With the NFL draft just days away, the 2021 draft prospects have all been evaluated over and over and the fans have heard the scouting reports … over and over. And while the draft hasn’t even happened yet, it’s already time to look forward to the 2022 NFL draft.
Our writers came together and picked the top 2022 NFL prospects on each team in Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 ahead of the 2021 college football seasons.
The defensive line is a legacy position at Clemson, from William Perry to Gaines Adams to Vic Beasley to Christian Wilkins. Next up on the assembly line is defensive tackle Tyler Davis, who could easily push his way into the top 10 draft prospects in the country with a strong 2021 season. He was exceptional as a freshman in 2019, but injuries and inconsistent production from his linemates hindered his 2020 campaign. Now healthy, Davis will be surrounded by Clemson’s best group of linemen in years, which should provide an excellent opportunity to showcase his prolific skills. — David M. Hale
More than half of the offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award last season — Landon Dickerson, Deonte Brown and Alex Leatherwood — is gone. But the best pro prospect might be the one coming back to anchor the line in 2022: Evan Neal. The 6-foot-7, 360-pound junior is a former freshman All-American who already has started at left guard and right tackle. In 810 snaps last season, he allowed just 1.5 sacks, according to Alabama coaches, and missed only six assignments. — Alex Scarborough
After some early-season turnover issues, including five interceptions in a three-game stretch, redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler settled in and threw 15 TDs vs. two INTs in the final seven games and the Sooners finished as one of the country’s hottest teams. With a restocked receiving corps, Rattler should top last season’s 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns and would be eligible to enter the draft after three seasons in Norman. The NFL has learned to trust Lincoln Riley, whose past three QBs are all NFL starters. Now it’s Rattler’s turn. — Dave Wilson
Time will tell how well George Pickens recovers from knee surgery this offseason. But if he’s healthy, he’s one of the most talented pass-catchers in college football with high-end speed and plenty of leaping ability. At 6-foot-3, he can win his fair share of 50-50 balls. Despite playing eight of 10 games last season, he led the team with six touchdowns and tied for the lead in total receptions with 36. — Scarborough
The answer here will become a little more clear once the season gets going, and picking just one guy at a place like Ohio State isn’t easy given all of the absurd talent the Buckeyes cycle through every year. Thayer Munford is a good candidate here given he’s arguably the best returning offensive lineman in the nation, but I’m going with WR Chris Olave. And that’s no disrespect to Garrett Wilson, who is also going to be a player whom NFL teams covet in the 2022 draft. But Olave, who has led the Buckeyes in receiving the past two seasons and could have been a first-round pick in 2021, is the guy. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal is a likely first-rounder, but there’s another big man he faces in practice who might edge him out by a few spots. As a sophomore, the 6-4, 325-pound Kenyon Green was a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy finalist at left guard who helped anchor a nasty offensive line that allowed just seven sacks all season while powering an A&M rushing attack that averaged more than 200 yards per game. This season, he moves out to the all-important left tackle spot. Early returns are very positive about Green’s transition, and if he plays to expectations, the NFL will be eagerly awaiting his arrival. — Wilson
There’s a good chance Sam Howell will be at the top of a lot of 2022 draft boards. After this year’s hefty QB class, Howell figures to be among the most sought-after passers next year, and his prolific numbers with the Tar Heels put him in the mix for No. 1 overall. Of course, Howell’s not the prototypical NFL body type, which will no doubt create an infinite supply of draft hot takes. Sure, smaller QBs have become more of the norm, but Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray are both better runners than Howell. Perhaps the better comparison — and the one Howell likes, too — is Drew Brees. Regardless, Howell will almost certainly be one of the most discussed prospects in the country in the long run-up to the 2022 draft. — Hale
The Cyclones boast several options on an offense that returns largely intact for the 2021 season. Quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall both have been very productive in Ames, but tight end Charlie Kolar might project even higher for the next level. The 6-foot-6, 257-pound Kolar is a massive target who regularly creates mismatches for opposing defenses. He twice has earned All-America and first-team All-Big 12 honors, and was a Mackey Award finalist in 2020 after being a semifinalist in 2019. Kolar enters his final college season with 106 career receptions for 1,425 yards and 17 touchdowns, including seven scoring grabs in each of the past two seasons. He excels in the red zone and can split out wide when asked. His experience and versatility make him an attractive option for NFL teams. — Adam Rittenberg
