The 2022 NFL draft was bound to feature many shifts over time.
With the COVID-19 pandemic hindering scouting through shortened seasons and other changes, the last year has created a series of challenges still being sorted out today. It came as little surprise, then, that the upcoming draft class seemed to lack the same consensus that followed the likes of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and other top 2021 prospects in the months before they heard their names called.
That uncertainty, however, has left plenty of room for players to reconfigure the landscape of the upcoming draft. And while there hasn’t been any one player who has replicated the massive leap Zach Wilson made in going from off-the-radar quarterback to No. 2 overall pick by the New York Jets, several prospects have helped themselves in a big way through the first half of the college football season.
Here’s a look at 10 prospect on the rise so far this year:
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables this week likened Pickett to record-setting former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, noting the similarities between the two players’ poise and accuracy. While the Pitt passer’s ascent might not result in him being selected No. 1 overall as Burrow was, Pickett is unquestionably college football’s biggest breakout performer this year. The four-year starter has tallied 21 touchdown passes in six games while completing nearly 70% of his attempts and averaging 9.4 yards per throw.
A Senior Bowl invitee last season, Pickett was on NFL teams’ radar before deciding to return for an additional year of eligibility granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like Burrow, his arm strength is not superlative, but his improved ball placement on downfield throws are integral to his rise. The 6-3, 220-pound signal-caller still has to prove he can hold firm in the face of pressure after being afforded impressive protection this year, and he seldom has been challenged thanks to an underwhelming schedule to date. Still, in a year in which many other draft-eligible quarterbacks have floundered, Pickett seemingly has put himself in consideration for a Day 2 slot.
QB Matt Corral, Ole Miss
With Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and North Carolina’s Sam Howell both failing to back up their preseason billing as the pre-eminent quarterbacks in this class, Corral has made himself a potential front-runner to be the first passer to come off the board. The 6-2, 205-pound junior has demonstrated a mastery of Lane Kiffin’s offense and a comfort throwing to every level of the field.
Corral entered the year with a reputation as a gunslinger with outsized confidence in pushing the ball down the field. Rather than subsisting on devil-may-care throws, however, he has improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 29:14 last year to 14:1 this season. The key difference: Corral has flashed a quicker trigger and eschewed many tight-window throws, instead finding open targets in the short-to-intermediate area. He also is more than comfortable using his running ability to extend plays and pick up first downs, with his 30-carry, 195-yard rushing outing against Tennessee highlighting that dimension of his game. Corral might not fit every offense and could use some additional refinement, but there’s little question he’s on a steady upward trajectory.
RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
A two-star recruit out of high school, Walker recorded 579 yards and 13 touchdowns in seven games last year for Wake Forest before transferring to Michigan State. As the focal point of the Spartans’ offense, however, the 5-10, 210-pound junior has shown off the skill set of a bell-cow back. He leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 997 rushing yards, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. His calling cards have been his lateral quickness and contact balance, which allow him to evade would-be tacklers in tight spaces or bounce off them for long gains.
Should he declare for the draft, Walker still will have to answer for his lack of polish both as a receiver (only five catches so far this year) and pass protector. Those limitations could damage his draft stock, but in a class that lacks a first-round talent at running back, Walker is a player to watch.
WR Jameson Williams, Alabama
For much of his career, Williams has stood in the shadow of other receivers. The former four-star recruit saw limited opportunities in his first two years at Ohio State behind potential first-round picks Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, prompting him to transfer this year to Alabama. The Crimson Tide, of course, have produced four first-round pass catchers in the last two years in Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. With the last two having moved on to the NFL, many expected John Metchie III to emerge as the Crimson Tide’s latest top talent at the position.
Though Metchie has made his mark as quarterback Bryce Young’s favorite target, Williams has turned heads this season with his explosiveness. He leads Alabama with 587 receiving yards, averaging an eye-popping 20.2 yards per catch. While he might not have the truly rare speed that Ruggs and Waddle boast, Williams has shown on his five plays of 70-plus yards (three receptions, two kick returns) that he has more than enough juice to separate from his peers. Whenever the junior is ready for the NFL, there should be plenty of teams eager to line up for a 6-2, 189-pound target with that big-play ability.
