INDIANAPOLIS — It's officially March, and we truly don't know who the first pick of the 2022 NFL draft will be.
This is a departure from one year ago, when Trevor Lawrence was the foregone conclusion at 1.01 to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jaguars are back in the pole position again, but this time the choice is not so cut and dried.
There's no no-questions-asked quarterback prospect other franchises are guaranteed to be infatuated enough to trade up for. There are some quality prospects in the class, but overall it's more of a blue-collar draft crop, with no obvious selection yet revealing itself at the top.
BetMGM has installed Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal as the fairly heavy favorite to be picked first overall at -145. The next-lowest odds belong to Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson (+190), followed by North Carolina State OT Ikem Ekwonu (+600) and Oregon EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux (+800).
Lawrence's rocky rookie season suggests the Jaguars might want to buttress a prospect who was considered a generational talent. Giving Lawrence a better surrounding cast might be the best way not to screw up an elite prospect at football's most important position.
Lawrence was sacked 32 times last year, which was not an obscene number as 13 quarterbacks were sacked more. But he was under constant pressure, throwing a league-worst 17 picks and fumbling nine times (losing five). The lack of an offensive identity hurt the Jaguars, but it's clear the line can (and likely will) be upgraded.
The biggest change for Lawrence and the Jaguars has been the arrival of new head coach Doug Pederson. After Pederson "took some time away from football" last season, he said, helping him recharge after five years in Philadelphia, he felt energized for the opportunity that opened when the Urban Meyer experiment served as a 21st century reenactment of The Hindenburg.
Doug Pederson's thoughts on the first overall pick
Pederson had just finished up his NFL scouting combine session with media Tuesday and was on his way to a radio request when we crossed paths. I wanted to know: If the Jaguars are considering an offensive lineman with the first pick, what level of prospect would we have to be talking about?
"You know, for an offensive lineman there, there's got to be a 'wow' factor," Pederson said, "For the first pick overall, you know, whoever you decide to go with, he's gonna be an impact player. An instant impact, too."
There have been only two tackles taken first in the past 24 drafts. That spot is most often populated by quarterbacks (17), followed by pass rushers (four).
Pederson's experience suggests he might consider taking an offensive lineman first overall. He earlier referenced joining Andy Reid's staff with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, a team that was about as bad the year prior as the Jaguars were a year ago.
And with the Chiefs sitting in the top spot of the 2013 draft, they faced a similar situation as the Jags do now; that just wasn't a great draft (at all), and there was no clear-cut top option.
The Chiefs settled on Central Michigan's Eric Fisher, one of the two offensive tackles to be picked first since 1997 (Michigan's Jake Long in 2008 was the other). Pederson was the Chiefs' offensive coordinator that season, and he oversaw Fisher for the following three seasons as he grew into a very respectable player.
That said, Fisher also struggled early in his career. Part of that might have been chalked up to a position switch (from left tackle in college to right tackle in the NFL) and jump in competition (from the MAC to the NFL).
But Pederson said he'll have high — and immediate — expectations for whomever the Jaguars take first. It's likely a different mentality than drafting a quarterback first and preaching patience, which still happens in the league.
"I mean, I think if they're going to be the first pick, they should be an immediate starter," he continued. "You know, I think that's the first thing that has to take place."
How much say will Pederson have in the draft?
In his previous head-coaching position, Pederson typically let the Eagles' front office take the wheel during the draft — and he was OK with that setup, he said. Sure, Pederson gave his input and likely influenced some draft-related decisions. But in the past, he has often let scouts do what they do best: scout.
This time around, you at least get the idea Pederson could have more influence over personnel decisions in Jacksonville. The uncertain future of general manager Trent Baalke could have something to do with that, and Pederson said he wanted to learn from his mistakes in Philadelphia and "try some new things" in Jacksonville.
If you look at the makeup of Pederson's teams, they had as many difference-makers on the offensive and defensive lines as almost any other position. That lends credence to the idea of an offensive tackle or pass rusher at No. 1, assuming his influence is felt in the process.
Pederson wouldn't say whether he wanted to get more down and dirty with evaluations in Jacksonville. But he certainly has an idea of what a first overall pick should look like, even if we're talking about more of a meat-and-potatoes position on the offensive line.
"Yeah, you know, you've got to be able to see that ['wow' factor] on film," he said. "They've got to be special in some way — size, athleticism, play style, the tape, all of it. He's got to be a real difference-maker, a guy that can, you know, come in and show his impact right away on your football team."
Pederson said you'll see teams trade up into the top spot to target a prospect because "they know that's the guy that they're convicted on."
So is that a tease that the No. 1 pick might be moved? Baalke's comments earlier on Tuesday appeared to downplay that possibility. This of all years might be the quietest in recent memory in terms of trade feelers at No. 1. There might not be a lot of "conviction" players for other teams to deem worth the price it will cost.
“Well you’re always open for business," Baalke said. "Whether we’re gonna be able to move it or not (is unknown), but we’re very comfortable taking the pick as well. You’ve got to be prepared for anything in this league.
"So to say we won’t shop it is probably not 100 percent correct, but to say we will is probably not either. So we’re gonna see what comes, and if something comes our way and it makes sense to us, we’ll make that decision at that time.”
Pederson isn't acting like a man who is unduly stressed over the first pick or needing to help out Lawrence with that selection.
Lawrence still has a bright future, Pederson said, and his new QB getting a chance to "relax" this offseason could be huge. After all, this is a player who was run through the gauntlet a year ago, going straight from the College Football Playoff to the draft process and then immediately being anointed the savior of Duval ... before roundly struggling over a 17-game schedule.
"We'll help him out [this offseason]," Pederson said. "And he'll improve, too — that [Year 2] jump."
And Pederson believes the Jaguars will make a good pick at No. 1, if they stay there. Even if this draft isn't regarded as top-heavy with an assortment of star-caliber, ready-made prospects to pick from.
"These next two months, we're going to do what we need in order to make that pick," he said "I feel really good about it. We like our situation where we are now, even if there's a lot of work to do between now and then."