2022 NFL draft: Grades and analysis for every first-round pick

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Is it fair to grade draft picks as they happen, as opposed to two or three years down the road, when we can really what prospects can do with their NFL teams?

Probably not.

Is it fair to evaluate draft picks as they happen, based on value, pick, and best players available around the prospects taken? Sure, and that’s what we’re doing here.

By assigning letter grades to every first-round draft pick, we’re not saying that this or that team failed with a prospect (for the most part — sorry, Saints). We’re saying that these picks made more or less sense depending on draft capital and prospect talent. Add in who else might have still been on the boards, and you start to get a clearer picture of each pick.

Of course, many of these grades could turn out to be catastrophically wrong, and I certainly hope that all the negative grades are. Nobody wants to see a draft pick fail at the next level. But as things stand right now, here’s my analysis of each first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Travon Walker, EDGE, Georgia. Grade: A-

(Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports)

There are pass-rushers with more finished traits in this class, but perhaps nobody with more potential, both inside and outside, than Walker. Not only can he blow things up from every gap, but he’ll be asked to be more aggressive in Jacksonville’s defense than he did in Georgia’s containment fronts. I think that Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II is the better edge defender, but it’s hard to argue against Walker’s potential.

Detroit Lions: Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan. Grade: B+

(Syndication: USA TODAY)

I love Hutchinson as a culture-definer and a speed rusher with the most ridiculous counter in this draft class. He does have some power with his speed-to-power moves, but he’s more of a T.J. Watt type than a true aggressor who’s going to slip inside and beat up on guards. So, while I would have preferred Jermaine Johnson II or Kayvon Thibodeaux in this spot, the fit is obvious.

Houston Texans: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU, Grade: B

Derek Stingley Jr.

(Scott Clause/The Advertiser via USA TODAY NETWORK)

This is a bit of a surprise, as Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is still on the board, and I think that Gardner has been the better and more consistent cornerback of late. The Texans obviously hope that Stingley can capitalize on his 2019 tape, which was first-overall pick stuff, and get past the last two seasons of injuries and relative ineffectiveness.

New York Jets: Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB, Cincinnati. Grade: A+

(Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports)

In today’s NFL, where offenses are throwing quick game 60% of the time, you’d better have cornerbacks in your defense who can press and disrupt at the line of scrimmage, and then take receivers all the way up the field. Gardner played about 75% press in his snaps last season, and the Bearcats played more single-high than any NCAA defense except for LSU’s. There is no better fit for Robert Saleh’s defense in this draft class, regardless of position.

New York GIants: Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon. Grade: A

(Syndication: USA TODAY)

Let’s start with the effort debit regarding Kayvon Thibodeaux. The tape tells a very different story. You will also hear evaluators tell you that Thibodeaux is limited with his relative lack of bend around the arc, but there are many ways to get to the quarterback. As an inside/outside disruptor, Thibodeaux has few peers in this class.

Carolina Panthers: Ikem Ekwonu, OL, North Carolina State, Grade: B+

(Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Well, my NFL comp for Ekonu was Taylor Moton, who will now be Moton’s bookend, if the Panthers choose to keep Ekwonu at tackle — he could also be a plus guard. Ekwonu doesn’t quite fit the Panthers’ need for an elite pass-protector — at least not yet — but if you’re into power, he’s the guy.

New York Giants: Evan Neal, OT, Alabama. Grade: A

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Ikem Ekwonu might be the more powerful tackle in this class, and Charles Cross is the better pass-protector, but there isn’t a more versatile, high-level offensive lineman in this class, and that’s what the Giants desperately need. He reminds me of Andrew Whitworth, in that he’s plug-and-play wherever you line him up.

Atlanta Falcons: Drake London, WR, USC. Grade: B

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Falcons came into this draft needing just about everything, and it’s no surprise that they went with a receiver here. London has the ability to body any cornerback out, and his catch radius is special. He’ll be a great complement to tight end Kyle Pitts. There are legitimate concerns about London’s ability to separate, but as a big slot guy, he could be very special.

Seattle Seahawks: Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State. Grade: A+

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s a bit bittersweet that the Seahawks are using one of the picks they got in the Russell Wilson trade to select the best pass-blocker in this class, considering the mostly horrible offensive linemen Wilson had to deal with, but whoever plays quarterback for the Seahawks in 2022 and beyond will have a killer blindside protector. And he’s a better run-blocker than you may think, or Pete Carroll wouldn’t touch him with a 2000-mile pole.

New York Jets: Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State. Grade: A

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Jets needed more receiver help for Zach Wilson, and they get it with Garrett Wilson, who might be the most complete receiver in this draft class. Add Wilson to Corey Davis and Elijah Moore, and the Jets’ offense just got a lot more interesting.

