Jan 30, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Artist rendering of the 2020 NFL Draft stage in Las Vegas on the lake in front of the Bellagio hotel with boats ferrying players and VIPs to the action on display at he Super Bowl LIV Experience at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jaguars on clock on eve of unpredictable NFL draft

For the second consecutive year, the Jacksonville Jaguars hold the cards atop the NFL draft.

Unlike the 2021 class, there are no sure things on the eve of the 2022 NFL Draft, which will air from stages in and around Las Vegas and the world beginning Thursday night.

“We worry about our board and how we have players valued,” Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said. “I really don’t pay much attention to what other people are thinking or saying because you don’t know. You don’t know what’s fact. You don’t know what’s fiction at this point. This is a unique period where I think there’s a lot of guys that are valued very similar.”

Baalke and owner Shad Khan were in lockstep in April 2021 when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was their pick following months of in-person and Zoom conversations with the team. Those calls also included coach Urban Meyer, who was fired before the end of the season and replaced by Doug Pederson, a Super Bowl championship coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Khan and Pederson said a meeting Wednesday would be used to “solidify” the Jaguars’ draft board. The consensus No. 1 player available is Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. He rebounded from a leg injury to record 14 sacks for the Wolverines last season and carries himself with the “Everybody’s All-American” demeanor that attracted Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to offer him a scholarship.

The separation between Hutchinson and the pack is tighter than previous years in part because there is no clear-cut pecking order among the quarterback class.

Field Level Media’s Mark Jarvis rates Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis as first-round picks with Matt Corral (Ole Miss) and Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati) among the top 50 prospects available.

Jacksonville’s direction might alter the plans of the Detroit Lions at No. 2. Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, Cincinnati cornerback Sauce Gardner, Georgia defensive end Travon Walker and three offensive tackles — NC State’s Ike Ekwonu, Alabama’s Evan Neal and Charles Cross from Mississippi State — also carry top-10 grades.

Walker entered the discussion at No. 1 when he clocked a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine at 6-foot-5, 272 pounds.

“I truly feel it’s a blessing just to be in a position that people talk about me No. 1 coming from a lot of people really sleeping on me,” Walker said Tuesday.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said scouts are not new to the scene regarding Walker’s rare traits at his size. His 10-yard split of 1.54 seconds, faster than Hutchinson (1.61) and Thibodeaux (1.56), and Walker’s 36-inch vertical in Indianapolis opened eyes, too.

“He’s a freak,” Smart said, adding Walker’s 35 1/2-inch arm length also separates him from peers. “He’s got a lot of length. He’s an incredible athlete.”

Arm length has been the knock on Hutchinson, who measured 32 1/8 inches at the combine, but there are evaluators more focused on his on-field production.

Vegas odds shifted this week in Walker’s favor.

Neal and Ekwonu are coveted left tackles but the Jaguars signed Cam Robinson to a three-year deal and the Lions used their first-round pick on Penei Sewell last year.

That throws open the dart board for multiple teams behind the Lions, but the Houston Texans are set at left tackle with Laremy Tunsil and might be inclined to go with a defensive back or top remaining pass rusher depending on how the board falls for general manager Nick Caserio. He said six teams likely have six different players rated as the best at most positions.

“This draft, generally speaking, it’s a little bit of a crapshoot,” Caserio said. “I think there’s players that are all over the place. I don’t think there’s a consensus on any player.”

–New York, New York
The Jets are slated to pick fourth, one spot before the Giants in the first round. Both teams have multiple first-round picks and two selections in the top 10.

General manager Joe Douglas and the Jets are building around 2021 first-round pick Zach Wilson and targeting blocking help and skill-position weapons. But Douglas is known for coveting defense and applying a “best player available” strategy.

“There’s pressure every offseason, but obviously this year, having four picks in the top 38, if we do this the right way, it could really be special,” Douglas said.

The Giants reportedly met Wednesday to make a decision on the fifth-year option of quarterback Daniel Jones. Not picking up his 2023 salary would change the thinking of how new general manager Joe Schoen might invest his two top-10 picks. The Giants have picks No. 5 and No. 7 thanks to the 2021 draft-day trade with the Bears that netted quarterback Justin Fields for Chicago.

But that move, just like the Jones pick, were made by a different general manager and head coach.

Hired after helping rebuild the Buffalo Bills as assistant GM, Schoen was transparent in his desire to shore up the offensive line.

“If you want to build it up on both sides of the ball, build it up front. Offensive line, that’s very important,” he said.

–Receiver records
As many as seven wide receivers are considered first-round talents by Field Level Media and teams are likely to vary dramatically in their ranking of the order with Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Southern California’s Drake London in the thick of that race.

