Amongst an offense-heavy first round in the 2021 NFL Draft, there wasn’t a defensive end selected until pick 18. That was to be expected. After all, the narrative ahead of the NFL’s annual selection event was that there were no standout pass rushers compared to recent years. That is all about to change when the teams are on the clock next April in Las Vegas. The upcoming class has some genuine star talent at the position. So, who are the defensive ends set to be at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft?
Top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft | 1-5
These are my very early rankings of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft class. The rankings are compiled from observations made while watching players in the 2021 class and early adventures into 2022 summer scouting. As such, they’ll be subject to change throughout the summer and 2021 college football season.
1) Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
Not only is Kayvon Thibodeaux one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft class, but he’s also the best overall player. Demand at the quarterback position means he is unlikely to be the No. 1 selection next year. Still, the Oregon defensive end was easily the top player on our consensus big board here at Pro Football Network.
What makes Thibodeaux so special? It starts with insane athletic traits. He’s incredibly explosive, demonstrates excellent body movement, and exhibits tremendous play speed. At 6’5″, he has stellar height for the position while also possessing great length. That helps him be a menace at the line of scrimmage both in terms of winning as a pass rusher and making plays on the ball in the air. In addition to being a phenomenal pass rusher, Thibodeaux is impressive against the run.
At 250 pounds, Thibodeaux is one of the lighter defensive ends in the class. Yet, he has the frame to carry more weight. That seems unlikely to happen this season as the defensive end expects to be used more as an outside linebacker in the 2021 college football season.
2) Drake Jackson, USC
Someone who has already begun that transition to outside linebacker from defensive end is USC’s Drake Jackson. The former four-star defensive end out of Centennial High School has played a hybrid outside linebacker role for the Trojans over the past two seasons. As a freshman in 2019, he arguably made his best contributions to USC’s defense playing defensive end.
That season, Jackson led the team in both tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (5.5). He did this despite missing two games with a sprained ankle. His performances earned him first-team Freshman All-American and second-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Jackson’s career-high single-game tackle numbers came at defensive end against Utah. He also demonstrated his big-game ability at the position with 2.5 tackles for loss against a stout Notre Dame offensive line.
At 6’4″ and 255 pounds, Jackson is built a little more solidly than Thibodeaux, presenting a sturdiness at the defensive end position. He has demonstrated excellent athleticism, with flexibility that gives him the ability to rush the passer from multiple alignments.
3) George Karlaftis, Purdue
Easily the most physically imposing of all the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft, George Karlaftis combines size, power, and explosion to be a dominant defensive lineman. Explosion feels like a particularly apt word given how he exploded onto the college football scene as a true freshman at Purdue.
Although Karlaftis was a productive four-star recruit out of West Lafayette High School, his impact early in his college career vastly outstripped expectation. Despite his relatively late introduction to the sport at the high school level, the Purdue pass rusher racked up 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in his debut season.
A confluence of circumstances ensured that 2020 was somewhat anti-climactic. Still, Karlaftis should be one of the premier defensive ends in college football this coming season.
Standing at 6’4″ and 275 pounds, the assumption is that Karlaftis wins with strength alone. On the contrary, he is deceptively athletic for his size and combines speed with a high motor to finish plays. Furthermore, Karlaftis has the ability to play both inside and out, making him extremely versatile. In addition, it further increases his value as one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft.
4) Zach Harrison, Ohio State
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a rich recent history of sending defensive line talent to the NFL. Although Zach Harrison may not be cut from the same cloth as Chase Young and the Bosa brothers, he can still be one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The former five-star recruit, who was ranked as the best player in the state of Ohio in the 2019 recruiting class, has yet to produce to the level of expectation statistically. Last season, in his first opportunity to be the dominant leader of the defensive line, he secured only 4.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. In his two-year career, Harrison contributed just 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Nevertheless, the Buckeyes are ready to rely on their defensive end more this year following the loss of an abundance of defensive production. Moreover, Harrison appears to have developed physically over the offseason.
Ohio State lists him at 6’6″ and 268 pounds, and he looked impressive at Ohio State’s spring game. He’s demonstrated that he can win with pure size, strength, and hand violence. If Harrison showcases those more consistently while adding a more explosive presence, he will cement his place as one of the best pass rushers in the class.
5) Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
Cincinnati defensive end Myjai Sanders was shooting up draft boards late in this year’s process. In fact, Sanders created enough buzz to potentially become a Day 2 selection. In the end, he opted to return to the Bearcats and has put himself in a great position to be one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The senior defensive end had a productive 2020 season as Cincinnati emerged into the national consciousness as a potential College Football Playoff contender. Sanders amassed 31 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks while breaking up 5 passes.
