2022 NFL Mock Draft: Will NFL Combine help boost Ikem Ekwonu and Malik Willis’ draft stock?

The players are mostly known, so this 2022 NFL Mock Draft will discuss more how each player fits scheme and need.

We’re fully into the swing of the 2022 NFL Mock Draft season and the NFL Combine. Many are aghast at the unmitigated gall we media members have to write mock drafts before free agency has even begun. Poppycock! It’s never too early or too often to project the 2022 NFL Draft. It’s a fun exercise to discuss team needs and how individual players fit with the team drafting them. We know the players by now, so it’s time to discuss how they’ll fit in the game.

2022 NFL Mock Draft | Picks 1-16

The top 16 selections in this mock draft may feature some of the more unique combinations we’ll ever see. It’s not the strongest class at the top, and there are no quarterbacks worth mortgaging the future for. Offensive tackle, pass rushers, and cornerbacks dominate the top 10.

1) Jacksonville Jaguars: Ikem Ekwonu, OT, North Carolina State

Ikem Ekwonu is the most terrifying force in the 2022 NFL Draft. While Evan Neal is the betting favorite, people with knowledge of Doug Pederson believe Ekwonu might be the guy for Jacksonville.

He’s an outstanding athlete, an intelligent individual, and the most intense finisher I’ve ever seen as a run blocker. The way he moves people with his athleticism, hand placement, and grip strength will bode well for protecting Trevor Lawrence’s blindside.

Pederson will have him on an island on the left side, and seeing Ekwonu’s growth from 2020 to 2021 as a pass protector will make the Jaguars comfortable with his projection going forward. He has the potential to be a superstar in the very near future, especially if he keeps taking the necessary steps with the technical side of his game.

2) Detroit Lions: Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon

There have been a ton of the usual whispers about Oregon prospects recently involving Kayvon Thibodeaux. Whether accurate or not, Thibodeaux should still see a ton of interest in the draft.

Last season, the Lions began their rebuild when Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell attacked the defensive interior and hit on receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. Now, they add another high-end prospect to the defensive line to help the Okwara brothers.

Thibodeaux is a scheme-versatile pass rusher. He can play with his hand in the dirt or in a two-point stance.

The Lions have other needs to address, but the value in the draft doesn’t add up here. There is no such thing as having too many good pass rushers, as the San Francisco 49ers taught us this season.

3) Houston Texans: Evan Neal, OT, Alabama

The tea leaves suggest that Houston will look to possibly trade Laremy Tunsil and other top players on their roster as they continue their path toward a rebuild. In a scenario where that comes to fruition, Evan Neal would be an obvious choice with the third overall pick.

Neal has spent time at three positions on the offensive line and can play both tackle spots. He’s also played under multiple offensive play-callers, and in 2021, was forced on an island more often and for longer durations in a more downfield passing attack. He’ll fit wherever Houston plans to use him.

4) New York Jets: Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan

Sorting through this group of pass rushers is like pulling teeth. Right now, it appears Aidan Hutchinson is the favorite, but it’s been reported that his arms will fall short of the 33-inch threshold the NFL covets in pass rushers.

In fact, no pass rusher with sub-33-inch arms has been drafted in the top 10 since 2015 when the Falcons selected Vic Beasley. But the Jets already showed they care less about arm length when Joe Douglas signed Carl Lawson in free agency last year.

Hutchinson brings a technical aspect to the game that no other top pass rusher brings, and he plays with his hair on fire at all times. Although I think the power element of his game was exaggerated by his wide alignment often allowing a runway, his agility and explosion at a prototypical size are difficult to pass up.

His production speaks for itself. While Hutchinson may not have the upside of players like Travon Walker or David Ojabo, he’s about the safest bet in this 2022 NFL Mock Draft.

