NFL Draft 2022 Recap: Defenders Rise to the Top, Zesty Trades, and More

Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and another man holding up his green Jets jersey showing his name and number. NFL Draft 2022
Gregory Payan/AP / Shutterstock

On Thursday evening, the Jaguars took Georgia edge defender Travon Walker with the first pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. On Saturday afternoon, the 49ers tapped Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy with the 262nd pick. That ended an event that takes three days in theory but lasts an entire year in practice as scouts, team executives, and media alike try their best to predict the future.

The 2023 draft is 51-and-a-half weeks away. While time is running short to get ready for that one, it’s postmortem time for the NFL Draft 2022, an event that was unusual for its most sought-after position groups but normal for finding its own ways to suck up attention (and create chaos). Here are four key storylines that defined the NFL’s springtime Super Bowl from start to finish.

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1. The top of the draft is usually about offense. In 2022, it was about defense.

Leading up to Thursday night’s first round, the first overall pick in all but six drafts since 1998 had been a quarterback. This year did not work that way. (More on that shortly.) But it wasn’t just QBs who missed out on the very top of the 2022 draft pecking order. The first five picks were all defensive players: Georgia edge Walker to the Jaguars, Michigan edge Aidan Hutchinson to the Lions, LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. to the Texans, Cincinnati corner Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner to the Jets, and Oregon edge Kayvon Thibodeaux to the Giants.

Part of the NFL being a passing-centric league is that quarterbacks are even more mega-valuable than they used to be. But so are the people tasked with sacking those quarterbacks, who tend to get bigger contracts than any other defensive player. This is also true of those rare cornerbacks who can handle elite wide receivers with limited help.

This year, NFL teams saw more special talents in these defensive areas than they did among QBs, so they loaded up—even the Giants, who took the pass-rushing Thibodeaux on the same day they declined to pick up the fifth-year contract option on their current QB, Daniel Jones. Relatedly, the first two offensive picks in this year’s NFL Draft were both tackles who will be the primary wall between their teams’ QBs and those edge rushers.

A lot of the media buildup to the draft was an attempt to sort out the differences between Hutchinson (who racked up a bunch of sacks in college), Walker (who didn’t, but likely because of how UGA used him), and Thibodeaux (a former No. 2 overall recruit who had some injuries during his time at Oregon). It will take years to figure out whether the Jaguars were right to make Walker the class’s No. 1 man, but it could’ve taken just as long to argue in circles about who had the best pre-draft profile. All three have good chances to be quality pros.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett, center, the Pittsburgh Steelers first-round draft pick, poses for a photo with head coach Mike Tomlin, left, and President/owner Art Rooney II against a yellow background. NFL Draft 2022
Quarterback Kenny Pickett, center, poses for a photo with head coach Mike Tomlin, left, and Steelers president/owner Art Rooney II. Gene J Puskar/AP / Shutterstock

2. The league’s interest in this draft’s quarterbacks was even lower than many thought.

This was always going to be the story of the 2022 NFL Draft: An event that is usually built around quarterbacks would be different this year, because no QB was a consensus top prospect. There were five signal-callers who drew at least some media consideration as first-round picks, but it appears that far fewer QBs received the same assessment from actual NFL teams.

No QB got picked until the Steelers, fresh off Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement, took hometown hero Kenny Pickett from Pitt with the 20th pick. And after that, it was crickets for a long time. Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, a late riser on many media big boards, was next. He went to the Falcons in the third round, 74th overall. Liberty’s Malik Willis, whom some mock drafters thought would go as high as the top 10, wound up going 86th to the Titans. Matt Corral from Ole Miss went 94th to Tennessee. Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe went in the fourth round, 137th overall, to the Patriots. He leapfrogged North Carolina’s Sam Howell, who shockingly fell all the way to the fifth round, 144th overall, to the Commanders.

There was no unified theory of who the best QB in the class was. Ultimately, the NFL decided it was Pickett by a comfortable margin. But if the Steelers hadn’t liked him, there’s no telling how long it would’ve taken for any team to take a QB. Expect the 2023 NFL Draft to be more normal at the top, with Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud assuring that quarterbacks return to the first handful of picks.

A.J. Brown carrying the ball during a football game. NFL Draft 2022
A.J. Brown John Amis/AP / Shutterstock

3. The first round featured a few fun trades. The Titans and Eagles made the zestiest one.

The Titans had a dilemma entering the draft. They had A.J. Brown, one of the best young receivers in the NFL, entering his fourth year in the league and the last of his rookie contract. The sides had reportedly expressed some optimism that they would make a deal, but when the draft arrived on Thursday, they hadn’t wrapped it up. That left Tennessee with a few choices, but they mostly amounted to “pay Brown more money than they wanted” or “trade him elsewhere.” The huge contract the Titans gave QB Ryan Tannehill before last season, among other deals, has left them with little space to give extensions to their best young players.

The Titans opted for a trade and struck one up with the Eagles, who gave the Titans the 18th and 102nd picks. The Eagles immediately gave Brown a four-year contract with $57 million guaranteed, on such a tight timeline that it’s clear the parties involved had worked this out prior to the trade. The Titans, for their part, turned around and used the first-round pick the Eagles sent them on Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks, who isn’t Brown (nobody is) but is a similarly big-bodied wideout with top-end athleticism and downfield catching ability.

It’s a straightforward deal for the Titans, who would like to replace Brown with someone less expensive (if probably less productive, at least to start). It’s fascinating for the Eagles, who have now picked up two elite receiving talents for QB Jalen Hurts in the last year: DeVonta Smith in the first round in 2021, and Brown via trade in 2022. Hurts needs to have a huge year throwing to those two, and if he doesn’t, the Eagles will at least know they need a new passer.

Kyle Hamilton holding up his Baltimore Ravens jersey showing his name and number. NFL Draft 2022
Kyle Hamilton James Atoa/UPI / Shutterstock

4. The Baltimore Ravens won the draft.

Just kidding. I don’t know that. But we’re in the immediate aftermath of the NFL Draft, and now’s the time for every person with a keyboard and an internet connection to claim that one team just catapulted itself to the top of the sport thanks to their player selections.

The Ravens did get a really spiffy draft haul, though. They used the No. 14 overall pick on Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, the clear-cut best player at his position and arguably the best player in the draft. Hamilton was only available to them because teams occasionally undervalue elite safeties and Hamilton ran a below-average 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Then, after a couple of trades that included sending receiver Hollywood Brown to the Cardinals, Baltimore used the No. 25 pick on Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, also the clear-cut best player at his position, who also fell to them for reasons having nothing to do with his performance in college. (In Linderbaum’s case, it’s that he’s fairly small for an NFL center.) Still, nobody doubted that Linderbaum or Hamilton were top picks in the class, and Baltimore got both of them.

The Ravens also took Michigan defensive end David Ojabo in the second round, 45th overall. Ojabo had paired with Hutchinson in Ann Arbor to create one of the country’s fiercest pass-rushing tandems. I like the Ravens’ strategy of selecting athletes who were downright awesome at college football, rather than wishcasting about what less-proven players could be.

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