OT Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State
“Ickey” entered the season known as one of college football’s most devastating run blockers, with a head-turning highlight reel of him flattening opposing defensive linemen. In 2021, however, he has made a massive leap in pass protection, proving to be a steady hand as a blindside protector.
It’s unclear how many NFL teams will give the 6-4, 320-pound standout a chance as a left tackle at the next level, as his frame and length might leave some general managers seeing a future offensive guard. Ekwonu has shown sufficient potential for a shot on the outside, but he could also be a stellar option if forced to move to offensive guard.
DT Jordan Davis, Georgia
It’s almost impossible to pick out just one player from the Bulldogs’ dominant defense for this list, as linebackers Nakobe Dean and Adam Anderson and defensive linemen Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt easily could have made the cut as well. Ultimately, however, the nod has to go to Davis, the game-wrecker setting the tone for a unit that allows an FBS-low 6.6 points per game.
No one will confuse the 6-6, 340-pound senior nose tackle, who has notched just 18 tackles and 1 ½ sacks, for Aaron Donald. But don’t write him off as merely a run stuffer clogging the middle. Davis has consistently overwhelmed all comers and moves astonishingly well for a player of his size. While he likely will never post gaudy sack numbers and might need to demonstrate improved stamina given how frequently Georgia rotates its linemen, Davis is a force who can push the pocket and demands offenses to properly account for him. That profile could prove difficult for several teams to pass up in the first round.
DE Jermaine Johnson II, Florida State
How impressive is Georgia’s defensive talent? Well, Johnson transferred from the Southeastern Conference power to Florida State this past winter to get more playing time and now has recorded 6 ½ sacks in six contests. He also has been formidable in stopping the run game, and his 44 tackles rank second among all Seminoles players.
More reps and exposure are exactly what the 6-5, 262-pound fifth-year senior needed to enhance his case to NFL teams. With an alluring frame and burst, Johnson could see his stock rise even higher if his breakout season continues.
DE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan
In returning for his senior season, Hutchinson seems to be on a trajectory similar to that of former Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who elevated himself from fringe first-round prospect to a top-10 pick thanks to a dominant campaign. The 6-6, 265-pound edge rusher has recorded 4 ½ sacks in seven games, matching his career total from the three previous seasons. But Hutchinson’s impact for the 7-0 Wolverines extends well beyond his stats, as he has consistently created havoc in the backfield with his imposing first step and powerful punch.
This year’s draft might be deeper at defensive end than at any other position, and Hutchinson isn’t at the level of Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux as an apparent lock for a top-three pick. He should be in the mix for the next tier of defenders, though, particularly if he continues to hone his finishing touch as a pass rusher.
LB Devin Lloyd, Utah
A first-team All-Pac-12 pick last year, Lloyd had already established himself entering 2021 as an athletic run-and-chase linebacker with intriguing athleticism. The 6-3, 235-pound senior has built on that profile this year, ranking second in the FBS with 13 tackles for loss through six games.
More important, however, are the strides he has made in coverage (two interceptions this season) and as a controlled tackler. If he continues to harness his aggression properly, he offers a tantalizing skill set as a versatile three-down linebacker worthy of first-round buzz.
S Jaquan Brisker, Penn State
Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton is untouchable as the top safety in this class thanks to his singular athleticism and playmaking ability. Beyond him, however, are several other promising players at the position – including Brisker – who could be high-performing NFL starters
A former junior college transfer and fifth-year senior, the 6-1, 200-pound defender is making the most of his second year as a starter. As team captain, he has served as a key playmaker and emotional leader for a defense that ranks fourth in the country in points allowed (13;8 per game) while also demonstrating improved anticipation. His physicality in coverage and working toward the line of scrimmage should make him an attractive option for teams looking for an enforcer.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft 2022: 10 college prospects whose stock is rising this season