Turning-Point Draft for Jalen Hurts, DK Metcalf, & Others
NFL Draft - Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo will obviously be watching the 2022 NFL draft very closely.
The San Francisco 49ers may ship Garoppolo off to the Carolina Panthers or... well, the Carolina Panthers for a Day 2 or 2023 pick sometime during draft weekend. The Cleveland Browns may pay someone to haul Mayfield away like an old mattress or a Brock Osweiler. Both quarterbacks will see the number of potential starting opportunities dwindle toward zero as Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, and others leave the board. It's going to be a tense weekend for a pair of much-talked-about starting-caliber quarterbacks.
This article isn't about them, though. It's about 10 other NFL players who will be glued to their screens over the next three days, for a variety of reasons.
Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears
Fields has been dealt a rotten hand. His 2021 DVOA and DYAR are down near the Point of No Return, even for a rookie. The departures of Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace are a good thing, but regime/scheme/philosophy changes are a bad thing for a second-year quarterback. And while Trevor Lawrence will benefit from an upgraded (if overpriced) receiver corps and Zach Wilson has two new tight ends and two top-10 draft picks to look forward to, Fields may have the weakest supporting cast in the NFL, and the Bears don't select until No. 39 and No. 48.
Fields needs the Bears to go receiver-receiver in the second round. Or perhaps receiver-right tackle or receiver-tight end. Or package their picks to move up for someone with WR1 potential, like Georgia's George Pickens or an unexpected first-round slider. Ryan Boles and Matt Eberflus might go any of those routes—at least one wide receiver is almost a given—but the Bears have needs on defense, too.
Every pick that isn't used to help Fields could end up hurting him. And Fields cannot afford to take even one step backward.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
The plan for Hurts appears to be to build around him in 2022, monitor his development, and commit in 2023 if he makes strides as a passer, but use two 2023 first-round picks to transition smoothly to another quarterback if he does not. It may be the most coherent plan for a friend-zoned young quarterback in decades. Chalk it up as a lesson learned from that guy in Washington.
But what does building around Hurts in 2022 mean? Jameson Williams or Treylon Burks as one of their first-round picks? An early-round double dip at receiver? And what happens if Malik Willis slides or someone like Matt Corral is sitting on the board on Day 2? Aggressive, unexpected quarterback moves are what brought Hurts to Philly in the first place.
The good news here for Eagles fans is that Hurts has the mindset to handle a quarterback competition like a professional, and that any early-round receiver will be a vast upgrade over Jalen Reagor.
DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks
The 49ers will inevitably bend over backward to accommodate Deebo Samuel, and he will probably be back with the program by the time training camp arrives. A.J. Brown and Terry McLaurin will get more or less the contracts they are hoping for from the Titans and Commanders. But what about Metcalf, their fellow fourth-year receiver?
Metcalf is a fantasy rock star with a league-average DVOA. He may also be the one-trickiest pony in the NFL. Metcalf led all receivers with 35 deep targets (15-plus yards) up the left or right sidelines last season per Sports Info Solutions but had just nine receptions, fewer than teammate Tyler Lockett, Ja'Marr Chase, Darnell Mooney, Quez Watkins, Dallas Goedert, and a total of 22 players. And that was with Russell Wilson at quarterback much of the year. Yes, Wilson was playing hurt for part of that time, but for all his athletic gifts, do numbers like those really suggest that Metcalf fits as the deep threat for a developing quarterback like Zach Wilson?
Metcalf might get traded. He might get a new quarterback. The Seahawks may or may not be rebuilding, so anything is possible, and Metcalf should keep his ringer on at all times.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
We're told Michael Thomas is healthy and eager to return to the field for the Saints. We're told this, second-hand and inferentially, by new coach Dennis Allen, who visited Thomas in Southern California over a month ago. Thomas himself remains mostly enigmatically silent, save for his appraisal of the early-April Saints-Eagles trade:
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) April 4, 2022
Is Thomas looking for Jameson Williams to lift the lid on the defense? A fellow Buckeyes star such as Garrett Wilson or Chris Olave to be his Robin? A better quarterback alternative than Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton? Both? Were his previous beefs with Sean Payton, the whole Taysom Hill experiment, or some other element of the Saints organization? If he is not completely satisfied with the team's direction, will his ankle flare up again?
