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NFL Draft 2022: Defensive Player Position Rankings

Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
Defensive Linemen

1. Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan -- Aidan Hutchinson could have left for the NFL in the spring of 2021 and be a first-round selection, but he instead decided to stay for one more year in Ann Arbor. The decision paid off, as Hutchinson was the leader of a CFB Playoff team and earned himself a seat at the Heisman ceremony. He's now the betting favorite to be the top selection next week and for good reason; the defensive end has the size, strength, and explosive first step needed to be an elite NFL edge rusher. He's not necessarily as freaky of an athlete as other top pass rushers in this cycle, but checks just about every box and has the highest ceiling of any defender in this Draft.

Projected Range: Early first round

2. George Karlaftis, Purdue -- George Karlaftis remains a forgotten name in this 2022 Draft. He's still likely to land somewhere in the Top 15, but I still think he has major steal potential. Karlaftis was high-profile recruit out of high school who chose to stay local with the Boilermakers. He started Day One for Purdue and was a three-year contributor. Despite facing double and triple teams at every opportunity in West Lafayette, Karlafts often dominated his competition and was regularly the best player on the field. He projects even better to the next level, as he's got the physical tools to continue it on to the next level and is just scratching the surface of what he can be as a football player.

Projected Range: Early to mid-first round

3. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon -- Kayvon Thibodeaux was the nation's top recruit before enrolling at Oregon and after a stellar career in Eugene, looks set to land somewhere in the Top 5 this spring. The physical traits are astounding; he's 6'5" and a hair under 260 pounds, but moves like someone 50 pounds lighter. He's got long arms to clog up passing lanes and is a decent run defender, despite being known for his pass rushing prowess. I have Thibodeaux rated slightly below both Hutchinson and Karlaftis because I think his floor may be lower than that pair, but I believe his ceiling is also higher than those two. He's in many ways a "boom-or-bust" prospect in my eyes, but I have a feeling the chance he "booms" is pretty high.

Projected Range: Early first round

4. Jermaine Johnson II, Florida State -- Want a reminder of just how talented this Georgia defense has been over the last several years? Jermaine Johnson II was a former Bulldog who left the loaded UGA front seven and had a career year at Florida State, with 70 total tackles and 12 sacks. He's now trending in the Top 10, and it's understandable to see why. The one-time junior college product has a limitless motor off the edge and a true nose for the football. He has the versatility you can imagine him playing either stand-up outside linebacker or traditional defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, finding a way to produce at either spot. 

Projected Range: Early to late first round

5. Travon Walker, Georgia -- Every year, we see prospects rise at the right time in the Draft process and this year, it looks like one of those examples is Georgia's Travon Walker. A strong pre-Draft performance has him rising into Top 5 category, and there's even some that believe he could land in the Top 3. Scouts rave about his physical tools and potential in the long-term, even if he didn't get a chance to truly shine in Athens. That's not a knock against Walker; he was playing on a defense that could see as many as five first-rounders and may be go down as one of the best defenses in college football history. 

Projected Range: Early to mid-first round


1. Nakobe Dean, Georgia -- Speaking of that dominant Georgia defense, how about Nakobe Dean? The former high-profile recruit was all the Bulldogs could have hoped for during his collegiate career, wrapping it up by winning the Butkus Award and earning All-American honors. He's clearly the top linebacker in this group in my mind, an absolute specimen with limitless range and decent coverage ability. Dean could theoretically play either inside or outside linebacker in the NFL at a high level and at 21, he could be getting even better. There aren't a ton of teams in the first round that have an obvious need at linebacker, which means he could slide some, but he's still a first-round lock.

Projected Range: Mid to late first round

2. Devin Lloyd, Utah -- Devin Lloyd is the other linebacker in this cycle who has a legit chance to go No. 1. He's not quite as flashy of a prospect as Dean, but was extremely productive throughout his collegiate career and checks a lot of boxes. Lloyd isn't as physically gifted as Dean, but is an intelligent, well-rounded defender who could fit in a wide range of NFL defenses. The ceiling isn't quite as high as Dean, but the floor is high, and he should find himself as a quality NFL defender for years to come.

