Saturday, July 2, 2022

2022 NFL Draft: Predicting the five biggest surprises, including seven receivers going in Round 1

We’ve been doing mock drafts every week dating to the start of the 2021 college football season. And in that time, a lot has changed. Not only is Spencer Rattler not one of the top quarterbacks in this class, he was benched and has since transferred to South Carolina. Kenny Pickett, meanwhile, went from Day Three prospect to first-rounder. That said — and you may have heard this a time or two — this QB class isn’t particularly deep, which means even more volatility with those top-10 selections, where we could see a run on offensive tackles and edge rushers. So what are some potential shockers we could see once the actual draft gets under way on Thursday? Here are our five biggest surprise predictions ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft.

1. Seven wide receivers go in Round 1

We’ve long pegged five wideouts in the first round and those five, in some combination are Garrett Wilson, Drake London, Jameson Williams, Treylon Burks and Chris Olave. And there are a lot of natural landing spots: the Texans, Jets, Falcons, Seahawks, Commanders, Eagles, Saints, Steelers, Patriots, Packers and Chiefs. That’s 11 teams, which means demand could very well outstrip supply, assuming, of course, these teams don’t address other first-round needs.

The other math to consider: Even if, say, the Packers are targeting an offensive lineman with one of their two first-round picks, there may be more value in taking WR6 over OT5. The same holds for the Chiefs, who could be deciding between a wideout and, say, an edge rusher or defensive back. Knowing that, here are some other names that could work their way into Round 1: Jahan Dotson, Christian Watson and George Pickens. Las Vegas has the over-under on wide receivers to go in the first round at 5.5 and that feels low.

Last year, five receivers were among the first 32 picks; in 2020 there were six, 2019 and 2018 there were two each, and three in 2017.

In fact, you have to go back to 2004 to find a class with seven wide receivers going in the first round. That group included future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Michael Jenkins and Rashaun Woods. With the perspective of hindsight, this year’s group feels deeper at the top but that’s also why the draft is decidedly more art than science.

2. A running back sneaks into the first round

For all the talk about the fungibility of the running back position, we’ve seen at least one running back go in Round 1 in the last seven drafts, with three going in 2018 and two in 2017 and 2021. Quick refresher, from 2021 to 2015: Najee Harris (2021, 24th overall) and Travis Etienne (2021, 25th), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (2020, 32nd), Josh Jacobs (2019, 24th), Saquon Barkley (2018, 2nd), Rashaad Penny (2018, 27th), Sony Michel (2018, 31st), Leonard Fournette (2017, 4th), Christian McCaffrey (2017, 8th), Ezekiel Elliott (2016, 4th), Todd Gurley (2015, 10th) and Melvin Gordon (2015, 15th). So, yes, the position has been devalued, for sure; in 2008, five backs were first-round picks, and from 2000 to 2012, at least two running backs were drafted in the first round in all but one year (2011). And that devaluing is also reflected in average annual salaries — running backs make less than every other offensive position except fullbacks.

OK, great, we get it, long gone are the days of Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams and Joseph Addai walking across the stage on the first night of the draft, but recent history also doesn’t rule out the possibility, especially near the bottom of the round. Edwards-Helaire hasn’t yet lived up to his draft pedigree, but remember, Andy Reid thought the LSU back had a chance to be better than Brian Westbrook (who, incidentally, was a third-round pick in 2002). But Harris was a huge part of the Steelers offense a year ago (Etienne was hurt in preseason and didn’t play a regular-season snap).

This is all a longwinded way of saying that the Bills, who have the No. 25 pick but not a ton of needs (defensive back and linebacker are on the list but not necessarily dire) could be eyeing Breece Hall or Ken Walker III who would immediately be the best back on the team. Hall might have the slight edge because he has more experience as a pass-catcher, and he’s also a better blocker, but Walker had a special season for Michigan State in 2021, after transferring from Wake Forest. Other teams, though less likely, to be in the mix for a Round 1 back include the Cardinals and Buccaneers.

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3. No quarterback is drafted in the first 10 picks …

The last time a quarterback wasn’t among the first 10 selections? Yep, you’d have to go back to that draft, in 2013, when EJ Manuel lasted until No. 16 and the next quarterback, Geno Smith, didn’t come off the board until the second round, 39th overall. In the eight drafts since, an average of 3.5 quarterbacks have gone in Round 1, with five going in 2021, and six of those eight drafts has seen a QB go first overall (including the last four).

2021: Trevor Lawrence, 1st overall (five QBs total in Round 1)

2020: Joe Burrow, 1st overall (four total)

2019: Kyler Murray, 1st overall (three total)

2018: Baker Mayfield, 1st overall (five total)

2017: Mitchell Trubisky, 2nd overall (three total)

2016: Jared Goff, 1st overall (three total)

2015: Jameis Winston, 1st overall (two total)

2014: Blake Bortles, 3rd overall (three total)

This time around, however, the Jaguars, who have the No. 1 pick for the second year in a row, are all set at franchise quarterback. The Lions have picks No. 2 and 32, and Jared Goff is currently the starter. He played surprisingly well last season, his contract makes it seem like he’ll be the starter again in 2022, and they have needs on the defensive side of the ball, where the depth is immeasurably deeper at the top of the board, especially since there could be a passer they like at the bottom of the round.

