The 2021 NFL regular season has come to an end. That means the 2022 NFL Draft first-round order is set for the 18 non-playoff teams.
More than half of the league already will be thinking about how to improve for next season, from free agency in March through what they do selecting players from April 28 through April 30. Some of those best draft prospects also will be on display during Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship between SEC powers Alabama and Georgia.
Here’s Sporting News’ latest projections for the first round from No. 1 through 32, with the unofficial order for the 14 playoff teams reflecting the records and seedings going into the postseason:
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1. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-14)
Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan (6-6, 265 pounds)
The Jaguars should think about offensive line especially if left tackle Cam Robinson doesn’t return as a free agent, but with wholesale changes looming, it’s hard to pass on a cornerstone defensive disruptor. Hutchinson plays with great energy and power and is still developing his strong pass-rush moves. He’s ideal for a 4-3 end, so his availability might push Jacksonville toward that kind of scheme with a new coach.
2. Detroit Lions (3-13-1)
Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon (6-5, 258 pounds)
The Lions might be tempted should Hutchinson be available given the local angle, but they should be thrilled to get Thibodeaux at No, 2, too. Thibodeaux, on top of the being the more athletic and disruptive pass rusher overall, is more versatile to thrive in Aaron Glenn’s front seven.
3. Houston Texans (4-13)
Evan Neal, OT, Alabama (6-7, 350 pounds)
The Texans should be thinking more about rookie third-rounder Davis Mills as a potential franchise QB to replace Deshaun Watson given his steady development in showing a strong arm and accuracy down the stretch. That should prompt them to try to move fading and now injured left tackle Laremy Tunsil to create some major salary cap space for their rebuild. Neal would be a young upgrade to dominate as a pass protector and run blocker for a decade.
4. New York Jets (4-13)
Derek Stingley Jr, CB, LSU (6-1, 195 pounds)
The Jets have gotten some good cornerback play in the first year of Robert Saleh’s defense, but in a zone scheme that connects to Seattle’s “Legion of Boom,” they need more effective playmaking. Stingley is a do-everything impact defensive back who can cover a lot of ground and different types of receivers.
5. New York Giants (4-13)
Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa (6-3, 290 pounds)
The Giants would be smart to target the offensive line in the first round, perhaps multiple times. to boost both Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley. Linderbaum, an intelligent rock of an interior blocker and a perfect long-term line leader, would be a great fit, too, as a major upgrade from Billy Price.
6. Carolina Panthers
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty (6-1, 215 pounds)
The Panthers once made Cam Newton, a former Auburn star under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, their franchise QB. Willis, who started his career at Auburn under Malzahn before transferring, has a cannon for an arm and great speed. He should have the potential to make scouting jaws drop in the pre-draft process and make them less concerned about his small-school status given his career-ending awesome play.
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7. New York Giants (from Chicago Bears)
Ikem Ekwonu, G/OT, N.C. State (6-4, 320 pounds)
The Giants get another “hog molly” for GM Dave Gettleman (as of now) with their two top-10 picks, Ekwonu is a strong, powerful run blocker with the nasty streak needed to dominate at times. He can play either inside or outside in the NFL, but with Linderbaum bolstering the middle, it would be nice to have Ekwonu flank left tackle Andrew Thomas on the right side.
8. Atlanta Falcons (7-10)
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame (6-4, 220 pounds)
When serving as the offensive coodinator with the Titans, Arthur Smith got to see the big-time playmaking impact of Kevin Byard at safety. His secondary needs that kind of player in Atlanta to better support young top-flight corner A.J. Terrell. The Falcons had some of the worst play at the position in the league in 2021.
9. Denver Broncos (7-10)
Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss (6-0, 200 pounds)
The Broncos will have a quarterback decision to make and can’t afford to ignore the position in the first round, remembering former coach Vic Fangio’s final lamentation about not having a reliable passer. They must target another franchise QB with shrewd GM George Paton to clean up the Teddy Bridgewater-Drew Lock mess. Corral is a dynamic athlete and confident runner who also shows aggressiveness with a big arm. He quickly refined his raw skills under Lane Kiffin.
