When the College Football Playoff matchups fell into place, it was a very good result for NFL draft folks. The top four of Alabama, Michigan, Georgia and Cincinnati not only represented the four teams with the best resumés, but also four programs that offer a wealth of draft talent.
With that in mind, we thought we would make five draft-related predictions for the four teams.
1. Aidan Hutchinson might be the No. 1 overall pick
For months now, lacking a premier QB talent in this class, one name has overwhelmingly populated the top overall spot in 2022 mock drafts: Oregon EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux.
And for good reason, too, we might add. Thibodeaux is a special talent with great athletic traits and ideal physical measurements. He also has refined some of his pass-rush techniques over the past two years and has become a plus run defender. Thibodeaux should be a Day 1 starter and instant-impact player, wherever he lands.
But Hutchinson has been on a different level of late. His performance against Ohio State might have been the best individual game we've seen from any 2022 prospect this season. And really, Hutchinson hasn't been less than dominant for most of the past two months.
In short, he's playing at the same level as the Watt and Bosa brothers performed at when they were in college. Perhaps Thibodeaux can regain his mantle as the top overall pick, depending on how the two players work out and interview and which NFL team lands the top selection. (Right now, it appears to be a three-horse race between the Lions, Texans and Jaguars, although the Jets could enter the mix by losing out.)
Hutchinson has at least one more opportunity to solidify his standing in a showcase game against Georgia. Bulldogs left tackle Jamaree Salyer is their best lineman and will provide a good test, although he allowed two sacks vs. Alabama in the SEC title game and is likely an NFL guard or center. Right tackle Warren McClendon is a solid pass protector and two-year starter, although we're not sure he's faced a talent such as Hutchinson, who rushes from both sides of the line with equal aplomb.
Thibodeaux, meanwhile, has indicated he might opt out of Oregon's bowl game. Will that matter? It's hard to say, but prospects are never one-game evaluations.
We haven't quite had an apples-to-apples draft comparison like Hutchinson vs. Thibodeaux in some time, although the Nick Bosa-Quinnen Williams (2019) and Ndamukong Suh-Gerald McCoy debates were somewhat similar, even with Williams and Bosa playing different positions.
There might not be a quarterback worth taking in the upper reaches of the 2022 draft, but there still should be some excellent debate on who deserves to go No. 1 — and who actually will land in that spot.
2. Desmond Ridder has excellent opportunity to work into Round 1 mix
Cincinnati's quarterback has a lot going for him. Ridder offers nice size (just shy of 6-foot-4, around 210 pounds) and really good athletic traits. He throws nicely on the move and vastly has improved his deep-ball accuracy. Ridder made incremental improvements throughout his four seasons and, in some ways, is the poster child for a talented player making the most of his extra time in school.
Our hesitation has always been: What's his ceiling? Can Ridder ever be a star in the NFL? We remain somewhat ambivalent on that question. We've compared him to former first-round pick Jason Campbell, who started 79 games for four different NFL franchises but never quite reached top-tier status.
However, there is no question from our perspective that Ridder absolutely is playing the best ball of his career right now. His early season performances against Indiana and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks earned attention. But Ridder has cranked it up to a new level in recent games, both in terms of avoiding mistakes (outside a few hiccups vs. East Carolina) and in terms of delivering NFL-caliber strikes.
Is he guaranteed a first-round landing spot? Not in our minds. There's a lot to figure out between now and April. How many teams need quarterbacks? Which QB prospects are coming out? And so on and so forth.
But between a matchup with Alabama's defense — which will have had four weeks to prepare for him — and a spot at the Senior Bowl, Ridder has a glorious opportunity to earn his way into the top 32 spots. Can he handle Bama's pressure? Can he take advantage of their sometimes leaky coverage? Can he tax a highly athletic, instinctive Tide defense with his scrambling ability?
The answers to these questions could help determine Ridder's final landing spot.
3. Bama could have the top two overall picks ... in 2023
Typical draft guy here — the 2022 NFL draft is still 20 weeks away, and we want to talk about the next one!
