2022 NFL Franchise 100: No. 55-51

The NFL season is right around the corner and while all 32 franchises are trying to make their final roster decisions, I wanted to take a different approach to roster building. Inspired in part by the annual NFL Top 100 players list, voted on by the players in the league, I wanted to know who the top 100 players would be to start a team with in 2022.

There are a variety of factors that went into creating this list. Let me lay out the criteria.

First, age played a major role in determining which players made this list. Only six players over the age of 30 made the list. Positional value was the other big driving force behind these rankings. There is no doubt that Jonathan Taylor is one of the best young players in the game right now, but you wouldn’t pick him first overall to start an NFL franchise from scratch. The positional value of running backs is simply not high enough to warrant that. Neither is the longevity of the position on average. You most likely want to find a player who is going to last a long time to build your franchise around. There are a few notable exceptions to that rule. With that in mind, I prioritized quarterbacks, offensive tackles, cornerbacks, edge rushers and wide receivers. There are plenty of instances where a more talented player slid down the board a little further simply because they played a less valuable position.

There were a few other factors I considered, including years remaining on contract, contract structure and salary commitments. There is a reason why rookie contracts are so valuable, especially when you hit on a star. That player is now on a team friendly deal with several years of team control built in.

If you missed the previous entry, you can find it here.

With all of that in mind, let’s continue our countdown to No. 1. Check back Monday for players 50 to 46.

55. Ikem Ekwonu, OT, Carolina Panthers
Age: 21
Years remaining on contract: 5
2022 cap hit: $5.01 million
I love building in the trenches, especially along the offensive line. My team building philosophy has long been to put together an elite offensive line and figure out the rest of the offense around that. Ekwonu is a road grader with immense upside. He has a ways to go in pass protection, but I am willing to bet on his physical gifts and great size, much like the Panthers did. Those traits give him the chance to be a franchise left tackle and a perennial Pro Bowler. Finding quality tackles in the NFL is difficult. If I could grab Ekwonu and hang onto him for the next decade, I would be thrilled.

54. Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills
Age: 28
Years remaining on contract: 6
2022 cap hit: $11.74 million
I have been a fan of Stefon Diggs for a long time. He was a star in Minnesota, but he has morphed into a superstar in Buffalo. Diggs has posted four straight 1,000-yard seasons, attended the past two Pro Bowls and earned a spot on the AP All-Pro First Team in 2020. That was the year he led the league in receptions and yards. He has become Josh Allen’s go-to target. Diggs is a technician who breaks down opposing corners with his route running. As long as he can create separation, he will be valuable. However, I am a bit concerned about the length of his contract. There are a lot of players I would love to have locked down for the next six years, but Diggs will be 35 by the time his deal expires. Very few receivers are able to produce at a high level into their mid 30s. Each of the final five years on his deal carry a cap hit north of $20 million. He can be released heading into 2027 for a minimal dead cap hit, but it will be hard to move on from him before then.

53. A.J. Terrell, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Age: 23
Years remaining on contract: 2
2022 cap hit: $3.90 million
Terrell has very quickly become one of the league’s elite cover corners. Don’t believe me? He was named an All-Pro in 2021 after posting a PFF grade of 82.6, allowing just 4.8 yards per target and forcing incompletions on half the balls thrown his way. His size and speed make him an ideal fit to guard just about any receiver in the league. At just 23, he has the prime of his career still ahead of him. Not to mention that paying a No. 1 lockdown corner less than $4 million is a bargain. His payday will come down the line, but I will take the value that comes with his rookie deal for now and hope he can replicate this form.

52. DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Age: 23
Years remaining on contract: 4
2022 cap hit: $4.58 million
The first receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the Heisman fared well in his first NFL season. He racked up 916 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Those numbers might not jump off the page, but it is important to remember that no one threw the ball less this past year than the Philadelphia Eagles. In a run-heavy offense, those are some solid stats to put up. Smith is shifty and crafty. His skill set makes him an asset in just about any system. He is definitely a bit undersized, but he has not let that stop him so far. Getting a solid No. 1 receiver or elite No. 2 receiver at this price is incredible value when you see how much money the NFL is giving wideouts right now. If I can save in that department and spend elsewhere, I think that puts me in a good position to succeed.

51. Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, New York Giants
Age: 21
Years remaining on contract: 5
2022 cap hit: $5.70 million
Another rookie shows up here. I am very high on Thibodeaux’s traits and upside. His production was a bit inconsistent during his college career, but he looked sharp in the preseason before suffering a knee injury. I know a lot of the feedback I have gotten so far is that I am too high on these rookies. Perhaps, I am. This is my first time doing these rankings and I want to learn from them. However, rookie contracts are invaluable, especially for players at high-value positions like quarterback, edge rusher and offensive tackle. I will take Thibodeaux’s deal and bank on him paying huge dividends at a fraction of the cost.

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2020 NFL Draft: First-Round Surprises and Best Players Available

That was exactly what everyone in the sports world needed. A nice dose of excitement, chaos and entertainment. Cincinnati, Washington and Detroit kicked the draft off with some predictable picks. After that, nothing was guaranteed. Trades started coming fast and furious in the 20s. Miami and Los Angeles stayed put and took franchise quarterbacks. Tons of wide receivers and corners came off the board, maybe not in the order most expected.

I think it is way too early to start handing out grades for the first round. We can do that a few years from now. (I should really go back and regrade the 2015 draft class.) Instead, let’s discuss the biggest surprises of the first round. There are plenty to discuss, but I think the first one is pretty obvious.

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Rodgers turned 36 in December. (Wikimedia Commons)

Packers trade up for Aaron Rodgers’ successor
Of all the teams to take a chance on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, I did not have Green Bay anywhere in the conversation. Thinking about it though, this is exactly what the franchise did with Brett Favre towards the end of his career. They saw a talented quarterback sliding and pounced to find their next franchise passer. What makes this so shocking is that Aaron Rodgers has shown no signs of slowing down. This offense is in desperate need of more playmakers. In a draft stocked with them, it felt like a great chance for the Packers to find Rodgers more weapons. Instead, they found the man who will potentially replace him. After being just a game away from the Super Bowl last year, this feels like an odd move. Credit the Green Bay for being forward thinking, but I definitely did not expect this.

Josh Jones’ slide
I had Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones pegged to go at 18 to the Dolphins. He was my 21st overall prospect and my highest remaining offensive lineman. Miami decided to take USC product Austin Jackson. When the Chargers traded back into the first round, I assumed it was for Jones. They opted for Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray. Tennessee had a chance to take Jones as well, but chose a different tackle in Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson. I was just about convinced the Jones would find a home in the first round. He is a bit older at 23, but he is a physical player with solid technique. It would not be a shock to see the Bengals take Jones at 33, but it is unclear when his slide might end at this point.

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Okudah was the highest drafted corner since 1997. (Wikimedia Commons)

Corner craze in round one
I did not think we were going to see six cornerbacks go in the first round. A.J. Terrell at 16 to the Falcons felt like a bit of a reach to me, but I had seen some first-round buzz around him. Damon Arnette to the Raiders 19th overall was truly a stunner. Then, Noah Igbinoghene went to Miami at pick 30. Teams felt like they were reaching a bit at the position, especially given some of the other players available. K’Lavon Chaisson felt like a great fit for Atlanta. Las Vegas passed on a lot of talented corners to take Arnette, who I had 11th at the position. Miami has spent tons of money locking up Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. Igbinoghene is definitely a luxury pick for the Dolphins, who have a ton of draft picks. Pass rusher felt like a bigger need though with some solid players available. I thought there was depth at the position in this draft, but the league went all in much early than expected. Three felt like a safe number to peg with Jeff Okudah, CJ Henderson and Jeff Gladney in the mix. I didn’t expect that number to double. I think there are some really good options still available too with Bryce Hall, Kristian Fulton and Jaylon Johnson still on the board, so this trend might continue.

Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson
I think TCU receiver Jalen Reagor will end up having a solid NFL career, but I think the Eagles missed big time on LSU’s Justin Jefferson, who went a pick later to the Vikings. Reagor plays a bit like former Philadelphia standout DeSean Jackson. He had an uneven 2019 season, but his game speed is impressive. Reagor is definitely a bit undersized, but he posted an outrageous 42-inch vertical at the combine. However, Jefferson is coming off a monster year and is a much better prospect in my opinion. He is really just a bigger, more physical version of Reagor. Jefferson ran a better 40 time, posted better stats and played against much better competition. I think Jefferson would have fit Philly’s system as well. This one left me scratching my head.

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Edwards-Helaire had over 1,800 total yards and 17 TD in 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Clyde Edwards-Helaire as RB1
Between D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor, I thought Clyde Edwards-Helaire would be at least the second back drafted. I had him as my third running back behind Dobbins and Swift. CEH is a physical runner with the ability to be a receiver out of the backfield as well, even if he doesn’t have blazing speed. He reminds me a lot of Maurice Jones-Drew and feels like a good fit for the Kansas City offense, but I don’t think many people expected him to be the first running back off the board. There is also something to be said for Andy Reid drafting a running back for the first time in his 21-year career as a head coach. Very happy for him after he turned in a great season, but I definitely did not see this coming.

Not really enough to warrant it’s own subhead, but I was very confused by Seattle’s pick of Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks. He is a solid player, but I thought he would go middle of day two and that was definitely not the biggest need for this Seahawks defense.

Best Players Available

Those were the biggest talking points of the night for me. As teams turn their attention to rounds two and three tomorrow, here are my top remaining prospects:

18. Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
20. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
21. Josh Jones, OT, Houston
23. A.J. Epenesa, DL, Iowa
24. Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
26. Yetur Gross-Matos, EDGE, Penn State
28. D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
29. Zach Baun, LB, Wisconsin
30. Ross Blacklock, DL, TCU
31. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
33. Michael Pittman Jr., WR, USC
35. Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama
38. Neville Gallimore, DL, Oklahoma
41. Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor
42. Matt Hennessy, OL, Temple
43. Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
45. Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota
46. Lucas Niang, OT, TCU
47. Lloyd Cushenberry, OL, LSU
48. Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado
49. Kyle Dugger, S, Lenoir Rhyne
50. Jaylon Johnson, CB, Utah

Biggest risers and fallers of bowl season

Is it just me, or does it feel like conference championship games were forever ago? Bowl season was a long slog, but we made it out the other side. Our patience was rewarded with an entertaining, if not always super competitive, College Football Playoff. While some of these bowl games certainly felt pointless, it is an excellent opportunity for players to put together game tape in front of a national audience heading into the pre-draft process. Unfortunately, it also means some players will walk away with a less-than-stellar end to their season and potentially tank their draft stock. It’s hard to blame some of the top prospects for skipping these games.

With bowl season done though, it is time to review the big risers and fallers from the past month. Before you get on me about players like Jerry Jeudy or Joe Burrow, they obviously played great games. However, their draft stock is pretty well cemented. There really isn’t a whole lot higher they could possibly climb. Let’s take a look at some players whose bowl performances made a real difference in their draft stock.

