I always do my mock drafts a little differently from the traditional method, in that my team-prospect pairings are based on optimizing for wins in the upcoming season -- in a structured way. Here's a quick look at my process:
- I take the best available information about free agency, which right now is admittedly not much more than what we know about player contracts, to predict players' market value.
- I then check free agents' projected market value against the anticipated salary-cap space for each team.
- Finally, I add potential free agents or drafted players to different teams and identify which individuals increase teams' projected win total the most. (My player model leverages historical pre-draft player data to forecast NFL performance.)
This year, I'm starting this process a little earlier than I normally do, which is cool because I am excited to track how things change with free agency and as the draft process evolves. A little housekeeping: I used computer vision-derived measurements and stats in my player evaluations, and all of my speed, burst and advance tracking notes are based on on-field game speed metrics.
Should the Jags re-sign tackle Cam Robinson, pretty much this entire mock would change. The Jags have many needs to fill, so this pick reflects a strategy of not overspending on the pricey tackle. My player model loves Neal. First, he has experience at both left and right tackle and at left guard. He has excellent response rates against both bull and speed rushes (top 10 percentile among tackles in a 10-season sample). This response rate, which is how long it takes to get his hips in front of each type of rush, is even more impressive given his size (he should measure nearly 6-foot-7 and closer to 350 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine). Typically, top-performing bigger tackles rank in the top 25 percentile in response rate. His impressive college résumé, headlined by a national title and All-America honors, also includes just 22 pressures allowed over the past two seasons, per PFF.
I’d put the chances proud Michigan alum Rich Eisen brings up Hutchinson's 15 pressures in the Wolverines' win over Ohio State on draft day at 99 percent. Hutchinson's burst (velocity off the line of scrimmage over three yards traveled) rates in the top 14 percent, and his ability to change direction and move inside on a tackle ranks in the top 15 percent in my 10-season sample. His run-stopping results in college also rate in the top 25 percentile at the position.
Thibodeaux was used in various pre-snap alignments at Oregon and managed to earn 46 pressures, per PFF, despite not always being in the alignment that forecasts for the most pressures. Computer vision shows that his burst velocity ranks in the top 11 percent.
My colleague Daniel Jeremiah likens Gardner to Antonio Cromartie, who became a four-time Pro Bowler after coming out of FSU, and the comp holds well. Change-of-direction speeds for the two corners were in the 90th percentile, while DB body control (factors in efficient change of direction when moving toward the ball) ranked in the top 89th. Gardner’s pursuit speed (speed to tackle) was also a strength (top 85th percentile).
Pro Football Focus loves what Ekwonu did in N.C. State's run-blocking game, counting 18 big-time blocks this past season -- seven more than the next closest guy. He also has experience playing both left tackle and left guard. Not only would Daniel Jones appreciate this pick, but so would Saquon Barkley (which also helps Jones).
I fully expect this one to be a subject of some texts/tweets. This pick provides a peek into how my model deals with strategy:
- The current team. Jeremy Chinn is nasty. The corners are healthier … Jaycee Horn will be back from injury and my model forecasts him living up to his eighth overall selection, and A.J. Bouye is slated to return from injury, too, which creates the opportunity to not have to overpay at that position.
- The situation. The Panthers need to overhaul their O-line. But there are many ways to do this, and free agency (ahem, money) and later-round picks have a combined higher probability of yielding more favorable results for next season than using this pick on a lineman.
- The player. Hamilton has uniquely valuable traits; he should measure in around 6-4, which is tall for the position. He also has top-95th percentile body control from his Notre Dame film, which is evidenced by his versatility to haul in interceptions, break up passes, blitz efficiently and shut down slot receivers.
- The big-picture strategy. Two-safety shells forecast to be the anecdote to the up-and-coming QB styles (think Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow) and a very useful solution in defending the increasingly seen used-on-passing-downs TEs.
Karlaftis’ résumé includes reps aligned over and outside the tackle, which means at his size (he will likely measure around 6-foot-4 at the NFL Scouting Combine) teams will consider how he might be valuable in hybrid fronts and rushing from the inside as well as the outside. His ability to both win after making contact (response win rate) and ability to pressure opposing QBs when they get outside of the pocket rank in the top 88th percentile of the 10-season sample.
My best guess -- and this is truly a guess -- is that Calvin Ridley will likely not be a Falcon in 2022, which will place an even bigger premium on improving wide receiver play. Wilson is my model's current top-rated receiver (by a razor-thin margin) in part because his route-running precision netted the most separation (each route is factored in) among the draft-eligible receivers. PFF shows that when he was targeted, his QB's passer rating was 141.7. He also had a top 95th percentile rating in fatigue, which means the rate at which he lost speed in the fourth quarter compared to the first registered as elite.
