Smith’s 2022 NFL Mock Draft 1.0: Malik Willis Goes in the Top 3

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With the 2022 NFL Draft just weeks away, the time has come to begin projecting where the next crop of players will start their professional careers.

After two weeks of hardcore, extensive research on my end, the first edition of my mock draft has arrived.

In this mock draft, trades are limited. I only made one trade (which you will see shortly) to help keep my imagination from running rampant. I also only did the first round in this mock draft. My reasoning behind this is that traditionally, the top thirty-two are the ones who make the biggest impact from Day 1.

Say no more! Let’s get to reading!

*No Copyright Infringement Is Intended with Usage of Selected Photos*

1) Jacksonville Jaguars: Evan Neal (OT- Alabama)

The Jacksonville Jaguars will have the first pick in the NFL Draft for the second consecutive season. QB Trevor Lawrence is the team’s foundational piece, so the Jaguars need to protect him. Jacksonville could be a candidate to take one of the top edge-rushers or even trade back. In this scenario, they stay put and take Neal, my top offensive line prospect in this year’s draft. Neal, a three-year starter for the Crimson Tide, has experience playing meaningful snaps across numerous line alignments. Neal’s size/strength/technique combination is virtually incomparable. Placing this behemoth of a man opposite Cam Robinson (franchise tagged for 2022) would give the Jaguars two high-quality tackles to protect Lawrence for 2022. If Robinson fails to meet expectations in 2022, the Jaguars can cut ties knowing they would instantly upgrade at left tackle with Neal.

2) Detroit Lions: Aidan Hutchinson (DE- Michigan)

I feel this is the best-case scenario for the Lions. After leading the Michigan Wolverines to their first College Football Playoff appearance in 2021, Hutchinson proved that he will serve as the face of a stingy defense. What Hutchinson lacks aesthetically, he makes up for in production (14 sacks in 2021). The numbers pair with a fast-running motor and a continuous desire to improve, which fits the culture head coach Dan Campbell is attempting to establish in the Motor City. While he may not be the edge-rusher with the most dominating potential, Hutchinson’s high floor makes him worthy of a top-2 selection in this year’s draft.

3) TRADE: Atlanta Falcons (from HOU): Malik Willis (QB- Liberty)

Let the fireworks begin! With the trade of QB Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts now in effect, the Falcons are hitting the franchise’s “reset button.” Yes, they recently signed journeyman QB Marcus Mariota, but I doubt that is more than patchwork. Atlanta is looking for their next long-term signal-caller, so they make a move to get the explosive Willis. Willis is my top quarterback on the board who brings a dynamic, run-and-gun skill set paired with undeniable upside. Willis likely will not start immediately as there are still some technical inconsistencies with his game. Mariota, while lacking superstar power, brings veteran experience, refinement, and a similar mobile playstyle to the Falcons. He would be the perfect bridge quarterback for Atlanta, as Willis would learn from Mariota’s professional approach in 2022 before grabbing the reins in 2023. 

4) New York Jets: Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu (OT- North Carolina State)

The New York Jets find themselves in a similar situation to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have their franchise signal-caller in place (QB Zach Wilson) and some intriguing pieces around him. However, prioritizing the offensive line should be the focus, especially after the number of financial resources dedicated to the defensive side of the ball this offseason. The Jets had to cut ties with T Morgan Moses so an offensive tackle could be in the cards with the first of their two first-rounders. Evan Neal is already off the board, so New York snags Ekwonu, the elite product out of North Carolina State. Also, it is worth noting that T Mekhi Becton missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury, so New York could be even more willing to add Ekwonu to their long-term plans. Statistically, Ekwonu was one of the best run-blocking linemen in the FBS last season (93.8 PFF grade) and had good performances against top competition (Clemson, Wake Forest, Mississippi State). His run-blocking dominance would immediately help the Jets, who finished among the NFL’s worst in total rushing production in 2021 (25th). That can take some of the offensive burdens off Wilson’s shoulders, ultimately making him and the offense more efficient in Year 2. 