Since bursting on the scene as a true freshman in 2019, quarterback Kedon Slovis has seemed destined to be the next in a long list of USC quarterbacks to be sought-after near the top of the NFL draft. Though his 2020 season was a mixed bag, he still led USC to a 6-0 record during the regular season and is set up to have a big 2021. His quick release is what separates him from many of the other quarterbacks who could enter next year’s draft. — Kyle Bonagura
The Hoosiers had one of the best receiving corps in the Big Ten last season, and Ty Fryfogle was a big reason. He could have entered the 2021 NFL draft, but opted to come back for another season as the Hoosiers run it back after a spectacular campaign in a pandemic-shortened 2020. Whop Philyor, who played opposite Fryfogle, won’t be back, and Indiana will have to fill that vacancy. But you should expect another big year out of Fryfogle, who will get plenty of targets while teams still have to pay attention to Miles Marshall, Indiana’s third-leading receiver from 2020. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder was a big part of Cincinnati going 9-1 this past season, winning the American Athletic Conference title and making it to the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, where the Bearcats lost by three points to Georgia. Ridder was named the AAC Offensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Maxwell Award, and said he received a fourth- to sixth-round projection had he entered this current NFL draft. He threw for 2,296 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, completing 66.2% of his passes. He has a 30-5 record at Cincinnati and now has a chance to improve that draft stock this upcoming season. — Tom VanHaaren
Since Kirk Ferentz’s arrival as coach, NFL teams have mined Iowa’s offensive line for talent. They will come calling again for center Tyler Linderbaum, who somewhat surprisingly returned to Iowa for the 2021 season. In December, ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranked Linderbaum as his No. 2 draft-eligible center, before the Hawkeyes standout made his decision. The 6-foot-3, 289-pound Linderbaum was a Rimington Trophy finalist and earned second-team AP All-America honors in 2020, when he started all eight games for an offense that averaged 4.7 yards per rush. Linderbaum will enter his third season as a starter and be the clear leader of a line blocking for talented running back Tyler Goodson and others. Iowa’s last star center, James Daniels, went No. 39 overall in the 2018 draft, and Linderbaum could go even higher. — Rittenberg
13. Oregon Ducks: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
After arriving as the top defensive player in the Class of 2019, Kayvon Thibodeaux has only enhanced the perception that he’s destined for a long, lucrative career in the NFL. He set a school freshman record with nine sacks in 2019 before earning various All-American honors in 2020, despite the Pac-12’s shortened schedule. He is without question the most intriguing NFL draft prospect from the Pac-12 in 2022 and could theoretically remain in Eugene through the 2023 college season. — Bonagura
The Huskies have been one of the top producers of defensive backs in recent years and that pipeline doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Trent McDuffie, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020, could be enticed by the opportunity to leave for the draft after the 2021 season. He has started regularly since arriving as a true freshman in 2019 and will be one of the top players in the Pac-12 this year. — Bonagura
Kyle Hamilton was a star recruit for Notre Dame in the 2019 class and the Irish coaches were ecstatic to get him on the roster. His potential, size, football acumen and natural ability were all on display in high school, and there were few doubts he would be able to help Notre Dame very early in his career. He had four interceptions, 41 total tackles and even had a touchdown in his freshman season. Hamilton followed that up with 56 total tackles and one interception last season and is expected to be one of the top safeties in the country for 2021. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he has all the size NFL teams will want, he is versatile in that he can be moved all over the field, and because he can do a little bit of everything, you don’t need to take him off the field. If Hamilton has another good season for Notre Dame, he should be talked about as a top NFL draft prospect in 2022. — VanHaaren
The Gators have had a history of churning out top defensive backs to the NFL, vying for the DBU naming rights with a few other programs. Kaiir Elam could be the next to continue the legacy. He has the size (6-foot-2, 193 pounds) and the family background (his uncle Matt was a first-round pick at safety in 2013), and is in line to take the next step in his junior season. Elam started 12 games last year opposite Marco Wilson (set to be drafted in a few weeks), and had 39 tackles, 2 interceptions, 11 pass breakups and a fumble recovery in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. — Andrea Adelson