Could I have put a QB here? Sure. But I believe, heading into Super Bowl LVI, that Denver will be a big player in the veteran QB market. My model also doesn't believe that any of the draft-eligible QBs are prudent picks at No. 9 overall (especially in this no-trades-allowed mock). Now that that's out of the way, we can talk about Lloyd, given one of the highest ceilings in this entire class by my model, in large part due to his high production in each of the areas he was asked to handle: blitzing off the edge, coverage, taking on blocks and covering tight ends, among others. Computer vision shows he has elite pursuit (top 90th percentile in ability to get his hips in the right direction toward the ball) on passing plays in zone coverage.
I realize that Mekhi Becton, the 2020 first-rounder who missed all but one game in 2021 with a knee injury, should be healthy and return to the lineup to try to take the left tackle spot back from George Fant. I also realize that Cross played on the left side at Mississippi State, and that it's not always easy to transition to the right. However, Becton and Fant both have some experience playing on the right, and this O-line needs help. My numbers show that Cross is evolving and has the opportunity to develop into a dominant pass protector. PFF's notes agree, showing that he made a major improvement in pressures allowed from 2020 (44 on 574 pass-protection snaps) to 2021 (16 on 719 snaps).
Here it is: my first QB off the board. Pickett is my 23rd-ranked player overall, but that isn't as much of a knock on the QBs as it might seem, since I rarely have a QB ranked higher than 10th in a given year. Positional value drives the pick here. Ability to throw on the run is a huge positive for Pickett; QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen have shown the value that this trait can add.
There's an elephant in the room here, and it's that Stingley's tape and metrics have gone the wrong way from his 2019 campaign until now, with the corner playing just three games in 2021 due to injury. However, press coverage is a positive in his resume, and his pursuit speed flags in the top 20 percent, per computer vision. PFF counts him as allowing a completion percentage of just 41.1 in his three seasons at LSU. If the Vikings end up naming Ed Donatell their defensive coordinator, Stingley would get excellent tutelage in Minnesota, and his natural attributes could be on full display.
I swear I played multiple seasons of the NCAA Football video game (many years ago) with at least three players named Drake London. Did they also have 19 contested catches in only eight games (per PFF)? Were they about 6-5? Did they place in the top 85th percentile in yards after the catch per reception (from both the wide and slot pre-snap alignments, per computer vision)? I can't remember, but I really hope they did. In my mock, the Browns snag this video game-like WR, who could be my top-rated player at the position when the final mock falls.
Familiarity with Ojabo's potential does elevate this pairing, as new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who comes over from Michigan, has first-hand knowledge of how to best use Ojabo's skill set. Ojabo's pass-rushing burst ranks in the top 80th percentile, but he was used in a limited fashion -- which means there is room for improvement there.
Walker has experience on the outside and inside, as well as with dropping into coverage. His burst speed rates in the top 86th percentile. The ability of the Eagles front to be versatile and multiple fits not only where Walker is now, but also the trajectory for where he could go, which reflects a very high ceiling.
YAC, running back and Wildcat QB! OK, the Wildcat note is just fun. But Burks' usage on passes of shorter air distance (slants, bubbles and flats), as well as in rushing situations, shows a strong ability to run with the ball in his hands. Considering the buzz generated by 49ers dynamo Deebo Samuel's performance in similar situations, I'm sure we'll hear plenty about this aspect of Burks' game. For me, the most predictive part is his experience and production with the ball in his hands, which would be a big help for Philadelphia. I will be watching some of his deeper receptions as the draft process unfolds, as I don't have much data to evaluate from the full route tree.
I'm pretty sure I'll get some feedback about this one, as it seems everyone and their sister is mocking a very large DT to the Chargers to help shore up the run. But my models like Dean here. Why? His good run-stopping ability is also complemented by an ability to help shut down opposing tight ends -- and the AFC West has some excellent tight ends to contend with. Dean's forecast for executing blitz concepts is strong, and he ranks in the top 87th percentile in terms of breaking blocks and pursuit speed, especially in the middle of the field. The Chargers have a very special player on the roster in Derwin James, and throwing to the middle of the field would forecast to be a lot harder with both Dean and James on this defense.
For an offense that has experience with a QB who is great at designed runs and scrambles, this fit -- Corral had 11 rushing TDs last season at Ole Miss -- creates a lot of value from Day 1. Corral's facility with RPOs will help create opportunities for bigger plays. Now, I would feel a lot better if I knew who the offensive coordinator will be for new coach Dennis Allen, because development is key, but I'm hoping the Saints will go with someone with proven QB experience.