Thomas hasn't caught a touchdown pass since December 22, 2019, but the Saints still extended his contract this offseason, because that's what the Saints do. (Thomas has also no-doubt noted the recent spike in wide receiver salaries.) It's unclear where his nagging ankle injury ends and his dissatisfaction begins. But Allen recognized the need for a personal ambassadorial visit with his brittle/reluctant WR1. Whatever the Saints do with their two first-round picks, they had better hope that Thomas approves.
Kadarius Toney, WR, New York Giants
From the sublime to the ridiculous: the Giants may be looking to trade Toney, the 20th overall pick in the 2021 draft.
Let the lowballing begin!
Toney is a gifted slash/slot weapon with a high-strung reputation who frequently clashed with the even higher-strung Joe Judge coaching regime. Judge is gone, and Toney has reported for OTAs, but the fact that neither Toney nor the Brian Daboll staff appears all that eager to establish a new relationship won't exactly prompt other teams to offer fistfuls of future draft picks for a receiver who caught 39 passes last season, 26 of them within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Giants really want to trade James Bradberry, a quality cornerback who is costing them $21 million in desperately needed 2022 cap space. Bradberry could end up on the Bills or Chiefs once Derek Stingley and Sauce Gardner are off the board (one of them to the Giants, quite possibly) and any fantasies about trading up for them are exhausted.
Toney? He could fetch a Day 3 pick, once lots of similar prospects with zero baggage leave the draft board.
Mekhi Becton, OT, New York Jets
Becton missed all but the first few snaps of last season. He's currently absent from voluntary workouts, but such workouts are indeed voluntary, and Brian Costello of the New York Post reports that Becton's partner has a baby on the way. Still, there have been rumors about the Jets' dissatisfaction with Becton. The Jets have a long, proud history of blaming their first-round picks for their woes, and such prophecies have a habit of fulfilling themselves.
Becton was a beast in college. He looked like a building block at left tackle in 2020. And the Jets could draft either Evan Neal or Ickey Ekwonu with one of their top-10 picks and plug the rookie in at right tackle or guard. But selecting a tackle when the Jets have a need at every position on the roster—and the top of the draft board is flush with edge rushers, cornerbacks, and wide receivers—would be a troubling sign that Becton is about to go the way of Sam Darnold, Jamal Adams, and Leo Williams.
Jackson Carman, OG, Cincinnati Bengals
Bengals fans have a case of Jackson Carman on the brain, and that's a good thing. Fans only worry about their left guard when they don't need to worry about their quarterback or the rest of their roster.
The Bengals added La'el Collins, Ted Karras, and Alex Cappa in free agency, so they won't be forced to draft for need along the offensive line. But Carman, a second-year converted Clemson left tackle, is still penciled in as a starter. Carman blew 12 blocks in just 12 games per Sports Info Solutions, a high rate for an interior lineman, and committed four false starts. Per ESPN's Ben Baby, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan delivered an endorsement of Carman last week that was equal parts encouraging and cryptic:
Bengals OC Brian Callahan on OL Jackson Carman's offseason so far: "He’s been doing the right things. He’s been taking care of himself the way he’s supposed to. I’m hoping for a really nice jump from his 1st year into his 2nd year."
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) April 19, 2022
Carman may well improve with a year of NFL experience and better blockers surrounding him. The Bengals could also draft Boston College's Zion Johnson, fold their arms, and say "We DARE you to try to get to Joe Burrow." They could even do both. But Carman may breathe just a tiny bit easier if the Bengals opt for a pass-rusher or linebacker on Thursday night.
Kenneth Murray, LB, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargersranked 30th in run defense last season, per DVOA. Interior defensive line was the team's biggest problem, and we can assume that former first-round pick Jeremy Tillery will be phased out of the team's plans. But what about their linebackers? Kazir White is now in Philly. And Murray is coming off a poor sophomore season, in part because of a season-long injury that both required early-April surgery and a long Instagram explanation.
