The NFL Draft is now less than two weeks away, and there is no clear consensus first overall pick. And certain scenarios that may have seemed unusual or extreme early in this process, to those actually involved in it, just may come to be rote by the time the Jacksonville Jaguars actually make their initial selection.
That's a complicated way of saying that Michigan pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who many would have penciled in with this pick weeks or months ago, might not be the guy for the Jags. And Georgia pass rusher Travon Walker, who blew up the combine with ridiculous athletic feats but who doesn't necessarily have the game film to back it up, just may end up being the first name called. At this point, to the evaluators I spoke with this week who are preparing to make picks, neither scenario would be shocking.
Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke has a history of gambling on talent, and in particular on being heavily influenced by athletic metrics. He was rarely afraid to trust his gut or take a shot on an injured player or be a contrarian of sorts, and while it ultimately had a lot to do with his demise in San Francisco, there is little indication to his peers that Baalke has changed to any great degree. Furthermore, the Jaguars have long been an organization that has focused on the numbers – and testing scores – as a major factor in player selection, and Walker is obviously the darling of that cohort.
Does Baalke look at Walker and see Aldon Smith, the 49ers former pass rushing savant, only without the off-field issues that derailed what may have been Smith's Hall of Fame career? Is he captured by Walker's boundless upside, and intent on taking him, with a higher ceiling, over Hutchinson, who is a safer pick, who has a higher floor, and whose production on a weekly basis outshined Walker? Baalke will try to play it close to the vest, but there have been some tells in his past that some GMs think are in play again this spring.
"I'm buying it," said one top executive who is picking in the first half of the first round. "We are running scenarios based off Walker being the first pick. That feels like something Trent would do."
Of course, the Jaguars have managed to fool everyone at times in the past when picking near the top of the draft. Their selection of Blake Bortles was closeted; it was also ill-fated to say the least. The team's draft record has been, well, horrible for the most part, despite spending a decade or so basically picking in the top 10. It might be enough to make some in that organization go with something closer to the sure thing, a super-safe, highly-productive team leader playing a premium position with a very high floor. But that also might not be enough for Jacksonville.
If Walker goes first, then the Lions are taking Hutchinson if they keep that pick, I firmly believe. However, they will listen to offers and see what that draft spot will fetch in trade, and them moving down and then selecting a quarterback is another scenario getting plenty of traction in scouting circles.
But if there isn't a deal that makes sense, the Lions would most certainly pounce on Hutchinson, a local product who would be the face of a defense sorely in need of it and bring immediate punch to the line. They let Charles Harris go in free agency. They desperately need pass rush. And, the other players who most believe warrant consideration there are tackles; that is the rare roster spot in which Detroit is not in crisis.
Could it be Malik Willis at 2? I wouldn't entirely rule it out, but if Hutchinson is sitting there my hunch is that the Lions play it a little safer here, grab the Michigan Man, and address quarterback by jumping back into the bottom portion of the first round -- in addition to No. 32, which they already hold via the Rams -- and grabbing a passer there.
So, let's just say it's Walker and the Hutchinson. What comes next?
"If that's how it goes down, Nick (Texans GM Nick Caserio) will take Neal (Alabama tackle Evan Neal) with that third pick," said one executive who knows the Texans GM well. "I don't even think that's much of a debate for him. It would be Neal at 3."
Multiple execs told me they anticipate the Jets and Giants following a similar philosophy with their duo of first-round picks. The question is, in which order?
"We think they're both taking an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman," one evaluator said. "Which one do you think they grab first?"
Good question. Wish I had a better answer. Hopefully I do by the start of the draft. I would take a flier on the Giants grabbing North Carolina State tackle Ickey Ekwonu with their first pick, if available, at 5, and then turning around and taking his practice sparring partner for the next 10 years in Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux with their selection at 7.
First draft for rookie head coach Brian Daboll and GM Joe Schoen. They need to build this thing from the inside out, whether Daniel Jones turns out to be part of the equation moving forward at QB or not. That feels like the makings of a foundation initial draft, and the Giants have been horrible for the most part in the trenches for far too long.
Why two QBs will go in the top 10
Continue to shake my head at many of these mock drafts that are not slotting at least two quarterbacks into the top 10.
"Atlanta and Carolina almost have to take a quarterback," said one evaluator who knows both organizations well. "They can't wait another year. And they can't sell the (quarterbacks) they have right now. If Willis or (Pitt QB Kenny) Pickett are there, I don't believe they can pass on them. I'm pretty convinced of it."
Panthers owner David Tepper has been snubbed already too many times before, he has failed to land a legit QB via free agency or trades, and the best part of the draft is that the kid can't tell you no. He can't pick another team over you. You can't be left at the alter (the way the collective bargaining agreement works). That will resonate with this owner. Tepper is trying to get a new stadium and practice facility built and he is trying to fight fan apathy.
Running Sam Darnold out there with no replacement or potential upgrade on the roster isn't going to fly. He's running a football team, but also running a business. And he doesn't have any hope to sell. Top 10 QBs are instant hope. You can market that (and cross your fingers they are ready to play at some point sooner rather than later). The owner and top strategist Steven Drummond will surely be a part of this process – the consensus of the people in this league I know well, who know this franchise well, is that they will take Willis if both QBs are there, and they'll take Pickett if Willis is gone.
As for the Falcons, can Arthur Blank, at this stage of his life, afford to go through an entire season with Marcus Mariota as the best chance to win a football game at the QB spot, after finally moving on from Matt Ryan? Would you really wait until the third year of coach Arthur Smith's regime to allow him to start molding a college quarterback with serious upside? Does that make sense?
Yeah, they love some of the corners in this draft, but will Sauce Gardner be able to trigger a rebuild? I think both these NFC South teams take a passer at the top of the draft.
More insider notes on the 2022 draft
- If both of the top quarterbacks are gone by the time the Seahawks pick at 9, several execs told me they believe the odds of a trade down are very high. The Vikings are clearly in the market for a top corner, and jumping up to 9 would likely allow then to secure one of the top two (Gardner or Derek Stingley, Jr), and Seattle at 12 could very likely still land one of the top pass rushers on the board plus keep securing much needed additional draft capital (even after the Russell Wilson trade). It's a potential draft scenario to keep an eye on …
- The Steelers and Saints are heavy in the QB market. And this doesn't strike the industry as just for show, or some sort of elaborate smoke screen. "I've seen the Steelers contingent at these pro days," one evaluator said. "This isn't some bluff. That's not how Kevin (GM Kevin Colbert) operates. I know they like some of these kids. I don't think they jump all the way up for Willis, but they're up to something." Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder might be the guy, and perhaps they move up slightly to do it …
- The more people I talk to directly involved in selecting players in this draft, the more I lean into Garrett Wilson as the top wide receiver to come off the board. There are varied opinions about this group, with some having more size than speed, or, in general, at least one attribute to ding them a little but. It is deep and it will produce NFL quality, but the order remains up for debate. But I expect Wilson to be the first one to go. "He's the best of the group, and I think a lot of teams agree with us on that," one GM said. "There isn't a Ja'Marr Chase in this group – no one is like that guy, it's not that clear cut – but Wilson should be the first one selected."