Green played every O-line position except for center at Texas A&M last season, but my models get heart eyes for him as a guard. If Jason Kelce does not return in 2022, Landon Dickerson could move to center, which is what I programmed into my model. So, voila: a guard it is. Per computer vision, Green ranks in the top 85th percentile among guards in maintaining pocket integrity (in terms of seconds).
The biggest strategic benefit would be to fill this spot in free agency. But the highest win-share scenario for the Steelers is to add versatility to the O-line in the draft -- especially with this developing talent, who has already flashed high upside and carries markers showing he can play both inside and outside. PFF shows Raimann only allowed 10 pressures on passing downs last season.
Williams is tall (listed at 6-2) and fast; per computer vision, his burst (for a WR, this is measured within the first 3 yards traveled past the line of scrimmage) ranked in the top 10 percent of all FBS wideouts last season. His acceleration in pads was also in the top 8 percent. The knock against his inclusion here relates to the win-now premise of this mock, given that Williams tore his ACL in the college football playoff national championship game. Still, without knowing when he'll be back, the deep-threat potential he represents, even if for a playoff run, creates the most value.
Olave ranked in the top 13 percent among all FBS wide receivers last season in both route-running precision and speed. I should note that, in the model I run that shows what's likely to happen based on the drafting tendencies of team brass and coaching staffs, it's tipping defense here (with the Raiders acquiring WRs in free agency). But that's for a different mock. Here, I'm sticking with Olave.
The balance of run-stopping and pass-stopping production drives this fit (Johnson had 12 sacks last season at FSU). His bull rush ranked in the top 15 percent of all edge rushers in FBS last season, and his burst rates in the top 20 percent in the 10-season sample.
The Cowboys have three safeties (Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker) headed for free agency, and my models love adding Hill to a defense that already includes cornerback Trevon Diggs and linebacker Micah Parsons. Hill has top 88th-percentile speed among safeties in open space. My models really value the ability to play slot corner, as more offenses are leveraging slot receivers, which makes Hill's resume even more exciting: PFF counts six pass breakups and two interceptions for Hill last season, which he spent as a slot defender.
This would make an already stacked Bills pass defense even scarier. PFF shows McDuffie allowed only 16 receptions in his coverage on 36 targets for 11 yards with no TDs and five pass breakups. Can you imagine McDuffie joining a group that already includes Tre'Davious White, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer?
Linderbaum ranks in the top 95th percentile in body control at the center position and maintained winning leverage on run blocks at the best rate in FBS last season.
This Florida product allowed only 18 catches on 33 targets for 165 yards this season, per PFF, which, in the SEC, is saying a lot. And his size (he should measure around 6-2) should be in the ideal range. PFF has another really cool note here: Elam allowed just eight catches on 210 Cover-1 coverage snaps in his career.
Both Georgia DTs (Wyatt and Jordan Davis) have a lot of value here, but my models give Wyatt the edge, as his burst velocity (in the top 8 percent from the 10-season sample) and change-of-direction speed (top 13 percent) profile with more pro-level upside.
I suspect new Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel is going to make a huge impact on this O-line, not just in terms of reconstructing it but also in terms of getting the right staff in place to teach the fundamentals. Perhaps the run concepts he leveraged in San Francisco will also be a part of this, which is why Penning, who measured 6-7 at the Senior Bowl and has shown exceptional run blocking while at Northern Iowa, would be an excellent addition.
The ability to play outside and in the slot is an attribute that forecasts well for the Chiefs. In addition to having that skill on his resume, Gordon also boasts speed (top 20 percent for all FBS CBs last season) and strength (watch the goal-line stand against Michigan).
I can't wait to see what Faalele, who checked in at 6-8 1/4 inches and 387 pounds at the Senior Bowl, measures at the combine. The Bengals have the offensive weapons to make up for some blemishes along their offensive line, and they'd be well-served to address the unit in free agency. But adding this massive human, who has improved his body control and response speed by about 30 percent from 2019 to 2021 (he didn't play in 2020, and he seemingly has even more room to improve), is a very sound strategy for earning wins in 2022.
Dotson's versatility as someone who could help in the slot and outside drives his fit here. His ability to accelerate in and out of breaks ranked in the top 15 percent of all FBS receivers. The Lions have a lot of needs to address, and adding a sure-handed pass catcher in the first round would be a cost savings at a top-five value position. PFF shows he dropped only two of his 93 catchable targets last season at Penn State.