The NFL’s “offseason” is starting to more closely resemble the NBA’s – not so much shaped purely by free agency or the draft as much as the mega trades that tend to encompass both player acquisition avenues.
While several players signed significant deals with new teams – notably OLB Von Miller (Bills), CB J.C. Jackson (Chargers), OLB Chandler Jones (Raiders) and LT Terron Armstead (Dolphins) – the headlines were dominated by those who were dealt, whether by salary cap constraints or other circumstances. No surprise that quarterbacks Russell Wilson (Broncos) or Deshaun Watson (Browns) switched teams, it was just a question of where and when. But the reaction was seismic when stars like Davante Adams (Raiders) and Tyreek Hill (Dolphins) were unexpectedly moved.
All of the aforementioned commanded serious draft capital in exchange, begging further questions: How will it be spent, and which soon-to-be rookies might necessitate further wheeling and dealing at the nexus of next week’s “Player Selection Meeting” and the trade market?
Here are nine who have the potential to shake things up in the early rounds:
MOCK DRAFT 2022: Projecting more trades that could create first-round chaos
Liberty QB Malik Willis
His final destination will be one of the more closely monitored storylines of Round 1. Willis probably has a higher ceiling than any passer in this draft, however the potential depth of his floor – mechanics and accuracy? level of competition? – explains why he’s not a surefire top-10 pick. Still, the Auburn transfer’s dual-threat ability by virtue of a howitzer arm and sturdy legs – he owns a Football Bowl Subdivision-high 74 combined TDs (pass/rush) since 2020 – plus widely praised character are massive selling points to teams with a need under center. It’s certainly possible Willis hears his name called by a team already in the top 10 … or by one motivated to leapfrog the Carolina Panthers (No. 6), Atlanta Falcons (No. 8) or Seattle Seahawks (No. 9). He’s been widely linked to the Steelers, but it’s hard to believe Willis will fall to them at No. 20. Be interesting to see how aggressive coach Pittsburgh Mike Tomlin, who’s expressed a preference for a mobile quarterback to succeed Ben Roethlisberger, and retiring GM Kevin Colbert might get – especially since bold draft moves cut against the organization’s historical approach – if they have indeed identified Willis as their guy.
The next quarterback off the board
Admittedly, no guarantee Willis will be the initial passer selected – though some projections do have him going as high as No. 2 to the Detroit Lions. But for the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume he’s first. It’s also a near certainty that at least one more QB will be tabbed in Round 1, though where it happens is anyone’s guess.
Carolina is fascinating because, after that sixth overall selection, the Panthers don’t choose again until late in Round 4 – so, barring a trade, they likely have one shot. However Detroit has the final pick of the first round, while Atlanta and Seattle both have the means (multiple second-rounders) to jump back into Round 1, where player contracts come with a valuable fifth-year team option. The New Orleans Saints, who recently added a first-rounder in a swap with the Eagles, might also be in the mix.
But which quarterback is most likely to be targeted after Willis?
If Willis might range from a home run selection to a strikeout, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett is probably somewhere between a double and a walk. Probably the most pro-ready of any of this year’s incoming quarterbacks, last year’s third-place finisher for the Heisman Trophy could provide something akin to what Mac Jones did for the Patriots in 2021 – helping to keep the bus on course if not necessarily driving it.
Yet it’s totally conceivable the second team to enlist a quarterback will prefer Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral or possibly even North Carolina’s Sam Howell – all of them superior athletes to Pickett (and with larger hands), if not perceived as finished products. Given how polarizing the discussions around these players – Willis included – is, it seems very probable at least one general manager will get proactive in order to secure his preferred guy.
Alabama WR Jameson Williams
Had he not torn an ACL in the national championship game against Georgia, Williams might be a lock as a top-five selection and almost surely the first receiver selected. Yet despite his physical setback, buzz is again building around Williams, whose impact might approach Hill’s once he’s fully healed given his game-breaking speed and production (106 yards and a TD per game for the Crimson Tide in 2021 to go along with 19.9 yards per catch). The Falcons and New York Jets (Nos. 4, 10) could be possible landing spots in the top 10. However it’s worth wondering if the Kansas City Chiefs, who traded Hill, or Green Bay Packers, who traded Adams, might make a play for Williams given each team has a pair of picks in both Rounds 1 and 2 – the kind of ammo which allows for bold moves up the board.
