NFL Draft 2022: Reviewing This Year's Biggest Steals, Reaches and Surprises

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 1, 2022

NFL Draft 2022: Reviewing This Year's Biggest Steals, Reaches and Surprises

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    The 2022 NFL draft is over.

    Beginning with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Georgia edge-rusher Travon Walker and ending with the San Francisco 49ers and this year's Mr. Irrelevant, Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy, 262 young men now know where their careers will begin.

    As is always the case, there were surprises galore, beginning with that first pick. There were players who came off the board much later than pundits expected, potentially offering fantastic value to the teams that drafted them. There were also players who were drafted much earlier than expected, leading some to use the term "reach."

    And then there were things that put jaws on the floor, whether it was the major slide for most of the prospects at the game's most important position or a free fall for one of this year's top defensive prospects.

    Now that the dust has settled in Las Vegas, here's a look at the biggest steals, reaches and surprises from the NFL's 87th draft.

Surprise: The Fall of the QB Class

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    This shouldn't have been a surprise. There had been grumblings for months that this year's crop of quarterbacks wasn't well-regarded by NFL teams.

    Still, given how desperate clubs are for starters behind center, many draftniks expected multiple signal-callers to be selected in the first round. One of B/R's own analysts predicted that one would be drafted second and four would be chosen inside the top 10.

    That isn't how things played out, of course. One quarterback heard his name called Thursday, when the Pittsburgh Steelers tabbed Pitt's Kenny Pickett at No. 20.

    As Day 2 got underway, many expected it would only be a matter of time until a run on the position. But again, it didn't happen. The Seattle Seahawks have a need at the position and possessed pick Nos. 40 and 41.

    Neither was a quarterback. In fact, the second round came and went without any signal-callers.

    In Round 3, quarterbacks finally started to trickle off the board. The Atlanta Falcons got Bleacher Report's highest-ranked quarterback (Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati) at No. 74. The Tennessee Titans likely got Ryan Tannehill's blood pressure pumping when they drafted Liberty's Malik Willis at No. 86. The Carolina Panthers finally got one at No. 94 in Matt Corral of Ole Miss.

    North Carolina's Sam Howell, whom ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranked as a top-15 prospect overall a year ago, wasn't drafted until the first pick of Round 5.

    Some of these young passers may provide excellent value to the teams that drafted them. But their slides were the dominant storyline of the draft.

Steal: Giants Land B/R's Top 2 Prospects in Thibodeaux, Neal

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    The New York Giants entered the draft with a pair of picks in the top seven, which fueled the hope of their fanbase. But given the team's recent draft history, it fueled anxiety as well.

    Well, if Bleacher Report's Scouting Department is anywhere close to correct in its assessment of this class, Giants general manager Joe Schoen rocked his first draft.

    First, Schoen selected Oregon edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was the No. 1 player on the B/R big board.

    "It may take a year or two for Thibodeaux's technique and pass-rushing plan to catch up to his talent," Derrik Klassen wrote, "but the fact that he has been as effective as he has to this point while only showing adequate hand usage is a testament to all the other tools he has. Thibodeaux can be a good player in any scheme right out of the gate and has the long-term potential to be an All-Pro."

    Then, two picks later, the G-Men drafted Alabama tackle Evan Neal, who just so happened to be Bleacher Report's No. 2 prospect.

    "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," Brandon Thorn wrote.

    That's a pair of high-upside talents who should be immediate starters at major areas of need for New York.

    That's how you start a draft.

Reach: Jags Gamble on Potential over Production, Select Travon Walker at No. 1

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    We knew this draft could be the wildest in recent memory.

    It didn't take long for heads to start turning.

    Mind you, it wasn't exactly a shock that the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker first overall. There was talk leading up to the draft that the Jaguars had settled on the 6'5", 275-pounder.

    Walker's stock had skyrocketed in the predraft process. At the combine, he put on a show, ripping off a blistering 4.51-second 40-yard dash and an impressive 35½-inch vertical.

    Walker's athleticism isn't in question. His ceiling is sky-high.

    But he managed just 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in three seasons with the Bulldogs. Michigan edge-rusher Aidan Hutchinson had 14 sacks in 2021.

    That's the issue. The Jags have holes all over. They had the No. 1 pick last year. They cannot afford to miss on this pick.

    Hutchinson may not have Walker's athleticism. But he is more technically refined, has a relentless motor and was arguably the safest player among all the elite defensive prospects.

    Walker, in theory, has a higher ceiling. But there's no question Hutchinson has a much higher floor. Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke passed on a player with an excellent chance of recording 12 sacks per season for one who might become a 15-sack player. Walker ranked outside the top 20 on Bleacher Report's big board.

    Every pick carries some risk.

    Walker was an unnecessary one.

Surprise: J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!

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    With a pair of picks in the top 10, the New York Jets were positioned to do damage in the first round.

    But given the struggles the Jets have endured over the past decade-plus, it was more than a little surprising just how drastically general manager Joe Douglas improved the roster in the span of a few hours.