Seven wide receivers were drafted in the first round of the 2004 draft, including Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals), Roy Williams (Lions) and Lee Evans (Bills).

Alabama’s Jameson Williams might be gone sooner than expected. Williams’ talent is not the question, but how teams view his draft value coming off of a torn ACL in the national championship game.

The Green Bay Packers traded Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders and are closely studying options to replace the All-Pro. Green Bay has two first-round picks.

“The last few have been pretty deep, and I think this one is another one,” Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said.

–Field Level Media

Mar 3, 2022; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Liberty quarterback Malik Willis (QB16) goes through a drill during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Take 5: Teams under most pressure to ace ’22 draft

Throughout their collective history, few NFL franchises have been more patient than the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.

There’s no question the ongoing ownership of the Rooneys in Pittsburgh, the Maras and Tischs in New York and the Hunts in Kansas City have made their franchises rock solid through the decades. None of those ownership groups have been too hands on. Instead, they leave the work up to their coaches and general managers and coaches and allow them to do their jobs.

It’s similar in Green Bay, where ownership situation is very different. The Packers are owned by 360,584 shareholders. In relative terms, Green Bay is a small and close-knit community and team executives historically have been slow to change coaches or quarterbacks.

Although the Panthers are newer (they came along as an expansion team in 1995), their longtime owner, Jerry Richardson, came from the old-school NFL. Before Richardson was forced to sell the team in 2017 in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and the use of a racial slur, the team and the league loved to point out the fact he played in the NFL and caught a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the 1959 NFL Championship Game.

But the patience is gone in Carolina because current owner David Tepper is more like a modern-day owner, who doesn’t believe in sitting still. It’s commonly accepted that coach Matt Rhule must win now to keep his job.

Things aren’t quite so dire in Pittsburgh, New York, Kansas City and Green Bay. But clocks are ticking more rapidly than ever before. That means the Steelers, Giants, Chiefs, Packers, and even the Panthers, are under enormous pressure to ace the upcoming NFL draft, which starts on April 28.

Let’s take a look at each of those situations and why the draft is so critical.

The natives – and one very important non-native — truly are restless. When February 2023 rolls around it will mark 12 years since quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have won a Super Bowl. That’s 12 years longer than most Green Bay fans expected.

Rodgers has won four MVP awards, but time is running out. Rodgers is 38 and has made plenty of noise about retiring. There also have been rumors he might prefer to finish his career elsewhere.

That means the Packers have to go all-in this season and they are not quite there. Rodgers’ favorite target, Davante Adams, was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders. That means the Packers have to use either the 22nd or 28th overall pick to get a receiver that can make an instant impact.

Either Alabama’s Jameson Williams or Ohio State’s Chris Olave make sense as receivers and Texas A&M offensive lineman Kenyon Green could keep Rodgers happy.

Believe it or not, there also is a sense of urgency in Kansas City.

When you have the league’s best young quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) you’re supposed to win the Super Bowl every year. Mahomes did that in the 2019 season, but came up short the last two years.

There was a lot of head scratching in Kansas City in March when the Chiefs traded Mahomes’ favorite receiver, Tyreek Hill, to Miami. But there was logic behind the deal. Coach Andy Reid is 64 and won’t be around forever and the Chiefs have needs at multiple positions. In exchange for Hill, they got a 2022 first-round pick, a second-round pick and two fourth-round picks in addition to a 2023 sixth-round pick.

The Chiefs have three picks in the top 50, including Nos. 29 and 30. They could use one of their early picks on Williams, Olave or Georgia’s George Pickens to replace Hill, but that would be only part of the puzzle. As last year showed, the offensive line and the defense also need help.

The Chiefs need to come out of this draft with at least three players that contribute right away. Georgia defensive tackle Devonte White, Minnesota defensive end Boye Mafe and Central Michigan offensive tackle Bernhard Raimann could step right in and start.

This is a unique situation because the Steelers have had only three coaches (Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin) throughout most of the lifetimes of most of their fans. Tomlin isn’t on the immediate hot seat because he’s had only two non-winning seasons.

But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a constant during Tomlin’s tenure, retired and that likely means there will be a step back. While most scouts agree there are no quarterbacks in this year’s draft worthy of top pick consideration, general managers, coaches and even owners have a way of using a shoehorn to fill a need.

Would it be totally outrageous for the Steelers to do something out of character? Not really. It would make a lot of sense for them to go with the quarterback from the hometown college – Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett. Given Tomlin’s job security, Pickett wouldn’t have to play right away. He could wait a year and then takeover.

Besides, does anybody really think Mitchell Trubisky is the long-term answer?

Coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen are new, but you can bet they – at least subtly – been told to get back to doing things the “Giants Way.”
Think about the nucleus of the franchise’s last two Super Bowl wins, which came after the 2007 and 2011 seasons. Pass rusher Michael Strahan was the face of the 2007 team.

Quarterback Eli Manning was the poster boy in 2011, but that’s only because guards Chris Snee and David Diehl made Manning look better than he was. In recent years, unsuccessful regimes have drafted running back Saquon Barkley, quarterback Daniel Jones and receiver Kadarius Toney. The results haven’t been great and that’s why this year’s draft is so important for the Giants.

They hold three picks in the top 36. That should translate into three first-year starters.

If Schoen and Daboll want to stick around long, they would be wise to stay away from flashy skill-position players and go with what’s tried and true in New York. Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux or Purdue’s George Karlaftis could fit the Strahan model or Alabama’s Evan Neal or N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu could help make Jones look like Manning.

There are rumblings around the league that Tepper is doing what several owners around the league foolishly have done in recent years. That’s encouraging your coach and general manager to take a quarterback they don’t really want.

But that might be the best thing Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer could do. Taking Liberty quarterback Malik Willis probably won’t translate into a lot of wins in 2022. But, if Willis shows any signs of promise, Rhule still could have a job in 2023.

–By Pat Yasinksas, Field Level Media

Apr 17, 2021; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA;  LSU Tigers cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) returns a punt during the first half of the annual Purple and White spring game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Coming soon: 2022 NFL Draft watchlist

With the 2021 NFL Draft in the books, the next class is right around the corner.

Here are the top prospects to watch one year before the Class of ’22 crosses the draft stage:

1. Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama: A fluid athlete who can stick to receivers with ease, Jobe’s potential is near the top of any player in the 2022 class.

2. Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia: Monstrous nose tackles with the athleticism and power that Davis generates aren’t common. His disruptiveness sets him apart from others.

3. Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: A smooth operator with refined route-running and ideal athleticism for the position, Olave’s decision to return for another year was a surprise.

4. Darian Kinnard, OT, Kentucky: Long, strong and mean as a junkyard dog. Kinnard gets around quite well as a 345-pound right tackle, and his imposing style will bode well in the NFL.

5. Boye Mafe, DE, Minnesota: One of the freakiest athletes to come out of college in years. If he hones his technique as a senior he’ll be viewed as a possible top prospect.

6. Adam Anderson, OLB, Georgia: Anderson’s natural burst and bend is eye-popping, even on a talented Georgia defense. He’s as flexible as pass rushers come.

7. CJ Verdell, RB, Oregon: A strong runner who demonstrates good burst and pad level that never fails, Verdell’s reliable style buys yardage that most backs simply can’t purchase.

8. Myjai Sanders, DE, Cincinnati: He’s a prototypical defensive end with good length and burst for the position. Another year to clean up his hands could lead to a boom in draft stock.

9. Jaquan Brisker, SS, Penn State: 2020 Senior Bowl invitee who took advantage of his extra eligibility. Brisker is a height, weight and speed monster who hits efficiently and effectively.

10. Lecitus Smith, OG, Virginia Tech: A man mover who will send the bodies flying in the run game, Smith’s nasty streak and natural power makes him a high-floor prospect.

1. Derek Stingley Jr, CB, LSU: Going back to his true freshman year, Stingley has been billed as a superstar. He has elite length, fluidity and ball skills. It’s hard to find a better-looking athlete at the position.

2. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon: A former top recruit with excellent burst and athleticism, Thibodeaux is scheme versatile and will only get better as he improves his pass rush arsenal.

3. Kyle Hamilton, FS, Notre Dame: It shouldn’t be possible for a 6-foot-4, 220-pound man to run the alley like Hamilton does. He’s an absurd athlete and highly intelligent back end defender.

4. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina: Accurate to every level of the field and efficient enough to survive when things go off structure, Howell’s prototype arm and ball placement will make him a hot commodity.

5. George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue: At 6-4, 275, Karlaftis is the defensive end prototype. He has great length, violent hands and the anchor to lock down in the run game.

6. Drake Jackson, DE, USC: Excellent hands and natural power allow Jackson to create winning angles and uproot linemen with the best of them. He can move in space for a big man too.

7. Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State: Suddenness, route-running, and hand-eye coordination are the keys to Wilson’s success. It’s no surprise he bullies Big Ten defensive backs.

8. Kenyon Green, OG, Texas A&M: A mountain of an individual, Green has the type of anchor and power that teams crave from interior linemen. He’s a mauling presence with a great floor.

9. Christian Harris, LB, Alabama: It takes a special type of linebacker to start as a true freshman under Saban. Harris has the smarts, tackling and athleticism to be a franchise defender at the next level.

–Field Level Media