2022 NFL Draft: Prospects Most Ready to Be Day 1 Starters as Rookies

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2022

2022 NFL Draft: Prospects Most Ready to Be Day 1 Starters as Rookies

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    There was a time when players selected in the NFL draft were widely expected to sit for a season or two before becoming regular contributors. That time has passed.

    While there's nothing wrong with drafting and developing a player for the long term, prospects selected at the top of the draft are widely expected to start right away. Not all of them have immediate success—Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are prime 2021 examples—but many do.

    Ja'Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts, Micah Parsons, Rashawn Slater, Mac Jones and Najee Harris were all rookie Pro Bowlers last season.

    Here, we'll examine eight prospects with the skill sets, physical traits, proven production and positional value needed to become immediate impact players in 2022. They might not all be Pro Bowlers and they might not be viewed as the "best" selections five years from now. Teams looking for an instant boost, though, can target these players without much risk of Year 1 disappointment.

    Prospects are listed in alphabetical order.

Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State

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    This is a great year to be in the market for an offensive lineman, and several of them should be Day 1 starters in the fall. Mississippi State's Charles Cross could potentially start at either right or left tackle, depending on the team that drafts him.

    While not the most impressive athlete on film, Cross more than makes up for his average movement skills with a refined technique and plenty of power. These are traits that can be carried over to the NFL, and his 6'5", 307-pound frame is pro-ready.

    "He's an ace at neutralizing power rushers and is above average in sustain and finish modes as a drive blocker," NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote. "Cross' play strength, hand placement and body control should allow for a relatively smooth transition into the league, where he can become a good, long-time starter at either tackle position."

    A team drafting Cross can expect the sort of early impact the Detroit Lions got from first-round pick Penei Sewell last year. Sewell got off to a somewhat slow start while transitioning from left to right tackle, and he did finish with 11 penalties, but he only allowed five sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Sewell was also an anchor on the edge, playing 100 percent of the offensive snaps in the 16 games in which he appeared. He missed the season finale with a thumb injury and illness.

    Cross should be in the starting lineup on Day 1 and should stay there barring injury.

Jordan Davis, DL, Georgia

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    Edge-rushers are likely to dominate headlines in the days leading up to the draft. Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson and Georgia's Travon Walker are both popular picks for the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1, but there's no telling which will be the top selection.

    Walker is a prospect high on potential, but so is his former teammate, Jordan Davis. Davis is a supremely athletic 6'6", 341-pound interior defender who is still developing as a pass-rusher but could eventually become an elite difference-maker on the interior.

    However, he's the sixth-ranked prospect on the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's big board because he also has a high floor.

    "Davis' middling pass-rushing traits and the general value of defensive tackles may scare some teams off in the top 10, but he will be a force multiplier in the run game right away," Derrik Klassen of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    While Davis might not rack up the sacks as a rookie, he'll push the pocket and derail opposing running games immediately. Whichever team drafts Davis should expect production similar to that of New England Patriots 2021 rookie Christian Barmore, who finished with 46 tackles, 23 solo stops and 1.5 sacks while playing just 55 percent of the defensive snaps.

    Despite playing in a heavy rotation at Georgia, Davis finished last season with 32 tackles, 17 solo stops, five tackles for loss and two sacks.

Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati

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    Rookie cornerbacks often struggle as they adapt to the speed and power of NFL receivers and the complexity of pro coverage schemes. However, Cincinnati's Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner projects as one of the few exceptions.

    Gardner possesses plenty of size (6'3", 190 lbs) and speed (4.41-second 40-yard dash) and also has enough polish to his game to thrive in either a man- or zone-based scheme.

    "The former Bearcat is one of the few DBs in recent college football history who could be left on an island and come out on top," NFL Network's Peter Schrager wrote.

    Gardner finished the 2021 season with 40 tackles, 28 solo stops, five tackles for loss and three interceptions. He's big, physical, fast and versatile, and he should have an impact similar to the one Patrick Surtain II had for the Denver Broncos in 2021.

    Surtain (6'2", 202 lbs) is also a big cornerback who entered the NFL with schematic versatility and a strong college resume.

    "Surtain possesses elite physical and athletic traits with the rare combination of length and short-area quickness that allows him to play on a press-man island and phase routes on all three levels," Zierlein wrote of the former Alabama defensive back in 2021.

    In his rookie season, Surtain appeared in 16 games, logged 45 solo stops, intercepted four passes and allowed an opposing quarterback rating of only 61.3. Teams should expect similar results from Gardner.

Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan

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    Hutchinson is viewed as the "safe" pass-rushing prospect in this year's class, largely because he is polished as a run defender. He has shown that he can make high-impact plays, of course, which is why he's under consideration at No. 1.

    In 2021, Hutchinson racked up 14 sacks, three passes defended, 16.5 tackles for loss and 62 total tackles.

    But even if he experiences growing pains rushing NFL quarterbacks, he's going to make an impact off the edge.

    "The way he sees plays develop right at the snap is impressive for a young player, and he has the strength and attitude to take on blocks with force," Klassen wrote. "Hutchinson has all of the tools to set the edge consistently as well as the first-step quickness to find himself in the backfield from time to time."

