A game of quarterback musical chairs was played across the NFL the past couple of weeks, with Drew Lock (Seattle), Matt Ryan (Indianapolis), Deshaun Watson (Cleveland), Carson Wentz (Washington), Russell Wilson (Denver) and Marcus Mariota (Atlanta) finding new homes through trades and several veteran passers signing free-agent deals with new teams (Teddy Bridgewater with Miami, Mitch Trubisky with Pittsburgh, Jameis Winston with New Orleans, etc.)
Teams left without a chair when the music stopped (though Jimmy Garoppolo and Baker Mayfield are still whistling in the wind) are now focused on the top quarterbacks in the upcoming draft class. This week, NFL Network covered the pro days of Matt Corral (Ole Miss), Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh), Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati) and Malik Willis (Liberty). Next Monday, Sam Howell (North Carolina) will throw for NFL personnel evaluators.
These young passers are talented. Like all college prospects, they have areas of their game in which they need to improve. The following four-round mock draft, however, presents my case that they are all worthy of first-round selections.
Will they all become above-average NFL starters? History says no. There's also no guarantee the top offensive tackle, cornerback or edge rusher in the class will become a true difference-maker. Given the premium placed on the quarterback position, I expect at least five teams (including at least one team recently acquiring a veteran) will value these passers' abilities enough to pick them on Day 1 of the draft.
This projection also shows this draft class has solid depth at edge rusher, wide receiver and on the offensive line, with starters and key contributors at all positions available throughout all 143 selections in Rounds 1-4.
The Jaguars are shifting their defense under new coordinator Mike Caldwell, who will feature aspects of the scheme he coached under Todd Bowles in Tampa Bay the past three seasons. Jacksonville will be tempted to select Georgia's Travon Walker due to his athletic upside, but the team might be swayed toward Hutchinson because of the former Wolverine's production and consistency at UM.
Willis had a lot of fun making big throws at his pro day, but that performance is not why I have him going second overall. He's been one of my favorite players in this class all year; I projected him being picked at No. 3 in my first mock draft. Head coach Dan Campbell stated during his NFL Scouting Combine press conference that he's willing to change his offense to fit the skills of the best football player he can get at the position. I don't think that was meant as a hint, but it at least shows that some teams are open to taking a playmaker instead of requiring robotic efficiency from their signal-caller. With Jared Goff in place for 2022, Willis could get a great opportunity to hone his craft until his chance arrives.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH TEXANS
The trade of Matt Ryan to the Colts seemed a fait accompli after Atlanta's failed attempt to land Deshaun Watson. Picking up Marcus Mariota is a nice insurance policy, but the Falcons find their future starter by trading up for Pickett, giving up a 2023 first-round pick as well as a second- and fourth-rounder this year.
Robert Saleh coached Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw at San Francisco, so it won't be a surprise if he sees a bit of those two defenders in the long, strong Walker. The explosiveness and agility he displayed at the combine made it clear that with some refinement in his game, Walker could be a threat inside or outside in the right scheme.
The Giants did not re-sign veteran Nate Solder at right tackle, and Neal played that position his sophomore year at Alabama. Seems like a natural fit.
Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker are not likely to be the team's only quarterbacks in 2022. General manager Scott Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule might attempt to trade up to No. 3 overall to grab Pickett, if the Texans are amenable to receiving 2023 premium picks (Carolina does not have second- or third-round picks this year because of previous trades). If unable to pull off that deal, Houston could turn to Corral, whose tight spirals and athletic ability are worthy of early selection.
Hamilton's 40-yard dash time (4.59 official at combine; 4.56 unofficial at pro day) should be of no concern to NFL teams that value his range, football instincts and tackling ability. The Giants need a partner for Xavier McKinney in the defensive backfield, and Hamilton has the skill set to become a special player at the next level.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH FALCONS
New Texans coach Lovie Smith desperately needs pass rushers. Thibodeaux would be a great find at this spot, instantly upgrading the team's ability to attack the quarterback.
For now, I'll assume the Seahawks add a QB via free agency or trade (Baker Mayfield perhaps?) so they have a veteran in place for 2022. Regardless of who their quarterback is this year, though, the 'Hawks must upgrade their offensive line. Ekwonu has the strength and agility to handle pass protection duties at left tackle, and his mentality in the run game will be a godsend for backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH JETS
Does anyone really expect GM Howie Roseman to stand pat with his three first-round selections? Re-signing Fletcher Cox to a one-year deal made sense, but the Eagles' front could use some more youth. Davis will provide an immediate boost against the run and will also give quarterbacks fits with his length and athleticism.