10. New York Jets (from Seattle Seahawks)
George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue (6-4, 275 pounds)
The Jets shouldn’t mind loading up on pass defense for Saleh after getting Stingley to upgrade the back end coverage big time. They need to target an ideal 4-3 end who can remind Saleh a little of his freakish former 49ers prized prospect Nick Bosa (6-4, 266 pounds). Karlaftis possesses elite athleticism for his size and is still tapping into his immense pass-rush potential.
11. Washington Football Team (7-10)
Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh (6-3, 220 pounds)
Washington got some flashes from Taylor Heinicke while Ryan Fitzpatrick’s bridge season was a total injury washout. But it cannot move forward and expect to tap fully into its promising passing game without a confident franchise QB made for a big market. Pickett has surged into first-round consideration with other big-name QBs fading thanks to outstanding play, which made the Panthers a formidable ranked offensive-minded power in the ACC. He has natural deep-ball accuracy and football intelligence. He also has that underrated Joe Burrow-like swagger.
12. Minnesota Vikings (8-9)
Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah (6-3, 235 pounds)
The Vikings will need to address the second level with oft-injured aging Anthony Barr heading into free agency along with Nick Vigil. Lloyd is a strong rangy athlete who stands out making plays, with smarts and good instincts made for their zone scheme.
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13. Cleveland Browns (8-9)
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State (6-1, 189 pounds)
The Browns need to upgrade their receiving corps big-time with a true go-to guy outside all over the field. Luckily for Cleveland, there’s a good answer in Columbus. Olave has great speed, quickness and burst to emerge as their new No. 1 for Baker Mayfield or whoever’s the quarterback in 2022.
14. Baltimore Ravens (8-9)
Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida (6-2, 196 pounds)
The Ravens are ending the season as an injury-riddled mess at cornerback and need a jolt of rejuvenation in coverage to boost their blitzing scheme. Elam’s physical strength and length stand out. He is also very efficient in coverage because of his athleticism.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (from Miami Dolphins)
DeMarvin Leal, DT, Texas A&M (6-4, 290 pounds)
Leal is a versatile disruptor who can thrive lining up inside and outside in Jonathan Gannon’s four-man front given tackle Fletcher Cox is fading with age and Derek Barnett will be a free agent. Leal has shown off his interior pass-rushing skills with 8.5 sacks but he also is a stout run stopper. He will need answer questions about his recent arrest for minor possession of marijuana, but in the end, it shouldn’t affect his stock that much given it no longer carries the same stigma for a prospect as it once would have.
16. Philadelphia Eagles (from Indianapolis Colts)
David Ojabo, EDGE, Michigan (6-5, 250 pounds)
The Eagles, beyond Barnett’s pending free agency at defensive end, also know Josh Sweat was so-so filling in for Brandon Graham, who is entering his age 34 season coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. They need reinforcements for the tone-setting strength of their defense. Ojabo would give them a flashy freakish edge player who can contribute well situationally at first. His speed, explosiveness and energy added up to his big rise behind his end-mate Hutchinson.
17. New Orleans Saints (9-8)
Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama (6-2, 189 pounds)
The Saints need to address wideout with Michael Thomas’ future clouded by injury and discontent, Williams profiles much like many of the recent top Crimson Tide picks at the position and has risen fast up boards, showcased more with John Metchie III on the shelf. Williams has proved he can be a lot more than a route-running technician while playing with Heisman-winning young passer Bryce Young. He can flat out big plays and offers a big frame, too.
18. Los Angeles Chargers (9-8)
Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia (6-6, 340 pounds)
The Chargers need to upgrade their run stopping big-time with their entire front three struggling in that capacity for Brandon Staley, who was used to having Aaron Donald as his 3-4 linchpin with the other Los Angeles teams. Davis is a massive player who disrupts plays with great quickness for that size.
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19. Philadelphia Eagles (9-8)
Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson (6-0, 200 pounds)
The Eagles are getting nice late-career play from Darius “Big Play” Slay and Avonte Maddox has been good, too, but they could use a further boost in the secondary from Booth. He is a strong, active corner who has the speed and ball skills to become a worthy successor to Slay as their top cover man.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1)
Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati (6-4, 215 pounds)
The Steelers may make a move up to ensure getting Pickett, who’s the ideal successor for Ben Roethlisberger in terms of fitting Matt Canada’s offense. But this is a fine fallback plan for GM Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin. Ridder has been a great, tough leader for the Bearcats, also showing he’s a natural dual threat for the NFL with his strong arm and running skills.