    A team drafting Hutchinson should expect numbers equal to or better than those of 2021 New York Giants rookie Azeez Ojulari. The Georgia product played significant snaps for the Giants—67 percent of them, to be precise—and finished with eight sacks, 49 tackles and 27 quarterback pressures.

    Like Ojulari, Hutchinson should play roles against both the run and the pass, and that will have him on the field early and often.

    While Hutchinson might not possess the raw upside of prospects like Walker and Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, he should be an early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Tyler Linderbaum, IOL, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum could potentially fall out of the first round both because he plays on the interior and because of team runs at other positions.

    "One source I spoke to this week expected notable names to be available 'into the teens' as quarterbacks and wide receivers dominate the top 15," ESPN's Matt Miller wrote. "Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum is the consensus top center in this class, but the same source told me that mock draft scenarios have been run in which Linderbaum is available in Round 2."

    Whichever team snags Linderbaum, though, will be getting a premier prospect and an instant-impact center.

    "Linderbaum has 33 career starts at center since 2019 inside the Hawkeyes’ zone-run scheme," Brandon Thorn of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "He's a bit undersized in terms of weight and girth, but he plays with an advanced understanding of how to leverage blocks with exceptional quickness, explosive power and grip strength to control defenders in the run game."

    Expect Linderbaum to do for a team what Creed Humphrey did for the Kansas City Chiefs as a rookie last season. Humphrey immediately stepped into the starting lineup, started all 17 games and played 99 percent of the offensive snaps.

    At 6'2" and 296 pounds, Linderbaum doesn't have the same physical tools as Humphrey (6'5", 309 pounds), but he should also be a full-time player right out of the gate.

Drake London, WR, USC

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    USC's Drake London is the top-ranked receiver and the third overall prospect on the B/R big board. There are good reasons for this, as London combines elite size (6'4", 219 lbs) and ball skills with precise route-running and terrific vision.

    While London lacks top-end straight-line speed, he has more than enough quickness in his game to create separation. Despite being limited to eight games by an ankle injury in 2021, London finished with 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns on 88 receptions.

    "Overall, London's size, athleticism and route-running ability project him as a valid Day 1 X WR for NFL teams with true mismatch potential every week of the season," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "And he has enough polish and nuance to his game to be asked to line up across the formation given the play call that only adds to his All-Pro potential."

    It wouldn't be fair to expect London to duplicate Ja'Marr Chase's rookie numbers—81 catches, 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns—because Chase landed in a special situation. He joined a Super Bowl-caliber Cincinnati Bengals team and reunited with his LSU quarterback, Joe Burrow.

    However, London can play a similar role as a rookie. He should instantly become a team's go-to target while carrying enough versatility to attack all areas of the field either on the perimeter or from the slot.

    London should stand a good chance of finishing as Offensive Rookie of the Year, just as Chase did in 2021.

Evan Neal, OT, Alabama

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    Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal has both the tools and the refinement needed to be a Day 1 starter on the blind side, something that's far easier in theory than in practice.

    A mammoth 6'7" and 337 pounds, Neal is an imposing presence on the line. However, he's not purely a traits-based prospect. He needs a little more consistency as a run-blocker, but he's the most pro-ready pass protector in this class.

    "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," Thorn wrote.

    No one should be shocked if Neal has the sort of rookie campaign that Rashawn Slater had with the Los Angeles Chargers last year. The Northwestern product was the Week 1 starter on Justin Herbert's blind side and manned the position masterfully.

    Slater missed one game on the reserve/COVID-19 list but played 100 percent of the offensive snaps otherwise. He was a reliable starter, too, responsible for only six penalties and four sacks allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Like Slater, Neal shouldn't come off the field, barring injury or illness, and he too could finish Year 1 with a Pro Bowl nod.

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

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    Ohio State's Chris Olave is the second-ranked receiver on the B/R big board, and like London, he can have a tremendous rookie impact. Just don't expect him to contribute in the same manner.

    While London can out-jump and out-muscle most defenders, the slighter Olave (6'0", 187 lbs) wins with quickness and savvy route-running. He has a knack for finding space in the defense and enough speed (4.39-second 40) to reach it.

    At Ohio State last season, Olave tallied 936 yards and 13 touchdowns on 65 receptions.

    "Olave is a great route-runner with polish," Tice wrote. "He shows an understanding of not only the routes he runs but the concept that the offense is running and will tempo his routes accordingly."

    Olave should operate much like Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeVonta Smith did as a rookie last season. Smith (6'0", 170 lbs) used his quickness and route skills to out-maneuver bigger defensive backs with consistency.

    Smith wasted little time establishing himself as the top receiver in Philadelphia, finishing with 64 receptions, 916 yards and five touchdowns. He also provided a passer rating of 102.1 when targeted. While those might not seem like overly impressive stats, it's worth noting that Philadelphia had a run-oriented offense that ranked last in pass attempts.

    Olave can also quickly become a team's go-to receiver, and if he lands in a more prolific passing offense, his rookie numbers should be even more impressive than Smith's.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.