To maximize the effectiveness of new QB Carson Wentz, the Commanders must find more reliable receivers. London's presence on the outside should free up two-time 1,000-yard pass-catcher Terry McLaurin.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH VIKINGS
The Steelers make a move to secure their quarterback of the future by making a deal with the Vikings that's similar to what the Bears gave to the Giants last year, sending away their 2023 first-round pick and swapping Day 3 selections. Ridder has a tall pocket presence but also possesses the athleticism to make plays outside the pocket.
The Texans add another important piece to their defense with a selection picked up from the Browns in the Deshaun Watson trade. Stingley has top-10 talent but played in only 10 games the past two seasons due to injuries. I'm sure Houston would be fine with him lingering on the board until this selection.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH RAVENS
The three interceptions that Ryan Tannehill threw in Tennessee's Divisional Round loss to Cincinnati have to be a constant thorn in the minds of Titans coaches. It won't, therefore, be a surprise if they give up a 2023 first-round pick to grab the team's next starter. Howell has the arm to move the ball vertically as well as the toughness and improvisation skills to move the chains on a regular basis.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH EAGLES
The Jets receive third- and fifth-round picks to move down five spots and still land a quality cornerback prospect like Gardner to team with free-agent acquisition D.J. Reed and young CBs Bryce Hall and Michael Carter II.
Even though the Eagles just signed Haason Reddick to rush the passer, Johnson's overall skill set will be valued on the edge. He and Josh Sweat would form a strong duo on early downs and either could move inside in sub-packages to bring interior pressure.
Although the Chargers have already signed veterans Austin Johnson and Sebastian Joseph-Day to beef up the defensive line, Wyatt gives them an explosive pass rusher who will make life tough for teams trying to handle twists involving the former Bulldog and Pro Bowlers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack on the outside.
With Terron Armstread signing in Miami, the Saints find their future left tackle in Cross. It wouldn't surprise me if they moved up a few spots to ensure they secure his services, as Cross' talent would project an earlier selection.
A team typically wouldn't pick a receiver in the first round in three consecutive drafts. But with the Eagles owning three Day 1 selections, and the talented Wilson still on the board, they become the first team to do so since the Lions pulled off the triple play from 2003 to '05.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH STEELERS
Lloyd reminds me of a more slight version of Anthony Barr, a longtime Vikings star who is currently a free agent. Lloyd can play outside or inside and became quite adept at rushing the passer when given the chance last fall.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH PATRIOTS
With Tyreek Hill taking his talents to Miami, the Chiefs could use another speedy playmaker. Williams is coming off an ACL tear, but Andy Reid should still have interest in flipping two picks (their third-round compensatory selection and assigned fourth-rounder) to the Patriots to lock him up.
Many believed that Bryan Bulaga would be off the board when the Packers selected him 23rd overall in 2010. Maybe history will repeat itself this year with the large and athletic Penning, who's capable of starting at right tackle so Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins can stay inside.
Johnson's versatility, strength and mobility could push him higher. The Cardinals should consider themselves lucky if a ready-made starter like Johnson is still on the board.
With Micah Parsons becoming a force as a pass rusher and working outside, and Leighton Vander Esch capable of playing the Sam 'backer spot, the Cowboys could greatly benefit from Dean's explosiveness and instincts in the middle of their defense.
Corner is a position of need for the Bills, who would be smart to overlook McDuffie's lack of length (29 3/4-inch arm measurement at the combine), and appreciate his coverage skills and willingness to take on ball-carriers in the open field.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH TITANS
Baltimore allowed Bradley Bozeman to depart via free agency, so Linderbaum's pro-ready game seems an excellent fit. I can imagine former Raven (and Iowa Hawkeye) Marshal Yanda gave the team's administration and coaches a glowing endorsement.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH BUCCANEERS
The Jets have extra draft capital from their earlier trade with the Eagles, so why not move back into Round 1 to grab a value like Olave? New York gives up the 35th overall pick and a fourth-rounder to secure the speedy former Buckeye.
Green Bay selects a powerful receiver in Burks who, despite average speed for the position, seems to make plays downfield with physicality. Arkansas got him the ball in many ways, which I think foreshadows his role in Matt LaFleur's offense.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH CHIEFS
Bill Belichick loves versatile secondary players like Hill, who could play nickel, outside corner or free safety depending on how the depth chart stacks up over the next few years.
The Chiefs are lacking bodies at defensive end and would undoubtedly love if Karlaftis were somehow still waiting to hear his name called at this point. His power and relentless nature remind me of former Kansas City star Jared Allen.
Now that the Bengals have shored up the offensive line, they can address their need for depth at cornerback. Booth is dealing with a core muscle issue, but his talent will eventually shine through for Cincinnati.
Mafe's strong week at the Reese's Senior Bowl, display of athleticism at the NFL Scouting Combine and overall versatility play right into the Lions' interest in utilizing multiple fronts more regularly during the 2022 season.