The Badgers have a few players to watch in this category, including linebacker Jack Sanborn, who has had 132 total tackles over the past two seasons, but tight end Jake Ferguson seems primed for a big year. Ferguson had 305 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 30 receptions last season, which led the team in all categories. He’s 6-foot-5, 246 pounds and had the option to enter the NFL draft this year. He was projected as a likely Day 2 selection, however, and decided to return to Wisconsin. That decision will help the Badgers next season, but it also could help Ferguson improve his draft stock as he and quarterback Graham Mertz get more time together. — VanHaaren
If North Carolina’s Sam Howell is the projected top quarterback in 2022 — and no one is saying he isn’t — then Matt Corral deserves a mention. While he’s a tad short at 6-foot-1 and doesn’t possess the strongest arm, he has two things every quarterback needs. He’s accurate, having completed 70.9% completions last season, and he’s plenty capable of making big plays. His yards per dropback (which combines passing and rushing yards and subtracts sack yards) is a whopping 9.19, which is the highest of any returning Power 5 QB and nearly half a yard higher than that of Howell at 8.74. — Scarborough
The Ragin’ Cajuns have two outgoing running draft prospects who shared time at running back in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. Behind them was Chris Smith, who was also one of the best kick returners in college football. Texas A&M transfer Jacob Kibodi (a larger back at 6-foot-2, 220) is a likely candidate to get in the rotation with Smith but hasn’t played since 2019, so there’s a chance Smith could see even more playing time than Mitchell and Ragas did. Smith was also tied for fourth on the team in receptions last season, so he can do a little bit of it all. If the offensive line is able to keep up the high standard set by former co-offensive line coaches Rob Sale and D.J. Looney, Smith could see his stock rise. — Lyles Jr.
20. LSU Tigers: CB Derek Stingley Jr.
Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. established a level of play late in 2019 that few freshmen ever see. He picked off six passes, broke up 15 more and entered 2020 one of the surest things in the sport. The 2020 season was one of frustration, however: He spent most of the fall battling injury and illness and duly struggled. No matter: His upside is obvious, and there’s every reason to assume he will return to his 100 percent form and reestablish himself as a top-five prospect in 2021. — Bill Connelly
In seven seasons at Washington, new Longhorns defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski had 17 players drafted. He’ll have a versatile new defender to utilize in DeMarvion Overshown this season in Austin. Overshown, a 6-4, 217-pound former safety, showed flashes of brilliance in his first season as a linebacker, culminating with MVP honors in the Alamo Bowl after he had six tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and two quarterback hurries against Colorado. With one more year of experience, Overshown could start climbing up draft boards. — Wilson
The Lions haven’t had an offensive lineman drafted in the first round since tackle Levi Brown went No. 5 overall in the 2007 draft. Rasheed Walker is hoping to end the drought after returning for the 2021 season. Walker has started 22 games at left tackle and appeared in 26 contests during his first three seasons for PSU, earning third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020. At 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds, Walker looks like a pro tackle but must elevate Penn State’s line and overall offense this season under new coordinator Mike Yurcich. “Rasheed has a chance to be dominant,” defensive line coach John Scott, a former NFL assistant, told reporters this spring. “He reminds me of some of the tackles we had with the [New York] Jets.”
He might need to stay in school in 2022 to further prove himself in what isn’t the most pro-style offense in the world, but redshirt sophomore quarterback Grayson McCall will be eligible after this fall, he has relative NFL size (6-3, 200), and he couldn’t have possibly proved more in 2020. McCall completed 69% of his passes with 26 TDs to just three interceptions; he’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks in college football; and he’ll have two more intriguing 2021 prospects — receiver Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely — to throw to once more. — Connelly
He’ll probably have to bulk up a bit more (he’s 6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and prove he can line up at outside linebacker, but Durrell Johnson was an immediate hit after transferring from ASA College last fall. The junior college All-American recorded 11 tackles for loss and six run stuffs, and in 240 pass rush attempts he logged 8.5 sacks and forced seven incompletions or interceptions. He was versatile, too: He dropped into coverage 33 times. He wears lots of hats for LU, and he could have another huge season in 2021. — Connelly
Left tackle Zion Nelson has moved himself up some way-too-early draft boards after his performance in the second half of 2020, when he emerged as a dominant force on the Miami offensive line and started the final six games. He started all 13 games as a true freshman, but he was far more inconsistent as he learned the ins and outs of playing college ball. Given all the strides he has made headed into his true junior season, Nelson has a chance to solidify his status as a potential first-round pick with a consistent, dominant performance from start to finish. — Adelson