy receiver was one of three players in the country to average more than 19 yards per catch while posting more than 1,000 yards on the season. 

    Depending on how quickly he recovers, a team might have to temper his rookie expectations. But there isn't a receiver who's a better big-play threat in the class when taking the long-term perspective.

QB Malik Willis, Liberty

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    Malik Willis (scouting report) might not be the most polished or NFL-ready quarterback in the class, but he does have the most playmaking ability. 

    The Liberty quarterback only completed 61.1 percent of his passes in 2021 and threw 12 interceptions but remains a viable first-round candidate. That's because no quarterback in this class has the potential to make plays with his feet and arm at the same level. 

    Willis led all FBS quarterbacks in "big-time throws" against the blitz, per PFF. He has the arm strength to make difficult throws under duress, but the real game-changing ability is in his legs. 

    The 6'0½", 219-pound quarterback is built like a running back and looks like one in the open field. According to PFF, he has forced 133 missed tackles since 2020. The next-highest quarterback on that list is Sam Howell with 87. 

    Willis is an electrifying talent. He still has a long way to go in his development, but if we're talking about quarterbacks who can make things happen when a play breaks down, he is the most dangerous guy in the class. 


    Statistics via Sports Reference and CFBStats unless otherwise noted.

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