5) New York Giants: Kayvon Thibodeaux (DE- Oregon)

The New York Giants should be thrilled if Thibodeaux falls to the fifth overall selection. In my eyes, Thibodeaux has the potential to be the most devastating pass-rusher in this class. His athletic frame (6’5”, 260) paired with ridiculous speed (4.58 40) makes him a matchup nightmare. There are questions surrounding his drive, but those questions shouldn’t scare off the Giants, who ranked 23rd in sacks in 2021. With the level of talent that he possesses, you take the risk of believing you can teach him how to play hard. Thibodeaux is no stranger to playing under the brightest lights, so he should be able to make an impact in the Big Apple from Day 1.

6) Carolina Panthers: Kenny Pickett (QB- Pittsburgh)

Typically, there is a reason why teams generally pick in the top ten. As the old saying goes- it starts with the quarterback. We are all aware of Carolina’s recent struggles at the quarterback position, so it would not be surprising to see them take a shot on a signal-caller. There are still enticing options (Baker, Jimmy G, etc.) available in free agency, but none of them match the skill set Pickett brings to the table. Pickett, who blossomed into a star in 2021, showed off his accuracy (78.8% adjusted completion rate- 5th in the FBS), decision-making (42/7 TD/INT ratio), and mobility on a week-to-week basis. His level-headedness may be what head coach Matt Rhule and the Panthers’ offense have been missing. Pickett’s ability to play smart and minimize the number of mistakes appeals to Carolina as they do not have to trade up to get him. This selection would spark a crazy training camp battle with Pickett and fellow QB Sam Darnold, who is trying to prove he still has what it takes to be a starting-caliber player in the NFL.

7) New York Giants: Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (CB- Cincinnati)

The second of two top-seven selections brings another sensational defensive prospect to New York. Gardner, my top cornerback in the class, is on another level than his peers. While LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. may have a year of near-flawless tape, Gardner has not allowed a touchdown in his collegiate career. I will say that again. Ahmad Gardner did not allow a single touchdown catch during his three-year career at the University of Cincinnati. If that does not shout “CB1” upside, I do not know what does. The man, known as “Sauce”, brings the sauce as he is long (6’3”, 33.5” arms), fast (4.41 40), and aggressive in run support. I believe he is just as technically sound and physically imposing as Pat Surtain II coming out of Alabama. Surtain, who was selected ninth by the Denver Broncos in 2021, enjoyed a strong rookie campaign. I think newly hired defensive coordinator Don Martindale would be elated if this happened. Gardner’s arrival would solidify the outside while pushing fellow CB Adoree’ Jackson into his more-natural slot position. This new versatility that the Giants would have at the cornerback position would make them a dangerous secondary that opponents would be hesitant to throw against.

8) TRADE: Houston Texans (from ATL): Kyle Hamilton (S- Notre Dame)

The best overall prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft falls to the eighth pick. Hamilton, a three-year starter for Notre Dame, was considered by many to be the nation’s top safety headed into the 2021 season. While injuries held Hamilton to just seven games, he collected thirty-four tackles and three interceptions in those games. Hamilton is a prospect who can do various things on the football field. He is solid in man coverage. He plays zone effectively. He tackles well in space and is particularly effective off of blitz packages. Defensive coordinators will be able to line him up anywhere along the back end of their defense, and he will impact the game. While his time in the 40-yard dash (4.58) left a sour taste in some scouts’ mouths, it is more nitpicking. With how talent-deprived Houston’s roster is, they would be wise to take the best prospect available. Hamilton certainly fits that bill.

9) Seattle Seahawks: Desmond Ridder (QB- Cincinnati)

This may be reaching a little bit, but I do not care. I was able to catch a glimpse of ESPN’s NFL Live segment Wednesday afternoon. During the program, analyst Dan Orlovsky indicated how Ridder’s pre and post-snap recognition is unrivaled compared to other quarterbacks in the class. He could not be more correct. As the four-year starter at Cincinnati, he only threw one interception against the blitz. That statistic alone should open a quarterback-needy team’s eyes. Seattle, who received the ninth pick in the Russell Wilson trade, is looking to fill a gaping organizational void. Ridder has more than enough experience to lead a team, as shown by leading the Bearcats to their first College Football Playoff appearance in 2021. His competitiveness, elite athleticism for the position (4.52 40, 36” vertical jump), and intuitive football mind perhaps resemble a young… Russell Wilson? It would be a selection that would allow the Seahawks to begin their anticipated rebuild with a proven, mature winner leading the way.

