One of the more interesting and instructive things to do when you’re evaluating draft prospects in any class is to try and drill down to the traits that make them most comparable to this or that current or former NFL player. It’s not always a like-as-like comparison; what you’re really trying to do is to estimate how this prospect could be best utilized at the next level, given the current skill set and potential for improvement.
When Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield put together their lists of the top 2022 NFL draft prospects at every position, with detailed scouting reports on well over 120 players, NFL comparisons were part of the mission — again, to give a more clear picture of how these prospects may transition to the NFL, and which NFL teams might favor them the most.
This year, Mark did quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, interior defensive linemen, linebackers, and cornerbacks.
Doug took care of running backs, offensive tackles, interior offensive linemen, edge defenders, and safeties.
Sometimes, regardless of the position, it doesn’t take long for a comparison to come through — you watch some tape, and it’s clear. Other times, you want to get into advanced metrics, testing percentiles, and even more tape. Over time, instructive comparisons can be gleaned, and it’s one more piece of the puzzle.
Here are the NFL comparisons for Touchdown Wire’s top 50 prospects in the 2022 class, with amazing graphics for each prospect and player by the great Coley Cleary.
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame: Derwin James
When healthy, James has become one of the NFL’s most versatile and productive safeties, and he does it all over the place. Last season, he played 361 snaps in the box, 224 in the slot, 326 at free safety, nine at cornerback, and 41 along the defensive line. James has had some transitive issues as a pure deep-third safety, but as the Chargers run a ton of two-high under head coach Brandon Staley, that concern is minimized by scheme.
Now, take everything I just said about Derwin James, add three inches to his height, and 5-10 pounds to his weight. Now, you have Kyle Hamilton. Again, we’re talking about an unprecedented player.
(Okay — the ultimate upside comparison for Hamilton, and I do this with a lot of trepidation, is the late, great Sean Taylor. Taylor could do things at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds that just did not physically make sense. Hamilton would have to develop more smoothness in the deep third, but he has every other attribute to make that kind of an impact in the NFL over time).
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB, Cincinnati: Richard Sherman
What Gardner does in press alignment and/or man coverage checks a lot of NFL boxes. Gardner believes he is the best player in the entire draft class, and you need that confidence as a cornerback in the NFL. Plus, when Richard Sherman names you CB1, you have every right to be confident.
For me, Sherman is the comparison. The length, movement skills and ability to align in press and stick on a receiver are the reasons why.
Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State: David Bakhtiari
Like Bakhtiari, the Packers’ three-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro, Cross tends to make everything look easier than it really is with an NFL-ready quiver of skills. If your offense is pass-heavy with concepts from RPO to all-go, and you need a tackle to get freaky in space when it’s time to run the ball as an ancillary idea, there’s no better option in this draft class.
Also, if current ESPN analyst and former Patriots, Lions, and Jets lineman Damien Woody agrees with a D’Brickashaw Ferguson comp, who am I to argue?
Evan Neal, OT, Alabama: Andrew Whitworth
Whitworth, the recently retired future Hall-of-Famer, selected by the Bengals in the second round of the 2006 (!) draft, spent his career doing all the right things whether he was aligned at guard (early in his career) or left tackle. Whitworth wasn’t the most athletic NFL tackle at any point in his career, but he used power and an understanding of angles and opponents to limit any potential defensive damage in both the run and the passing game. Neal has a similar profile as a player who doesn’t blow you away with rep-to-rep splash plays, but just gets things done wherever he is in the line.
Jermaine Johnson II, EDGE, Florida State: Aldon Smith
Selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Missouri by the 49ers, Smith was an immediate force with 14 sacks in a rookie season in which he didn’t start a single game. A first-team All-Pro in 2012 with 19.5 sacks, Smith looked like one of the NFL’s most promising players until off-field things got in the way. This is not to say that Johnson has off-field issue — it’s to say that he brings the same combination of power, speed, technique, and potential I saw in Smith at his very best.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon: Julian Peterson
This is a bit of a stretch, but I don’t get the frequent comparisons between Thibodeaux and Jadeveon Clowney. Perhaps those were amplified when Thibodeaux called himself “Jadeveon 2.0” at the combine. Instead, I’d like to see Thibodeaux’s NFL team try him a role like Julian Peterson’s. Peterson was ahead of his time with his positional versatility — selected with the 16th pick in the 2000 draft by the 49ers, Peterson could line up everywhere from end to box to slot to safety at 6-foot-3 at 245 pounds. Thibodeaux’s movement skills in space and overall athleticism had me thinking that he could excel in a Peterson-style role, which the NFL is far more adept with than it was in Peterson’s era.
Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan: T.J. Watt
I’m not comparing Hutchinson to the T.J. Watt that is now playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But there are a lot of similarities to the Watt that came out of Wisconsin and was selected by Pittsburgh with the 30th overall pick in the 2017 draft. Back then, the word on Watt was that he had so many of the attributes you want as a speed-rusher, but things were lacking on the power side. Watt was able to solve those issues, and I’d like to think that Hutchinson can as well — perhaps to the point where he becomes just about as scheme-transcendent as Watt is now. Until then, Hutchinson’s status as EDGE1 is a bit of a projection — at least in this space.
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU: Stephon Gilmore
Is Stingley’s injury history and sub-par play the past two seasons enough to overshadow what we saw in 2019? Probably not. If a team believes they can get that kind of performance from Stingley on a consistent level as he transitions to the league, they might have him as CB1 on their board. If, however, a team is uncertain whether they are getting the 2019 version or the 2020-2021 version, they might be more skeptical. At his best, Stingley reminds of Stephon Gilmore in his ability to shut down opposing receivers in both man and zone concepts.
Ikem Ekwonu, OL, North Carolina State: Taylor Moton
The 2017 second-round pick of the Panthers out of Western Michigan has a similar heat-seeking, pure badass profile to Ekwonu’s, as he showed in 2020 against the Atlanta Falcons.
At 6-foot-5 aqnd 325 pounds, Moton can be susceptible to speed rushers at times (just as Ekwonu can), but teams with power-based offenses will be falling all over themselves to get a tackle with Ekwonu’s power profile. We’d like to see Ekwonu and Moton playing tackle for the same team, because that would be quite fun.
Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah: Fred Warner
Lloyd is a perfect modern linebacker, who can impact the passing game both as a rusher and a coverage player, and consistently finds ways to put himself in position to help when the offense keeps the ball on the ground. Personally, I will be stunned if he lasts too long on the first night of the draft.
When you think of that modern NFL linebacker prototype, with the ability to impact the passing game in multiple ways, Fred Warner’s is the first name that comes to mind. In talking with others around the media landscape, this seems to be the common comparison.
Jordan Davis, IDL, Georgia: Derrick Brown
Maybe my projection is wrong for Brown as a true three-down player who can impact more in the NFL as a pass-rusher than he did at Georgia. As I like to say, I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. But studying Davis, I see a dominant force on the inside against the run, who can fill out his resume with what he offers as a pass rusher. Besides, something tells me that it is not a mistake to bet on a mountain of a man who can move the way he does. A tackle-to-tackle defender at 341 pounds? Sign me up. Derrick Brown has done that for the Panthers since they took him with the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft.
Drake London, WR, USC: Mike Evans
Some have posited that London’s best role in the NFL could be as a big slot receiver, and USC did use him in that alignment a number of times last season. Adding a prototypical X receiver who can also play in the slot, and can separate early in the down and at the catch point, seems like a dream scenario in my book. His experience against press-aligned defenders will make his transition to the NFL a bit easier than it will be for others in this class.
Mike Evans is a name that is mentioned often with London, and if you squint hard enough you can see that aspect to his game, particularly with how he was used in college and how he could be utilized in the NFL.
Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama: DeSean Jackson
Williams is a scheme-diverse receiver who can win early in the down, late in the down, and everywhere in the middle. His ability after the catch is going to make him a quarterback’s best friend, and when coupled with what he can do in the downfield passing game, Williams has the ability to step into an offense and provide explosiveness in the passing game from Day One. You hear “A taller DeSean Jackson” frequently when it comes to Williams’ NFL comp, and it seems quite apt.
Zion Johnson, OG, Boston College: Jahri Evans
Johnson profiles well as an in-line and pull/sweep blocker, but it’s his ability to get downfield and just nuke defenders in space that sets him apart and reminds me very much of Evans, who may have been the best move guard of his era. At Evans’ peak, he was an indispensable part of Sean Payton’s offenses with his ability to hit (and kill) the second and third levels of a defense, and I think that Johnson projects similarly with an outstanding combination of power and agility.
