The 2022 NFL Draft will kick off Thursday night in Las Vegas in what will be a three-day extravaganza when college players see their professional dreams come true. Heisman Trophy finalists Aidan Hutchinson and Kenny Pickett will likely hear their names called early on Thursday night, while other long-time stars like Sam Howell might have to wait until Friday depending on what teams trade up or down in the first round.
Several other former college stars will answer the call sometime between Thursday and Saturday, many of whom had much different college careers than their draft positions suggest.
Let’s break down the top 32 players in the draft based on their college careers. This is not a mock draft. I repeat, this is not a mock draft. These rankings are based on overall college production, contribution to team success, disparity between combine success and actual play on the field and overall value to their college program.
One more time with feeling: this is not a mock draft.
1. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina : Howell is a fringe first-round draft pick in most mock drafts, but the dude was an absolute stud from the moment he stepped foot on campus in Chapel Hill. A starter from Day 1, he had 10,283 yards passing and 92 passing touchdowns in three seasons under center and helped put the Tar Heels back on the college map under coach Mack Brown.
2. Ahmad Gardner , DB, Cincinnati : The general public got to know “Sauce” Gardner this year when he helped Cincinnati become the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff, but he was far from a one-hit wonder. The lengthy defensive back had nine interceptions during his three-year career and never allowed a touchdown pass. He was the driving force behind the Bearcats’ rise to national prominence.
3. Breece Hall , RB, Iowa State : Hall had 3,941 yards rushing, 50 touchdowns, 735 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns in three seasons with the Cyclones. He proved from the moment that he arrived in Ames that he was capable of being an every-down back, and that should translate to the NFL no matter which team nabs the proven stud.
4. Tyler Linderbaum , C, Iowa : The 6-foot-2, 296-pounder for the Hawkeyes was a consensus All-American in 2021 en route to winning the Rimington Trophy, and he was a finalist for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. An Associated Press All-American and Rimington Trophy finalist in 2020, Linederbaum was the rock in the middle of a stellar Hawkeyes offensive line once he switched sides of the ball in 2019.
5. Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh : Pickett became a household name in 2021 when he went to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist, but the dude was awesome long before that. He threw for 12,303 yards and 81 touchdowns in five seasons with the Panthers and was a catalyst for an offense that transformed into a pass-happy force.
6. Devin Lloyd , LB, Utah : Lloyd kind of got lost in Pac-12 anonymity during his career, but draft analysts clearly recognize his talent and have pegged him as a likely first-round pick. He had 256 tackles, 43 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in 36 career games. He helped the Utes make three Pac-12 Championship Game appearances and was the MVP of the 2021 edition.
7. Kenyon Green , OL, Texas A&M : Green started every game during his three-year career in College Station and played four of the five positions along the offensive line. The 6-foot-4, 323-pounder will likely be a first-round pick, which is something that college fans saw coming since 2019.
8. Jordan Davis , DL, Georgia : The world was amazed when the 341-pounder posted a 4.78 40-yard dash at the combine, but his impact for the Bulldogs went far beyond that. He was the anchor in the middle of Georgia’s defensive line throughout his career, and even if he wasn’t making the play, he drastically altered offenses both on the field and during game prep.
9. Aidan Hutchinson, DL, Michigan : Hutchinson had an up-and-down college career with the Wolverines, but he will go much higher than No. 9 in the draft. He had 69 tackles (10 for a loss) as a sophomore in 2019 and 62 tackles (16.5 for a loss) in 2021. His 2020 season was cut short due to injury, but he has recovered nicely and proven he has plenty of tread left on the tires.
10. Desmond Ridder , QB, Cincinnati: Ridder totaled more than 12,000 yards and scored 115 touchdowns during his four-year career. More importantly, he led the Bearcats to undefeated regular seasons in each of his final two years, culminating in a Peach Bowl berth after the 2020 campaign and the CFP last season. He’s a proven stud with a track record of success. What more do you want?
11. Ikem Ekwonu , OL, NC State : Ekwonu earned consensus All-America honors in 2021 and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy. He started at left guard and tackle as a freshman and sophomore before finding a permanent home on the outside last season. Several mock drafts have him as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick, which makes total sense if you’ve watched him develop over the last few years.
12. Kayvon Thibodeaux , DL, Oregon : The No. 1 overall recruit in 2019 had 14 tackles for loss as a true freshman and followed up a relatively disappointing 2020 campaign (by Thibodeaux’s standards) with 12 tackles for loss in 2021. The edge threat impacted the Ducks defense on the field and on tape when opposing offensive coordinators were developing game plans to slow down one of the game’s top stars.
13. Chris Olave , WR, Ohio State : A four-year staple of the Buckeyes wide receiver corps, Olave finished his career with 2,702 yards receiving and 35 touchdowns. The 6-foot, 187-pounder from San Ysidro, California, never had a 1,000-yard season, but he made a massive impact throughout his career both on the field and off of it.
14. Kenneth Walker III , RB, Michigan State : Walker had 2,794 yards rushing and 35 touchdowns during his three-year career. He transferred to the Spartans after two years at Wake Forest and immediately became a college superstar. He had 1,636 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns as a junior, earning consensus All-America honors.
