Every year quarterbacks are the coveted position players taken in the NFL draft. Since 2010 there have been 39 quarterbacks drafted in the first…
As most of the NFL world prepares for the 2021 playoffs this weekend after one of the most climactic finishes to an NFL regular season in recent memory, the 18 franchises that have missed out begin a long and arduous off-season.
While each of those 18 teams’ off-season agendas will vary, all will be driven by the same overarching objective: return to the playoffs in 2022. There’s hope for those 18 teams in the fact that half of the playoff participants this season missed out last year.
There is plenty of water to go under the bridge before we arrive at draft night, but below is an early look at what each franchise might consider doing with their first-round selections.
Here are some of the key dates to keep in mind that will alter the needs of teams throughout the offseason before the draft arrives.
Monday, 17 January: Deadline for college underclassmen to apply for entry into the 2022 NFL draft.
1-7 March: NFL scouting combine.
Wednesday, 16 March: 2022 NFL league year/free agency begins.
Thursday, 28 April: NFL draft first round.
Evan Neal, offensive tackle (Alabama)
A season that began with high hopes with the arrival of first overall pick Trevor Lawrence in Duval County turned into a nightmare of epic proportions that eventually ended on a high for the Jags. The reward is a second consecutive first overall pick, although it’s likely Jacksonville will look to trade in an effort to replenish a roster that has needs at every position besides quarterback and running back.
Neal, a versatile three-year starter at Alabama who allowed only 22 pressures the past two years between left and right tackle, would fill the hole at left tackle likely to be left by the soon to be free agent tackle Cam Robinson. There’s been a lot made of this year’s top pass rushing prospects, but Neal is without doubt a worthy top pick in his own right for a team in dire need of support around their young quarterback.
Aidan Hutchinson, edge rusher (Michigan)
While Detroit played teams tough down the stretch this season, there’s no doubt the Lions are still a fair way off playoff contention. Unfortunately for Detroit it doesn’t appear as though the long-term answer at quarterback – undoubtedly the franchise’s greatest need – lies in wait here at Pick 2. Instead there’s a local defensive product ready to be plucked out of their own backyard.
Hutchinson, originally from Plymouth, Michigan, decided to return to Michigan this past season, a decision that looks set to earn the 2021 consensus All-American close to US$40 million (A$54.9 million). Hutchinson, who finished third in the nation in sacks this year, with 14, become just the third defensive player to finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting this season. The Lions have ranked in the bottom third of the league for sacks each of the past three seasons. The Wolverine comes to help.
Note that Detroit also have a second first-round selection tied to the Los Angeles Rams as a result of last year’s trade involving quarterback Jared Goff.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, edge rusher (Oregon)
It’s been another ordinary season in Houston, and the off-field Deshaun Watson saga continues to loom large over the franchise. The Texans are yet another team with a question at quarterback, although fans and the front office alike must be impressed by what they saw with rookie passer Davis Mills over the final few weeks of 2021. The third pick for the Texans will be simply best player available one would think, and that’s Thibodeaux.
In the discussion all season as a potential first overall pick, third-year sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux recorded 46 total tackles, 32 solo tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks and two forced fumbles despite missing a pair of games due to injury in 2021. Should Houston stay put a Pick 3, it would be the franchise’s first pick in Round 1 since 2019 (offensive tackle Tytus Howard) and the earliest since selecting Jadeveon Clowney first overall in 2014.
Kyle Hamilton, safety (Notre Dame)
Death, taxes, and the Jets possessing an early pick in Round 1. The first year under head coach Robert Saleh didn’t go too well, but there were some signs late in the season to signify all might not be lost moving forward for Gang Green – namely, the marked improvement of young quarterback Zach Wilson. Of serious concern to Jets fans is the defence, which allowed more yards per game on average than any other team in 2021 and particularly struggled in the secondary – only three teams allowed more passing yards per game and no team allowed more passing yards per attempt.
Enter Hamilton, a modern hybrid defender who can line up wherever needed. The former Notre Dame star registered three picks and three pass breakups in seven games before going down with a minor knee injury in October. Help for Zach Wilson on offence might have to wait.
Tyler Linderbaum, centre (Iowa)
The Giants will be armed with two premium picks in April and will have a new general manager presiding over what to do with them with the retirement of Dave Gettleman. A new regime will bring questions regarding what to do with fourth-year quarterback Daniel Jones, but the thinking here is they stick with Jones and fix that troublesome offensive line. The Giants ranked towards the bottom of the league this season in pass-rush win rate, pass-block win rate, defensive sack rate and rushing yards per game, and the concerns up front were clear for all to see.
Tyler Linderbaum was the best centre prospect ever graded by Pro Football Focus (PFF) in the college era and would not only be an upgrade at the position but would also give the lacklustre Giants line an identity to build around.
Kenny Pickett, quarterback (Pittsburgh)
There will be quarterback-needy teams this off-season that want nothing to do with the 2022 draft crop, and then there will be teams like the Panthers, who won’t have a choice. The Sam Darnold experiment didn’t go well, and when all was said and done Carolina finished last in completion percentage (58.1) and passer rating (68.5) and second last in average yards per attempt (six) and passing touchdowns (14). There’s a great debate about which quarterback will be selected first in Round 1 given the lack of a clear standout, but the choice here is the emerging Kenny Pickett.
