Why this year's NFL draft is going to be the 'least predictable of all time'
Late Tuesday night, as a personnel executive left his team’s facility, he summed up the 2022 NFL draft with a refrain that might as well define this week.
“This sh** is unreal, man,” he said. “No one has a clue. Going to be a fun weekend.”
Across the country, an AFC general manager who spent a sizable portion of his 2021 season studying draftable quarterbacks bookended the theme.
“I don’t even know when the quarterbacks are going to start coming off the board, let alone who the first quarterback taken will be,” he said with a chuckle.
These weren’t outliers, either. As NFL scouts, coaches and executives have combed for common data and suggestions of order, the only trend surfacing was chaos.
“No consensus anywhere in this draft,” another AFC general manager said.
“First quarterback coming off the board around 15, but I’m probably wrong,” said a longtime scout.
Another evaluator put a bow on it: “The biggest thing is nobody knows sh** this year. I’ve talked to so many people that feel this is the least predictable draft of all time.”
During a time on the NFL calendar that's often filled with hyperbole, that statement tracks more accurately than anything else in 2022. And despite what's viewed as an underwhelming class overall, it’s teasing one of the most entertaining first rounds in NFL history. It's largely because the entirety of the NFL might as well be sitting in the audience with fans, playing the role of enthralled viewers as much as invested selectors.
What has made this process so wild in 2022? Yahoo Sports polled a multitude of decision-makers right into Tuesday, when things continued to seem uncommonly opaque. Here are the fundamental five realities that are contributing to it.
1. The top overall pick features a divided building
On Tuesday afternoon, a general manager who's very invested in the order at the top of the draft asked the question that's still amazingly unresolved: “Do you know for sure who No. 1 is?”
It feels like clarity is settling here, but it’s still late in the process for NFL teams inside the top 10 to be guessing who'll be the top pick. And it’s a decision that matters because whoever the Jacksonville Jaguars take at No. 1 is going to influence the Detroit Lions at No. 2, and that will set off a chain reaction creating order or total disarray.
From all accounts, the pick appears to be Georgia edge rusher Travon Walker. And while Jacksonville will almost certainly deny it following its pick, multiple sources have divided the team’s preference into three camps — two factions between Walker and Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson and a third faction valuing an offensive tackle.
Such contention isn’t uncommon with a top pick. Teams often work to find a consensus and different people value different players or positions. But this year, the choice isn’t being made among multiple dominant players. And for teams behind Jacksonville that might like only one specific player, it means that the Jaguars could leave the Lions, Houston Texans at No. 3 or even the New York Jets at No. 4 suddenly adjusting what they want to do.
The teams in the top five all need to know who is going No. 1 because it very likely will cause a significant ripple and potentially change their course entirely. That’s a lot of unknowns and rarely happens so high in a draft.
2. This isn’t a normal top 15 grouping
On balance, NFL teams will average out with 13-16 first-round grades in a typical draft. This one almost certainly features some boards in the single digits, with the next 30 to 50 players falling into a similar value group. Simply put, it’s not a strong class at the top. And certainly nothing remotely close to the bumper crop in the first half of Round 1 in 2021.
As one AFC talent evaluator put it, “It’s truly an average draft in the top 15.”
If that’s the case, it leaves teams with a plethora of vanilla options and searching for who best fits a system or carries the type of ideal traits for further development. Basically, it’s more a hunt to find even one player, rather than whittling down into a group of several and knowing that you’ll be happy with anyone inside the group. If that sounds like a process of settling rather than choosing, that’s likely what it’s going to amount to for a few teams.
3. The QB position is exactly as weak as we were told it would be
Without question, there’s usually some early griping about the sizing of a quarterback class in the first round. Then players start working out for teams and momentum builds. Before you know it, a few have pushed themselves into top-10 consideration (or higher) and it pulls one or two extra quarterbacks into the back half of the first round.
That has not happened this year. Instead, it has been a fairly pedestrian class, and teams have looked for value at other spots or even considered how they might be able to spin 2022 draft picks into 2023 selections.
How bad is it? Well, there easily could be only one quarterback taken in the first round this year. There also might not be a quarterback taken earlier than the 20th overall pick. Teams still don’t seem to have a consensus on who comes off first — a debate that appears to center on Liberty’s Malik Willis and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett — and some evaluators continue to argue that neither is worth a first-round pick.
One AFC general manager on the value of Malik Willis: “I would bet my bottom dollar he doesn’t fall out of the first round.”
An evaluator from a moderately quarterback-needy team in the NFC: “Willis is not a first-round pick.”
Rinse, repeat, chaos.
4. 8 teams have 2 first-round picks. Another 8 have none
The talent jumble has already given teams motivation to move around in the first round, targeting the few prospects they believe fit the value they are looking for. But a record eight teams have the ammunition of two first-round picks to aggressively move around: The Lions, Texans, Jets, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs.
They also have varying levels of need, which puts some in a position to trade back and accrue more picks, while others have rosters worthy of packaging and moving up for one difference-making player.
Conversely, there are eight teams without a first-round pick: the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams. Common sense would suggest that in a draft that trends toward similar grades from pick 20 to 60, you’re not going to see any trade motivation from these franchises.
Except that two teams in that grouping feel the board in the first round could get wild. So don’t presume they'll be out of the mix for taking a shot at one of the later picks if they see value. Anything is possible.
5. Given this offseason, we should probably expect a shocking veteran trade in first round
Everyone knows that wide receiver Deebo Samuel wants out of San Francisco, so that's earmarked as a trade that could absolutely go down on the first day of the draft — particularly with the Jets kicking tires on a swath of receiver trades and having the 10th overall pick as bait.
But we shouldn’t forget that this is an offseason that has been marked by all kinds of things we didn’t see coming. More than likely, there will be some teams discussing veterans who either aren’t on anyone’s radar before Thursday, or seem unlikely to suddenly become part of a last-minute deal. (See: wideouts A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin.)
At this moment, it seems the 49ers are adamant that Samuel won’t be traded. Well, 48 hours before he was dealt, some NFL teams didn’t think the Chiefs were serious about dealing Tyreek Hill. And then it happened. It’s that kind of offseason and the draft shouldn’t be taken in any other context.
To repeat where we started: No one has a clue about Thursday’s first round. And it’s going to be a fun weekend … before the weekend even starts.