Travon Walker, EDGE, Georgia: Jason Pierre-Paul
When Pierre-Paul came out of South Florida in the 2010 draft class, he was seen by most as an athletic freak with raw technique that would take time to develop. The Giants selected him with the 15th overall pick, betting on the upside, and that went pretty well for them when Pierre-Paul was at his best. Teams are going to be falling all over themselves for Walker based on his raw traits, but there’s a bit of caveat emptor here — Walker may be one of those pass-rushers who needs a year in the NFL to sort things out. If he does, he could easily be the most disruptive edge defender — perhaps the most disruptive defender — in this class.
Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson: J.C. Jackson
I keep coming back to the idea of Booth as a Philadelphia Eagle. The scheme fit seems almost perfect, with what we saw from the Eagles defense a year ago. Booth will need to clean up the tackling to thrive in such a zone-based system, but if he does that, watch out.
I know I roll out the Patriots comparisons far too often, but I see shades of J.C. Jackson (now with the Chargers) in Booth’s game.
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: Amari Cooper
Olave’s ability to separate against coverage, to setup defenders on his route and provide his NFL play-caller with a full route tree on Day One makes him one of the best options in this class. He is a scheme-diverse receiver who can play both inside and outside, giving his NFL offense a ton of options in the passing game.
Olave’s ability to run the complete tree reminds me of Amari Cooper when he was coming out of Alabama. Cooper has a bit more bulk to his frame, and did as a prospect, but that full scheme picture is a nice piece to have as a prospect.
Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State: Diontae Johnson
Part of the reason others might have Wilson higher on boards is his potential. There is still room for growth with him, and if he shows he can operate on the outside at the next level, the sky is the limit. Even if his eventual NFL role is as a slot option with schemed touches in a Z role, his ability to create explosive plays from such alignments will be a big add for NFL offenses.
Everywhere you look, you see the name Diontae Johnson next to Wilson’s profile. Works for me.
Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington: Byron Murphy
McDuffie can slide into zone-heavy systems and play on Day One, even on the boundary despite his lack of size and length. He can also play in a few different roles at the next level, as Washington did use him in the slot and even as a deep safety at times. Teams that rely more on man coverage, however, might want more experience and refined technique from a player in the first round. Same-school comps are low-hanging fruit, but the Murphy comp works for a number of reasons.
Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa: Jason Kelce
At the scouting combine, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta compared Linderbaum to Marshal Yanda, who is a future Hall of Famer to me. I don’t quite see Yanda’s ferocious play strength in Linderbaum’s game, but he does put me very much in mind of Kelce, the five-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-Team All-Pro who has established quite a career with quickness and intelligence over root strength and power. That’s not to denigrate Kelce’s or Linderbaum’s power — it’s just a different kind of player. If you want a top-tier move center, this is your guy.
Devonte Wyatt, IDL, Georgia: Kenny Clark
For many, Wyatt as DT1 is etched in stone. I certainly understand, and deciding between him and Jordan Davis is a tough call. Both are tremendously talented players who should come off the board in the first round…and on the early side. Wyatt is less of a projection than Davis, given what we have seen from him as a pass rusher, and if he ends up the first DT taken it will not be a surprise at all. He looks a lot like Clark, who has become the primary problem along Green Bay’s defensive line for any of his opponents.
Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida: Carlton Davis
Elam’s ability in press, coupled with his experience against some of the best receivers that you could see on Saturdays, makes Elam a solid option at the position early in the draft. If he gets a little more disciplined with his eyes and his hands, he can become a solid CB1 for an NFL team. He looks a lot like Davis, who has been a star for the Buccaneers over the last few seasons.
Kenyon Green, OG, Texas A&M: Damien Woody
A true mauler whether he’s in zone or gap concepts, Green leads with a very strong run-blocking skill set, and he’s good enough in pass pro to make a decent go of it at tackle. He’ll be an asset to any balanced offense in which the run game sets the tone, and if he can work on the finishing aspects of his game, and cut down on the penalties (six holding calls in 2021), he’ll be a plus starter very quickly.
New England selected Woody with the 17th overall pick in the 1999 draft out of Boston College, and through his 12-year career with the Patriots, Lions, and Jets, Woody was able to play center, guard, and tackle at a starting level. I think that Green, who has shown similar positional versatility, projects best at guard. But it’s the ability to move around at a credible level that gives Kenyon Green one extra attribute in his quiver.
Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia: Devin Bush
Finding flaws in Dean’s game feels like unfair nitpicking. There are moments where his speed hurts him, as he can overrun plays and miss tackles as a result. There are also moments where his tackling technique leaves him too high, and ball carriers can break through his attempt. He is also undersized by NFL standards, and had the benefit of playing behind Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, who kept him clean on the majority of snaps. When Dean is at his best, you see that killer move linebacker, and it’s hard not to think of Devin Bush at his best.
Dameon Pierce, RB, Florida: Frank Gore
Gore had a middling workload in the Miami Hurricanes’ loaded backfields until his 2004 campaign. But when he hit the NFL in 2005 as a third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, Gore showed pretty immediately that he had the power, acceleration, gap wisdom, and receiving ability to be what he was — a five-time Pro Bowler with exactly 16,000 rushing yards in his estimable career. I’m not saying that Pierce will equal Gore’s numbers or career length — that’s a tough one — but the attributes are quite similar. Pierce can be an every-down back in the NFL from Day 1.
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty: Jalen Hurts
In a quarterback class that seems to have more questions than answers, sometimes you see NFL teams more willing to place the bet on upside. A few years ago, Kyler Murray rose to the top of the draft in such a class, and the same could unfold with Willis working to the top of the board because of the potential. Teams will need to be patient with him, but if an NFL organization can get him close to his full potential as a quarterback, they are going to be glad they placed such a bet.
For Willis, a range of comparisons might make sense. At a floor a team is probably getting Tyrod Taylor, a quarterback who can make some throws under pressure and from a variety of platforms, and can be effective in the vertical passing game and with his legs. At the higher end of the outcome scale, a team that develops Willis closer to his ceiling could find themselves with their own version of Dak Prescott. If Willis lands somewhere in the middle of those outcomes, you’re looking at Jalen Hurts with a better arm.
Lewis Cine, S, Georgia: Jessie Bates III
Right now, Cine has the NFL attributes to be an overhang enforcer who will cause trouble on anything in front of him. Over time, and once he cleans up a few things in coverage and with his tackling, he could be a top-10 NFL safety with his athleticism, aggressiveness, and coverage potential.
Selected with the 54th pick in the 2018 draft out of Wake Forest, Bates started his NFL career as a rangy safety with a ton of tools, and became one of the league’s best and most underrated safeties both in the deep third and in the box when he put it all together. Cine can be that same style of player.
Bernhard Raimann, OT, Central Michigan: Sebastian Vollmer
Like Raimann, Vollmer didn’t play American Football until he was 14 years old — he grew up in Germany. And like Raimann, Vollmer switched from tight end to left tackle in college — Houston, in Vollmer’s case. A private workout with Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had New England selecting Vollmer in the second round of the 2009 draft, and Vollmer combined athleticism and strength while overcoming his relative inexperience to play seven mostly solid seasons. Vollmer tended to alternate between clean seasons and campaigns in which he gave up a ton of pressures, and while Raimann might fit that profile for a while, there’s certainly enough on the ball in a physical sense for him to become a top-level move tackle over time.
Kenny Pickett, QB, Pitt: Andy Dalton
There are two teams that I think would be ideal landing spots for Pickett: Carolina and New Orleans. Both teams — with Ben McAdoo in Carolina and Pete Carmichael in New Orleans — are likely going to be rooted in West Coast passing concepts, a system that might be the ideal fit for Pickett and what he does best. Pickett is an accurate passer who throws with touch, rhythm and anticipation, things that still matter at the position. If he can clean up how he handles pressure in the pocket — or gets the chance to play behind a great offensive line — he can grow into an upper-level NFL starting quarterback.
Ultimately, Pickett’s upside might project more to Good Kirk Cousins, but for now, Dalton is the safe comp.
Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn: Casey Hayward
What McCreary did over his career in the SEC should count for something. Yes, the measurables (especially arm length) might make him somewhat of an outlier, but he makes up for that lack of length with great closing skills, good fluidity and great awareness for the position. I think he can still play on the outside, but his versatility makes him a solid option as a slot corner out of the box. He’s a smooth match cornerback who brings Casey Hayward to mind in a lot of ways.
Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas: A.J. Brown
Burks is a ball-winner on the outside with the confidence needed to play receiver at a high level, and with the football in his hands he can accelerate from SEC secondaries in a flash. Those skills translate well to the NFL. I’ve said before that Burks reminds me of A.J. Brown, and I’ll stick with that comparison.
