As the countdown to the 2022 NFL Draft (April 28-30 in Las Vegas) reaches a fever pitch, it is possible that the first three (maybe more) players to come off the board will all be edge rushers. With the Jets at present sitting at No. 4, and later at No. 10 in the first round, they face multiple scenarios, countless choices and let's-make-a-deal suitors.
In two of a series of NFL Draft Previews with Eric Allen and Ethan Greenberg of nyjets.com, Dane Brugler of The Athletic put his focus on the most appealing edge rushers and safeties who might be of interest to the Jets as the draft inches closer. Jets GM Joe Douglas in his two previous drafts went big on offense each time with his early picks: in 2020, T Mekhi Becton and WR Denzel Mims; in 2021, QB Zach Wilson, OL Alijah Vera-Tucker and WR Elijah Moore.
There is much anticipation around the return of DE Carl Lawson, signed in free agency last year, who missed the entire 2021 season after rupturing an Achilles tendon in the preseason. Solomon Thomas, who played for Saleh in San Francisco, was signed in free agency to add depth. Most observers and pundits expect the Jets to get an "edge" in the draft. Bryce Huff is expected to back at full strength after dealing with injuries last season.
As Douglas said recently, he and head coach Robert Saleh share the same defensive philosophy, which is to "hit the quarterback, hit him early, hit him often." While this draft is stocked with appealing edge rushers, Saleh has acknowledged that there is not a "splash man" like a Nick Bosa or a Chase Young among a strong group, each of them (Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, Georgia's Travon Walker, Florida State's Jermaine Johnson, Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, Minnesota's Boye Mafe and Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie) present plusses and minuses.
This position group is perhaps the deepest of any in the draft (Brugler said up to seven could be selected among the first round), with options up and down the board.
Aidan Hutchinson (6-6, 265), Michigan -- Hutchinson followed in his father's footsteps at Michigan and did not really begin to flash his talent until his sophomore season when he contributed 69 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. With an ankle injury early in the 2020 season, he decided to return to the Wolverines for his senior year. Good move. He was a dominant player, appearing in 12 games, making 54 tackles (14.5 for loss), 12 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick.
Brugler said: "He might not have been a top 10 pick last year, but he's still a really good player. The mentality he brings is almost as important as his physical skills, and he has physical skills. He's a try-hard competitor, overeager, plays beyond his means. The mentality he does bring stands out. One coach told me that he can never go on spring break because he wouldn't be able to relax because he's not getting better on the field. As an NFL team, that's what you're looking for. Aidan Hutchinson has a lot of what you're looking for. He has the hand work and the ability to win in different ways. He's going to be a double-digit sack guy in the NFL."
Kayvon Thibodeaux (6-5, 258), Oregon -- Thibodeaux spurned offers from more than two dozen schools, including Alabama and USC, and headed to the Pacific Northwest where he was a four-year starter for the Ducks. His elite athletic ability has taken a bit of a backseat in recent months as some pundits and analysts came to question his commitment to the game. His speed (4.58 in the 40), size and strength could make him a good match for Lawson and John Franklin-Myers. Last season, he checked in with 49 tackles (35 solo) and 7 sacks.
Brugler said: "As a player getting a guy 6-4, 245, a little lighter than you want. What helps with him, he's forward-leaning, he can get into those blockers. He has power, strength in his hands, powerful jab steps, there's different ways he can win. Not the most fluid guy, I do see him rush with upfield urgency. He's got different go-to moves, all revolve more around power than out-athleting anyone. I do see a lot of Jadeveon Clowney there. For a guy with his talent last year, you just expected a bit more, a little more dominance against that competition [Pac 12 Conference]."
Travon Walker (6-5, 275), Georgia -- Walker helped his draft stock in a big way as the Bulldogs bulldozed Alabama in the National Championship Game in January. He played at DT for his first two seasons, lost weight and moved outside as a junior. He explodes off the line on the snap while also possessing impressive speed (4.51 in the 40) in chasing down running backs. Playing on the outside last season, Walker collected 37 tackles (19 solo) and 6 sacks. He has moved up several draft boards in the past several weeks and his agility and versatility could make him an attractive pick for the Jets, or the teams choosing ahead of the Green & White.