15. Kyle Hamilton , DB, Notre Dame : Hamilton had 138 tackles and eight interceptions in three seasons with the Fighting Irish. He was a second-team AP All-American and a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award given to the nation’s top defender. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder is a versatile safety who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in and help out when defending the run.
16. David Bell , WR, Purdue : Bell had 2,946 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns in three seasons with the Boilermakers, including 1,286 yards and six touchdowns last season. That performance earned Bell consensus All-America honors, and he was named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s top wide receiver.
17. Evan Neal , OL, Alabama : The Crimson Tide offensive line struggled in 2021, but it wasn’t Neal’s fault. The consensus All-American started every game at left tackle and was a key component for running back Brian Robinson Jr. Neal played guard and tackle during a three-year career and started every game for coach Nick Saban.
18. Verone McKinley III , DB, Oregon: McKinley is projected all over the place by draft analysts, but he proved throughout his college career that he deserves that Sunday money. With 11 interceptions over the last three seasons, he has shown tremendous game recognition and the versatility to play numerous positions in the secondary.
19. Garrett Wilson , WR, Ohio State: Wilson had 2,213 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns in three seasons with the Buckeyes, including 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The 6-foot, 183-pounder from Austin, Texas, boasts a 4.38 40-yard dash and was a key part of the success of the Buckeyes passing game throughout his career.
20. Drake London , WR, USC : London’s final season was cut short by an ankle injury, but that doesn’t take away from the success he enjoyed with the Trojans. He had 2,153 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns in 22 games, with almost half of his production coming in eight games last year en route to Offensive Player of the Year honors from the Pac-12’s coaches.
21. Nakobe Dean , LB, Georgia: Dean was a rock for a Bulldogs defense that evolved into one of the best units of all time during his three years in Athens. The Butkus Award winner had 168 tackles and 13.5 for loss during his career — 10.5 of which came during the Bulldogs’ run to the national title last season.
22. Malik Willis , QB, Liberty : Willis burst onto the scene for the Flames in 2020 and didn’t let up in his final season in 2021. He threw for 5,107 yards and 47 touchdowns over the last two seasons and added 1,822 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground. His two-year run after transferring from Auburn set the tone for the Hugh Freeze era at Liberty.
23. Matt Corral , QB, Ole Miss : Corral topped the 3,300-yard passing mark in each of the last two seasons, totaling 8,287 yards passing and 57 scores during his four-year career in Oxford. He added 1,338 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground as one of the toughest players at his position. He is slated as a first-round pick by most analysts, and his value in the huddle as a leader is a big reason why.
24. Jahan Dotson , WR, Penn State : Dotson was known for circus catches during his career, but it was his reliability that made him one of the most important Nittany Lions of the James Franklin era. He had 2,757 yards receiving and 25 touchdowns in four years, adding 338 yards and one touchdown on punt returns.
25. Jalen Pitre , DB, Baylor : Pitre had 75 tackles and two picks in 2021, earning consensus All-America honors in the process. He played a hybrid “star” role for the majority of his college career and was widely regarded as one of the leaders of the Bears defense. His draft projections are all over the place, but his work in Waco set the tone for the Dave Aranda era.
26. Christian Harris , LB, Alabama: Harris was a stalwart in the middle of Saban’s defense for the last three seasons, helping lead the Crimson Tide to the national title in 2020 and a title game appearance in 2021. He had 220 tackles and 26 tackles for loss during his career, including 80 tackles (11.5 for loss )for the SEC champs last season.
27. Charles Cross , OL, Mississippi State : The 6-foot-5, 307-pounder only had two seasons in college, but they were stellar seasons. He was a member of the SEC All-Freshman team in 2020 and followed it up by starting all 12 games at left tackle for the Bulldogs in 2021. He earned First-Team All-SEC honors as a redshirt sophomore, and he should hear his name called in the first round of the draft.
28. Treylon Burks , WR, Arkansas : Burks was the centerpiece of an offense that rose to prominence during Sam Pittman’s first two seasons leading the Razorbacks. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder is a big target who can not only serve as a possession receiver, but has the size and leaping ability to go over the top as a legit deep threat. He had 2,399 yards receiving and 18 touchdowns in three seasons in Fayetteville.
29. Jermaine Johnson II , DL, Florida State : A 6-foot-5, 254-pound monster from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Johnson transferred from Georgia to Florida State prior to the 2021 campaign and emerged as one of the top defensive players in the country. He had 70 tackles, including 17.5 for loss, en route to ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. The likely first-round pick was also a tremendous leader for Seminoles coach Mike Norvell.
30. Trey McBride , TE, Colorado State : McBride was one of the most reliable collegiate tight ends in recent memory during his four-year stint with the Rams, which featured 2,100 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 246-pounder had a breakout campaign as a senior, however, with 90 catches for 1,121 yards.
31. Travon Walker , DL, Georgia: Walker is widely regarded as one of the top players in the draft class, and barring something crazy happening, will hear his named called during the first round on Thursday night. He was an integral part of the Bulldogs’ 2021 title run, notching 7.5 tackles for loss as one of the top edge threats in the country.
32. Matt Araiza , P, Utah: The “Punt God” has to be included in this list, even if you don’t value punters the way that you should. Araiza averaged 51.1 yards per punt in 2021 en route to the Ray Guy Award. Punters are people, too, and Araiza’s ability to flip the field should make him a mid-round draft pick. Yes, he’s that important.
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