Projected Range: Mid-first to early second round

3. Christian Harris, Alabama -- There's a drop off here after the top two linebackers, but Alabama's Christian Harris is still worthy of an early Day Two pick. The injury to Dylan Moses in 2019 forced Harris into a premier role earlier than expected and he proved to be a twitchy, hard-hitting defender with elite closing speed. After a productive 2020, Harris was expected to be a Butkus Award frontrunner and while he was solid, he didn't quite live up to expectations. Even so, he looks to be the next in a long line of Alabama inside 'backers set to move onto the pros and have a quality career.

Projected Range: Early second to early third round

4. Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma -- There seems to be a large variance in how NFL scouts view Oklahoma's Nik Bonitto. He was a dominant force throughout his time in Norman as a ferocious, pass-rushing outside linebacker, but how he projects to the NFL is slightly unclear. He's undersized for the pros at 240 pounds and hasn't demonstrated his football IQ is at the levels of others in this Draft. As a college football fan, I may be slightly biased based on what Bonitto did in the collegiate ranks, but I believe he can be a highly productive pro. I'm not sure if Bonitto will be an every-down linebacker, but he could be the type of specialized pass rusher that have grown in popularity in recent years.

Projected Range: Early third to late fourth round

5. Damone Clark, LSU -- Even as LSU suffered a pair of frustrating seasons in 2020 and 2021, Damone Clark proved to be a real bright spot. He was particularly impressive in 2021, as he totaled 136 tackles and notched 5.5 sacks on an inconsistent defense. At 6'3", 240 pounds with superb range, he should be a tackling machine in the NFL. With that being said, I do wonder whether his production in college was more about playing on poor defenses than being a truly elite defender. Even though his numbers were strong, Clark didn't impact games the way you might expect, which I worry could carry on into the professional level.

Projected Range: Early second to mid-third round


1. Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati -- The term "shutdown corner" is thrown around a lot when it comes to discussing defensive backs, but few players fit the definition quite like Gardner. Gardner did not allow a single touchdown pass in coverage throughout his time at Cincinnati, despite starting since he was a true freshman. It wasn't like teams weren't throwing at Gardner either; he totaled 16 pass deflections and nine interceptions during his three-year career. Sure, the NFL is a different challenge than American Athletic Conference football, but teams shouldn't overthink this. "Sauce" Gardner is a proven prospect with the size and intelligence to have a long career.

Projected Range: Mid to late first round

2. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU -- Few schools in the country have produced elite defensive backs at the rate LSU has the past decade-plus and after a superb freshman campaign, people assumed Derek Stingley Jr. was next in line. In fact, the corner was so good as a true freshman on the 2019 National Championship team, there was legit Heisman discussion entering 2020. Stingley wasn't able to quite build on that, putting up two solid, but rather underwhelming, seasons in response. To be fair, Stingley did suffer through injuries the last two years and played on a 2020 LSU defense that was ill-equipped to be successful, but his play soured some people's view. I still like Stingley as a prospect, but believe the value for corners in the modern NFL makes him a reach in the Top 5. He has higher bust potential in my mind than Gardner, which is why I place him second in the position group.

Projected Range: Early to mid-first round

3. Trent McDuffie, Washington -- Speaking of schools that produce a lot of elite defensive backs, how about Washington? The program has been an absolute factory for NFL defensive backs this past decade and Trent McDuffie appears to be the next. He's a prospect without very many weaknesses in his game; he was extremely consistent throughout his time in college, and has the athleticism and ball skills that should translate to the next level. There's extra added value with McDuffie, as he returned punts in college and proved to be a real special teams weapon. Even if that's not in the cards in the NFL, it adds an extra element to a really well-built corner.