    We will discuss later the team's selection of cornerback Sauce Gardner at No. 4. He was the No. 1 cornerback on some big boards and the No. 2 player in the class, according to Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network.

    Then, with the No. 10 pick, the Jets grabbed Jeremiah's top wide receiver and fourth-ranked player in Ohio State's Garrett Wilson.

    "Wilson is at his best after the catch, as he can make defenders miss, power through tackles or utilize a stiff arm," Jeremiah wrote. "I love his competitive nature. Overall, Wilson has a complete skill set and reminds me of Stefon Diggs."

    But wait! There's more!

    As Round 1 wore down, the Jets and Tennessee Titans swapped five picks, with New York acquiring No. 26 and drafting Florida State edge-rusher Jermaine Johnson II—who also just so happened to rank inside the Jeremiah's top 10 prospects.

    And then early in Round 2, the Jets traded up again to grab the draft's top-rated running back in Iowa State's Breece Hall.

    The Jets fielded the third-worst pass defense last year, amassed the seventh-fewest sacks, tallied fewer than 210 passing yards per game and ranked 27th in rushing.

    The additions of Gardner, Wilson, Johnson and Hall should significantly boost all four areas.

    Is that optimism brewing in the Big Apple?

    What a surprising sensation.

Steal: Ravens Nail Another 1st Round with Hamilton, Linderbaum

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    Whether it's been under Ozzie Newsome or Eric DeCosta, the Baltimore Ravens have had a reputation as a franchise that drafts well.

    Nothing has changed.

    First, the Ravens used the No. 14 pick Thursday on versatile Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, whom ESPN's Todd McShay (via 247Sports' Nick Kosko) at one point regarded as not only the top defensive back but also the top player in the draft.

    "I just love Hamilton's game ... his length, his range, his ball skills, the production he's had with interceptions and passes batted down over the last few years at Notre Dame. I think he's a special player and he's different," McShay said on First Draft. "And in a league where we are so much more in the middle of the field with tight ends and bigger receivers in the slot, he would be a great matchup counter, if you will, for some of those guys in the middle."

    DeCosta wasn't done. After dealing wide receiver Marquise Brown and the 100th choice to the Arizona Cardinals for the 23rd pick, the Ravens made another play, sliding back two spots in a deal with the Buffalo Bills that netted a fourth-rounder.

    Then, at No. 25, the Ravens drafted Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, who was widely regarded as the top interior line prospect in the class.

    "All the Baltimore Ravens do is draft great football players," B/R's Brent Sobleski wrote in giving the pick an A-plus. "OK, not everyone pans out in their favor. But it sure does seem like they handle this process as well or better than any other organization. Linderbaum's addition is the latest example." 

Reach: Patriots Make Strangest Pick of Round 1 at No. 29

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    New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is almost universally regarded as one of the most brilliant football minds in history.

    But unless Darth Hoodie has tapped in to the Force at a greater level than ever before and knows something the rest of us don't, then he and the Patriots made easily the biggest reach of Thursday's first round.

    The problem isn't that Belichick and the Pats traded down—that happens almost as often as the draft itself. It's that New England used the 29th pick to select Cole Strange, who ranked outside the top 90 on Bleacher Report's big board.

    The decision was one of the more discussed choices of the night. But while talking to reporters about the 6'5", 305-pounder, Belichick said he couldn't wait.

    In fact, Belichick said he considered Strange at No. 21.

    "He wouldn't have lasted much longer," Belichick said.

    "If we had stayed at 21, then we would have obviously picked somebody. Probably a good chance it would have been him.

    "There were several teams that we talked to prior to when we made the trade. There were some other conversations going on there, but ultimately that's the one we chose. Glad Cole was there when we picked, and I feel like we made the best decision that we could at 21."

    Belichick pulled a rabbit out of his hat with Logan Mankins, a perceived reach in 2005.

    But in the moment, this pick made the Houston Texans' overdrafting of Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green at No. 15 look almost reasonable.

Surprise: Derek Stingley Jr. Chosen Ahead of Sauce Gardner; Both Picked in Top 4

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    There's no question that cornerback is a premium position. And there was little doubt that LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. and Cincinnati's Sauce Gardner were going to be selected Thursday.

    The surprise came with how early they were drafted—and which cornerback was chosen first.

    To be fair, Stingley in 2019 looked the part of a generational prospect. But his play slipped over the past two seasons, in part due to injuries. And on many big boards, the lanky Gardner was the highest-ranked corner after an outstanding career at Cincinnati.

    "I know myself, and I know that when I'm at the best version of myself, I'm the greatest," Stingley said at the combine, per Brian Costello of the New York Post.

    Apparently, the Houston Texans agreed, drafting the 6'1", 195-pounder with the third pick.

    Of course, Gardner wasn't shy about where he believed he ranked.

    "I feel like I'm the chosen one," Gardner said, per Darryl Slater of NJ Advance Media. "I feel like I'm the best in the draft. There's no doubt about it. There's no way I can be a bust. That shouldn't even be an option."