Kyler Gordon, CB, Washington: Elijah Molden
Gordon’s versatility, closing speed and ability to help against the run will endear him to secondary coaches and defensive coordinators at the next level. He just needs to dial back the aggression just a bit, being more patient and disciplined, and he can carve out a nice role for an NFL defense.
This is another same-school comp, and as we’ve said, comparing players to former teammates is often low-hanging fruit, but you can see parallels between his game and Elijah Molden, a former Washington defensive back now in Tennessee with the Titans.
Kenneth Walker, RB, Michigan State: Melvin Gordon III
Two IIIs? Sure. Like Gordon, who was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Walker can make you miss all over the field, and that’s an incredibly valuable skill. Gordon maxed out as a feature back in 2017, when he gained 1,105 yards and scored eight rushing touchdowns on 284 carries. But he also has two different seasons (2016 and 2018) with 10 rushing touchdowns as more of a committee guy, most recently with the Broncos. Walker’s power limitations prevent him from becoming truly scheme-transcendent (and possibly workload-transcendent), but in the right offense, just wind him up and watch him go.
Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati: Ryan Tannehill
Ridder offers an NFL team what you want to see from a mental perspective, with some athleticism to boot. You put those two traits together, and you have a very strong foundation for an NFL quarterback. His growth as a passer during his time on campus should not be ignored, and in the right offensive system you could see Ridder being a solid starting quarterback early in his career, with an opportunity to become more.
At the scouting combine, Ridder told the media that he modeled his game after Ryan Tannehill, and you can certainly see that on film. You also see shades of Marcus Mariota as well. When you start connecting dots, you might be led to the Atlanta Falcons, perhaps with their pick at the top of the second round…
Jaquan Brisker, S, Penn State: Adrian Amos
Brisker’s cornerback background shows up on tape with his ball skills, and I love his play personality. Like a lot of safeties in this class, he’ll need to learn to temper his aggression at times to avoid giving up big plays, but overall, he’s got his game on lock, and the stuff that needs fixing is fixable.
Again, we generally try to shy away from player comps from the same school, and Amos also played for Penn State, but this one makes too much sense. Like Amos, Brisker can play at a dominant level in the box, and he’s underrated as a deep defender. Brisker might be even more advanced as a deep defender over time, but no matter how he’s utilized, he’s got Day 1 starter traits and game-changing potential.
Joshua Paschal, EDGE, Kentucky: Emmanuel Ogbah
If you’re looking for a traditional edge rusher who plays 90% of his snaps outside the tackles, you may miss out on Paschal’s potential, because his true value is in his ability to affect offenses from every gap from wide 9 to offset nose tackle. Teams that value such versatility will be more present with Paschal’s NFL future, and one will be duly rewarded when they commit to it.
There’s a subset of multi-gap pass-rushers in the NFL who don’t get the praise they deserve because they’re so good in every gap, and they don’t hang out in one place — so perhaps it’s hard to get a bead on what makes them great. Ogbah became that kind of player when he was unleashed in Brian Flores’ Dolphins defense in 2020, and Paschal reminds me a lot of Ogbah as a player who can defeat blockers in different gaps, and in many ways. He might be the most underrated edge defender in this class, but in the right system, he won’t hold that classification for long.
Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State: Matt Forte
Hall’s 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine is one of the more incongruous testing numbers I can remember from any draft prospect in a while — because there just isn’t 4.39 speed on the field. When Najee Harris came out of Alabama last season, my thought was that Harris does everything at an above-average to really good level, but nothing spectacularly to the point where you see one of those franchise-defining backs. I see a similar back in Hall, who brings so much to the table and should be highly productive at the next level. You just wonder what he could be with one extra tick of short and long speed. That’s not a professional death sentence; but I can imagine NFL evaluators wondering this, as well.
Selected with the 44th pick in the second round of the 2008 draft out of Tulane, Forte quickly became one of the NFL’s most effective and versatile backs in the league despite the lack of a real third gear or devilish escape speed. From 2008 through 2016, Forte had more total yards from scrimmage (13,794) than any other back (Adrian Peterson finished second over that time with 12,083), and I could see Hall having the same kind of long-term impact in an offense that’s okay with a back who can do it all… except for blowing you away with a fifth gear.