Murray is another player I loved coming out of college. He can fly in the open field, but he has not been much of a gap-filler and has had some miserable days as an open-field tackler. Maybe a healthy ankle will change things. But the Chargers are in Nakobe Dean territory with the 17th overall pick, and there will also be a lot of high-upside talent on the board at linebacker in the third round. Murray could find himself rehabbing his ankle and competing for a role at the same time.
Tyrann Mathieu, S, Free Agent
The Honey Badger Free Agency Tour 2022 included well-publicized virtual visits with the Eagles and a face-to-face visit with the Saints, but no contract offers. Translation: Mathieu's agent is working hard to either drum up interest in him or scare the Chiefs into making a better offer. No one has blinked so far, with the Chiefs sounding tepid about Mathieu's return, the Eagles reportedly balking at Mathieu's asking price and the Saints at full aging defender capacity.
As often repeated here at Walkthrough: the Internet sees Mathieu as a versatile perennial All-Pro, but NFL teams see him as a pricey veteran with a moderate- to high-maintenance temperament and a role that cannot be easily carved out of every defensive scheme. Teams also see a safety class loaded with Kyle Hamilton/Jaquan Brisker/Jalen Pitre/Dax Hill/Lewis Cine/Nick Cross talent. There are going to be versatile starting-caliber safeties on the board in the second round. The team that signs the Honey Badger will probably be a team that whiffs on all of those Day 2 safeties.
Mathieu may ultimately return to the Chiefs, especially if they go receiver/edge rusher or receiver/cornerback with the 29th and 30th picks. But Mathieu's agent may not know which other teams to target with a phone call to nudge the Chiefs along until late on Friday night.
Join Football Outsiders on Draft Weekend!
This will be the 21st NFL draft I have covered in some capacity. If my draft coverage were a person, it could legally drink on Thursday night, just as I will be legally drinking as soon as each day of the draft ends.
I have covered four drafts in person—three at Radio City Music Hall and one at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—but in-person draft coverage is not cost-effective: the Internet access often stinks and the access to prospects non-existent. I graded every single pick of all seven rounds for Bleacher Report from 2016 through 2020; I don't mind not doing that anymore. I started providing pick-by-pick analysis of the first three rounds for a small content service in 2002 using dial-up Internet from my childhood bedroom. David Carr, Julius Peppers, and Joey Harrington were the top picks. The first three rounds extended from Saturday afternoon to about midnight. I slept fitfully that night, with the ESPN bah-dah-duh, bah-dah-duh noise invading my dreams, beckoning me to assemble another scouting report. I also covered the first three rounds for Football Outsiders last year, better equipped and more experienced after years of attending Senior Bowls and combines and talking to actual football people.
This year, I will be writing a little less and enjoying it much more. Derrik Klassen and I will be breaking down each of the first-round selections as they happen across social media; all you have to do is follow Football Outsiders and you will see our capsules and hear our thoughts. On Friday, I will be haunting the Football Outsiders Open Discussion Thread, as will some other members of the team. On Saturday, I will be watching the later rounds and analyzing the earlier ones for the first-ever Football Outsiders Preliminary Performance Assessments, which we will probably call "draft grades" for brevity, even though draft grades are silly. (I will also be providing a little content to the Times as well.)
Why the change? Well, real-time grades of sixth-round offensive linemen are utter bullsh*t. Those 700-word dissertations I wrote on first-round picks in the past were mostly pre-written, and the same content can be found in both the FO 40 and some past editions of Walkthrough. And the market has changed, of course; some stuff does not provide as much bang for the buck as it used to.
The draft evolves. The media landscape evolves. Football Outsiders evolves. But our commitment to providing insightful, entertaining, high-protein/low-sugar football coverage never changes. And we're lucky to have a passionate, knowledgeable legion of new and longtime readers who are eager to be part of the football/analytics conversation. We hope to see all of you throughout draft weekend and beyond!
Remember, Football Outsiders' 2022 NFL draft coverage is presented by Underdog Fantasy.