Projected Range: Mid-first to early second round

4. Roger McCreary, Auburn -- If you're a cornerback-needy team in the late first or early second, I don't think you could go wrong with Auburn's Roger McCreary. He quietly had a very productive career on the Plains and despite being undersized, should be a good fit in the pros. McCreary is incredibly quick and a hard-hitting defender, but his lack of elite speed on the perimeter probably projects him more as a nickel corner in the NFL than anything else. That may limit is value overall, but I like him a lot as a low-risk, high-reward piece in early Day Two.

Projected Range: Late first to late second round

5. Kaiir Elam, Florida -- Florida had some of their worst defenses in school history the past two seasons, but that shouldn't be a negative reflection of Kaiir Elam, who was regularly the best defender on the field at UF. There's just something about the way Elam plays; he's a smooth athlete with proven coverage skills who plays with a certain swagger. He seemed to play some of his best ball at the biggest moments (just watch his Alabama tape) and has a diverse skillset. Most mocks have Elam landing somewhere in the first or second, which seems like a fair match for what he will bring to the pros.

Projected Range: Late first to late second round


1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame -- My favorite player in this Draft, regardless of position, is none other than Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton played immediately as a true freshman and had a stellar three-year career for the Irish, operating as their leader on the back-end. During his time with Notre Dame, Hamilton proved that he had true sideline-to-sideline range with elite closing speed, impressive instincts, and tremendous ball skills. He also showed that not only was he a proven commodity in pass defense, he could come up and make plays in run support. At 6'4", 220 pounds, Hamilton already has the look of an NFL veteran and should be an ideal fit in just about any NFL defensive scheme. No matter where he lands, I have no doubt he's going to make an immediate impact.

Projected Range: Early first round

2. Jaquan Brisker, Penn State -- Jaquan Brisker is a great story, a player who put up mind-boggling numbers in high school but due to academics, was forced to spend two seasons at Lackawanna Community College. He didn't stop those early struggles from a successful football career, earning JUCO All-American honors before getting a shot at hometown Penn State, where was a three-year contributor and two-year starter. Brisker now has a chance to sneak into the late first round, although he's more than likely a second day selection. He's a well-built, instinctive safety who isn't afraid to get downhill and make a big hit. Considering this safety class is fairly thin behind Hamilton, he easily takes the cake as the second best in this position group.

Projected Range: Early second to late third round

3. Jalen Pitre, Baylor -- One player I'm surprised isn't getting more attention is Baylor product Jalen Pitre. He was an unheralded recruit coming out of high school who grew into one of the best defensive backs in the nation, earning All-American honors and winning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He followed that up with strong performances at both the Senior Bowl and Combine, yet projects firmly as a mid-round pick, if not later. Sure, he is slightly undersized at under 200 pounds and had previous injury concerns, but he's a hard-working defender who got better each year in college. I don't envision him as a Pro-Bowler by any stretch of the imagination, but think he can certainly carve out a nice career in college.

Projected Range: Early third to early fifth round

4. Lewis Cine, Georgia -- Plenty of NFL folks have Lewis Cine going somewhere in the first two rounds, set to become a high Draft selection. I'm lukewarm on Cine as a prospect; he's got size, good athleticism and is a ferocious competitor, but he was pretty inconsistent in college and is a bit of a tweener. I'm not sure whether free or strong safety is his future spot, although I do believe he should be able to pick things up quickly. There's rumors that NFL people are very high on Cine so I wouldn't be shocked if he's a late first-rounder or very early second-rounder.

Projected Range: Late first to late second round

5. Bryan Cook, Cincinnati -- Often the forgotten man in a Cincinnati secondary that included Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, Bryan Cook is an underrated prospect in this cycle. He's a former transfer from Howard who had a breakout 2021, earning All-AAC honors after a campaign in which he had 93 tackles and nine pass deflections. Cook doesn't jump off the page athletically at you, but he's an intelligent football player who is exceptional in run support. NFL teams are also high on his mentality and mindset for the game, as a real leader on the back-end. He's probably a mid-round guy, but has the skillset to develop into a reliable NFL starting safety.

Projected Range: Mid-third round to early fifth round

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