JACKSONVILLE – There is talent at the top and depth after that.
That may or may not be enough to make edge defender the clear-cut best position in the 2022 NFL Draft, but it's more than enough to make it a major storyline in the coming days.
Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan. Travon Walker of Georgia. Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon. Those three only begin the list of potential first-round edge defenders in the '22 draft – and they're names that for months have been associated to varying degrees with the Jaguars at No. 1 overall.
"This is a really good year because you have athletes who are also terrific in terms of production," Jaguars/NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks said of the '22 edge class. "They're more than just athletes coming off the edge."
In addition to Hutchinson/Walker/Thibodeaux, players such as Jermaine Johnson II of Florida State, George Karlaftis of Purdue, Arnold Ebiketie of Penn State and David Ojabo of Michigan have been projected as potential first-round edge defenders.
"There are just so many guys that can come off the edge and immediately impact the passer," Brooks said. "This is a little different than other years. Some of them are 260 pounds. Some of them are 280, 300. What you're seeing is a more dynamic, superhero player off the edge.
"The league is trending to a passing game. You have to have pass protectors and playmakers and you have to have pass rushers."
Whereas many analysts project five or six first-round edge defenders, there is question over how many inside linebackers will be selected in Round 1. Players such as Nakobe Dean of Georgia and Devin Lloyd of Utah were productive college players, but inside linebacker isn't as much of a high-value in the draft as edge – and Dean and Lloyd both have measurables that analysts believe could push them down in Round 1.
Brooks: "Hutchinson is the best player in the draft because he checks off all the boxes. He's an outstanding athlete and a high-motor, non-stop playmaker. He's a tremendous competitor and then he's just a very skilled and talented pass rusher. He has the hands. He has the technique. He's not quite in the conversation with the Bosas (edge defenders Nick and Joey), but he's really refined in terms of how he attacks the quarterback off the edge."
Brooks on Walker: "He might be the story of the draft because his athleticism really captures the minds of evaluators. You just don't often see guys move around like he does with explosiveness, change of direction, agility and the strength to power he plays with. If you put him at No. 1, you are banking all on the tools and the upside."
HANDICAPPING THE JAGUARS
The Jaguars seem almost certain to select edge defender on either Day 1 or Day 2, with many analysts projecting them to select either Hutchinson or Walker No. 1 overall. That would give the team a projected elite-level player opposite 2019 No. 7 overall selection Josh Allen, a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie and a player who has flashed elite talent at various times in three NFL seasons. The Jaguars' pass rush improved last season, and the combination of Allen and Dawuane Smoot was a solid edge presence at times. Packaging Allen and No. 1-drafted edge rusher would give the Jaguars a potentially dominant duo in passing situations.
PROJECTED POSSIBLE FIRST-ROUND EDGE DEFENDERS
|Jermaine Johnson II
PROJECTED POSSIBLE FIRST-ROUND LINEBACKERS
CHANCE JAGUARS TAKE AN EDGE IN ROUND 1
CHANCE JAGUARS TAKE A LINEBACKER IN ROUND 1
Essentially none, but it's a possibility at No. 33 overall and beyond.
EDGEs ON THE JAGUARS ROSTER
LBs ON THE JAGUARS ROSTER
BROOKS BREAKS DOWN THE CLASS
The 2022 class features a collection of explosive edge defenders with dynamic pass rush skills. Although there is not a generational talent featured in the class, there are several blue-chip talents with the prototypical dimensions, athletic traits and technical skills to develop into perennial all-stars at the position. Hutchinson, Thibodeaux, Johnson and Walker are the headliners of the class with evaluators smitten with their disruptive potential. While each of the aforementioned pass rushers will need some time to settle into their respective roles, teams are more than willing to roll the dice on their talent. At linebacker, the 2022 class is loaded with a handful of underrated defenders with less than ideal physical dimensions, athletic profiles and competition concerns. That said, there are some certified ballers in this group with all-star potential; Lloyd and Dean are dominant players between the lines, but evaluators have dinged them for failing to measure up to the prototypes at the position. Despite their production defying the stopwatch and measuring tape, the scouting community has not rubber-stamped the duo as first-round locks.
It is hard to find off-the-ball linebackers with size, speed, length and instincts for the position. Montana State's Troy Anderson is a unicorn as a blue-chip linebacker with a quarterback/running back background. The small school standout is a tackling machine with the awareness and movement skills to also excel in coverage. With Anderson also displaying a knack for knocking the ball loose with big hits and punchouts, the Bobcats' star is a game wrecker with the potential to develop into an all-star once he acclimates to the pro game.
Lloyd shows rare skills as an off-the-ball linebacker with a diverse game that meshes sideline-to-sideline playmaking skills with dynamic pass rush ability off the edges. In addition, Lloyd displays outstanding instincts and awareness in coverage. As a disruptive defender with positional flexibility and big-play potential, the former Ute is a potential game-changer in a defense that deploys him as a Swiss Army knife along the front line.