Friday, May 27, 2022

These college football players will replace top stars who departed early for the 2022 NFL Draft

College football underclassmen who are draft-eligible were faced with a Monday deadline to file declaration papers for the 2022 NFL Draft. While there is a period for reconsideration before final approval from the league, we have a pretty good idea of who’s leaving and who’s coming back for another season at the collegiate level. 

Many of the departures discussed here were expected, at least by the end of the season based on performance during 2021 and/or a first-round projection for the 2022 draft. So coaches either have a backup plan in place, or have their eye on the transfer portal in hopes of addressing a need before the fall. Spring practice will provide more information to help us determine who exactly will be involved with replacing the production lost from these stars. 

For now, though, we’ve got some suggestions regarding who might be in line to step in for a few of the stars headed off to the NFL Draft this spring. 

Alabama OT Evan Neal 

Replacement — J.C. Latham or Tommy Brockermeyer: The top two prospects from Alabama’s 2021 signing class were both five-star tackles, and the efforts to get those commitments were likely done with the expectation that Neal would be on his way to the NFL after his third year with the Crimson Tide. Latham, the No. 1 tackle and No. 3 overall prospect in the 2021 recruiting class, played on special teams and got in work at guard in the Cotton Bowl due to injury. Though Brockermeyer, the No. 2 tackle and No. 6 overall prospect in the 2021 class, did not see any game action in 2021, he’s likely going to play a factor in this replacement wave up front on offense because Nick Saban is tasked with replacing both starting tackles in 2022. 

Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux 

Replacement — Bradyn Swinson: The entire defense is going to be helped by having Justin Flowe healthy, but Flowe and fellow high-ceiling linebacker Noah Sewell have been interior players and can’t directly address the absence of Thibodeaux on the edge. Though just a three-star prospect coming out of Georgia, Swinson emerged as a regular contributor at defensive end during his second-year freshman season in 2021 with 24 tackles and four tackles for loss in 11 games. It’s possible that new Ducks coach Dan Lanning turns to the transfer portal for more help on the edge, but Swinson has been reliable enough to hold down the position. 

Georgia LB Nakobe Dean 

Replacement — Nolan Smith: While a handful of recently-crowned national champions have decided to enter the 2022 NFL Draft, Smith got the hype started for next year with his decision to return for a senior season. The shoes are extremely big and difficult to fill after Dean’s Butkus Award-winning campaign in 2021, but Smith was extremely impactful from the outside linebacker position with 56 tackles (5th on the team) and nine tackles for loss (2nd on the team) this fall. The youth movement at linebacker will include more work for 2021 signees Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Smeal Mondon and Xavian Sorey, but Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has be happy to know he’s got the experience and proven production of Smith in the wake of all the departures. 

Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton

Replacement — Brandon Joseph: An All-American already from his time at Northwestern, Joseph is set to follow in Hamilton’s footsteps on the path from the Notre Dame defensive backfield to the NFL Draft. Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown are both there to provide depth and competition, but Joseph arrives as a highly-coveted transfer with star power and the expectation of locking down the back end of a defense that could be among the best in the country in 2022. 

Ole Miss QB Matt Corral 

Replacement — Luke Altmyer or TBD from transfer portal: When Corral went down with an injury in the Sugar Bowl, Altmyer, a top-five player from the state of Mississippi in the 2021 recruiting class, got his first chance to make a case as the next QB1 in Oxford. Though the performance (15-of-28 passing for 174 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions) cemented very little, I expect he’ll still be a part of the competition, at a minimum, and the frontrunner depending on Lane Kiffin’s offseason with the transfer portal. Ole Miss utilized the portal plenty to answer needs on defense heading into 2021, and now it’s the offensive side of the ball that requires attention at multiple positions, including quarterback. 

LSU DB Derek Stingley 

Replacement — Damarius McGhee: Though Stingley’s 2021 campaign was cut short by injury, his star power and pro projections are still worth mentioning, especially given the extensive personnel needs for Brian Kelly’s 2022 roster in Baton Rouge. McGhee was a four star-prospect in the 2021 recruiting class and earned the start at cornerback in the Texas Bowl against Kansas State, but he’s also one of just a few scholarship defensive backs left following some remarkable roster turnover in the wake of the coaching change. There has been some good news in beefing up the numbers with LSU landing a commitment from former Arkansas defensive back Greg Brooks Jr. Brooks is more of a nickel-safety option, but he’s a three-year starter in the SEC and at least another body for an LSU secondary in need of numbers.

Alabama WRs John Metchie III, Jameson Williams 

Replacement — Ja’Corey Brooks: Though Brooks was a special teams contributor all season (and a strong one at that, with a blocked punt to his name), it was a late-season breakthrough at receiver that has set the stage for his emergence in the Crimson Tide passing attack. Brooks totaled 15 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns during his true freshman season in 2021, all of that production coming in the final six games of the year. The game-tying touchdown against Auburn in the Iron Bowl hinted at what’s to come in big games in 2022, where he’ll be joined by several other highly-touted underclassmen in the effort to keep the passing attack productive in the absence of two 1,000-yard receivers. 

Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III

Replacement — Jalen Berger: Mel Tucker injected talent and experience from the outside to help spark the Spartans’ 2021 run, and he’s returned to the transfer portal again to replace the team’s most important offensive player. Berger was a four-star prospect and top-15 running back in the 2020 class, but he fell out of favor with Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and was dismissed from the team on Oct. 10. A fresh start could be what’s needed for Berger to reach that blue-chip-caliber projection from high school, and Michigan State has proven to be a great landing spot for transfers to have breakout seasons. 

Arkansas WR Treylon Burks 

Replacement — Jadon Haselwood: Burks meant a ton to Arkansas’ offense, and passing game in particular, but Sam Pittman has a great option to replace his production with Haselwood, a former five-star prospect who rated as the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 4 overall prospect in the 2019 recruiting class. After limited action in 2019, a knee injury in April 2020 impacted his contributions to the program, though he worked his way back into full health and did log 39 receptions for 399 yards and six touchdowns in 2021. Burks was a high-volume receiving threat, and Haselwood has the ceiling to turn that same workload into a breakout year and the fulfillment of those five-star projections.  

Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson

Replacement — Jaxon Smith-Njigba: A record-setting Rose Bowl performance takes away any uneasiness about life after Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave in the Ohio State offense. But Smith-Njigba’s 15-catch, 347-yard, three-touchdown performance against Utah wasn’t even needed to finish the season as Ohio State’s leading receiver, an honor he had locked up heading into the postseason. So while the 2022 NFL Draft may include two first-round wide receivers from Ohio State, replacing them is not a primary worry as neither was the team’s leading receiver in 2021. 

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