He has excellent size at 6’5″ and 258 pounds and also possesses incredible length. Sanders has tremendous athletic upside, with explosiveness and the ability to bend around the edge. Throughout the 2020 campaign season, Sanders showed improved hand usage at the line of scrimmage. If he continues on an upward curve with all those attributes, he will comfortably end up as one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft | 6-10
Which defensive ends currently round out the top 10?
6) Kingsley Enagbare, South Carolina
Although Kingsley Enagbare saw playing time in 24 games during his first two seasons at South Carolina, he only made one start before last year. Despite the shortened season, he used the opportunity as a full-time starter to enhance his reputation as a pass rusher.
Enagbare accounted for almost half of the Gamecocks’ sacks in 2020. Additionally, he flexed his strength and ability to impact the game with 60% of their forced fumbles.
With another season of profound performances under his belt, Enagbare should become one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft class.
At 6’4″ and 270 pounds, Enagbare is a physically imposing defensive end. He creates power out of his frame while also possessing excellent length. Similar to Karlaftis, don’t be fooled into thinking that size only equals power. The South Carolina defensive end has plenty of juice to take off after the passer.
7) Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan
Last season, an injury deprived Aidan Hutchinson of the experience he needed to help elevate his draft stock. As a result, he returns to Michigan for the 2021 season. Hutchinson is expected to lead the Wolverines’ defense and help cement his position as one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Hutchinson figures to be one of the most versatile of all the defensive end prospects on this list. He has seen time at multiple alignments in the Michigan defense, ranging from a traditional defensive end to a 3-technique, and even lined up over the center.
Hutchinson can be successful across the line due to his size and length. Powerful yet surprisingly agile for his size, he also plays the game with competitive toughness.
8) Brenton Cox, Florida
Brenton Cox is a former five-star recruit who spent one season at Georgia before transferring to Florida during the 2019 season. As a result of his transfer, Cox was forced to miss the entire 2019 campaign. Regardless, he bounced back in productive style last year, tallying 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also led the Gators with 18 quarterback pressures.
There’s no doubting that Cox can play football. He has exciting speed and first-step quickness. He also demonstrates several weapons in his pass-rush arsenal in early viewings, including a spin move that leaves offensive tackles in a whirl.
If Cox is to turn into one of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft, he will need to produce at his best consistently. For every outstanding play last season, there was one that fell far below that level. If he can string it all together, Cox can be a dangerous pass-rush weapon.
9) Ochaun Mathis, TCU
Ochaun Mathis is one of the most productive pass rushers returning to college football this season. During 2020, the TCU defensive end compiled a stat sheet consisting of 27 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks. He also added his first forced fumble against Kansas. Over his career for the Horned Frogs, Mathis has averaged a tackle for loss in every game he’s started.
Although there is still some fine-tuning needed in his game, there is plenty to love about what Mathis brings to the table. He plays the game with exceptional speed, particularly in pursuit.
He also exhibits obvious football intelligence, showcasing the ability to sniff out RPO plays, and works his way across the back of the defensive formation to locate the ball. His ability to work inside and outside to impact the game offers valuable versatility at the next level.
10) Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
Another productive Big 12 pass rusher rounds out this list of the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft class. Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV racked up 13 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles last fall. In 29 appearances for the Cyclones, McDonald has tallied 53 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles.
What impresses me most about McDonald is his length and speed. He covers ground effortlessly and shows no let-up in pursuit. At 6’4″ and 230 pounds, McDonald is a very lanky pass rusher. He could benefit from adding a few pounds to make him a more commanding defensive end from a strength perspective. That said, he is more than capable of standing his ground at the point of attack.
With another year at an Iowa State program that is primed to be one of the best in the nation this season, McDonald could develop into a Day 2 prospect.
Honorable mentions for the top defensive ends in the 2022 NFL Draft
Ali Gaye, LSU; Xavier Thomas, Clemson; Tyreke Smith, Ohio State; Boye Mafe, Minnesota; Owen Carney, Illinois; Nick Figueroa, USC; Justin Eboigbe, Alabama; Josh Paschal, Kentucky; Tariqious Tisdale, Mississippi; Solomon Byrd, Wyoming; LaQuan Johnson, Central Michigan; Andre Carter, Western Michigan; Thomas Booker, Stanford; Deslin Alexandre, Pittsburgh.
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Oliver Hodgkinson is an NFL Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @ojhodgkinson.