New Orleans Saints (from Washington Commanders): Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State. Grade: B

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Saints traded up from 16th to 11th with the Washington Commanders, giving up the 16th, 98th, and 120th picks. They obviously didn’t think that Olave would be there a few picks later, and that makes sense if you want a lithe, opportunistic receiver who knows how to get open above all. Olave isn’t the most physical receiver in this class, but he doesn’t have to be with the way he separates. There’s a bit of a hit here in the grade because I think that Jameson Williams would have been the better bet here, but perhaps the Saints were put off by Williams’ recovery from injury.

Detroit Lions (from Minnesota Vikings): Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama. Grade: A+

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

We have an NFC North trade, with the Lions trading up from 32 to 12, and giving the Vikings the 32nd, 34th, and 66th picks. With that 12th overall pick, Detroit gets the best receiver in this class (in my opinion), and a player who, when he recovers from injury, should have a Tyreek Hill-like impact on a Lions offense in desperate need of downfield speed and separation. Williams’ recovery appears to be going well, and when you watch his tape, it’s easy to understand why Detroit would move up 20 spots for such a player.

Philadelphia Eagles (from Houston Texans): Jordan Davis, IDL, Georgia. Grade: B

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Eagles traded up with the Texans to take Davis, the mammoth interior defender who absolutely blew up the scouting combine. Some will debit Davis as more of a two-down run defender, but he’s got more than enough moves to be a third-down disruptor. There’s a need to replace Fletcher Cox sooner than later, and while Davis is a bit of a different player (think Shaun Rogers or Vita Vea instead), this is a very solid pick with a bit of projection.

Baltimore Ravens: Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame. Grade: A+++

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

There is no better player in this class than Kyle Hamilton, and the Ravens — who seem to have a preternatural ability to sit and wait for value — have done it yet again. Baltimore benefits from the fact that a lot of teams don’t value safeties as they should, and don’t seem to understand the transformative effect Hamilton can have on a defense. I’m telling you this: The Ravens haven’t had a safety this good since Ed Reed.

Houston Texans (from Philadelphia Eagles): Kenyon Green, OL, Texas A&M. Grade: B

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

This pick this high could be a nod to Green’s positional versatility, though I think Green is a guard through and through as opposed to a tackle. And I had Green rated second on my list of guards behind Boston College’s Zion Johnson. Still, Green gives Houston’s offensive line a massive upgrade, and it’s obviously needed.

Washington Commanders (from New Orleans Saints): Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State. Grade: B

(Gary Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

This isn’t the flashiest pick, and there are those who will criticize the team for moving down when they could have had Jameson Williams with the 11th pick. But Dotson is an underrated professional receiver from Day 1, and when Carson Wentz is your quarterback, the more professionalism, the better.

Los Angeles Chargers: Zion Johnson, OG, Boston College. Grade: A-

(Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

This doesn’t address the Chargers’ run defense issues, but good luck getting anything done on defense against a left side of Johnson and Rashawn Slater. In consecutive years, Los Angeles took the best tackle (Slater) and the best guard (Johnson) in their classes, and it’s tough to argue with that.

Tennessee Titans (from Philadelphia Eagles): Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas. Grade: B-

(Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports)

The Titans traded A.J. Brown, their best receiver, to the Eagles for the right to the 18th overall pick and the 101st pick in the third round, And for all that, Tennessee selected Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks. Given that the Eagles just gave Brown a new $100 million contract extension, and given that our own Mark Schofield’s NFL comparison for Burks was… A.J. Brown, you can say that this was a Moneyball move on the part of general manager Jon Robinson. Try to get a cheaper version of your best receiver, and hope it works out. If it doesn’t? Well, there’s a lot of risk here.

New Orleans Saints: Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa. Grade: F

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Okay. I get that the Saints need an offensive tackle after losing Terron Armstead to the Dolphins in free agency. And I get that everybody loves Penning after he threw a bunch of guys around during Senior Bowl practices. But there’s a big difference between bullying guys around in a controlled environment, and dealing with the best edge defenders the NFL has to offer. The Saints have made a major mistake here, and it could affect their offense for a while. I had a third-round grade on Penning, and that was generous.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Kenny Pickett, QB, Pitt. Grade: B

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Steelers needed to hit it down the fairway with their quarterback search ,and Mitch Trubisky wasn’t going to do it. Pickett is that solid double — the most pro-ready quarterback in this class, and a prospect with some upside. At his best, Pickett projects as the good version of Kirk Cousins. Is that the upside you want to bet on? Or, do you take a more developmental guy with better traits like Malik Willis? The Steelers, who are a quarterback away from doing something special in the postseason, went with the safer bet.

Kansas City Chiefs (from New England Patriots): Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington. Grade: A

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

The Chiefs have needs at receiver after the Tyreek Hill trade, but instead trade up with the Patriots (who have a real need at cornerback) for Trent McDuffie, the best CB in this draft not named Sauce Gardner or Derek Stingley Jr. McDuffie is an aggressive man cornerback with great range who will fit perfectly in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense.