10) New York Jets: Drake London (WR- USC)

It has been a toss-up for me between London and Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson for the best wide receiver in the class. While I think Wilson certainly has the potential to deliver early, London is the most pro-ready coming out. A broken foot ended his 2021 campaign eight games into the season, but when active, he was dominant. London compiled an 88-1,084-7 receiving line in the eight games he played. That is an example of remarkable production. His imposing physical frame (6’4”, 220) mixed with sneaky fast game speed makes him nearly unguardable in contested-catch situations. The addition of London to an established core of Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, and C.J Uzomah would give quarterback Zach Wilson plenty of diverse weaponry to work with for his second professional season.

11) Washington Commanders: Garrett Wilson (WR- Ohio State)

Speaking of Garrett Wilson, he goes next to the receiver-thirsty Commanders. While everyone knows about WR Terry McLaurin’s talent, Washington’s recent struggles finding his partner-in-crime have led to McLaurin drawing more attention from defensive backs than desired. Wilson, a three-year contributor at Ohio State, is more than capable of taking some of the pressure off of McLaurin’s shoulders. Wilson is the best at creating separation in the class due to his natural fluidity, exceptional route-running, and field-stretching speed (4.38 40). His ability to get open constantly translates to the NFL game well and will make QB Carson Wentz’s life a little bit easier compared to other situations he has been in.

12) Minnesota Vikings: Devin Lloyd (LB- Utah)

I understand that drafting a linebacker this early, historically, has been rare. However, I do not need to go back far to see the last time a highly-selected linebacker made an immediate impact in the NFL. LB Micah Parsons got selected by the Dallas Cowboys tenth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. It is safe to say that that investment more than paid off. In his rookie season, Parsons displayed a “DPOY-caliber” impact. In this scenario, Lloyd gets picked by the Vikings with hopes that he can make a similar impact that Parsons made. Lloyd is rangy (6’3” w/ 33” arms), versatile (eight sacks and four interceptions in 2021), and bleeds competitiveness and intensity. While he did not participate in Utah’s Pro Day, Lloyd’s combine performance and four years of game tape speak for themselves. With current LB Eric Kendricks entering his twilight years, it would be wise to draft his eventual replacement.

13) Houston Texans: Derek Stingley Jr. (CB- LSU)

With their second first-round pick, Houston double-dips in the secondary pool and grabs one of the best cornerbacks in the class. The question marks with Stingley do not arise from his athletic profile (6’, 190, 4.37u 40, 38” vertical jump) but his inconsistent production and injury history. The foot injury Stingley suffered in September required surgery. Perhaps no position is as reliant on quick-twitching feet as a cornerback, so there is some inherent risk. However, when healthy, Stingley showed elite-CB1 potential during LSU’s title run in 2019. The risks push him behind Gardner in my rankings, but his upside is immense. Pairing Stingley with the earlier-mentioned Kyle Hamilton suddenly makes the Houston secondary a legitimate threat to opposing passers.

14) Baltimore Ravens: Travon Walker (DE- Georgia)

One of the biggest risers during the pre-draft process, Walker is expected to go much earlier than this. I have seen many mocks that see Walker as a consensus top-five selection after his stellar combine performance (4.51 40, 10’3” broad jump, 6.89 3-Cone). While he lacks the on-field production (six sacks in 2021) of Hutchinson or Thibodeaux, Walker is a force in his own right. Weighing 275 at 6’5″ will make him one of the league’s most imposing defensive ends from the outset. Walker is a physical specimen like many of his Georgia teammates. With time, he could thrive in the right environment. With DE Calais Campbell’s likely departure looming, the Ravens need to replace the six-time Pro Bowler. Walker has the potential to come in and do just that.

