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As an NFL fan, you might not be ready to shift into draft mode.
But we like the idea of introducing some of the bigger-name prospects for the 2022 NFL draft now, at least giving readers a big-picture familiarity of how things currently stand.
Had we written this one a year ago, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance almost certainly would have made our top 10. All three went in the top 11 picks this spring.
A lot can change for even highly touted prospects over the course of a single season.
The 10 players we’re profiling here — five quarterbacks and five non-QBs — aren’t guaranteed to be first-rounders in 2022. But they’re prospects who enter the season with the opportunity to lock up that caliber of draft status — and perhaps also have the potential to tumble.
Let's start with perhaps the most impactful defender in college football and a possible top-five pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
Oregon EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux
6-foot-5, 258 pounds
2020 stats: 38 tackles (9.5 for losses), three sacks, three passes defended
Thibodeaux arrived in Eugene as Rivals’ No. 6 overall recruit in the 2019 class, and he hasn’t disappointed to date. The COVID-19 pandemic shortened the Ducks’ season in 2020, and he started a bit slowly last season, but Thibodeaux was a man on a mission down the stretch.
With three sacks in his final four games, Thibodeaux was playing like one of the best defenders in the country. His highwater mark might have been a dominant performance going head up vs. USC’s Ali Vera-Tucker (the 14th pick in the draft this year by the Jets) in the Pac-12 title game, supplying a constant source of pressure in that game. It was the worst game — by far — of Vera-Tucker’s 2020 season and Thibodeaux’s best.
Thibodeaux also was strong as a freshman, racking up 14 tackles for loss, nine sacks, three passes defended and a forced fumble in 14 contests. He also saved his best for the conference title game that year, with 2.5 sacks (all in the fourth quarter) and a blocked punt.
There are not yet 2022 NFL draft odds offered by MGM Grand on Thibodeaux’s placement.
Thibodeaux checks pretty much every physical category you could want. He possesses great length, good mass and weight distribution and superb athletic traits — all of which put him in the upper echelon when compared to NFL players.
Thibodeaux’s strength is a pleasant surprise. He’s really a surprising bully when it comes to attacking offensive tackles and keeping a strong base. Thibodeaux flies off the line, bends well, can convert speed to power and does a great job of working offensive linemen’s hands out of position and putting them on skates.
His effort is typically fantastic, too. Thibodeaux routinely can be seen chasing down plays from the backside and tends to heat up in games the more he plays. We also appreciate the fact that he showed a better win rate in an expanded workload last season, going from 34.4 defensive snaps per game as a true freshman in 2019 (as a part-time starter) to 67.7 snaps per game as a full-time starter in 2020.
With a fairly diverse pass-rush arsenal and improved awareness against the run, Thibodeaux has a pretty strong overall skill set and the chops to be one of the first defenders off the board in 2022.
Thibodeaux’s biggest concern might be consistency. Both of his college seasons were marred by slow starts vs. lesser opponents. Scouts will want to see him get his motor cranked up a bit earlier, or else they could tend to focus on this strange and possibly alarming trend.
One thing we noticed in our first notable look at Thibodeaux this offseason, he occasionally is guilty of letting ball carriers slip through his grasp. Improved gap discipline and tackling technique, along with adding more base power, should be on his to-do list this season.
Thibodeaux has a variety of pass-rush moves but sometimes has trouble countering effectively when his initial move is stymied. He also might not be able to be so speed-dependent when it comes to rushing the quarterback this season and vary his approach a bit more.
We also haven’t seen Thibodeaux kick down inside much or drop into coverage. He typically lines up head-up over or outside the offensive tackle and might not be an incredibly versatile player.
Everything lines up for Thibodeaux to have a monstrous season, with many expecting him to declare for 2022. His ceiling is extremely high — perhaps close to a Chase Young-like level — that's reflected in one major scouting service giving Thibodeaux its highest summer scouting grade in college football (tied with Utah LB Devin Lloyd and Clemson WR Justyn Ross).
We’ll be dialed in on what looks like a tremendous early-season battle for Thibodeaux against Ohio State and its pair of fine tackles, Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, in Columbus. The rest of the Ducks’ September games are in Eugene; outside of a sneaky good battle vs. Fresno State LT Dontae Bull, the remaining opponents feature some very favorable matchups.
If Thibodeaux struggles in those battles this year, there might be some cause for concern. But everything points to a dominant final season as one of the most impactful defenders in college football.
The 2021 NFL draft featured only one pass rusher (Jaelan Phillips) in the top 20 overall picks. Assuming Thibodeaux performs the way we expect, that should change. Everything about his game screams top-10 pick, and him going top five wouldn’t be stunning at all.
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