Pickett flourished in his senior season at Pitt in 2021, leading the Panthers to their maiden Atlantic Coast Conference championship and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting. The New Jersey native also overtook University legend Dan Marino to now be the sole leader in the school’s three primary quarterback stats (passing yards, passing completions and passing touchdowns). Carolina must upgrade its quarterback play in 2022, whether Pickett is the man to do so will be the key question.
Nakobe Dean, linebacker (Georgia)
Both of the Giants’ first rounders are currently scheduled to fall in the top ten, and it honestly wouldn’t be a surprise to see the G-men spend both picks on the offensive line, such was the extent of the ordinary play along the line this season. New York could still do with some help on defence, however, both at middle linebacker and off the edge. A player who could aid in both those departments is Georgia’s heat-seeking missile, Nakobe Dean, who earned a 91.9 pass-rushing grade and a 90.8 coverage grade this season according to PFF.
Dean led the vaunted Bulldogs defence in total tackles (68), tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (6.0) this season and was all over the field in the national championship game on Tuesday. The Giants look to have hit a home run with Azeez Ojulari, a 2021 second-round pick also from Georgia who led the Giants in sacks as a rookie this season, so why not go back to the Georgian well? A linebacker like Dean can change a defence. Just ask the rival Dallas Cowboys.
Ikem Ekwonu, offensive tackle (North Carolina State)
Atlanta have a lot of needs for a franchise that seem to believe they’re not far off contending with 36-year-old quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons need help at pass rusher, wide receiver and running back, but they desperately need help on the offensive line. Ryan was one of the most pressured quarterbacks this season – only Tennessee passer Ryan Tannehill was sacked more often – and has been hit more than any NFL quarterback over the past three seasons.
Clearly, if all the dirty bird’s eggs are in the Matt Ryan basket, then the team’s main priority should be upgrading the protection in front of the 2016 MVP. Ekwonu was the most dominant run-blocking tackle in the country in 2021, with 18 ‘big-time’ blocks in the run game – seven more than the next closest power five offensive lineman. Ekwonu’s versatility will interest the Falcons, with his ability to play at both guard and tackle, where he allowed just two sacks in 820 snaps this season.
George Karlaftis, edge rusher (Perdue)
Another team with a need at quarterback and a head coaching vacancy to fill, Denver appear to have a roster otherwise ready to contend for the playoffs in the American Football Conference. While quarterback is no doubt the team’s biggest quandary, the intrigue will be the process John Elway and Broncos brass follow to nab their next guy – the thinking here is Denver make a splash for a veteran.
Here Denver select a pass rusher, a genuine need after trading champion Von Miller late in the season and the continual injury problems hounding Bradley Chubb. Though Karlaftis managed only 4.5 sacks this season, his 13.7 per cent pressure rate signifies a player who knows how to win both on the edge and along the interior of the defence. Karlaftis registered 7.5 sacks and 17 total tackles for loss in 2019 as a freshman before a positive COVID test cut short his season.
Derek Stingley Jr, cornerback (Louisiana State University)
Here the Jets come back and select the top cornerback in the draft to add to their aforementioned problematic secondary. Like Hamilton, Stingley also missed plenty of football in 2021 with a foot injury, but those who watched him as a freshman in 2019 will remember a special talent at the position. Stingley registered six interceptions that year and looked the best player on LSU’s national championship-winning defence.
Due diligence will need to be done of course, but Stingley has the look of a legitimate shutdown corner who, paired with the earlier selection of Kyle Hamilton, would turn a porous secondary into a strength for the Jets.
Matt Corrall, quarterback (Mississippi)
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke had his moments in the nation’s capital this year, and despite the sporadic flashes of brilliance, the Football Team know they need a more definitive answer at the position moving forward. Again, how they go about it will be the story, but the guess here is they pair a rookie with the returning Ryan Fitzpatrick and let the youngster learn. Corrall was injured in Ole Miss’s Sugar Bowl match-up earlier this year; however, X-rays thankfully revealed a sprain rather than anything more serious.
It was a huge relief for one of college football’s best quarterbacks in 2021. Corrall completed 67.9 per cent of his passes for 3349 passing yards this season while averaging 8.7 yards per pass with 20 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing touchdowns. He’s not the biggest quarterback but he’s got great touch on his downfield throws and is very effective as a runner. He’s also tough, which will surely endear him to a team with a high pick.
Ahmad Gardner, cornerback (Cincinnati)
The season that might have been for the Vikings concludes with them missing out on the playoffs again and looking for a new head coach and general manager. It’s likely that quarterback Kirk Cousins will return in 2022 to play out the final year of his monster contract, so most off-season resources will surely be poured into a 30th-ranked defence in 2021. The secondary in particular could do with some upgrades after finishing in the bottom half of the league in all major passing statistics, while the cornerbacks themselves registered just three interceptions between them.