Boye Mafe, EDGE, Minnesota: Michael Bennett
I’m fascinated by Mafe’s potential as a multi-gap pass rusher at the next level, especially when he gets more reps and is able to continue to develop his attributes, and gets with a next-level strength program to fill out his skill set. He could be a plus defender in the NFL sooner than later.
An undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M in 2009, Bennett played pretty well with the Buccaneers for a few seasons, and then blew up to a thermonuclear level with the Seahawks when his new team realized how he could disrupt from multiple gaps. I think that Mafe has a ton of untapped potential in this regard, and I hope his NFL team sees him the way the Seahawks saw Bennett.
David Ojabo, EDGE, Michigan: Cliff Avril
It’s a real shame that Ojabo suffered that torn Achilles tendon at his pro day, because if he hadn’t, I might well have him in my top three edge defenders, and I would almost certainly rank him above Aidan Hutchinson, his Michigan bookend. Ojabo has a compelling combination of traits and techniques to get to the ball, and if he’s able to make a complete recovery, he’ll be a supreme annoyance to opposing quarterbacks in the NFL just as he was in the NCAA.
Ojabo has a similar combination of smooth pursuit and aggressive techniques to get to the quarterback, and the more you watch his appallingly great spin move, it’s appropriate to throw a bit of a Dwight Freeney comp in there, as well. No matter which edge-rusher you compare him to, it’s clear that a healthy David Ojabo has all the traits to succeed in any four-man front. Let’s hope we’re able to see a healthy David Ojabo sooner than later.
George Pickens, WR, Georgia: Tee Higgins
You do not step into the starting lineup as a receiver in the SEC as a true freshman and put up the numbers Pickens did if you are not a talented football player. Circumstances might have pushed Pickens down the board into the Day Two range, but an NFL team is going to be thankful for said circumstances. That’s why I get a Tee Higgins vibe after studying Pickens’ college career.
George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue: Kyle Vanden Bosch
Just because Karlaftis doesn’t pop off the tape as the traditional long, smooth edge defender doesn’t mean that he can’t succeed at the next level. There are physical limitations that will get in his way against the NFL’s best blockers, but I also have a feeling that he’ll work the game as well as he possibly can to become a productive player over a number of years.
The common comparison with Karlaftis is Ryan Kerrigan, but beyond the whole “white pass-rushers who went to Purdue” thing, I can’t really go there. Kerrigan had more pure attributes that are more developable over time, while Karlaftis looks more like a very good player who is going to max out his potential — not a bad thing at all. The more I watched Karlaftis, the more I was reminded of Kyle Vanden Bosch, the estimable strong-side end who became a Pro Bowl force with the Tennessee Titans in the early 2000s. Like Vanden Bosch, I think that Karlaftis will be at his best aligned to the formation, kicking inside, and working stunts and twists. His NFL upside is a very good player who could be made great by alignment and scheme.
Jahan Dotson, WER, Penn State: Tyler Lockett
Dotson’s usage at Penn State gives him the chance to play on the outside and in the slot at the next level. Teams that use receivers interchangeably might love that versatility. He needs to round out his release package and add some upper-body strength to function at his best on the outside in the NFL, but the foundation is there. Muck like Tyler Lockett, Dotson could be a do-it-all receiver whose ability to make everything look easy will be of great benefit to his quarterbacks.
Travis Jones, IDL, Connecticut: Johnathan Hankins
The bottom line is this: While at Connecticut, Jones still found ways to produce when he was the likely focus for the opposing offensive line during the entire week of practice leading up to the game. When he got to Mobile for the Senior Bowl, for example, he showed that he belonged on the big stage. Getting to play on an NFL roster with top talent around him is going to fully unlock what he can be on the football field.
Johnathan Hankins is a popular comparison as a strength tackle who can disrupt, and I see it the same way.
Abraham Lucas, OT, Washington State: Brian O’Neill
The extent to which you grade Lucas as a first-year starter will depend a lot on the type of offense you prefer. If you’re all about headbanging your way to sustained running plays, he won’t be your first choice, despite his thrash-metal preferences. But players of Lucas’ ilk are becoming more and more important in the NFL as the league transitions to more RPOs, quick-game concepts, and offenses are facing defenses that make the front-side protector as important as the blind-side guy. In any of those offenses, Lucas will fit like a proverbial glove.