Brugler said: "He has a freaky skillset. If he goes top three, that shouldn't surprise anybody. There are not many guys who have his ability, his length, his athleticism, his size, his power. People will point to his lack of sack production, but they just have to understand the context of what he was asked to do in that Georgia defense. He wasn't asked to just pin his ears back and go. He was asked to hold the point of attack, hold and give the linebackers free rein to rush and get after the quarterback. But when he was able to rush the quarterback, you see the ability. Not like he can't do it, he wasn't asked to do it. It's not about what you've done, it's about what you're going to do. Watching him in the Combine drills was mind-blowing."
See Daniel Jeremiah's top rated players in the 2022 NFL Draft, which takes place from April 28-30 in Las Vegas.
The Jets felt confident with the group as their Week 1 game at Carolina approached last September. Then veteran Lamarcus Joyner, signed in free agency, sustained a triceps injury, ending his season before it really started. Marcus Maye, playing on a franchise tag, tore an Achilles tendon at Indianapolis and was out for the duration. He subsequently signed in free agency with New Orleans. DC Jeff Ulbrich, to his credit, never lamented the situation, getting to work and leaning on a group consisting of Ashtyn Davis, Elijah Riley, Will Parks and others. Jason Pinnock, drafted as a cornerback, chipped in late in the season and provided a hint of his versatility. The signing of Jordan Whitehead in free agency in addition to the re-signing of Joyner and Parks solidifies the group a bit, but safety still could be in play on draft weekend.
Kyle Hamilton (6-4, 220), Notre Dame -- Hamilton is considered by many to be one of the top athletes overall in the draft; some have even made the case he's the best player in the entire draft. That said, it's unlikely he'll become the highest safety ever taken in the NFL draft's modern era. That distinction is likely to remain with UCLA's Eric Turner who was taken second overall by Cleveland in 1991. Born in Greece, where his father was playing professional basketball, Hamilton was limited in his junior season to seven games after sustaining a knee injury. His physical prowess, however, is impressive: a good not great 4.59 in the 40 at the Combine, a top-end speed of 21 mph, a 41-7 vertical leap and 10-8 broad jump.
Brugler said: "If you're going to draft a safety early, he better be a special one and you could make the argument pretty easily that Kyle Hamilton is that guy. Has the range, versatility can play in the box over the slot. He can do all the things you want a safety to do and also be a matchup weapon. In today's NFL, using tight ends and receivers the way they do, you need defensive backs that not only have the athletic ability but also the intelligence to match what the offense is doing, and Kyle Hamilton does that. That football IQ is why we're talking about him as a potential top-five pick."
Jaquan Brisker (6-1, 203,) Penn State -- After Hamilton, Brisker could be the next safety to come off the board, but probably not until the top of the second round, perhaps later. After two seasons at Lackawanna (PA) Community College, he chose Penn State over offers from Alabama, Mississippi, Maryland, Mississippi State, Pittsburgh, Utahw and West Virginia. His impact was immediate: 470 defensive snaps, a QB rating of only 51 when being targeted; the next year he played 488 snaps, had 48 tackles and a QB rating of 60 when targeted. As the "quarterback" of the Nittany Lions' defense this past season he had 33 tackles, a defensive QB rating of 46.8, a fumble recovery and 2 INTs. Brisker offers a combination of speed, size, tackling and natural coverage ability.
Brugler said: "You see a good player, an athletic player who can cover. Most of his positive plays were coming downhill. Missed more tackles than you want to see, a little banged up this year. His junior year he didn't miss any tackles. There's something that teams are kind of split on, being banged up. Really good players, a good worker, consistent, a leader who holds guys accountable. Not a hard guy to sell."
Daxton Hill (6-0, 192), Michigan -- Hills is a supreme athletic talent, he ran a 4.38-second 40, which ranked 14th overall at the Combine. His 20-yard shuttle (4.06 seconds) and three-cone drill time (6.57 seconds) were the best at the safety position. He played multiple positions in the defensive backfield for the Wolverines and his strong performance at the Combine is likely to have pushed him into the Round 1 conversation. Earned first team Big Ten honors this past season and, as a freshman, won Academic Big Ten honors.
Brugler said: "He has a lot of versatility. I think he is the ideal modern-day nickel defender in the NFL. Package of skills. It's all there for him to cover the slot, outstanding blitzer, competitive support. He can do a lot of things from that nickel position. Transitional quickness really, really impresses. Different ways he can impact the game, plays fast. Some parallels with Jimmy Ward."