15) Philadelphia Eagles: Nakobe Dean (LB- Georgia)

Back-to-back Georgia Bulldogs go off of the board. If Utah LB Devin Lloyd did not lead the Utes to their first-ever Rose Bowl appearance, Dean would be the unanimous top linebacker on the board. During his junior season, Dean posted a PFF grade of 91.7, making him the highest-graded linebacker in the FBS last season. Dean produced fifty-four tackles for Georgia’s stifling defense in 2021, which finished second on the team. While cornerback could be in play here, Dean’s energy, passion, and versatility at the defensive point of attack are elements that have been missing from Philadelphia’s defense for quite a while. It would be a sight to see him charge after the NFC East’s signal-callers for the next decade.

16) New Orleans Saints: Charles Cross (OT- Mississippi State)

Just one year after longtime Saints legend Drew Brees retired, head coach Sean Payton followed in his footsteps. After failing to make the playoffs in 2021, the Saints find themselves at an organizational crossroads. New Orleans is still brimming with talent and has a quarterback on a team-friendly deal (QB Jameis Winston). Winston is serviceable, but he will need better protection after major knee surgery. Three-time Pro Bowl T Terron Armstead is now a member of the Miami Dolphins after signing a five-year/$87.5 million contract this offseason, so finding his heir apparent should be a priority. Cross, my third-ranked offensive tackle, is a pass-blocking force who has improved every year at Mississippi State. He should be a welcome addition to the Saints’ offensive line room.

17) Los Angeles Chargers: Jordan Davis (DT- Georgia)

I understand the Los Angeles Chargers beefed up the defensive side of the ball this offseason. However, if they have the chance to select Davis, it should be a no-brainer. Possessing one of the worst-ranked run defenses in the NFL last season, the Chargers should not overthink this. Davis, a massive human being (6’6”, 341) showed his worth at the NFL Combine. Not only does Davis have a knack for stuffing holes, but he is athletic. His short-burst speed (4.78 40) will make him a true force on rushing downs. While used in primarily rushing situations at Georgia, Davis might have tested himself into a more prominent role moving forward. Those AFC West running backs should be screaming for their lives if Davis becomes a Charger.

18) Philadelphia Eagles: Treylon Burks (WR- Arkansas)

Philadelphia has not had a successful track record of selecting wide receivers who can contribute once they hit the NFL. Former top-ten pick DeVonta Smith looks like an exception to the rule, but the Eagles generally lack weaponry outside of him (29th in total receiving in 2021). The Eagles have faith in QB Jalen Hurts after leading them to a playoff appearance in 2021. While we know about Hurts’ rushing ability and leadership capabilities, he still needs to develop his passing game. It will continue to be a long process until more weapons are in place for him. In this scenario, they take a chance on one of the draft’s projects in Treylon Burks. Burks, a physical marvel (6’2”, 225), brings a different receiving element to Philadelphia’s offense than Smith does. Burks’ more imposing frame allows him to be more physical in one-on-one situations. While Burks’ combine performance was disappointing (4.55 40, 33” vertical jump), he has great college film considering who he was playing for. For Philadelphia’s desperate situation, he could be worth taking a shot with the second of their first-rounders, hoping he becomes more than a situational threat.

19) New Orleans Saints: George Pickens (WR- Georgia)

While WR Michael Thomas is expected to return in 2022, the receiver depth chart behind him is thin. I believe that Pickens, who possesses an extensive injury history, is still worth a first-round selection. Talented enough to start for the loaded Bulldogs as a freshman, his presence only benefitted Georgia’s offense. Whenever Pickens entered the game, the passing attack got smoother, no matter who quarterbacked Georgia. Pickens has the ideal combination of size (6’3”), leap (33” vertical jump, 10’5” broad jump), and confidence to hang with top-flight NFL cornerbacks. With these traits, if he can stay healthy (fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered in 2021), Pickens has an opportunity to step in and immediately contribute as QB Jameis Winston’s second target.

