It isn’t true anymore that defence wins championships in the NFL. That didn’t stop the first five teams in the 2022 NFL Draft on Thursday night from picking defenders.
Particularly, three pass rushers and two cornerbacks — the most important two positions on any defence.
From pick Nos. 6-12, teams scrambled to grab the best offensive players: Three offensive tackles and wide receivers.
No quarterback was picked in the Top 10 — let alone the Top 3 — of an NFL Draft for the first time since 2013, when the Buffalo Bills reached at No. 16 to take EJ Manuel.
Long before sundown in a glitz-soaked, outdoor Las Vegas setting, the Jacksonville Jaguars used their No. 1 overall pick on edge rusher Travon Walker.
Until the Walker buzz blew up last week, most draft experts had expected the Jags to take University of Michigan pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson. He and Walker are similar elite talents off the edge, but some believe Walker has slightly higher upside.
Walker rose to become the highest-regarded draft prospect from a University of Georgia defence last season that boasted so many five-star high-school blue-chippers, it might well go down as one of the most talented defences in U.S. college football history.
The 21-year-old Walker grew up just south of Atlanta. His supreme athleticism and speed (4.51 seconds in the 40) for an athlete who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 272 pounds is practically off the charts. But he started only one season with the Bulldogs, and that’s one reason he lacked impressive college production (9.5 career sacks, compared to Hutchinson’s 18.5).
Walker did not attend the draft, but rather watched with family back home in Georgia.
At No. 2 overall, the Detroit Lions wasted no time in snagging hometown boy Aidan Hutchinson, seen by most as the draft’s top overall talent. He grew up just a half-hour’s drive from Lions headquarters, in Plymouth, Mich.
The 21-year-old in 2021 returned to the University of Michigan for one more season and, as captain, all but willed the Wolverines to defeat arch-nemesis Ohio State for the first time since 2011, and win the Big Ten championship for the first time since 2004.
The 6-foot-6½, 260-pounder is the son of Chris Hutchinson, an all-American pass rusher at Michigan in 1992, whose single-season Michigan sack record his son broke, with 14.
“I’m happy I get to go back to Detroit … back to the Motor City, hopefully win some ball games,” Hutchinson told NFL Network. “I’m fired up.”
At No. 3, the Houston Texans took cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who has all the skills worthy of such a lofty pick, but who played only 10 games over his last two years at LSU because of injuries.
At No. 4, the New York Jets took Ahmad (Sauce) Gardner, rated as the top cornerback in this draft according to most experts.
The University of Cincinnati product is tall for a corner (6-foot-2¾) whose forte is press-man coverage. The Detroit native is certainly fast enough (4.41 seconds in the 40), which is one reason he was seen by many as a Top 5 pick. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. saw him going No. 2 overall.
Gardner told NFL Network before the draft he actually could not remember the last time he allowed a touchdown. On stage after getting his obligatory congratulatory hug from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Gardner showed off an enormously thick, gaudy necklace that, as he said, proudly sported “extra sauce.”
That is, a mini metal bottle with the word SAUCE.
“The Jets fans know, man,” Gardner said. “They know about the sauce. You can’t have too much sauce. So I added a new addition, because I knew that’s where I was going to be at.”
Indeed, Gardner claimed he knew he’d be nabbed by the Jets.
“That was the plan all along. I just wasn’t saying too much, man. I’m extremely blessed … I’ll make sure I bust my tail to be the best teammate.”
At No. 5, the New York Giants took pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, a 21-year-old from Los Angeles. In three years at the University of Oregon, the pass rusher notched 19 sacks, relying on speed, long and strong arms, and — good or bad — has been compared both favourably and unfavourably to Jadeveon Clowney, the Houston Texans’ No. 1 overall pick in 2014.
Just as Gardner moments earlier said he had a feeling he’d be picked by the Jets, so Thibodeaux with the Giants.
“I knew,” Thibodeaux told NFL Network. “They Face-Timed me right before I got on the plane. I knew it was time.”
At No. 6, the Carolina Panthers did not reach — as many mock-drafters has been predicting for months — and take one of the top two quarterbacks, neither of whom is that highly regarded. Namely, Kenny Pickett of the University of Pittsburgh or Malik Willis of Liberty University.
Instead, the Panthers made the smart move by taking the night’s first offensive player, and a fabulously talented offensive tackle, in Ikem (Ickey) Ekwonu.
