2022 NFL mock draft: Elite defenders join pair of QBs at the top
Photo illustration by Nick Roy / theScore

Since the moment he took his first steps onto the field for Clemson, Trevor Lawrence was destined to become the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

There isn't the same guaranteed lock anchoring the 2022 draft. But the class will still feature plenty of elite talent at the top of the board, particularly on defense.

The order for theScore's way-too-early 2022 Mock Draft was set using Super Bowl odds, while also balancing the number of clubs from each conference picking 19th-32nd - the 14 spots reserved for playoff teams.

1. Houston Texans - Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

The Texans nab the first overall pick, and it's possible Deshaun Watson isn't on the scene anymore. Howell has quietly been one of college football's best quarterbacks over his first two seasons at North Carolina. The standout passer has posted a ridiculous stat line of 68 career touchdowns to just 14 interceptions. After major turnover on the Tar Heels' offensive depth chart, it's Howell's time to shine on the national stage and rocket up draft boards. Given his measurements and style of play, get ready for plenty of Baker Mayfield comparisons.

2. Detroit Lions - Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Rattler will be the latest quarterback from Oklahoma's pipeline to turn pro, following Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder might not bring ideal size to the position, but his arm talent more than makes up for that. Rattler put up 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions during his first season as starter.

3. Cincinnati Bengals - Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon

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After selecting an offensive player with each of their first picks over the last five drafts, the Bengals grab Thibodeaux to beef up the club's defensive line. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder is a top-tier athlete who's recorded 12 sacks over just 20 career games with Oregon.

4. New York Jets - Derek Stingley, CB, LSU

Stingley has been the best cornerback in college football his entire time at LSU. He likely would have been a top-10 pick in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and Stingley should now jump into the top five while giving Robert Saleh the lockdown corner he covets.

5. New York Giants - DeMarvin Leal, EDGE, Texas A&M

Leal flashed explosive athletic ability at Texas A&M last season while playing inside and outside for Jimbo Fisher's program. The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder is adept at both stopping the run and pressuring the passer, and he ranks in the top 50 nationally at getting to the quarterback. His skill set seems like a great fit for Dave Gettlemen and the Giants.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars - Evan Neal, OT, Alabama

After taking his franchise quarterback in 2021, Urban Meyer secures an offensive-line anchor in Neal. The mammoth 6-foot-7, 360-pounder has played both tackle and guard, and he'll provide instant stability in Jacksonville for the young Jaguars.

7. Philadelphia Eagles - Drake Jackson, EDGE, USC

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The highly touted Jackson became the first USC true freshman to start on the defensive line since Everson Griffen in 2007. Moving to the outside has unleashed his full potential, and that should be realized during a full season in 2021.

8. Las Vegas Raiders - Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson

After missing the 2020 campaign due to a spinal contusion, Ross announced he'd be back at Clemson in 2021. Don't be shocked if that results in him being a top-10 pick. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder showed his ability as a freshman during the Tigers' national title win, torching Alabama with six catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

9. Washington Football Team - Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame

It won't be a surprise to see Hamilton selected well before No. 9, but for now he finds a home in Washington. At 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, the Notre Dame star is one of the nation's most versatile defenders, and he should shine right away for Washington's young, dominant unit.

10. Carolina Panthers - Christian Harris, LB, Alabama

Harris was a stud for Alabama in 2020, piling up stats for Nick Saban's defense while leading the team to a national title. The sophomore finished with 79 tackles and 4.5 sacks, and he's absolutely worth a top-15 pick for any team looking to add physicality to the second level of its defense.

11. Atlanta Falcons - Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

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Matt Ryan will be 37 years old heading into the 2022 season, and the Falcons can select Slovis while looking toward the future. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder turned in an incredible freshman campaign in 2019, throwing for 3,502 yards with 30 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. With young stars Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts on the roster, this is an ideal spot for Slovis.

12. New York Giants (via Bears) - Zach Harrison, EDGE, Ohio State

The latest from the edge-rushing factory that is Ohio State lands with the Giants at No. 12. Harrison may not project to be the same player as Chase Young or either of the Bosa brothers, but the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder is still a very solid prospect.

13. Minnesota Vikings - Zion Nelson, OT, Miami

As long as Kirk Cousins is the quarterback in Minnesota, the Vikings will need to invest heavily in keeping the pocket clean, and Nelson comes with impressive potential. The Miami product is still developing, but he brings outstanding athleticism to the tackle spot.

14. Arizona Cardinals - George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue

Injuries and COVID-19 derailed Karlaftis' sophomore season, but his freshman campaign alone more than warrants this pick. The Purdue star was an AP first-team freshman All-American, putting up 17 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks.