20) Pittsburgh Steelers: Trevor Penning (OT- Northern Iowa)

I initially had Penn State’s Jaquon Brisker slated to go in this spot, but I forgot just how bad Pittsburgh’s offensive line was at run-blocking in 2021. After seeing 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris lack efficiency (3.9 YPC) all season long, reestablishing the run game has to be the primary offseason goal for Mike Tomlin and the entire Pittsburgh coaching staff. Penning, who posted a 99.9 run grade in 2021 (PFF), would bring a nastiness that has not been present on the Steelers line in years. While Penning stands out due to his run-blocking prowess, he is more than capable of contributing to passing downs too. Over the last two seasons, Penning has played over 1,100 snaps, yet only allowed two sacks and four quarterback hits. The addition of Penning would make everyone’s lives easier, especially for newly-acquired QB Mitchell Trubisky.

21) New England Patriots: George Karlaftis (DE- Purdue)

Karlaftis is criminally underrated. I understand the reasoning behind other pass rushers going before him, but I cannot guarantee that those rushers will end up as better professionals than Karlaftis. During his college career at Purdue, the burly Boilermaker (6’4”, 266) flashed moments of dominance lining up against the Big Ten’s best tackles. While his sack numbers are disappointing, Karlaftis is still developing (only two full seasons at Purdue). A team willing to take a risk on Karlaftis must be stable enough to help him hone his abilities while being patient. Perhaps no situation in the NFL is as stable as New England’s. Imagine what the coaching and support of Bill Belichick and Matthew Judon would do for Karlaftis’ overall development.

22) Green Bay Packers: Chris Olave (WR- Ohio State)

The best route-runner in the draft falls right into QB Aaron Rodgers’ lap. Olave, the all-time leader in touchdown receptions at Ohio State, is durable, consistent, and fluid. There were questions about his top-end speed, but he answered those at the NFL Combine. Olave ran a 4.39 40-yard dash, good for eighth at the position. His ability to stretch the field alongside WR Allen Lazard would add an element to the Packers’ offense that has been missing for quite some time. Even without former WR Davante Adams on the roster, Rodgers should be ecstatic with the Buckeye product as his replacement.

23) Arizona Cardinals: Tyler Linderbaum (C- Iowa)

In this scenario, positional needs and the demand for defensive superstars push the best interior offensive lineman down to Arizona at twenty-three overall. Linderbaum, a unanimous All-American in 2021, posted an all-time great season for a center during the 2021 season (PFF). The Cardinals have C Rodney Hudson, but his best days are likely behind him due to age (set to turn 33 in May), declining skills (career-worst 57.4 PFF grade in 2021- 31st in the NFL), and an injury-plagued 2021 season. Linderbaum’s consistency and pro-readiness could make him an instant plug-and-play for Arizona, which should help ease QB Kyler Murray in a career-defining season. 

24) Dallas Cowboys: Trent McDuffie (CB- Washington)

I can envision Dallas seeking a replacement for DE Randy Gregory with this pick. Florida State’s DE Jermaine Johnson could open up things for LB Micah Parsons to play more of his natural linebacker position in Year 2. However, the Cowboys ranked twentieth in passing yards allowed per game (234.5 YPG) in 2021, so I believe they are adamant about improving the secondary with this pick. I understand CB Trevon Diggs had a league-leading eleven interceptions in 2021. It is important to note that since the NFL’s inception, no player has ever posted back-to-back double-digit interception seasons. Thus, regression is likely. To compete with the NFC’s best, they need a second guy who can cover inside and out. Enter McDuffie, the safest cornerback in the entire draft to me. His size leaves a lot on the table (5’11”, 193), but he has experience in big games, is smart, and is willing to help in run support (35 tackles in 2021). McDuffie’s presence should vastly improve the once-leaky Cowboys secondary from the outset.

25) Buffalo Bills: Andrew Booth Jr. (CB- Clemson)

Booth, a two-year starter at Clemson, starred in the role being the Tigers’ secondary leader. Over the last two seasons, Booth intercepted five passes and deflected nine. Booth’s competitive, zone-minded play would allow Buffalo, who has looked for a supplementary corner for years, to be comfortable opposite All-Pro CB Tre’Davious White.