21. Miami Dolphins (from San Francisco 49ers)
Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State (6-5, 310 pounds)
The Dolphins are still trying to sort their mostly young offensive line and can’t pass up on Cross should he drop here as at least an initial major upgrade from Jesse Davis at right tackle. Cross is a strong, powerful edge blocker who can develop the footwork to handle the left side soon.
22. New England Patriots (10-7)
Nakobe Dean, ILB, Georgia (6-0, 225 pounds)
The Patriots need to replace middle man Dont’a Hightower, who will become a free agent ahead of his age 32 season. Bill Belichick should love a player who can play anywhere and do anything on the second level and also quickly emerge as a leader, what he was for a dominant Bulldogs defense. Dean can flat-out fly and make a lot of plays from sideline-to-sideline wherever he’s lined up.
23. Las Vegas Raiders (10-7)
Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State (6-0, 188 pounds)
The Raiders need a reliable all-around receiver for Derek Carr instead of more limited deep threats. Wilson is a natural technician with his smarts, quickness, route-running and hands. He also is dangerous in making big plays after the catch.
24. Arizona Cardinals (11-6)
Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati (6-3, 200 pounds)
The Cardinals have had flashes at corner with Byron Murphy making plays on the ball often and veteran Robert Alford overachieving, but they need more stability and reliability. Gardner has great agility with his length to move around wherever need to handle vertical or horizontal coverage.
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25. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
Kenyon Green, G, Texas A&M (6-4, 325 pounds)
The Bengals still need to keep thinking about their offensive line in front of Burrow and Joe Mixon. The right side is the concern now between Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carman at guard and injured, fading pending free agent Riley Reiff at tackle. Green has the potential to play outside because of his athleticism that goes with his great power for the inside.
26. Detroit Lions (from Los Angeles Rams)
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina (6-1, 220 pounds)
The nature of this draft should allow for some good value for a potential long-time starting quarterback late in the first round. This would be ideal for the Lions to land Thibodeaux earlier and land their passer of choice here. Howell is a smart, seasoned and accurate pocket passer who will be tied to a new offensive coordinator who can tailor the scheme to his strengths.
27. Buffalo Bills (11-6)
Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn (6-0, 190 pounds)
The Bills have a good No. 2 corner to Tre’Davious White in Levi Wallace, but Wallace will be a free agent and White will be coming off a torn ACL for his age 27 season. With limited weaknesses as Super Bowl contenders, they should look for a good direct replacement outside. Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier will like McCreary because he has the size, physicality, fluidity and ability to play well in any downfield coverage scheme.
28. Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
Jordan Battle, S, Alabama (6-1, 210 pounds)
Jayron Kearse has been a nice surprise and Damonte Kazee has been an OK playmaker to improve safety behind Micah Parsons and next to Trevon Diggs, but both of those journeymen will be free agents. The Cowboys might be aggressive and trade up for Hamilton but can find a fine answer here. Battle is a cerebral playmaker who looks the part and has fine pedigree from his high-level cleaning up in Nick Saban’s defense.
29. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas (6-3, 225 pounds)
The Chiefs could benefit from adding a different kind of playmaker for Patrick Mahomes to complement the speed and quickness of Tyreek Hill and the reliable matchup nightmare of Travis Kelce. Burks is a huge, physical target with big, great hands to match.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington (5-11, 195 pounds)
The Buccaneers may not be able to afford to re-sign Carlton Davis with other free agency priorities to keep Tom Brady’s contending team intact. McDuffie, with nice size, offers great explosiveness and quickness in coverage, too.
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31. Tennessee Titans (12-5)
Nicholas Petit-Frere, OT, Ohio State (6-5, 315 pounds)
The Titans have done their best to replace Jack Conklin with David Quessenberry but they still should be looking for an upgrade opposite Taylor Lewan. Petit-Frere is well-rounded blocker with a nice blend of strength, agility and footwork, standing out while playing both sides.
32. Green Bay Packers (13-4)
Travon Walker, DT/DE, Georgia (6-5, 275 pounds)
The Packers could use an all-around upgrade up front in their 3-4 around Kenny Clark over Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke. Walker is an explosive, versatile playmaker who can line up at multiple spots up front and can with with both athleticism and power.