What we learned from Round 1 of the NFL draft
By Mike Tanier
The Jacksonville Jaguars kicked off the 2022 NFL draft with a risky, counterintuitive selection that could mire the franchise at the bottom of the standings for years if it backfires.
In other words, it was a typical start to a typically unpredictable first round.
The Jaguars selected Georgia edge rusher Travon Walker with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Walker recorded a mere six sacks in the 2021 season for the College Football Playoff champions, but his 35.5-inch arms and outstanding results in athletic tests like the three-cone drill impressed scouts during the pre-draft process, prompting the Jaguars to choose him over higher-rated, more-accomplished prospects.
Walker may well have a deep reservoir of long-range potential, though the Jaguars may not be the best franchise to tap it. Until the team proves otherwise, if opponents protect their quarterbacks by stashing him behind cones or atop a high bookshelf, the Jaguars are set.
Walker’s selection set the tone for what became a big night for edge rushers, offensive linemen, cornerbacks and wide receivers but a very quiet one for quarterbacks.
Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who is incrementally less athletic than Walker but had 14 sacks in 2021, fell to the Detroit Lions at the second pick. The Lions later traded up to 12th overall to select Alabama receiver Jameson Williams. Ultra-macho Lions coach Dan Campbell could not have been happier with the results of the first round if he dropped a nine-point buck using nothing but a determined scowl.
Louisiana State cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green were chosen third and 15th overall by the Houston Texans, as close as a prospect can come to being trapped on the bottom rung of a multilevel marketing scheme.
The New York Jets and New York Giants, each with two selections among the top 10, shockingly got through the evening without making any glaring, potentially catastrophic mistakes. The Jets selected Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner fourth and Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson 10th, then traded up for Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson at 26th overall. The Giants selected Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux fifth and Alabama guard Evan Neal eighth.
Gardner is 6-foot-3, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds and has a cool nickname, Sauce, the three prerequisites of a top-tier NFL cornerback. Wilson combines pure speed with route running that is two parts Cooper Kupp and one part Bob Fosse. If Wilson needs three jukes to get open, he makes three jukes, but some evaluators worry because when Wilson needs one juke to get open, he makes three jukes. Johnson recorded 11.5 sacks in 2021 after transferring from a Georgia program that produced five first-round selections Thursday.
Thibodeaux was a consensus All-America selection in 2021 and one of the top defenders in the nation for three years. The NFL’s gossipmongers took an unexplained dislike to him this offseason, however, causing him to tumble below Walker and Hutchinson on the draft board. Justin Herbert, now a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers, faced similar vague whispers when leaving Oregon in 2020. It’s worth noting that NFL scouting departments are still full of men who think that anyone who chooses to play in the Pacific Northwest over Alabama or Texas must be a filthy hippie.
Neal is a typical top-tier offensive line prospect who looks and moves like a video game boss. He should be able to protect Daniel Jones from anything but himself.
Rounding out the top 10:
— The Carolina Panthers selected North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu at No. 6: a surprising decision, because the Panthers were expected to select a quarterback to replace Cam Newton, who proved to be a poor replacement for Sam Darnold, who was a poor replacement for Teddy Bridgewater, who was a poor replacement for Cam Newton.
— The Atlanta Falcons, who needed a salary cap write-off so badly that they donated longtime quarterback Matt Ryan to 1-877-QBS-4-COLTS, selected Southern California receiver Drake London with the eighth pick.
— The Seattle Seahawks, who became a quarterback-needy team after trading Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos, selected Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross ninth overall to block for Drew Lock, Geno Smith or whomever they can rustle up in later rounds.
A flurry of trades involving receivers marked the middle of the first round, with the Arizona Cardinals acquiring Marquise Brown from the Baltimore Ravens for the 25th overall pick, and the Philadelphia Eagles trading the 18th overall pick to the Tennessee Titans for receiver A.J. Brown. San Francisco receiver Deebo Samuel was not dealt despite openly seeking a trade.
The New Orleans Saints traded a host of picks over the next three years in a series of deals to move up the board to select Ohio State receiver Chris Olave at No. 11, then added Northern Iowa tackle Trevor Penning with the 19th pick. The Saints also spent their way out of salary cap purgatory this offseason by turning many of their veterans’ contracts into upside-down mortgages. By 2024, Olave and Penning may be the only players the team can afford to keep.
One team that neither traded for nor drafted a receiver was the Green Bay Packers, which selected Georgia linebacker Quay Walker and Georgia defensive end Devonte Wyatt with the 22nd and 28th picks, the first of which they acquired by trading Davante Adams to Las Vegas in March. That rumbling you hear on the horizon is Aaron Rodgers’ temper.
Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett finally became the only quarterback selected when the Pittsburgh Steelers made him the 20th overall pick. He will be the heir apparent to the retiree Ben Roethlisberger if he can wrest a starting job away from journeyman Mitchell Trubisky. That’s both a low bar and a big “if.” Liberty’s Malik Willis was not drafted Thursday night, despite speculation that he might be a top-10 pick.
Most analysts considered this year’s quarterback crop to be sparse, which is why many NFL teams filled the position in creative ways earlier this offseason: trading for Wilson, Deshaun Watson or Carson Wentz (we said creative, not necessarily advisable); mortgaging their budget and dignity for Rodgers; procrastinating on filing Tom Brady’s retirement paperwork; finding peace and acceptance with Jones for another year.
Noticeably absent from Thursday night’s proceedings: the Los Angeles Rams themselves, who don’t plan to make a selection in the first round again until the draft is held at a colony on Mars.