But for those who feel it's never too early, we feel it's worth mentioning that both QB Bryce Young and EDGE Will Anderson might be the first two picks in this upcoming draft were they eligible. As true sophomores, they are not. That weakens the 2022 class.
Why? Because both are rare talents. Young's precocious poise and elite physical gifts make him a future No. 1 selection. And Anderson likely would go ahead of even Hutchinson with his game-changing rush talent that give us some serious Von Miller vibes.
The impact that could have on the 2022 draft is a subtle one. But teams unhappy with their long-term QB or pass-rush situations could consider trading into the 2023 draft come draft day. These things are seldom crystal clear, but our best guess is that the 2023 draft will end up being a far more top-heavy one, talent-wise, than the 2022 NFL draft.
And just as the Jets and Giants currently hold top-10 picks in 2022 via traded selections, other franchises might consider the possibility of trading into the 2023 first round with the hope of landing a higher-than-expected first-round pick or accumulating more ammo in what could be a more talent-rich Round 1 in 16 months.
Most teams won't operate this way, but ones that do could be rewarded handsomely.
4. Georgia could end up with double-digit top-100 picks
The Bulldogs' unbeaten season has come to an end, even if they still have a chance to win it all. One reason UGA has a shot is that it boasts perhaps the most talented roster, up and down, outside of perhaps quarterback.
Defensively, Georgia has rare depth — and this from a team that had six defenders drafted this spring and who lost talented transfers such as pass rusher Jermaine Johnson (Florida State) and CB Tyrique Stevenson (Miami).
On that side of the ball along, the Bulldogs could have 10 players drafted. The status of pass rusher Adam Anderson (who remains suspended) is unclear, as he faces concerning questions about an alleged sexual assault. There's also the matter of which underclassmen stay in school or perhaps transfer out.
But in a best-case scenario, DTs Jordan Davis and Travon Walker, LB Nakobe Dean and CB Derion Kendrick (if he can answer some past character concerns) might all land in the top 50 picks, with at least another half dozen of their teammates earning draftable grades, including two more defensive linemen and two more linebackers.
Georgia also has talented offensive players such as WR George Pickens, RB Zamir White and Salyer, although Pickens — who has been beset by injuries this season — and White certainly might opt to stay in school. However it shakes out, though, this roster is absolutely loaded with future NFL talent.
There's even a decent chance that their backup QB, JT Daniels, is drafted while the starter, Stetson Bennett IV, is not.
5. The playoff games could produce 30% of the top 50 picks in 2022
If you do nothing but watch just the two semifinal matchups in your pre-draft prep, it's possible — albeit a slight stretch — that you could be laying eyes on 15 of the top 50 overall picks in 2022.
Think about that for a moment. Even if we admit that it's more likely not to happen, there's at least a chance we see an extremely high percentage of the early picks next spring come from these two games, along with the championship contest.
Among the top-50 possibilities, as we see it:
Alabama — OT Evan Neal, WR Jameson Williams, LB Christian Harris, DT Phidarian Mathis, S Jordan Battle
Cincinnati — CB Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, EDGE Myjai Sanders, Ridder
Georgia — Davis, Walker, Dean, Kendrick, Pickens, S Lewis Cine
Michigan — Hutchinson, EDGE David Ojabo, S Daxton Hill
Alabama WR John Metchie III's torn ACL likely keeps him out of this year's top 50 or coaxes him to return to school. We don't believe Cincinnati CB Coby Bryant, as well as he's played this season, can crack the top 50.
Ojabo, who has been a major breakout player opposite Hutchinson this season, isn't guaranteed to declare in 2022 — and that applies to Pickens and others, too. Prospects such as Battle, Mathis, Sanders, Cine and others might have some work to do to crack that range.
But still ... that's 17 players we listed. If all 17 somehow cracked the top 50, it would be more than one-third of the allotment. That's simply incredible. Even allowing for a few slipping out or not entering this draft class, it's quite clear that we're talking about four loaded rosters with players who should populate the NFL for years to come whenever they do declare.