26) Tennessee Titans: Jahan Dotson (WR- Penn State)

After releasing WR Julio Jones this offseason, the Titans desperately need to search for a second receiver opposite A.J Brown. In this scenario, Tennessee snags Dotson, who was likely the Big Ten’s best receiver from a production standpoint in 2021. While the Penn State product is slight (5’11”, 178), Dotson is springy (36” vertical jump, 10’1” broad jump) and can run the entire route tree. QB Ryan Tannehill will be elated if the board breaks like this.

27) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Daxton Hill (S- Michigan)

Tampa Bay shored up the offensive side of the football this offseason by retaining a lot of their core skill players. We all know QB Tom Brady will be able to squeeze the best out of the offense, so in this scenario, the Buccaneers turn to the defensive side of the football. Losing S Jordan Whitehead to the Jets in free agency means a viable replacement is needed. Hill, a first-team All-Big Ten member in 2021, is capable of playing safety or cornerback at the next level. His speed (4.38 40) and aggressive tendencies would instantly improve Tampa Bay’s pass defense, which ranked 24th in 2021.

28) Green Bay Packers: Kenyon Green (OG- Texas A&M)

With Green Bay snagging WR Chris Olave with the first of their two first-rounders, they shore up another section of their depleted offense. While QB Aaron Rodgers is a big part of the Packers’ identity, I believe RBs Aaron Jones and A.J Dillon will carry a more prominent role in 2022. For the running backs to show the full potential they bring to the table, Green Bay needs more strength in the trenches. Green (6’4”, 323) is nimble, strong, and effective when protecting rushing gaps. The addition of Green to the already-decent Packers’ line could finally open up a new element to Green Bay’s offense that has generally lagged behind.

29) Kansas City Chiefs: Jermaine Johnson (DE- Florida State) 

If Johnson slides this far down the board come draft day, the Chiefs should celebrate. Johnson, whose considered by many a top-sixteen talent in this year’s draft, is physically (4.58 40 @ 6’5”, 250) and technically capable of becoming an immediate NFL contributor. The Florida State product can step in right away and dominate the line of scrimmage opposite DE Frank Clark. 

30) Kansas City Chiefs: Roger McCreary (CB- Auburn)

The Chiefs double-dip in the defensive department as the first round comes to a close. Adding S Justin Reid helps ease some of the pain that fans will feel when S Tyrann Mathieu eventually signs elsewhere. However, Kansas City also lost starting CB Charvarious Ward to San Francisco, leaving a gaping hole in the already weak secondary (27th in passing yards allowed per game in 2021). With how well the AFC West upgraded across the board this offseason, the Chiefs need more defensive reinforcements to remain competitive. Here, they select McCreary, a fiery senior cornerback from Auburn. His aggressiveness in press situations is something that DC Steve Spagnuolo will see and appreciate as soon as training camp opens.

31) Cincinnati Bengals: Zion Johnson (OG- Boston College)

Since I have the Arizona Cardinals selecting who Cincinnati would have taken if still available (C Tyler Lindenbaum), the Bengals wisely address another portion of their offensive line. Johnson (6’3″, 312), a high-end contributor on the Eagles’ offensive line since his freshman season, would be able to further protect QB Joe Burrow from the league’s best interior defensive lineman.

32) Detroit Lions: Devontae Wyatt (DT- Georgia)

Yet another Georgia defensive standout goes in the first round. After selecting edge-rusher Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick, the Lions bring in Wyatt to work the interior part of the line. Head coach Dan Campbell has expressed switching to more “4-3” defensive sets, which would require a difference-maker in the middle of the defensive line. Wyatt is not as physically dominating as his former linemate Jordan Davis, but he is more technically sound. It will be hard for opposing teams to move the ball on Wyatt’s watch, considering his unique combination of stoutness (6’3″, 304) with athleticism (4.77 40). Having these two rookies send pressure alongside DE Romeo Okwara will scare many opposing offensive coordinators for 2022 and beyond.

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Gavin Smith

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