What we got wrong, and what we learned, about the 2022 NFL draft

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Everything.

We got everything wrong about the 2022 NFL draft.

Ok, so it might not be that dramatic, but after those of us in the media landscape spent months thinking about roster construction and evaluating players on film, the NFL finally had the chance to have their say.

And it turned out a little different than we expected.

Perhaps the biggest theme heading into the draft was “uncertainty.” It began at the top, with questions over who the Jacksonville Jaguars were going to take with the first-overall selection. While in previous draft years you could be positive it would be a quarterback first — and you could be pretty sure which one — with the Jaguars looking to address another position, there was not even any consensus as to how it would start Thursday night.

Now with the draft behind us, we can start to take away some lessons from the results. Here is a look at a few things we got wrong, and a few things we learned.

The league kept telling us how they viewed this quarterback class and we refused to listen

(AP Photo/AJ Mast)

Dateline: Indianapolis.

The day was Tuesday, March 1st. It was the first day of the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, a day set aside for general managers and coaches to meet with the media and start answering questions about the incoming draft class, free agency, and whatever else the assembled media members had on their minds.

As I walked into the media center, walking out was Colts general manager Chris Ballard. Clearly, something had happened during his media session. As I started talking to those who were in attendance, I was able to piece it together.

By all reports, Ballard had taken a blowtorch to Carson Wentz’s trade value.

During his session at the podium, Ballard talked about how the veteran quarterback needed to handle criticism and coaching better, how he needed to hit the layups as a passer, and more. Over the course of that hour, everyone who heard Ballard speak came away convinced that no team in their right mind would give up a draft pick to acquire Wentz via a trade.

In a way, they were right.

The Washington Commanders gave up two.

The Commanders were not the only team to target a veteran in this off-season. The Atlanta Falcons, sitting at the eighth spot in the draft order, signed Marcus Mariota. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who would be the only team to draft a quarterback in the first round, still signed Mitchell Trubisky during free agency. With their actions at the start of free agency, these teams with quarterback needs told us how they — and for the most part the league — viewed this quarterback class.

We listened, for a while.

But then we changed directions.

After all, in the wake of the Wentz move I was out almost immediately with a piece arguing that the Commanders just told us how the league felt about this class. Yet despite this knowledge, and as the draft approached, many of us started to believe that in the end, teams would not be able to help themselves, and would draft quarterbacks early anyway because of the “need” and the “positional value.”

I mean, after writing that piece above, I ended up putting four quarterback in the first round in my final, predictive mock draft. Talk about getting it wrong…

Because instead of panicking, like we expected teams to do, they waited. Pickett came off the board in the first round. Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis and Matt Corral waited until the third round to hear their names called. Bailey Zappe — not Sam Howell — was next in the fourth. Carson Strong went undrafted.

For weeks, the league was telling us how they felt about this class. We listened for a while, but not long enough.

The beauty of the draft, or free agency, is that teams have to actually make decisions. Blowing smoke about the strength of a position group during a press conference at the Combine is one thing, but turning around to sign veterans at the position is an affirmative decision that gives us more insight than a comment at the podium.

If and when those choices are made in the future, I will be paying much more attention. Not just in March, but in late April as well.

The talent pool is wider and deeper than we can even imagine

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Part of the beauty of the phenomenon that is “Draft Twitter” is that thousands of draft analysts spend hundreds and hundreds of hours each year combing through YouTube and other avenues to find diamonds in the rough. Those FCS-level players, and even lower, that if just given a chance, they can contribute to an NFL team.

But with all the resources they have at their disposal, NFL teams can cast wider and wider nets. We saw that this weekend.

It began on Thursday night, with the New England Patriots drafting Cole Strange at 29 overall. The Chattanooga offensive lineman is now the highest-drafted player in school history, surpassing Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was drafted in the third round.

Now, it was not a huge surprise that Strange was drafted, as he was a Senior Bowl invite and many expected that he would come off the board at some point in the first three rounds. But as round one turned into round two, the lower-level prospects continued to come off the board. Round two began with Christian Watson near the top of the round, and Troy Andersen near the end of the second.

Then came day three, where we saw players like Joshua Williams from Division II Fayetteville State, Zyon McCollum from Sam Houston State, and Andrew Ogletree from Youngstown State come off the board. If that does not convince you, we also saw Sam Roberts from Division II Northwest Missouri State come off the board to the Patriots. True, that might be another example of Bill Belichick being Bill Belichick, but a few picks before Roberts the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Gregory Junior from Ouachita Baptist, making Junior the first player in school history to be drafted.

In the days before the draft I was chatting with a staff member at a Power 5 school, who reminded me that there are nearly 2,000 draft-eligible prospects each year. The old adage that “if you can play, the league will find you” looks truer and truer each year.

Age is just a number

As analysts began reacting to the 2022 NFL draft, another line of thinking emerged regarding the age of prospects.

Over the past few years, older prospects were viewed with skepticism. In this draft, however, we saw older players come off the board more frequently. Jim Nagy, the Executive Director of the Senior Bowl, pointed this out on Sunday:

Now, there could be an easy explanation for this: COVID. After all, when the NCAA granted college athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, many prospects stayed in school for an extra season. For some, that was a “super senior” season. Kenny Pickett, for example, stayed in school for such a season and is probably glad that he did. Devonte Wyatt, who was drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers — a team that typically shies away from older prospects — is another prospect who played a “super senior” season.

So, the fact we saw older prospects get drafted this cycle might be an aberration due to COVID, and not part of a larger trend. But this still merits watching. David Archibald, a very smart analyst who is perhaps best known for highlighting how much Bill Belichick hates fifth-round draft picks, pointed out on Twitter that the economics of the NFL might make older prospects more intriguing for teams:

Whether this is a one-year aberration due to COVID, or part of a larger trend, is worth monitoring over the next draft cycle.

We might be seeing a paradigm shift at wide receiver

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

You might think that with the NFL draft in the rear-view mirror that the last thing I would do with my Sunday was think about football.

But there I was first thing Sunday morning, coaching in a youth spring passing league. Shoutout to the Rockville Raiders for their first W of the season, of course…

Now go back and read the first sentence of that previous paragraph…a youth spring passing league. There are teams in this league as young as 8U.

Passing is king, not just in the NFL, but across all levels of football.

Back during my Pop Warner days — and no we were not wearing leather helmets — most of the offenses I played in had a handful of passing plays, with maybe five or six different routes for receivers. The running game was king, and once the football season ended in the fall or early winter, footballs would go on the shelves until August.

Now? Now we’re teaching ten-year-old boys and girls the full route tree, and the game is a year-round sport. High school teams are using spring and summer passing leagues to install their passing concepts for the fall. On Friday nights, defensive coordinators are more worried about when the quarterback drops to throw than they are when he turns to hand off.

And this is not a 2022 thing, but part of a process that has been underway for a while now.

The result?

We saw it this weekend. Six receivers drafted in the first round, seventeen drafted in the first three rounds, and 28 receivers drafted overall. In year’s past, we might see three or maybe four come off the board in the first round, but now five or even six is becoming the norm. In 2020 we saw six receivers in the first round, last season we saw five, and then we saw the six on Thursday night.

Because of the depth of talent coming out each year at the position, teams are starting to adjust how veterans are handled. Perhaps the biggest move on Thursday night? The trade of A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles. Rather than give Brown a big contract, the Tennessee Titans moved on, and drafted a potential replacement in the first round.

The growth of the passing game across all levels of football has created deeper and deeper talent pools at the wide receiver position, and we might be seeing how the wide receiver position is handled from a roster construction standpoint change as a result.

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