Selected in the second round of the 2018 draft out of Pitt, the Vikings’ right tackle has become one of the NFL’s most underrated blockers, and he’s specifically great in pass protection without a lot of sand in his pants. When you’re winning against top NFL edge defenders and you barely crack 300 pounds on the scale, you’d better have your technique in order. O’Neill has developed that to the point where the Vikings wisely gave him a five-year, $92.5 million contract extension last September, and Lucas has a lot of the same attributes as a potentially dominant player in a pass-heavy, quick-game offense.
Jalen Pitre, S, Baylor: Jevon Holland
If you need a firecracker player to accentuate your defense with aggressive play personality, slot speed, and high potential in free and blitz roles, Pitre might be at or near the top of your defensive back board. I’m not dumb enough to compare any college defensive back to Tyrann Mathieu, given the ways in which Mathieu can stitch a defense together at his NFL best, but if you squint a little, it’s not impossible to imagine that kind of effect if Pitre hits his ultimate ceiling.
There are some elements of John Johnson III’s game with the Rams here when he played the STAR and slot positions as well as deep safety, but Pitre reminds me most of Holland, the former Oregon standout safety who the Dolphins took with the 36th overall pick in the 2021 draft. Like Holland, Pitre can do everything from slot to free to blitz, and he can make it look pretty easy. It’ll be fascinating to see where Pitre lands in the NFL — hopefully with a team that understands and knows how to utilize his athleticism and versatility. Even in an era where safeties are asked to do a lot of things at a very high level, it’s an interesting mix.
Daxton Hill, S, Michigan: JImmie Ward
I would put Hill up there with Baylor’s Jalen Pitre as one of the two best slot defenders on this list — Hill will bring that value to his NFL team right away, and that extends to playing overhang roles in the deep slot. From there, it’s a decent transition to more of a interchangeable free safety role, which could make Hill a key cog in any defense — just as he was in college.
Jimmie Ward has been one of those underrated multi-position defensive backs ever since the 49ers took him with the 30th overall pick in the 2014 draft. But if you talk to his teammates, they’ll tell you that Ward is the guy who holds his defenses together with his acumen all over the field. Hill, who may turn out to be better than his college tape shows, may have the same transformative effect in the right home.
DeMarvin Leal, IDL, Texas A&M: Trey Flowers
There are two ways teams could use Leal as a rookie. A team could kick him inside and lean on him as a pure interior defender, and given what we have seen, that might be his best pathway to NFL success. Or teams can use him similar to how Texas A&M used him, relying on his versatility as a defender and aligning him anywhere from 0-techinque to the edge.
What’s that expression? The more you can do for a team, the more valuable you are? That might be what leads to Leal coming off the board earlier than we are seeing right now in mock drafts. He reminds me a lot of Trey Flowers, who was a stud with the Patriots, and got lost in the weeds with Lions coaching staffs who weren’t quite sure how to use him.
Nik Bonitto, EDGE, Oklahoma: Haason Reddick
As a straight-line rusher and a guy who can bend to the pocket, Bonitto has already proven that he has the skills some teams covet when it’s time to get to the quarterback in a hurry. I’ll be fascinated to see if and how his NFL team expands his role into coverage concepts that he has the athleticism to take on.
Reddick has been one of the more productive and underrated undersized edge defenders of his era, with his best role as an “endbacker” who can provide quick pressure with his speed to the pocket. Bonitto has those same types of traits, and in a league where that quick pressure is so important, Bonitto could be a standout right away.
Skyy Moore, WR, Western Michigan: Julian Edelman
Moore’s versatility, with the ability to play in the slot immediately while having the skill-set to play on the boundary, should make him an appealing option for NFL teams. Offenses that use receivers in interchangeable ways should covet what Moore offers both outside and in the slot. When you watch Moore’s tape, the Julian Edelman comparisons write themselves as a fearless receiver over the middle, and a target with surprising juice outside.
Arnold Ebiketie, EDGE, Penn State: Montez Sweat
I’m quite impressed by Ebiketie’s athletic potential, movement skills, and palette of schemes to get to the quarterback. He strikes me as a player who might need a year of transition as he gets a bit more strength and a pure counter move, but over time, he could be a very good pure edge disruptor.
Montez Sweat came out of Mississippi State in 2019 as a long-armed edge-rusher with estimable speed and some play strength concerns, and he’s started to put things together at the NFL level. I would like to see Ebiketie as an outside linebacker-style edge defender who can slip through blockers and speed through gaps in nickel and dime sets. That’s where he’ll be at his best in the NFL.