Ekwonu, a 21-year-old who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 310 pounds, is both athletic, limber and fast for his size (4.93 seconds in the 40).
Like Hutchinson with the Lions, Ekwonu is a hometown pick. He grew up in Charlotte, N.C., which is where the Panthers are based.
“It just feels so surreal,” Ekwonu said on stage, “the fact that I grew up a Carolina Panthers fan, and now I’m gonna be in that building. It’s really just crazy to me. Crazy.
“I’m just going to do everything I can to be the best player, the best person, I can be. I’m from that area … I just love the Panthers so much and I’m so grateful for this opportunity.”
At No. 8 overall, a second team in search of a long-term answer at quarterback — the Atlanta Falcons — also passed on both Pickett and Willis. Instead Atlanta took the first of yet another outstanding crop of wide receivers this year, in USC’s Drake London. Not many draftniks regarded London as the top WR. A 20-year-old from California’s Ventura County, London is big (nearly 6-foot-4) and a big-play specialist.
What does he bring to the Falcons?
“Just playmaking ability,” London told NFL Network. “With (tight end) Kyle Pitts over there (on the other side), it’s twin towers.”
At No. 9, the Seattle Seahawks — another team in desperate need of a better long-term answer at quarterback, after trading Russell Wilson to Denver last month — eschewed picking a QB and instead grabbed the third best offensive tackle in Mississippi State’s Charles Cross, filling another huge offensive need of the Seahawks.
To round out the Top 10, the Jets took the second wide receiver of the night, Ohio State University’s Garrett Wilson.
He had a spectacular career at Ohio State and was rated as the No. 1 wide receiver prospect in this draft class by most experts. The 21-year-old has fantastic hands, better instincts and is blazing fast (4.38 seconds in the 40).
The only thing Garrett doesn’t possess that an NFL team might wish he did was more height; he’s a half-inch under six feet. He also has a nose for the end zone, catching 23 touchdowns in 33 games with the Buckeyes.
Asked for his thoughts on playing for the Jets, Wilson said, “It sounds awesome… I’m just really excited to get to the Big Apple, for sure.”
The first three trades of the night began the next 10 selections, of 32 on the night.
At No. 11, New Orleans traded up from No. 16 with Washington to take Wilson’s Ohio State position mate, equally talented receiver Chris Olave.
At No. 12, Detroit leaped from No. 32 with Minnesota to snag the wide receiver many experts believe was the most talented in this draft, at least before he tore an ACL in January in the NCAA national championship game: Jameson Williams.
At No. 13 Philadelphia moved up two spots to take Houston’s pick and take the first interior defensive lineman, in Georgia’s Jordan Davis.
The NFL Draft continues Friday starting at 7 p.m. EDT, with Rounds 2-3, and concludes Saturday starting at noon EDT with Rounds 4-7. TSN (via ESPN) and NFL Network again will provide live coverage, both days.
Two players with deep Canadian ties are expected to be drafted:
- University of Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III. The 21-year-old was born in Taiwan but lived for most of his grade school and middle school years in Brampton, Ont. The 5-foot-11, 187-pounder is expected to be selected either late Friday evening (in Round 3) or early Saturday afternoon (in Round 4).
- Penn State University pass rusher Jesse Luketa. He was born in Edmonton and raised mostly in Ottawa. Most draft experts view the 23-year-old as a Day 3 pick — probably earlier (Rounds 4-5) than later (Rounds 6-7).
Metchie and Luketa are ranked 1-2 in the final CFL Scouting Bureau’s final rankings of Canadians, prior to the three-down league’s own draft, next Tuesday night. Neither is likely ever to play in the CFL, however.
Meantime, none of the big-name players hoping to be traded before Round 1 were. Not moping, demoted Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Not lame-duck San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Nor disgruntled Niners wideout/runner Deebo Samuel.
For once, it was as quiet in the hours leading up to the start of the draft as the Jets locker room in late January.
With neither Pickett nor Willis going in the Top 10 to three QB-needy teams, speculation ramped up that those clubs (Carolina, Atlanta and Seattle) might now quickly target Mayfield. Or perhaps Garoppolo.
John Kryk now writes a weekly newsletter on NFL matters. Content is exclusive to that platform. You can have it automatically dropped into your email inbox on Wednesdays simply by signing up — for free — at https://torontosun.com/newsletters/