Ohio State WR Chris Olave
Though the 2022 draft seems replete with capable receivers, Olave might represent the bottom of the top tier. Though Williams is a bit of a wild card, he seems at least destined for the top half of Round 1, likely along with the Buckeyes’ Garrett Wilson and USC’s Drake London. But if climbing into the top 10 or 12 spots proves too pricey for teams like the Chiefs, Packers or Saints, targeting Olave – he’s got 4.39 speed and averaged 80 receiving yards and a TD over the past three seasons in Columbus – in the middle of Round 1 might be more palatable given he seems like a relatively finished product with few of the questions posed by other wideouts likely to be available later in the first round.
Alabama OL Evan Neal
He didn’t do much at the scouting combine or the Tide’s pro day and is no longer mentioned with much frequency as a potential No. 1 overall pick. And given the momentum pushing players like Willis, Williams and Georgia DL Travon Walker up the board – and likelihood North Carolina State LT Ickey Ekwonu will be the first O-lineman chosen – Neal might find himself slide as a result. Still, 6-8, 337-pound consensus All-American blockers don’t grow on trees – particularly ones with extensive SEC experience at left tackle, right tackle and guard. If Neal doesn’t get tabbed in the first seven picks or so, wouldn’t be a surprise to see a team come up for him.
Florida State OLB/DE Jermaine Johnson II
He could find himself in a similar situation as Olave – a blue-chipper at his position but one unlikely to be picked before Walker or fellow pass rushers Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan) or Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon). After transferring from Georgia in 2021, Johnson was freed to showcase his abilities for the Seminoles, finishing last season with 11½ sacks and 17½ tackles for losses. Running a 4.58-second 40 at 6-5, 262 pounds will also get you noticed – and likely appreciated given most of the edge types down the board don’t feature this combination of size, athleticism and production against top-shelf competition. The unfortunate pro day Achilles injury suffered by Michigan’s David Ojabo further depletes the supply side and could work in Johnson’s favor as teams in desperate need of pressure players assess their options.
LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.
Had he been eligible for the draft following his 2019 freshman season, when the Tigers won the national championship and Stingley earned All-American recognition, then he might well have been a top-five pick. But foot and ankle issues, plus atypically bad LSU football the past two years, have hurt him literally and figuratively. Yet Stingley may have re-established his stock earlier this month with a strong pro day in Baton Rouge that included a sub-4.4 40 time. Given his tantalizing talent and NFL pedigree – his late grandfather, Darryl Stingley, was a first-round wideout for the Patriots in 1973 – Stingley Jr. will almost surely tempt teams in a league where you can never have enough corners … especially if he slips outside the top 10.
Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton
Based on his unique talent and size (6-4, 220 pounds), he’d probably be a top-five pick in a vacuum. However Hamilton’s position, which rarely commands that level of draft investment, may be working against him. Still, his unicorn-level abilities – a bruising hitter who can shut down running backs but with the range to patrol the deep half and coverage ability to mirror tight ends and bigger receivers – do distinguish him this year and probably in any draft. If Hamilton gets past, say, the Jets at No. 10, it could be open season for teams looking for such a versatile defender – especially when it seems positional distinctions are becoming less important in the NFL.
San Diego State P/K Matt Araiza
Seriously. The 2021 Ray Guy Award winner, Araiza could be the highest-drafted punter since Todd Sauerbrun went 56th overall to the Bears in 1995. Araiza is a mad bomber, his 51.2 yards per punt last season setting an NCAA single-season record. Eighteen of those punts exceeded 60 yards, two traveling 80+. And not that you want your punter in harm’s way, but the 6-2, 200-pounder relishes making downfield tackles and can get there quickly by virtue of his 4.68 40 speed. Araiza also served as the Aztecs’ placekicker, but his 73.5% accuracy on field goals isn’t up to NFL standards … yet. Regardless, such an uncommon weapon is going to draw great interest, and Araiza will almost certainly be claimed by the end of Day 2. The last specialist to generate this kind of pre-draft buzz, former Florida State K Roberto Aguayo, enticed the Buccaneers into trading up for him in Round 2. In hindsight, that wasn’t a selection well spent, but it doesn’t mean Araiza – aka “Punt God” – won’t provide much stronger returns given his ability to flip a field and rocket offenses out of deep holes.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.