15. L.A. Chargers - Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State

Operating under the idea there can never be too much protection for Justin Herbert, the Chargers add Cross for some offensive-line depth. The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder has only logged one season as a starter, but a strong showing in 2021 should lead to a rise into the top 20 of the draft.

16. Tennessee Titans - Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

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Olave's crisp route running and solid hands will remind many of Devonta Smith out of Alabama. The senior star faces a challenge while working with a new quarterback during his final collegiate season, but a productive campaign should get him locked in as a first-round selection.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers - Kenyon Green, OG, Texas A&M

The Steelers took a lot of heat for not picking an offensive lineman over the opening two rounds in this year's draft, but they'll fix that in 2022. Green is an excellent run-blocker who should instantly create holes for Najee Harris.

18. New England Patriots - Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State

Wilson is a superb all-around receiver, but his ability to battle for contested catches makes him stand above almost all the rest in this class. His numbers may not pop off the page, especially with a new quarterback at Ohio State now. But he's undoubtedly a first-round talent.

19. Dallas Cowboys - Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida

Elam will have logged three years of starting experience in the SEC for Florida once he's drafted. Judging by the receiver talent that's come from the conference over the past few years, he'll be ready to contribute on Day 1.

20. Philadelphia Eagles (via Dolphins) - Cade Mays, OG, Tennessee

Mays started his career at Georgia before transferring to Tennessee and dominating for the Volunteers. The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder will slot in beside 2021 draftee Landon Dickerson to give the Eagles a talented young interior on the offensive line.

21. New York Jets (via Seahawks) - Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State

Banks is far from a finished product, but the size and raw skills are there for him to be a lockdown NFL corner. With this selection, Banks would become the seventh Ohio State defensive back to be taken in the first round over the last six drafts.

22. Indianapolis Colts - Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

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Given how poor Carson Wentz's play was last year, there's a very strong chance the Colts are looking for a new quarterback in 2022. And if that's the case, it's also likely Indy holds onto its first-round pick based on the playing-time trade conditions for Wentz. Moving up for one of the top-three passers is possible, but Ridder offers very high upside here after a strong 2021 season.

23. New Orleans Saints - Rasheed Walker, OT, Penn State

Terron Armstead is entering the last year of his contract, and the Saints would replace him with Walker. The Penn State star has recorded 22 starts over two years at left tackle, and he could be the first offensive tackle off the board in 2021.

24. Denver Broncos - Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan

With Von Miller's contract ending after the 2021 season, the Broncos can capitalize on an opportunity to get younger at the position. Hutchinson has been talked about in draft circles for several years, but he needs to deliver on his potential to secure a first-round selection in 2022.

25. Detroit Lions (via Rams) - George Pickens, WR, Georgia

In 2007, the Detroit Lions drafted a hulking receiver from a school in Georgia who ended up being among the best ever at his position. No pressure, George Pickens. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has averaged 14.6 yards per catch over two seasons at Georgia while snagging 14 touchdown receptions. He's not Calvin Johnson, but Pickens would quickly become the Lions' biggest receiving threat.

26. Cleveland Browns - John Metchie, WR, Alabama

With Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle gone, it's Metchie's time to truly shine at Alabama. Despite sitting behind the two stars on the depth chart, Metchie still put up 919 yards and six touchdowns last season as a sophomore.

27. Miami Dolphins (via 49ers) - Bubba Bolden, S, Miami

After taking Jaelen Phillips in the first round on Thursday, the Dolphins add another Miami Hurricane in Bolden. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he brings excellent size to the safety position, and Bolden has shown outstanding playmaking ability.

28. Baltimore Ravens - Brenton Cox Jr., EDGE, Florida

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Following their selection of Odafe Oweh in the opening round on Thursday, the Ravens snatch another talented young pass-rusher from Florida. Cox flashed his eye-catching athleticism during his first season with the Gators, and he should produce a huge campaign in 2021.

29. Green Bay Packers - Logan Brown, OT, Wisconsin

The latest export from the offensive-line factory that is Wisconsin ends up down the road in Green Bay. At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Brown possesses excellent size and athleticism at the tackle position.

30. Buffalo Bills - Jalen Wydermyer, TE, Texas A&M

Now that Josh Allen has firmly established himself as an NFL star, the Bills continue to add weapons to the young passer's arsenal. The 6-foot-5 and 255-pound Wydermyer gives Allen the big target he's been missing in Buffalo.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama

The rangy corner from Alabama is ready to break out following the departure of Patrick Surtain II. Jobe is one of the more physical defensive backs in the 2021 class, and Todd Bowles will love that in Tampa.

32. Kansas City Chiefs - Tyler Linderbaum, C/OG, Iowa

The Chiefs have shown this offseason they're committed to building a wall around Patrick Mahomes. They can continue adding pieces to their offensive line with the selection of the versatile Linderbaum.

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2022 NFL mock draft: Elite defenders join pair of QBs at the top
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