Green Bay Packers: Quay Walker, LB, Georgia. Grade: B

(Syndication: The Indianapolis Star)

There’s no doubt the Packers were looking at a receiver here after trading Davante Adams to the Raiders, but the value wasn’t there after an early run at the position, so Green Bay wisely chooses to upgrade their linebacker corps. Walker, who can blitz, cover, and play off-ball, should be an excellent complement to De’Vondre Campbell, who really defined that defense in 2021.

Buffalo Bills (from Baltimore Ravens): Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida. Grade: B

(Syndication: The Tennessean)

The Bills traded up with the Ravens (via the Cardinals) to take Elam, the Florida cornerback, who brings the kind of aggressive coverage skills preferred by Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier. He’s a bit of a work in progress in that his more bully-ball tendencies might be frowned upon by NFL referees, but this is a good pick at a position of need.

Dallas Cowboys: Tyler Smith, OT, Tulsa. Grade: C

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

I had Smith as my sixth-graded offensive tackle, and among players at this position still on the board, I would consider Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann and Washington State’s Abraham Lucas as better prospects. But if you want a pure power tackle, and you don’t want to take on Trevor Penning’s on-field baggage. Smith probably replaces La’el Collins on the right side for now. Whether he can replace Tyron Smith on the left side later? That’s a big question.

Baltimore Ravens (from Buffalo Bills): Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa. Grade: A

(Syndication: HawkCentral)

I’ve mocked Linderbaum to the Ravens more than once, and I was doing it to their 14th overall pick. For Baltimore to get a guy at a position of need that general manager Eric DeCosta compared to future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda at the scouting combine? That’s a spicy meatball, and when you combine this with Baltimore getting (read: STEALING) Kyle Hamilton with the 14th pick, it looks like the Ravens are on their way to crushing yet another draft.

New York Jets (from Tennessee Titans): Jermaine Johnson II, EDGE, Florida State. Grade: A+

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Since Johnson was my top edge-rusher in this class, and the Jets managed to get him by trading up to 26 with the Titans… well, this is ridiculous. The Jets got out of the first round with three picks: Sauce Gardner, Garrett Wilson, and Johnson. You could argue that they came away with the best prospects at three of the game’s four most important positions, and you can’t do any better than that.

Jacksonville Jaguars (from Tampa Bay Buccaneers): Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah. Grade: A

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Jaguars’ front seven just got a whole lot more interesting this offseason. With the signing of former Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun in free agency, and the selection of Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker first overall, defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell can deploy Walker and Josh Allen outside with Oluokun and Lloyd as the off-ball ‘backers, and he can kick Walker inside, moving Lloyd to an EDGE role. Lloyd as quite possibly the best player in the Pac-12 last season, and his versatility will show up right away.

Green Bay Packers: Devonte Wyatt, IDL, Georgia. Grade: B

(Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports)

Wyatt is an amazing interior defensive lineman who brings Kenny Clark to mind, and when dealing with the Packers’ interior defensive line over the last few seasons, it’s been all about doubling Clark and singling everybody else. That changes now. Green Bay’s defense got a lot better with Wyatt and linebacker Quay Walker, and Aaron Rodgers has months to complain about no first-round receivers on Pat McAfee’s show.

New England Patriots (from Kansas City Chiefs): Cole Strange: IOL, Tennessee-Chattanooga. Grade: D

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

I’m not sure where the Patriots plan to play Strange. If they want him at guard, I’m not sure how well he fits the gap/power stuff that has been a mainstay for Bill Belichick’s team, and if they want him at center, I think Kentucky’s Luke Fortner would have been the better pick. Not that I’m questioning the football acumen of the greatest football coach I’ve ever seen… but this is a head-scratcher.

Rams head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead seemed equally mystified.

Kansas City Chiefs: George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue. Grade: B-

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The Chiefs are in need of edge disruption, but were this my call, I would have gone with Minnesota’s Boye Mafe, or taken a medical redshirt on Michigan’s David Ojabo. Karlaftis is an above-average strong-side end in an old-school way, but his limitations could show up with more presence in the NFL.

Cincinnati Bengals: Daxton Hill, DB, Michigan. Grade: A

(Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Here. I’ll just place what I wrote in my final mock draft, when I had the Bengals selecting Hill right here with the 31st pick:

The Bengals did a lot in free agency to upgrade their offensive line (a veritable and obvious necessity), and they may do more in this particular mock. But they also need help in the secondary — Chidobe Awuzie and Jessie Bates III are great defenders, and the addition of Hill, who can play everywhere from the slot to the deep third to outside cornerback, would give defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo all kinds of options.

Yeah, it’s an ideal fit.

Minnesota Vikings: Lewis Cine, S, Georgia. Grade: A

(Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

The Vikings came into the 2022 draft with all kinds of needs in their secondary, so it was probably a bit of a surprise when they traded from 12 to 32. But here, they get the second-best safety in the class outside of Kyle Hamilton, and Cine is a hammerhead defender who will make this defense better right away. Moreover, there are still a lot of good cornerbacks on the board, and Minnesota has extra picks to deal with that.

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