The Texans and Jets have the third and fourth selections (as well as the 13th and 10th, respectively) and while Zach Wilson is the unquestioned starter in New York, it feels like you can say the same about second-year passer, Davis Mills (who, by the way, would be the first quarterback taken if he were in the ’22 class). At No. 5 (and No. 7), the Giants could target a quarterback but none of them would be an upgrade over Daniel Jones, at least next season, and this team has myriad other needs on both sides of the ball.

That brings us to the Panthers, who sit at No. 6. They’re the most likely landing spot for a quarterback early in the proceedings, but again, is, say, Kenny Pickett an upgrade over Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield, should Carolina trade for the current Browns passer? Malik Willis could be a target, too, but he won’t be ready to play as a rookie, especially on a Panthers offense that is woefully undermanned along the offensive line, and Matt Rhule will be coaching for his job. So assume Carolina takes Willis at No. 6, then win 4-5 games. Rhule’s getting fired and then Willis will be at the mercy of a new coach who didn’t draft him. Ideally, the Panthers could trade down, get some Day Two picks (of which they currently have none) and get a QB later in Round 1.

At Nos. 8 and 9, the Falcons and Seahawks are also two other likely landing spots for a quarterback. Atlanta traded Matt Ryan to Indianapolis and signed Marcus Mariota, who last started a game in 2019. They need a QB. The problem is that they need everything else, too; the best receiver currently on the roster is tight end Kyle Pitts, and the defense remains a liability. It might make more sense for Atlanta to target a quarterback with their 43rd overall pick, or even trade up a few picks in the second round to do so, and with the eighth overall pick they can take a wide receiver (Garrett Wilson), edge rusher (Jermaine Johnson), cornerback (Derek Stingley) or safety (Kyle Hamilton), all who would be immediate contributors.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, sound like they’re committed to Drew Lock, whom they received as part of the deal that sent Russell Wilson to Denver, but we also heard coach Pete Carroll say at the combine that they had no plans to trade Wilson. Seattle also has a history of bucking Draft Media Conventional Wisdom. This is the organization that took Bruce Irvin at No. 15 in 2012, Rashaad Penny at No. 27 in 2018, L.J. Collier at No. 29 in 2019 and Jordyn Brooks at No. 27 in 2020. Players with varying levels of production in the NFL but certainly not ones most media expected.

Shorter version: Seattle is the wild card here. Landing a defensive player, whether in the secondary or at pass-rusher, should be high on the to-do list with that ninth overall pick, especially since, like Atlanta, the Seahawks could decide to target a QB in the second round, where they have picks 40 and 41. Then again, this team plays in the toughest division in the NFC and one where if you don’t have a franchise quarterback you don’t have a chance.

4. … But there will be a run on quarterbacks late in the first round

We laid this out last week on CBS Sports HQ, but this feels like the QB class in which teams will be looking to get back into the bottom of Round 1 to get them.

If this sounds familiar, it should; in 2018, the Ravens sent their 52nd and 125th selections, and a 2019 second-rounder, to Philadelphia for picks 32 and 132. Baltimore took Lamar Jackson, and not only got their franchise quarterback (and 2019 NFL MVP), but also got him on his fifth-year option. In the tweet above, we had the Steelers moving back into the first round for Matt Corral, but this scenario could play out, to varying degrees, for the Panthers, Falcons, Seahawks, Commanders, Vikings, Saints and Titans. Which is good news for the Lions (assuming they don’t want a quarterback at No. 32), or even the Bengals (who have the 31st pick) or Chiefs (who pick 29th and 30th).

It feels like Malik Willis will be the first quarterback drafted, but after that, who knows. Different teams like different quarterbacks in the class for different reasons, which means that any combination of Corral, Pickett, Sam Howell and Desmond Ridder would find their way into the first 32 picks.

5. Saints trade up … but not for a quarterback

In early April, the Saints made a trade that was, frankly, hard to figure. The team landed an extra first-rounder thanks to the Eagles sending the 16th and 19th picks, in addition to No. 194 overall, to New Orleans in exchange for picks 18, 101 and 237 in 2022, a 2023 first-round pick and a 2024 second-round pick.

Eagles president Howie Roseman explained last week the team’s thinking. “We were kind of looking at this year, next year, and the amount of picks that we had in this year’s draft and trying to kind of balance it a little bit for a variety of factors,” he said, adding, “Also, kind of balancing just scouting all the players in this draft and next year’s draft and having more options and more flexibility at all positions. We were kind of getting a head start on looking at next year’s draft, too, and seeing that it’s strong as well as this year’s draft. So, we thought it made sense.”

The Saints felt differently, based on the trade, and it sure feels like they’re just getting started. Quarterback is the obvious choice, given that Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season and Jameis Winston is coming off an ACL injury (though he should be good to go in ’22). But if New Orleans has eyes for Malik Willis, he likely won’t be available at No. 16, which means they’ll need to package more picks to move up and get him.

Except that maybe, yeah, the Saints planned to move up all along but not for a passer but instead for an offensive lineman or a wide receiver. The Panthers, even though they’re division rivals, would be an obvious trade partner, and the No. 6 pick would put New Orleans in prime position for an offensive tackle like Charles Cross (the team lost Terron Armstead to the Dolphins during free agency and there’s now a gaping hole along the offensive line).

Another possibility is wide receiver. Michael Thomas didn’t play a snap last season and his future in New Orleans remains a mystery. There’s not much depth behind him and if the New Orleans is looking for his just-in-case replacement, a trade up to No. 8 or 9 could be about the range to land Garrett Wilson, whose playmaking ability reminds us of Odell Beckham Jr. at his best. The team could also target No. 11, making a deal with the Commanders, for a chance to take Drake London.

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