5) New York Giants: Travon Walker, EDGE, Georgia

Travon Walker is an athletic marvel. Watching his 275-pound frame take off in pursuit is a sight to behold, and the Giants desperately need a pass rusher opposite of Azeez Ojulari. There’s been a shift in the narrative toward pass rushers recently. Guys like Odafe Oweh, Kwity Paye, and Rashan Gary have started rounding into form. They entered the NFL as athletic balls of clay and were shaped into quarterback killers.

Walker is the 2022 version of that, and he’s already a plus-run defender on the edge. That’s something Ojulari is still learning. Whereas he is a rotation pass-rushing specialist, Walker will be on the field on early downs. His size and athleticism also project him sliding inside on obvious passing plays so he can use his burst to shoot gaps.

6) Carolina Panthers: Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State

Charles Cross is one of the easiest selections in this 2022 NFL Mock Draft. The Panthers’ offensive line was an abomination in 2021, and the left tackle spot was front and center. With Taylor Moton under contract for at least the next two seasons, the Panthers are on their way toward building a decent tackle duo.

The Texans ran many different rushing concepts under James Campen, and now that he’s in Carolina, I expect the Panthers to mix things up as well. Cross will be on the move a bit in the run game, which could be his best fit as he grows into an NFL body. His hands are outstanding, and he possesses effortless footwork.

7) New York Giants (from CHI): Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

Derek Stingley Jr. might be an enigma, but there’s no questioning that his fit in a Wink Martindale defense is ideal. There’s no better fit in this mock draft. Stingley is a press-man cornerback down to his molecular makeup.

With the way the New York roster is currently built, this move doesn’t make a ton of sense. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking from Giants bloggers, but New York could divorce James Bradberry if he’s unwilling to take a pay cut.

The Giants are currently deep in the salary cap hole. And although they can climb out of it through cuts and restructures, they may have some buyer’s remorse after Bradberry posted an uninspiring second season with the team.

Adoree’ Jackson has the athleticism to play in press but is better suited to play with the ball in front of him. So, losing Bradberry would open a need on an already needy roster, but the Stingley fit eases the pain.

8) Atlanta Falcons: Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati

Ahmad Gardner‘s Alabama tape might have vaulted him into the first half of the first round, much to my chagrin. Although I’m personally lower on the player, the NFL and its biggest draft media members believe he’s a top-10 prospect. But more importantly for the Falcons at pick No. 8, this is the right fit for Gardner.

Dean Pees ran a ton of zone coverage in 2021, and that is where Gardner will best fit in at the NFL level. He has the fluidity and athleticism to play man coverage in the pros. But his length and ball skills give him the ability to play off and see the ball more often.

9) Denver Broncos: George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue

George Karlaftis has excellent burst and surprising bend for his size, but like Hutchinson, he lacks arm length. As a power player, that length can be crucial. The Broncos obviously need a quarterback heading into 2022 and beyond, but they don’t choose to attack that here in this mock draft.

Karlaftis might not only complement Bradley Chubb but become his eventual replacement. Chubb is in the final year of his deal and has been inconsistent thus far in his NFL career. Karlaftis is a great strongside edge defender, but his burst allows him to win the arc against athletic left tackles, particularly when he sets it up with power rushes early.

10) New York Jets (from SEA): Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame

Pound for pound, Kyle Hamilton might be the best player in the class. Hamilton is one of the few genuinely scheme-independent players that come through every draft. He can play as a single-high safety in a predominantly Cover 3 scheme, split-field safety, slot defender, or dime linebacker. He’s a unique talent. But he’s still a safety, which is why he falls here to pick 10.

The Jets ran a lot of Cover 1 this season, and Hamilton fits into that mold in more than one way. First, his ridiculous 6-foot-4 frame and pterodactyl arms allow him to haunt tight ends at the catch point. His stride length gets him from center field to sideline in a blink, and he would be a menace as a free safety when they run Cover 3.