Risers

A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Iowa
A.J. Epenesa capped off a huge second half to the season with a dominant showing in the Holiday Bowl. Going up against a likely top-50 pick in Austin Jackson, Epenesa consistently got pressure, often times in different ways. He showed a wide array of pass rush moves and good burst off the edge. I think he should find himself in the top 10 come draft day, but there is a lot to happen between now and then. He will definitely be in the draft after declaring on Tuesday.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU
Man this kid can run. I’ve been saying he reminds me of Maurice Jones-Drew. Some of that is size profile, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire also brings that same kind of elusiveness mixed with power. He definitely lacks breakaway speed, but he could he effective in the right offense. With Chuba Hubbard and Najee Harris returning to school, he is now up to RB5 and I thinking solidly into the Day 2 conversation. I’m worried his stock will dip if he doesn’t run super well at the combine, but he should develop into a starter in the NFL.

Bradlee Anae, EDGE, Utah
I have loved what I have seen from Bradlee Anae over the past few months. He has incredible burst and timing off the edge and actually does a decent job setting the edge against the run. He still has a long way to go in terms of disengaging bigger blockers and varying up his pass rush moves. From a physical traits stand point, he has what teams want. That was on display against Texas, even if it doesn’t show in the box score. He finished with half a sack, but had a bigger presence than that.

Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame
Chase Claypool balled out against Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl. He showed a good ability to go up and make plays in traffic. His body control was impressive. His size is great too and you can’t coach that. Claypool sits behind a long list of guys right now on my big board because of how stacked this draft class is at the receiver, but his tape left a very positive impression heading into the Senior Bowl.

Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota
I was resistant to putting Tyler Johnson here because I have heard so many mixed reviews, but wow he balled out against Auburn. I went back to rewatch the tape of Marlon Davidson and Johnson stood out every time. He showcased great athleticism and an impressive ability to adjust to the ball in the air on a few spectacular catches. I know there are scouts who are knocking him down because he didn’t get a Senior Bowl invite, but he looked the part of an NFL receiver in the Outback Bowl.

Fallers

Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
That was a really tough way for Jalen Hurts’ college career to end. Hurts simply looked inaccurate against LSU in the CFP semifinal. He showed out as a runner, but he is built more like Tim Tebow than Lamar Jackson. The truth is, Hurts reminds me of Tebow, but with slightly better mechanics. He lacks great arm strength, often times having to float balls over the middle, rather than hitting receivers on a line. We will see Hurts as part of a loaded quarterback group at the Senior Bowl though, so maybe he can start to rehab his value.

A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson
You had to know this was coming. His last game was brutal. A.J. Terrell got smoked by JaMarr Chase. Chase has made a lot of defenders look foolish this year, but Terrell looked was completely overmatched. He showed he does not have the top line speed to run with top-end receivers or the physicality to make up for that. This might force him to go back to school for another year; he is just a junior. If he does come out, I expect him to be a fringe second round player at this point.

Austin Jackson, OT, USC
The reason why Austin Jackson is on this list is because A.J. Epenesa is one of the risers. Jackson got a big test facing the Iowa edge rusher. I actually pegged him as one of the players who could help his draft stock the most given the opportunity. I think to say he failed is extreme, but he also didn’t pass with flying colors either. There were moments where he flashed franchise tackle potential. I think it is going to take some good coaching and a bit more seasoning for him to get up to NFL speed for him to reach his ceiling. Jackson might still find his way into the first round, but should not be thought of as a day-one starter.

Marlon Davidson, EDGE, Auburn
Auburn got pushed around a bit in the Outback Bowl by Minnesota. Marlon Davidson was no exception. He was undisciplined against the run a lot in that game. He didn’t make much of a mark as a pass rusher either. Auburn likes to kick him inside next to Derrick Brown. I see him as more of a 3-4 or 4-3 end, but he will need to improve his gap discipline and work on reading his keys before he can make an impact at the next level.

Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
The athleticism is there. The frame is there. The production and presence are not. Raekwon Davis flashed some moments of creating good leverage, but he spent much of the game simply locked up and ineffective. He looks like a project player who has the physical tools to develop into something special. The problem is, he has looked like that for two years, failing to take the next step. Alabama’s Citrus Bowl win over Michigan was just the latest example.

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