Each year, every NFL general manager, scout and coach has a personal list of favorite prospects -- guys to pound the table for when the clock is ticking and a decision must be made about which player to invest precious draft capital in.
Well, I'm no different. With the 2022 NFL Draft just around the corner (April 28-30 in Las Vegas), here is my list of prospects I feel most passionately about. This exercise isn't all-encompassing, and it's not just limited to the most highly touted players. I've included likely Day 1 (Round 1), Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) and Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) picks here, as I did when I completed this exercise before last year's draft. There are others I would strongly advocate for, too, but I don't want to completely wear out the poor table!
Fourteen of the 17 players on last year's list were drafted (two of the three undrafted players spent time on a practice squad) and 11 of the 17 started at least one game in 2021. Hopefully the players mentioned below can replicate -- if not exceed -- the success of last year's pound-the-table class!
Corral is my favorite quarterback in this year's draft. I love how he has progressed throughout his career, and it all came together for him in 2021, when he was the personification of skill, toughness and moxie. With an extremely quick release and the ability to make plays with his legs, I view his skill set as a great fit for today's NFL. As a former Tennessee Volunteer, I'll never forget what he did to UT last October in Neyland Stadium. Corral accounted for 426 total yards, including a career-high 195 rushing yards on 30(!) attempts, while playing through injury in leading Ole Miss to a 31-26 victory. Also, he showed at his pro day that he's fully recovered from the high ankle sprain he suffered against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.
Strong was prolific at the FCS level, finishing with a career average of 7.1 yards per carry, and he had a great showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, tying for the fastest 40-yard dash among running backs (4.37 seconds). I know some people might want to discount FCS production, but we don't have to look back very far to find examples of lower-level running backs who have shined in the NFL (James Robinson, Illinois State; David Johnson, Northern Iowa). Strong's numbers were terrific every year, and they translated to team success, with SDSU making deep playoff runs in each of the last two seasons. He doesn't have ideal size (5-foot-11, 205 pounds), but don't overlook his production and toughness. He has a lot in common with 49ers RB Elijah Mitchell (5-10, 200), who had a big rookie season coming out of a non-Power Five school (Louisiana) in 2021.
Bell's testing numbers won't wow you, but he has a big frame (6-2, 205), excellent hands, toughness and can work from the slot or out wide. There's always a place for guys like that in the NFL. USC's Drake London, one of the top wide receivers in this year's class, won't wow you with his speed, but he has tremendous hands and body control. Bell is similar in that way. To me, his play speed looks faster than his timed speed.
The team that drafts Kolar will be getting a two-time finalist for the John Mackey Award (nation's top tight end) and the 2021 winner of the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is also known as the academic Heisman. A native of Norman, Oklahoma, Kolar grew up dreaming of playing for the hometown Sooners -- both of his parents were professors at the school -- but he never received an offer from OU. He chose Iowa State, and went on to have a highly decorated career. I think his determination to prove his doubters wrong will help power him in the league. One more fun fact about Kolar: He was a high school basketball teammate of NBA star Trae Young.
I believe Linderbaum could make the same kind of impact that Creed Humphrey -- a member of this list last year -- did for the Chiefs in 2021. The former Hawkeye was the best center in college football last year, and he was coached by Kirk Ferentz, an offensive line genius. He absolutely crushed his pro day earlier this week after not working out at the combine while recovering from a foot injury suffered in the Citrus Bowl. The size factor comes up with Linderbaum a lot (measured 6-2, 302 at pro day), but let's take a look at some of the best centers in the NFL: Corey Linsley (6-3, 301), Jason Kelce (6-3, 295). They each faced similar doubts based on size, and went on to become All-Pros. I'm not concerned about Linderbaum's size.
Ryan was the Bruins' starting left tackle for the past three seasons. He's a big, strong, physical guy who's built a lot like a guard. I believe he could move inside and be an immediate starter. I like his athleticism and agility, especially when it comes to making blocks on the move. Whether he plays tackle or guard, he'll be starting before long. His versatility gives him a good shot to be a Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) pick, and he would be an absolute steal if he slips to Day 3 (Rounds 4-7).
From a pure pass-rushing perspective off the edge, Thibodeaux is at the top of this year's class. His athleticism is unquestioned. He battled back from injury last year to help his team. There's been a lot of discussion about whether he plays hard on every snap. I asked current and former general managers for some guys who entered the league with similar questions about their motor and then went on to be successful. Two of the most accomplished players in the responses I received: Myles Garrett and Bruce Smith. I believe Thibodeaux will put those questions to rest, just like Garrett and Smith did.
Paschal knows what it means to overcome. He was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in July 2018 and redshirted that year as he underwent three surgeries and monthly immunotherapy treatments. When he returned, he became the first player in school history to be elected team captain in three straight seasons, and he also started each year, earning second-team All-SEC honors in 2021. Yes, I expect Paschal to outperform his draft slotting after watching him battle back from his diagnosis and perform at such a high level for the Wildcats.
If you want a big linebacker (6-2, 261) who tackles everything that moves, Chenal is your guy. He missed the first two games of last season after testing positive for COVID-19 but still led the Badgers with 114 tackles, including 17.5 for loss (he ranked second in the FBS with 1.6 TFL per game). A finalist for the Butkus Award (nation's top LB), Chenal proved at the combine that some folks were sleeping on his athleticism. He finished among the top performers at his position in the vertical (40.5 inches) and broad (10 feet, 8 inches) jumps.
Carpenter is making the transition from college safety to NFL linebacker, and based on what I saw from him at the Reese's Senior Bowl (where he lined up at LB), I believe he is up to the challenge. His name kept coming up when I talked to scouts in Mobile. Carpenter can provide good speed from the second level of the defense, and he absolutely knows what it's like to battle and persevere.
We know Mathis is an amazing tester. He posted a 43.5-inch vertical and 11-foot-1 broad jump at his pro day (the best vertical at this year's combine was 42 inches). He was well coached by Pat Narduzzi in Pitt's press-quarters defense, too. We've seen the program produce defensive backs like Damar Hamlin, Dane Jackson, Avonte Maddox, Jason Pinnock and Jordan Whitehead in recent years. Mathis is next in line. He missed the 2020 season with a shoulder injury but bounced back in 2021, posting a career high in tackles (44). I think his best football is ahead of him.
Every year there's a player who just really stands out to me above his fellow prospects, and this year that player is Pitre. I saw him in person for the first time at the Senior Bowl. Every time he was on the field, I just had to follow him and he would lead me to where the play was being made. We sometimes overuse the term "ball magnet", but the label fits for this young man. I've highlighted defensive backs Antoine Winfield Jr. (in 2020) and Elijah Molden (in 2021) when they were prospects because of their instincts in the secondary, and I think Pitre is this year's version of those guys. I love his ability to run, hit and cover.
I had a chance to watch Adams work during the week of practice at the HBCU Legacy Bowl in February, and I was struck by his instincts for being in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to participate in the game that week because of a shoulder injury but I had already seen enough to know he deserves a shot in the NFL. He tested very well at the HBCU Combine in January, too. Don't let his limited college production (five interceptions, nine pass breakups) fool you. He can play.