By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
For example, stars such as Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, Notre Dame’s ball-hawking free safety Kyle Hamilton and Alabama’s behemoth offensive tackle Evan Neal have earned early spots on my Top 32 Big Board.
And while the casual college football fan might not yet know Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning or fully appreciate how much fast-rising prospects such as Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett and Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II have leaped up draft boards this fall, NFL scouts certainly do.
But with an underwhelming class of the so-called “skill positions” on offense this year, the 2022 NFL Draft could be even more unpredictable than most.
As such, let’s break down some of the relatively anonymous talents quietly generating buzz in the scouting community. These five players might very well wind up first-round selections, even though few are talking about them so far.
Players are listed alphabetically.
When discussing the top receivers of the 2022 NFL Draft, names such as Treylon Burks (Arkansas), Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson (both at Ohio State) and Drake London (USC) are often listed, even with the latter suffering a season-ending fractured right ankle Oct. 30. While smaller than his pass-catching peers, Dotson stands tall as a playmaker, with a blend of speed, route-running savvy and sticky hands certain to make him a quick favorite of his future NFL quarterback.
Dotson was unstoppable last week against Maryland, setting career highs with 11 receptions for 242 yards and three scores. The 86-yard catch-and-run highlighted below was the longest of Dotson’s career, but his ability to stretch the field is well known, with this score being his ninth touchdown of 40-plus yards in 39 college games.
Sean Clifford connects with Jahan Dotson for an 86-yard touchdown, one of Dotson’s three TDs in the Nittany Lions’ 31-14 victory over Maryland.
It isn’t often that receivers of Dotson’s stature earn first-round picks, but similarly built pass-catchers such as Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and DeVonta Smith have made the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles look awfully smart in recent years.
In a class lacking offensive firepower, general managers shouldn’t overthink a consistent and reliable star such as Dotson — one of two Penn State playmakers on this list.
Arnold Ebiketie, DE/OLB, Penn State
6-foot-3, 256 pounds, Redshirt Senior
NFL scouts love breakout players every bit as much as college football fans do. The transfer portal has helped spark many of them this season, including Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III (a Wake Forest transfer), Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams (an Ohio State transfer) and the aforementioned Johnson II at Florida State, who began his college career at Georgia.
With a tip of the cap to this trio and many others, perhaps no transfer has pushed his stock higher so far this season than Ebiketie, who opted to join the Nittany Lions after earning Second-Team All-American Athletic Conference honors a year ago at Temple.
Ebiketie, who was born in Cameroon and moved to the U.S. at age 12, oozes explosiveness, flashing the suddenness to beat offensive tackles off the edge as a speed rusher while possessing legitimate knockdown power. His explosiveness is also evident in his leaping ability.
Ebiketie sports a power-packed frame with broad shoulders, long arms and heavy hands, making it difficult for would-be blockers to control him. Although he’s too often late off the ball, when Ebiketie times the snap count right, he can be quite disruptive. Best of all, he isn’t “just” a pass-rusher, showing good power and ballast to set the edge as well as hustle, toughness and awareness in lateral and downfield pursuit.
Although Johnson was a transfer — having originally played collegiate ball at Davidson, an FCS school — his stock has grown this fall in large part because he moved back to guard after spending all 11 games of the 2020 season at left tackle. He played reasonably well there, earning All-ACC honors (third team) for the second consecutive year, but he deserves All-American accolades in 2021, with zero sacks allowed thus far.
While possessing enough initial quickness to handle outside duties, Johnson is clearly at his best at guard, using his stout frame and heavy hands to generate movement in the running game and gracefully sliding laterally in pass protection.
Unlike many of the brawlers of this year’s offensive line class, Johnson does not simply rely on his girth, showing impressive anticipation and body control to adjust in space and hit moving targets at the second level. Because of his initial quickness and agility, Johnson can make difficult reach blocks look easy, turning and sealing defenders.
This isn’t to suggest Johnson lacks physicality. When he senses defenders are off-balance or helping a teammate, Johnson is more than willing to deliver a blow, showing both the power and the nastiness required for NFL trench battles.
He earned second-round grades from NFL scouts a year ago but turned down an invitation from the Senior Bowl and the opportunity to play in the pros to return for a third year with the Eagles. Barring injury, he appears to have made a sound financial decision, now ranking among the top interior offensive linemen in the country.
Kirkland — and the University of Washington football team as a whole — was perhaps the victim of unrealistic expectations this season. The Huskies entered the season ranked 23rd in the AP poll, with the imposing Kirkland a reigning First Team All-Pac-12 pick.
A stunning home loss to FCS Montana in the season opener, however, took the shine off the Dawgs early on, and Kirkland was beaten in a much-anticipated showdown in Ann Arbor against Michigan’s star defensive lineman, Aidan Hutchinson.
While Washington, as a team, has since continued its season-long struggles, Kirkland has rebounded nicely. Since the face-off with Hutchinson, the top-rated senior prospect in the country and the sixth overall on my Big Board, Kirkland has surrendered zero sacks. His strong final season in Seattle has included winning a key one-on-one battle against top-ranked overall prospect Thibodeaux, though the Huskies lost to rival Oregon last weekend.
Kirkland moves very well for a man of his size, showing impressive quickness and balance in his pass sets and redirecting nicely at the second level. His fires off the ball in the running game, taking sharp angles to defenders and using his large, active hands well to latch on and sustain blocks.
The concern with Kirkland is his frame, not his game. He is a bit top-heavy, with a hulking upper body but relatively narrow hips, thighs and calves. Despite his build, though, Kirkland can generate movement at the point of attack, as he plays with impressive pad level and flexibility for his height.
George Pickens, WR, Georgia
6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Redshirt Sophomore
Given that he is an underclassman and has yet to play a single snap this season after tearing the ACL in his right knee this spring, Pickens is perhaps the biggest wild card on this list. Make no mistake about his talent warranting inclusion, however. This young Dawg is the most gifted player on the list, with the prototypical blend of size, speed, body control and hands to live up to his famous father’s (Carl Pickens) success in the NFL.
Pickens signed with Georgia as one of the most highly touted freshmen at any position three years ago and was an immediate hit, leading the Bulldogs in receptions (49), receiving yards (727) and touchdown grabs (eight). Although limited to just eight games last season, Pickens was on pace for similar production, despite being the focus of every opposing secondary coach. He tied for the team lead in receptions (36), totaling 513 yards, and hauled in twice as many touchdowns (six) as any other Georgia pass-catcher.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart provided an update on his prized receiver this past week, relaying that while Pickens has yet to officially return to practice, he has “come a long way” and will be meeting “very soon” with renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Given that every player on their potentially historic defense might be drafted, the top-ranked Bulldogs hardly look like a squad that needs even more talent.
Should Pickens be able to return and prove his health this season, however, it should surprise no one if he makes the early jump to the pros. This is especially true given how easily the game seems to come to him, along with the sobering fact that the injury might have reminded him how quickly it can be taken away.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.
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