Count Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze among those who has no idea where the chips will fall once the 2022 NFL Draft begins. Asked on NFL Draft Kickoff which team is most likely to pull the trigger on Malik Willis as its next franchise quarterback, Freeze admitted, "Typically, I would say that I usually can have an idea, but I have no clue on what's really gonna happen tonight."
All 32 franchises, according to Freeze, have visited Liberty to gain more intel on Willis and his teammates, but three clubs stand out as having picked Freeze's brain the most throughout the draft process. Freeze told NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano that the Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks have maintained the most contact.
Freeze is excited about Willis' professional prospects regardless.
"In the right place, he can come in and play," Freeze said. "Particularly with the way we all struggle to protect the passer today because of the great defensive lines we face, I just think he has the biggest upside to extend plays and extend drives, which is valuable."
The 2022 crop of quarterbacks, as well as the position at which teams are willing to bite, looms over the draft as one of the big question marks. In contrast to recent drafts, the QBs joining Willis atop draft boards -- Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder -- have tempered league-wide expectations. It remains to be seen how many signal-callers find a home in Round 1.
Here's what else we're monitoring Thursday ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft, which kicks off tonight:
- The Philadelphia Eagles have the No. 16 and No. 18 overall picks in the draft following a trade with the New Orleans Saints. NFL Network's James Palmer reported on NFL Draft Kickoff that there is a growing belief general manager Howie Roseman hopes to use the first of those picks to trade into the top 10. Cornerback and wide receiver stand out as positions of need, but Palmer went as far as to identify Philadelphia's primary target: Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux. "He is a freak on film," Palmer said. "He is a guy that could change the pass rush in Philadelphia immediately." The Eagles desperately need that change after ranking 31st in sacks in 2021. As far as the No. 18 overall pick goes, Roseman could ultimately leverage the quarterbacks left on the board in order to trade out and acquire more picks.
- NFL Network's Cameron Wolfe reported on NFL Draft Kickoff that the Atlanta Falcons don't have a quarterback rated highly enough to take at No. 8 overall. The more likely pick at that spot remains a wide receiver or pass rusher. Wolfe did add that Atlanta wants to "live in the now" when evaluating this draft class rather than comparing it to 2023, which is expected to have more franchise pieces. That mindset could translate to selecting a signal-caller on Day 2.
- The Carolina Panthers are keeping their options open with the No. 6 pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. It remains unlikely they'll draft a quarterback at that spot, NFL Network's Bridget Condon reports, but "the bottom line here is they need to leave the weekend with an improved offense." To do that, the club is putting an onus on shoring up the left tackle spot. As noted by Condon, the team has started 16 players at left tackle since Jordan Gross retired in 2013 and gave up 52 sacks last season (fifth-most in the NFL). Carolina is excited about Alabama's Evan Neal and North Carolina State's Ickey Ekwonu, but if neither is available at No. 6, a potential trade to get some picks on Day 2 could be the road that leads them to selections at QB and LT.
- One route that could see the Panthers selecting a quarterback involves acquiring a Day 2 pick. Carolina does not currently possess another pick following No. 6 overall until the tail end of the fourth round (No. 137 overall), so it would require some maneuvering. Two quarterbacks on the team's radar at that price point include Pickett and Sam Howell, per Condon. Head coach Matt Rhule has known Pickett since high school and tried to recruit him play at Temple once upon a time. Howell visited the Panthers for a private workout last week.
- According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero, there is consensus around the league regarding the draft's top running back. Iowa State's Breece Hall has the best shot at cracking the first round, and Rapoport highlighted the Buffalo Bills as a potential landing spot on Thursday's NFL Draft Kickoff. QB Josh Allen trailed the team's leading rusher, Devin Singletary, by just 66 carries and 107 yards last season. The Bills only have a few empty pieces remaining in the Super Bowl puzzle. Easing Allen's dual-threat burden by pairing him with a talent like Hall looks like a fit.
- NFL Network's Jane Slater reported Wednesday that the Dallas Cowboys would consider Charles Cross, Trevor Penning and Drake London if Jerry Jones opts to move up in the draft. Today, she clarified on NFL Draft Kickoff that those three players have Dallas' eye between picks 12 through 15. If the Cowboys entertain a smaller leap forward from No. 24 overall, two other prospects gaining traction are Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks and Boston College offensive lineman Zion Johnson. On Johnson, Slater added, "In the building, they think that this guy could be a really great center. Smart enough to be your next Travis Frederick." Others within the Cowboys front office have their doubts -- Johnson played guard in college. The tide of these evaluations and debates will play a pivotal role in the Cowboys' moves tonight.
- The Green Bay Packers are one of several teams exploring a move up in the draft, per Pelissero. The Packers hold the No. 22 and No. 28 overall picks and may need to get aggressive to beat out other teams for their wide receiver of choice. The urgency comes on the heels of trading Davante Adams to the Raiders and losing Marquez Valdes-Scantling to the Chiefs in free agency in March. Green Bay followed up on those losses by adding veteran wideout Sammy Watkins, but its cupboard at the position remains relatively bare. Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers currently round out the rest of the Packers' top options.
- According to NFL Network's Peter Schrager, five teams have been linked most often to potentially selecting a QB in the first round: the Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans. While the Panthers and Steelers have been tireless in evaluating signal-callers during the pre-draft period, and the Saints and Lions are rostering nothing more than place holders in Jameis Winston and Jared Goff, the mention of Tennessee is sure to raise a few eyebrows. The Titans have not missed the playoffs since Ryan Tannehill usurped Marcus Mariota as the starter in the middle of the 2019 season. He's 35-18 as the team's starter. Things appear fine on the surface, but Tannehill, who is under contract through the 2023 season, has shortcomings as a thrower, and the AFC's 2021 No. 1 seed is clearly getting antsy about its championship window after falling short in the postseason once again. Landing a quarterback capable of bolstering the passing game to the point that defenses fear it even half as much as RB Derrick Henry would throw that window open wide.