Compounding these problems is the fact Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander are all pending free agents. Adding Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner sure would help, a rangy corner who leaves the University of Cincinnati having never allowed a touchdown in over 1000 snaps. In 2021 Gardner had three interceptions and four pass breakups while allowing only 13 catches for 117 yards (per PFF College).
DeMarvin Leal, edge rusher (Texas A & M University)
One of the most disappointing teams in the league, the Browns will face another off-season trying to figure out how they take the next step from the middle of the pack to being true contenders. Receiver Odell Beckham Junior’s midseason departure opens up a need at the position, while there remains scepticism around quarterback Baker Mayfield’s long-term security. Perhaps Cleveland’s biggest need, though, lies on the defensive line, a group that registered only 18.5 sacks to everyone not named Myles Garrett (who had 16 himself).
With starting defensive tackles Malik Jackson, Malik McDowell and pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney all free agents this off-season, there could be some defensive line refurbishment required. DeMarvin Leal would be a great addition to the Browns front as a versatile lineman that can play in any defensive front. Leal led the Aggies with 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2021 and would certainly flourish alongside Myles Garrett.
Charles Cross, offensive tackle (Mississippi State)
The fact Baltimore were in the playoff hunt going into the final game on Sunday despite their roster being torpedoed by injuries says a lot about their character. However, there’s a desperate need to upgrade several positions, namely an offensive line that finished middle of the pack per most PFF metrics and allowed the second most sacks (57, behind only Chicago). As things stand, only left tackle Ronnie Stanley can truly be thought of as an elite lineman, although the 2019 All-Pro tackle has missed most of the previous two seasons with knee and ankle injuries.
While he’s only a two-year starter in college, Cross blossomed into one of the nation’s premier tackles in 2021, allowing only 16 pressures on 719 pass-blocking snaps in an offence that at Mississippi State loves to throw the ball downfield. Baltimore’s offence is quite different, but Cross would add much-needed blue-chip talent to a line that has gone backwards in recent seasons.
Devin Lloyd, linebacker (Utah)
Despite making the playoffs, Philadelphia appear in this mock draft for non-playoff teams thanks to trades with Miami and Indianapolis this past offseason – the Eagles are also still in possession of their own first-rounder tied to their playoff performance. Three first rounders should help address some problem areas on a surprise playoff team, beginning with a defence that generated only 16 takeaways (ranked 27th) and 29 sacks (31st) during the regular season.
Philadelphia haven’t drafted a linebacker in Round 1 since Marcus Smith in 2014, but Devin Lloyd should entice general manager Howie Roseman enough to end that streak. Lloyd was incredible this season for Utah, earning an 89.2 overall grade with an above-average grade in every facet per PFF. Lloyd is exceptional in pass coverage, with four interceptions this season, including two pick-sixes, and he has great value as a designated pass rusher in certain situations.
David Ojabo, edge rusher (Michigan)
This is the pick the Eagles snared as a result of their trade with the Colts for former quarterback Carson Wentz. Here they stay on defence and select the ‘other’ Michigan pass rusher, David Ojabo. The Nigerian-born Ojabo emerged from nowhere this season as one of college football’s most exciting defensive talents, tallying 11 sacks and five forced fumbles while flashing top-tier pass rush talent.
He’s still a little raw, but Ojabo would be a welcome addition to an anaemic Philly pass rush that will likely say goodbye to former first-round pick and free-agent-to-be Derek Barnett this off-season while welcoming back a 34-year-old Brandon Graham from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Jordan Davis, defensive tackle (Georgia)
What a way to miss out on the playoffs, calling a bizarre timeout to stop the clock when Las Vegas looked happy to let the clock expire and accept a tie that would have sent both teams to the tournament. Losing in that fashion is almost impressive, even by Chargers standards. One thing that dogged LA all season was their inability to stop teams from running down their throats – they had the third worst run defence in 2021, allowing 138.9 rushing yards per game. That’s something that requires attention if the Bolts are to return to the playoffs.
Jordan Davis is a very big man – 198 centimetres, 154 kilograms – who anchored Georgia’s championship defence this season, a group that finished third in the nation against the run, allowing 81.7 rushing yards per game. Davis doesn’t get after the quarterback much – he managed just eight pressures this season – so he won’t be for everyone, but the Chargers’ needs at the front on defence are too great to say no to a prospect like this.
Drake London, wide receiver (University of Southern California)
The Saints will have another off-season of questions at the quarterback position, with Week 1 starter Jameis Winston a pending free agent and recovering from a torn ACL. Trevor Siemian is also a free agent, while Taysom Hill surely hasn’t shown enough to prove he’s a legitimate long-term option. The sense here is that head coach Sean Payton looks to free agency to address the position – hello, Russel Wilson – and so the team’s attention in Round 1 should be on adding offensive playmakers.
While stud receiver Michael Thomas looks set to return in 2022, that won’t be enough for whoever is under centre next year. London’s season ended prematurely due to a broken ankle after only eight games, but in that time he racked up 88 catches for 1084 yards and seven touchdowns. The Trojan also led the nation at season’s end with 19 contested catches despite missing four games. The Saints have missed out on the exceptional wide receiver draft classes over the past three years. Drake London’s calling.