Scouts evaluated more prospects than ever before in the build-up to the 2022 NFL Draft -- a product of the NCAA's altered COVID-19 rules, which gave college players an extra year of eligibility. But that didn't translate to an uptick in blue-chip talent.
Many teams have fewer than 20 players on their boards with first-round grades, which is in line with other recent draft classes; some have fewer than 15. General managers and other high-ranking executives foresee an unpredictable Round 1 -- and that's especially true in the back half, once the most celebrated prospects are gone.
There could be a late run on quarterbacks, with teams wanting to gain the economic advantages of the fifth-year option if a preferred pick is still on the board. (Liberty's Malik Willis and Pitt's Kenny Pickett are probable first-rounders, while Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, North Carolina's Sam Howell and Ole Miss' Matt Corral are also possibilities.) And there are always some surprises at other positions.
Here are seven names you haven't seen often in Round 1 mock drafts this year, but hearing them called on Thursday night wouldn't shock NFL executives, scouts and coaches.
Several names surface in conversations with teams about the second safety off the board behind Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton. But no one comes up more often than Cine, who is 6-foot-2 1/4, 199 pounds -- and, as one GM put it, "can absolutely f---ing run." Cine blazed the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, with a 36 1/2-inch vertical leap and an 11-foot-1 broad jump. He was highly productive for the Bulldogs, racking up 73 tackles and nine pass breakups on the way to third-team All-America honors and winning defensive MVP of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Teams say his personality isn't what you'd expect from such a physical player, but it's not seen as a problem, especially given how hard he plays. So, while some prefer Michigan's Dax Hill, Baylor's Jalen Pitre or Penn State's Jaquan Brisker, Cine has a lot of fans and his draft slot figures to reflect that.
No name comes up more often from GMs as a potential Round 1 surprise than Hall's, with many pointing out that his former teammate, Payton Turner, was one of last year's biggest surprises at No. 28 overall to New Orleans. Hall's unique measurables (6-6 1/8, 283 pounds), athleticism (4.88 40, 4.44 20-yard shuttle, 7.25 three-cone) and pass-rush ability (6.5 sacks last season) give him intriguing versatility. He could be a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 scheme or reduce down to a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3. Scouts say Hall plays too high at times. But there's a lot to work with.
Jones plays a position that's tough to fill (one-technique), led the Huskies last season in sacks (4.5) and pressures (25) and has helped himself through the pre-draft process -- including posting a 4.92 40 and 7.33 three-cone at 6-4 3/8, 325 pounds. He has pass-rush and lateral run-play ability. He brings a strong work ethic and solid character. He boosted his stock against top competition at the Reese's Senior Bowl. Round 1 would be rich for many executives. But in a year where there just aren't many clean defensive linemen to consider in the first couple rounds, Jones could go higher than anybody expects.
It's still too soon for doctors to say with certainty how Ojabo is recovering from the torn Achilles he suffered at the Wolverines' pro day on March 18. He'll be drafted lower than he would've been if healthy. But if everything stays on track, Ojabo could make his NFL debut sometime in 2022 -- perhaps as soon as October. So why couldn't he still go Round 1? Ojabo was a surefire first-rounder before the injury, coming off a breakout season in which he posted 11 sacks and set a single-season school record with five forced fumbles on the way to second-team All-America honors. Plus, there's a lot of upside with Ojabo, who was born in Nigeria, moved to Scotland in 2007 and didn't start playing football until his junior year of high school. It's worth noting that eight teams have multiple first-round picks, potentially softening the blow of taking a player who won't be ready Week 1.
If teams were drafting strictly off the tape, Pickens would be a good bet to go in Round 1, despite having just five catches in four games last season after returning from a torn right ACL suffered in spring practice. In 22 games over his first two years on campus, Pickens had 85 catches for 1,240 yards and 14 touchdowns, flashing the size (6-3 1/4, 195 pounds), speed (4.47 40) and ability of a true "X" receiver who can win one-on-one. There are concerns about Pickens' maturity and his willingness to follow the program. (Among other things, he was suspended for the first half of a game against Georgia Tech for violating team rules in 2019 and got into a fight in the second half of that game, sidelining him for the first half of the SEC Championship Game.) But it only takes one team to overlook all that and bet on Pickens' talent, which has drawn some comparisons to former Bulldogs star A.J. Green.
Petit-Frere has NFL size (6-5 1/8, 316 pounds with 33 5/8-inch arms), was widely projected as a first-round pick going into last season and earned second-team All-America honors in 2021, allowing just two sacks on 435 pass pro snaps. He had some rocky moments against a string of talented pass rushers down the stretch, including on a big stage against Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Michigan. Petit-Frere was dealing with a lot last fall, including the death of his grandmother days before an October game against Nebraska; she played a big role in his life, as did his grandfather, who passed away during the combine. Five teams hosted Petit-Frere on visits and nearly every team spent extra time with him virtually. Perhaps the first round would be a reach on a player most teams project to go in the second or third. But tackles get pushed up every year -- four could come off the board in the top 10 of this draft -- and Petit-Frere is plenty talented to be considered.
At this point, it'll be a surprise if Walker isn't a first-round pick; multiple GMs say they won't be shocked if he's the first linebacker off the board ahead of Utah's Devin Lloyd, perhaps even in the top 20. Walker is a freaky athlete who ran a 4.52 40 (fourth among linebackers) at 6-3 3/4, 241 pounds. He posted career highs last season with 25 QB pressures and 67 tackles, including a team-high eight in the national championship win over Alabama. Walker's not regarded as the most instinctive player, but he can do a little of everything -- cover, man the box, set the edge, play downhill -- and a robust slate of visits and interviews with teams has drawn generally positive reviews. There's just too much value and upside for Walker to stay on the board for too long.