It’s the first Monday in April. You know what that means. In the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of the draft.
That is one bad mauling of a poem. But we’re 24 days before round one, and I have not given you Kiperians any red meat on the biggest moment of the NFL’s offseason calendar.
That changes today.
My take on the top 10 picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, and who goes where, with one trade that makes all the sense in the world:
1) Jacksonville Jaguars
Aidan Hutchinson, edge rusher, Michigan
Safest pick at a need position, and the kind of long-term cornerstone the Jaguars are crying out. Put him opposite Josh Allen, sprinkle in the underrated Dawuane Smoot, and all of a sudden the Jags have the kind of pass-rush that’s going to give foes real issues. One other thing: Smoot and Allen have expiring contracts at the end of this year. Young greatness is vital on the edge.
2) Detroit Lions
Travon Walker, edge rusher, Georgia
Walker edges Kayvon Thibodeaux here (gee, I wonder if Thibodeaux will be ticked off), in part because of versatility. At 275, Walker will be a lightish 3-technique defensive tackle on occasion, but more likely a strong two-way defensive end with good run-stuffing ability. If it is Thibodeaux, then potential and pass-rush wins. If it’s Walker, it’s best all-around player/worker bee in the Dan Campbell mold.
3) Houston Texans
Evan Neal, OL, Alabama
Second straight team that wouldn’t surprise me taking Thibodeaux because of the promise. But when I think of GM Nick Caserio, I think of long-term program-builder, and I think “Saban dude.” As a disciple of Bill Belichick, Caserio learned to trust Belichick’s best pal in coaching, Nick Saban, and Saban is all-in on this versatile long-term lineman. Neal can start at right tackle if need be and play four spots on the line, and is a near-lock to earn a second contract from the Texans.
4) New York Jets
Sauce Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
I hear the Jets, like many teams, are leery of the best cornerback talent in this draft, LSU’s Derek Stingley, who had a super-weird career in the SEC. Gardner’s a fascinating prospect. In 33 college games, he didn’t allow a touchdown in coverage. “I don’t plan to allow one in the NFL either,” he said at the combine. At 6-2 and 188 pounds (likely to be able to play at 195 or so), Gardner is the kind of big corner teams lust for.
5) New York Giants
Ikem Ekwonu, T, North Carolina State
The legend is true: Accepted at Harvard and Yale, chose to go to the better football school. One of the brightest players to enter the draft in years, the athletic Ekwonu would be the kind of perfect piece to continue a crucial Giants’ rebuild on the line. A tandem of Andrew Thomas and Ekwonu at left and right tackle—if Thomas continues his progress (two sacks alowed in 800 snaps in 2021)—could give Daniel Jones a real chance to show he deserves the Giants’ QB job.
6) Carolina Panthers
Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh
When Matt Rhule was the Temple head coach in the spring of 2016, he sealed the deal with top QB recruit Kenny Pickett from south Jersey. When Rhule took the Baylor job, Pickett de-committed and went to Pitt … and made the most of his opportunity there. You just get the sense the Panthers aren’t sold on Sam Darnold and are desperate for an upgrade. Drafting Pickett (2021: 67-percent passer, 42 TDs, seven interceptions) is no sure thing, at all. But the Panthers are still searching at quarterback, and Pickett would give them hope.
7) Los Angeles Chargers (trade with New York Giants)
Charles Cross, T, Mississippi
Chargers deal the 17th pick in this draft, plus 2023 first- and sixth-round picks, for this choice. Wild guess on my part. Giants don’t want to make this pick—they want an extra first-rounder in 2023 in case they need ammo to go get a quarterback, or simply for depth in a draft likely to be stronger in the first round. The Chargers want a long-term starter opposite young Rashawn Slater. Works for both teams—except the Giants certainly would prefer dealing for a worse team’s top pick in 2023. The Chargers’ pick could be in the mid-twenties or lower. The Giants could also try to engage Pittsburgh (20th overall this year) if the Steelers are quarterback-smitten … because Pittsburgh would likely have a better first-round pick in 2023 than the Chargers would.
8) Atlanta Falcons
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty
Lots to be concerned about here, because Willis needs a redshirt year under a smart QB coach like Arthur Smith, and he needs to be schooled in working his progressions most importantly. But Smith is a patient teacher, and he won’t need to play this year with Marcus Mariota in the saddle for at least 2022. There’s something about Willis’ fit. He’s a local kid from Roswell High (23 minutes from downtown Atlanta), teammates love him, very positive, and he has a big arm. Owner Arthur Blank could view him as a perfect long-term pilot of his franchise. I’m fascinated with the prospect of this.
9) Seattle Seahawks
Derek Stingley, CB, LSU
One of the strangest prospects to come out in years. Was superb as a true frosh in 2019, and had great practice battles with Ja’Marr Chase. But Stingley played only 10 games in the last two years due to ankle, illness and Lisfranc issues, and now teams don’t know what to think of him. But the Seahawks are desperate for corners this spring, and the 6-1 Stingley could be the kind of big and competitive corner Seattle longs for. “He’s got the best feet of any corner I’ve ever seen,” one evaluator says. That could be enough for a corner-needy team like Seattle to take this chance. Note 1: LSU’s Pro Day is Wednesday, and Stingley’s performance there will be very important for his draft stock. Note 2: The Vikings are interested in Stingley too, and they might view a one-year Patrick Peterson mentorship (LSU ties) worthy of trying to trade up for him.
10) New York Jets
Kayvon Thibodeaux, edge rusher, Oregon
Asking around, people told me, Gotta give the Jets a receiver with one of the first-round picks. And they could go Drake London or one of the Ohio State stars here. And they could deal their picks at 35 and/or 38 overall up into the first round to get a wideout too. At some point, I think Robert Saleh might sidle up to GM Joe Douglas and tell him he can find a good wideout (or two) with those two high second-round picks. But the Jets could also strike gold with Thibodeaux, the rusher of a thousand opinions who could go as high as two overall. This is why the draft is so fun, because of arguments on guys like Thibodeaux.
I’ll do my customary mock draft in three weeks, in the column of April 25. What you’ve just read is a combo-platter of what I’m hearing and what I think would be smart. It’s definitely not a prediction of what will happen. This is going to be a fun month and a compelling draft.