The overall narrative surrounding the 2022 NFL Draft class is well established. It’s not a starry class, but it’s a deep class.
And nowhere is that draft deeper than at the edge of the rusher.
NFL teams put a premium on players who can get after the quarterback, but this year they might not have to spend a premium pick to land such a prospect that can make an immediate difference at the top. level.
Like quarterbacks, top pass throwers are pushed up the board, but some teams may be content to wait until day two of this year’s draft to bolster their top seven, knowing there will always be a host of cutting-edge talented players available.
By its very nature, the draft is a subjective exercise, but a look at the pressure numbers for the top rushers in this class gives an idea of how they should be stacked as opening night in Las Vegas winds down. getting closer and closer.
The sure thing
He may not be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first overall pick, but Michigan Aidan Hutchinson has the most compelling case as the most complete and “pro-ready” edge rusher in the draft.
Hutchinson has the flexibility to lean on the edge, but can also win with his shoving and has the quickness to successfully attack the inside shoulder of opposing offensive tackles.
Boasting a well-refined repertoire of pass-rush moves, including cross-hash, two-handed sweep, tear, club and swim, Hutchinson’s 2021 pressure rate of 30.8% n was surpassed only by UAB sleeper Alex Wright (31.3%). Similarly, Wright (18.7%) was the only player to top Hutchinson’s run disruption rate of 17.9%.
Yet while Wright recorded 11.5 sacks in three seasons at a five-man school, Hutchinson had 14 in the 2021 campaign alone as he helped Michigan get closer to the top of the mountain – the Wolverines losing in the college football playoff semifinals.
He has also shown considerable prowess against the run, registering double-digit tackles for defeat in 2019 (10) and 2021 (16.5).
Beating one man in 72 of his 85 pressures in 2021, Hutchinson has an array of tools to beat pass protection and will enter the league as a day one contributor.
If the Jags choose to go in a different direction, the team that recruited him could send Jacksonville thank-you cards for years to come.
At the start of last season, it would have been hard to find much debate surrounding the Oregon star Kayvon Thibodeauxa prospect almost universally considered a future top-five pick.
Now we wonder if he will even go into the top 10.
Any potential fall on the board will not be due to his ability to generate pressure, which he did on 24.5% of his pass-rush snaps in 2021, beating a pass protector on 44 of his 49 pressures .
Instead, the doubts around Thibodeaux appear to be tied to a perceived lack of effort and worries about his love of the game, a reflection of the archaic way the league often views prospects who have the temerity to have outside interests away from the field.
Such worries about his other interests certainly shouldn’t overshadow Thibodeaux’s consistently outstanding performance, which saw him create pressure with his excellent first step and ability to translate speed into power.
Indeed, Thibodeaux can generate an exceptional rush but can also lean over the edge and has the quickness to win to create a disruption down the middle, his formidable physical traits complemented by a well-stocked repertoire of pass-rush moves.
With 35.5 tackles for loss and 19 sacks in three seasons, Thibodeaux has the production, athleticism and board of a surefire top-five prospect. More disconcerting than talking about his draft drop is the hype surrounding the player who could well become number one overall.
georgia Travon Walker has the God-given athletic gifts teams salivate over, executing the 40 at the Combine in 4.51 seconds at 272 pounds, but he lacks the production to back it up, with his swathe of a hugely successful college career with the departure of the Bulldogs more questions than answers.
Deployed primarily as a run defenseman and often asked on transmissions to go for cover or open up running lanes for blitz linebackers, Walker had just 9.5 sacks in college.
The fact that six of them arrived in 2021 could be seen as a sign of progress. However, with Walker posting a pressure rate of just 12% and beating his man on just 16 of his 31 pressures, he clearly still has a long way to go as a passing thrower.
Between his obvious explosiveness and the power in his hands, Walker is, in essence, an exciting project for the right defensive line coach to mold. However, the presence of more proven passing throwers at the top of the draft makes the prospect of the Jaguars putting the burden of developing it quickly on their personnel an unnecessary risk for Jacksonville.
Destined for the first day
If the Jags are determined to hitch their wagon to a former Georgia star with just one season of college production, they’d be better served by picking Jermaine Johnson II be that player.
Johnson transferred from Georgia to Florida State and thrived on a poor Seminoles team in 2021, racking up 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.
A force against the run in his lone season in Tallahassee, Johnson’s 16.8 rushing rating doesn’t paint the picture from an elite prospect.
However, only Hutchinson had more sacks fitted (18) than Johnson’s 17, with a two-handed sweeping move and a spinning move helping him beat a pass protector on 40 of his 50 presses. If he can become more consistent in pairing his explosiveness with leverage and use his flexibility to turn the corner more consistently, Johnson has a chance to emerge as the crème de la crème of this year’s peak crop.
Penn State Arnold Ebiketie is another transfer who made the most of his change of scenery, excelling in his only year with the Nittany Lions after leaving Temple, using his long arms to superb effect as he posted a pressure rating of 21 .1%, his success getting into the pads of opposing pass protectors allowing him to record 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
Ebiketie still builds his pass rush armament, but combines leverage, speed and power to win with his bull rush. Capable of winning inside and around the edge, the arrow is pointing up for Ebiketie and there will be no shortage of teams willing to try to keep him on that trajectory in the pros.
Explosiveness and power are Purdue’s calling cards Georges Karlaftiswho, after playing just two games in 2020, had a pressure rating of 21.9% last season.
Only Hutchinson and Wright have beaten a pass protector more often than Karlaftis (47), and the former Boilermaker numbers will soon test the anchoring of tackles in the league after consistently putting the Big Ten competition on skids.
Each of this trio is likely to exit the board on the first night. That same honor probably won’t be given to South Carolina Kingsley Enagbare or drake jackson from USC, although the two had the five best pressure ratings in 2021.
Enagbare (24.6) has a range of moves to rival Hutchinson and a Karlaftis-like bull rush when he puts it all together, but a lack of speed and flexibility to turn the corner may force him to wait until the second day. Jackson (24.2) was third in adjusted sack rate (6.7%) and dominated with his first step and dive to get around the edge, but a failure to really take control of games at the Pac-12 level will likely mean that his celebrations will have to wait until the Friday of draft week.
The injury bet
Hutchinson’s former Michigan teammate David Ojabo would almost certainly be in the first-round mix had he not suffered an Achilles injury on his pro day.
Due to this misfortune, teams must now decide whether they are willing to take a risk on a player who may not be healthy enough to contribute meaningfully as a rookie.
Accepting this bet will mean believing in Ojabo’s long-term potential, of which there is no doubt.
Nigerian-born Ojabo moved to the United States from Scotland in 2017 and initially played basketball before turning to American football.
Still relatively inexperienced, Ojabo has attractive room for growth, but at the same time showed impressive polish when he broke out in 2021 with 11 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
With a pressing rate of 21.3% and the highest adjusted sack rate in the class at 7.6%, Ojabo can get the better of pass blockers through a number of lanes.
He has the speed to get around the edge, has developed an excellent spinning move and possesses a tearing move with which he has also found success.
For a player who came late to the sport, Ojabo also demonstrated an impressive awareness of the importance of playing half-man when rushing the setter.
Encouragingly refined but still offering untapped potential, there is an obvious risk in taking on Ojabo, but depending on how his recovery progresses, he could quickly make an impact as the designated passer on third down.