11) Washington Commanders: Malik Willis, QB, Liberty

Malik Willis might have the longest road of any quarterback prospect in this class, but he easily possesses the highest ceiling. Teams may look at Sam Howell or Kenny Pickett more favorably, but the NFL mold continues to slide more toward big arms and athleticism. The Commanders have to shoot for the stars hoping they land on the moon.

The Liberty QB was surprisingly bigger in person than I expected. Even though he’s only 6-foot-1, he’s a legitimate 220 pounds. He’s also a more gifted athlete than Taylor Heinicke with significantly more power in his right shoulder. Usually throwing a quarterback into the fire is my preferred method, but the Commanders should consider finding a bridge QB while Willis waters his seeds and grows as a player.

12) Minnesota Vikings: Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson

Andrew Booth Jr. is a perfect fit for Ed Donatell’s defense. The Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley defense isn’t always man-heavy, but Donatell and Fangio ran a lot of Cover 1 with the Broncos in 2021. Booth isn’t a finished product at cornerback yet, but he has all the athletic traits you could ask for.

He moves as well as anybody in the class and has the same disrespectful leaping ability that Garrett Wilson has on the offensive side of the ball. He’ll need to progress mentally because the Vikings will run some match concepts to change things up. But being a top-tier athlete is more important at cornerback than most positions. Booth also gives outstanding effort in the run game and has the frame to hold up in that aspect.

13) Cleveland Browns: Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas

Treylon Burks has been highly regarded for most of the draft cycle now. The 230-pound Arkansas Razorback has the ability to separate and finish vertically while also using his physicality to make contested catches. But his fit with Cleveland specifically is fun for me to envision.

The inside/outside WR tag is nearing death. Burks should play everywhere. With Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield already, Burks could add an element in the rushing attack. He’s not necessarily a wide back candidate, but he should be used in motion and handed the ball a few times a game if only to make a mess of defensive run fits.

14) Baltimore Ravens: Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa

It’s been said by a million people now, but Trevor Penning really is a Baltimore Raven. But he’s not just a Ravens fit because he has a physical on-field attitude — he also fits the team’s scheme and needs.

Penning’s physical nature comes in both the passing game and in the run game. He’s a perfect fit for Baltimore’s downhill rushing attack. He’s a disrespectful finisher and will be an immediate upgrade in pass protection over what Baltimore fielded in 2021.

Stingley might be the best player/scheme/coaching fit, but Penning is the best city fit in this 2022 NFL Mock Draft. As they did with Ben Cleveland, Baltimore will welcome Penning’s tenacity.

15) Philadelphia Eagles (from MIA): Daxton Hill, S, Michigan

Daxton Hill played a lot in the slot for the Wolverines, but he has the skill set to play anywhere on the back end. Despite being a bit lean, his best attribute in college was his desire and ability to come forward against the run. He throws his body around as well as any player in this draft class, which should win him some fans in Philadelphia.

Avonte Maddox isn’t going anywhere soon, so that leaves a more traditional safety spot for Hill. That’s okay, especially if the Eagles allow him to play forward in zone coverage as a robber. He has rare click-and-close ability, with the speed to go from his middle-of-the-field assignment to the sideline in a blink.

16) Philadelphia Eagles (from IND): Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia

After Howie Roseman conned the Indianapolis Colts into sacrificing a conditional first-round pick for Carson Wentz, he hits a few line drives into the gap with Hill and Nakobe Dean. The Eagles have a talented but aging defensive roster, so they add two run-defending missiles in Hill and Dean. 

Speaking of Michigan, Dean’s Michigan tape is special. It’s not Micah Parsons vs. Memphis special, but it’s incredible to watch him fly around and through gaps to make plays. He also will help the Eagles’ pass rush because he’s excellent at timing blitzes and hitting rush moves to win through a blocker’s shoulder.

His learning curve will come in coverage. Georgia runs a match-heavy scheme, so Dean will have to learn to get depth and sit on grass far more often than he ever did in college.

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