Who Should the Jaguars take with the first overall pick?
The 2022 NFL Draft is just over five weeks away, and the Jacksonville Jaguars are in pole position.
Even with Liberty QB Malik Willis shooting up draft boards, it seems unlikely that he'll build enough momentum for a team to trade up all the way to number one to land him. At this point in time, I'd expect the Jaguars to pick at one due to a lack of legitimate trade offers for the top pick.
And that's a great position to be in. Jaguars' decision-makers — general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Doug Pederson — know exactly which prospects will be available to them with the first overall pick: all of them. It can be a daunting task deciphering which prospect out of about 400+ guys should be the pick at number one overall. But it's still an enviable position because all options are on the table.
So, what should the Jaguars do with the top pick in the draft?
It's not an easy question to answer. We need to find the right balance between talent, athleticism, potential, work ethic, culture fit, positional value, and team building. It's a lot to weigh.
The experts and oddsmakers almost all lean towards the Jaguars selecting Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. But should the 6'7", 260-pound athletic marvel who racked up 14 sacks during his senior year be the pick?
There's plenty to love about Aidan Hutchinson's game. He explodes out of his stance, threatening the edge with speed and power. That threat forces offensive tackles to overset, and then — in a blur — he crosses their face with an inside move. Sack. Hutchinson is a stout run defender who sets a hard edge and forces runners inside. He also has a keen sense of when to slip past his man and make a play in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage. Then there's all the rah-rah stuff. And it's real. This kid is a fighter, a leader, a tireless worker, and a tone-setter on the field.
My question is not whether Aidan Hutchinson will be a good NFL player. There's no doubt in my mind that he'll start for a long time and have a very productive career as both a pass rusher and run defender. But will he ever be among the elite EDGE defenders in the game? There's certainly a path for him to be a double-digit sack guy as an athletic power rusher who also dominates the run. I wouldn't blame a team for clinging to the security that Hutchinson seems to offer.
And the Jaguars absolutely NEED to bolster their pass rush opposite Josh Allen.
But I wouldn't take Aidan Hutchinson at one overall.
There are a couple of guys who also play premium positions, who, in my opinion, offer a similar floor but have MUCH more upside than Hutch.
If I were the one calling in the pick at one overall for the Jaguars, I'd be deciding between Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal and Oregon defensive end/outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Evan Neal is a behemoth 6'7 1/2", 337-pound offensive lineman who dominated the trenches as a pass protector and run blocker during his three seasons at Alabama. Neal transitioned from playing left guard as a true freshman, to right tackle as a sophomore, to left tackle as a Junior. He developed more consistency and refined his technique each year. Neal's size, length, strength, flexibility, and overall athletic profile make him a unicorn type of prospect in my eyes. He has clean pass sets, times his punches well, and regularly buries pass rushers in the dirt. He blows defenders off the line in the run game, creating massive holes. I don't see a single glaring weakness in Neal's game.
Kayvon Thibodeaux is the definition of a phenom. A consensus five-star recruit out of high school — the number one overall recruit according to many — Thibs immediately made an impact at the collegiate level, racking up nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss as a freshman. His sophomore season was cut short due to COVID's impact on the Pac-12, but he still managed to make an impact in limited opportunities. And despite battling through nagging injuries in 2021, Thibodeaux continued to showcase how dominant he can be. Of all the edge rushers in this class, he has the most explosive first step, incredible overall speed and power, and a variety of ways to win. He can also legitimately drop back into shallow zones and make big plays. At times, I wish we saw a little more discipline from Thibs, but his pass-rushing prowess is unparalleled. And when he plays within himself as a run defender, Thibodeaux dominates. He showed out at the NFL Combine with a 4.58 40 and 27 bench press reps. His overall athletic profile and skill on the football field should have talent evaluators and coaches salivating. As for the questions about his football character that have popped up recently, they are completely unfounded. With a little coaching and refinement, you could be looking at one of the most dominant edge rushers in all of football in short order.
Which prospect should the Jags take if they do, in fact, make the pick at one?
Both are rare physical specimens. I have Evan Neal ranked higher than Thibodeaux because I see more consistency and refinement in his game. But if you were to tell me in two years that Kayvon Thibodeaux is by far the best player in this class, I wouldn't bat an eye.
Because the Jaguars' number one goal should be to protect second-year QB Trevor Lawrence, I still lean towards adding Evan Neal. Whether he plays right tackle or left guard in year one, he will make a positive impact. But with the Jaguars seemingly wanting to lock left tackle Cam Robinson up on a long-term deal, and having Walker Little waiting in the wings to take over a starting job, it appears the Jaguars will turn their attention to pass rusher at the top of the draft. They might value Aidan Hutchinson the most of any rusher in this class, but I'd be targeting Kayvon Thibodeaux if I was only considering a pass rusher. Thibodeaux has more natural athletic ability and the potential to have a much more complete game than Hutchinson, who doesn't bend at the top of the arch and isn't as impressive in space. I think all three prospects will have long, prosperous careers, but I'd target Neal and Thibodeaux over Hutchinson.
A franchise changing decision lies ahead for Trent Baalke and Doug Pederson. Will this be a step towards a brighter future in Duval or yet another draft disaster?
PS: Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton's talent level is off the charts, but due to the nature of positional value in the league, I'd have a hard time taking him at the top. There are too many quality safeties that hit free agency every year for me to value the position with the first overall pick.
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