    Any disappointment Gardner may have felt about not being the first corner off the board was likely short-lived. He was drafted one pick later by the New York Jets.

    It's the earliest in the modern era that the Jets have tabbed a defensive back.

Steal: Ravens Do It Again on Day 2 with David Ojabo and Travis Jones

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    For fans of the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, all this adulation for the Baltimore Ravens and their draft may be distasteful.

    But while the New York Jets' haul of impact players has stolen many headlines, the Ravens quietly put together a first two days that were every bit as good.

    We've already discussed their double dip Thursday, which netted the best safety and interior lineman in the class. But Eric DeCosta was right back at it Friday.

    The Ravens used the 45th pick on Michigan edge-rusher David Ojabo. There was a time when the 6'5", 250-pounder with 4.55-second 40-yard dash speed was considered a lock for the first round and a potential top-10 pick. But that was before Ojabo tore his Achilles at Michigan's pro day.

    That injury put Ojabo's rookie year in jeopardy, but DeCosta told Ryan Mink of the team's website that Ojabo will have an opportunity to play in 2022.

    "We rely on our doctors and trainers," DeCosta said. "They haven't seen him since the rechecks and all those things in Indy, but they're optimistic that at some point this year he'll have a chance to play."

    Assuming Ojabo returns at 100 percent, he'll be arguably the biggest steal of the first two rounds. And DeCosta wasn't finished getting value.

    With the 76th pick, the Ravens drafted Travis Jones of Connecticut, a 6'5", 333-pound space-eater with 4.92-second 40 speed. Bleacher Report's Derrik Klassen ranked him as a second-round prospect and compared him to former New York Jets Pro Bowler Muhammad Wilkerson:

    "What Jones lacks in explosiveness and pass-rushing prowess, he makes up for in strength and run-defending skills. Jones can be a true 0-tech in an odd front or a 1-tech in an even front, and he should have few issues seeing the field as a two-down player early on while working to become more dangerous in the passing game."

    That's four players in two days who should make sizable impacts as rookies.

Reach: Packers Trade Up in Round 2 to Select WR Christian Watson

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    It was a secret to exactly zero people that the Green Bay Packers needed wide receiver help heading into the draft. More than a few eyebrows went skyward when Green Bay failed to use either of its first-round picks on the position.

    As Day 2 opened, though, the Packers pounced. After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the first pick of the second round, Green Bay traded a pair of late second-round picks to the Minnesota Vikings for the No. 34 selection. The team then drafted North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson, a 6'5", 208-pounder with 4.36-second 40-yard dash speed.

    The Pack liked Watson so much that general manager Brian Gutekunst said they considered trading into Round 1 to choose him, per Zach Kruse of Packers Wire.

    "He's a big, fast, physical receiver. We think his best football is ahead of him," Gutekunst said. "We brought him in for one of our 30 visits, got a chance to spend a lot of time with him. Really smart kid who we feel will fit our culture. He's got really good tape, his athletic traits are off the charts, and the more we got to know him as a person, we felt really good about him."

    Watson's talent is undeniable. But so is the fact that after he played in the FCS, it will likely take time for him to adjust. He also had some issues with drops in college.

    The Packers are a win-now team. But Gutekunst passed on more NFL-ready wideouts, including Georgia's George Pickens, for a project—and sacrificed substantial draft capital to do so.

Surprise: The Nakobe Dean Saga

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    As recently as a few days ago, Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean was considered the best off-ball linebacker in the class. Bleacher Report ranked Dean as not only the top player at his position but also a top-25 player overall.

    "Dean's speed, energy and craft for navigating congested areas give him an enticing foundation of traits to build upon," Derrik Klassen wrote, comparing Dean to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Lavonte David. "His size [6'0", 225 lbs] may make it difficult for him to ever cover tight ends down the field or blow up blocks the way he wants to, but he still wins in enough other ways to provide value. Dean could play both 'Mike' and 'Will' in the NFL, and he has the potential to be a multitime Pro Bowler."

    But Dean wasn't drafted in Round 1. Or in Round 2. In fact, as speculation swirled and draftniks and fans alike scratched their heads, Dean fell all the way to the 83rd pick.

    As Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk reported, Dean's slide was caused by pectoral and knee injuries, and the former could require surgery.

    Dean disputed those reports, saying he is 100 percent healthy and will be ready for rookie minicamp.

    "I'm healthy. I'm ready to go. I know minicamp is next week and I expect to be a full participant for that. Why I dropped? It's not in my control. Nothing I can do. Nothing I could do to make them pick me earlier. I'm grateful and blessed I have this opportunity.

    "Things that were not true cost me a lot of money. That was the thing that was so surprising and mind-boggling. It was never, I went to doctors, got second opinions and everything, and nobody—nobody—said I should have surgery. Nobody had told me I had to have surgery. So, for that to come up and for teams to be saying that and waiting until the day of the draft to say something like that, that was kind of crazy to me."

    Dean is undersized. But if he is healthy and the reports about his injuries were smoke, then based on the tape of Dean wreaking havoc all over the field, Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman got massive value.