There are still 164 days to go until the 2022 draft, so there is still plenty of sorting out to be done before the picks actually start coming off the board. And while much of the attention has been on the ups and downs of the QB class, the group that has been slowly emerging as perhaps the best position grouping for the upcoming draft are the DEs. Indeed. there are currently as many as 4 DEs that are generally considered to be serious top 10 prospects including Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Purdue’s George Karlaftis and Drake Jackson of Southern Cal. And while that would be considered to be a great crop, there’s a second emerging group of rush ends that in the end may be just as good when all is said and done.
Thibodeaux, of course, is currently the consensus #1 prospect overall for the upcoming draft. Certainly, nobody has any questions about his athletic ability, but there may ultimately be some questions about his commitment to the game as he is something of a Renaissance Man who has been known to march to the beat of his own drum. Meanwhile, Hutchinson has also started to get some top 5 interest. However, as good as Hutchinson is, there is a growing whisper that he may not actually even be the Wolverines’ best DE as David Ojabo been rocketing up boards around the league of late. Ojabo isn’t quite as big or physical as Hutchinson; he’s also not as technically proficient, but he’s a super athlete who just explodes off the line of scrimmage. The duo is coming off a dominating performance in the Wolverines’ physical win at Penn State on the weekend in which Hutchinson had three sacks and Ojabo two. However, it was interesting watching each go against talented Penn State LT Rasheed Walker as Hutchinson was generally kept under control when liked up at RDE, whereas Walker really struggled with Ojabo’s speed off the edge.
However, ‘the’ hottest DE in this year’s draft class is DE Jermaine Johnson of Florida State. In fact, he’s probably ‘the’ hottest player in this year’s draft class period. Johnson is a rising 5th-year senior who has taken a rather circuitous path to the top of the draft board. He was a lightly recruited 2-star prospect in high school who went the junior college route after he didn’t qualify academically. However, at the JC he emerged as a potentially disruptive edge-rusher with offers from all the big-time football programs. He ended up at Georgia where he was a productive rotational performer for two years, but took advantage of the NCAA’s relaxed Covid transfer rules and switched to rebuilding Florida State for his final year where he hoped to get more playing time. Which he has in spades and has responded with 11 sacks so far this fall which has among the most productive edge rushers in the country. Johnson has always been a gifted athlete with 4.5-type speed and explosion, along with weight room strength and prototype length for the position. And while Johnson is still primarily a speed rusher who needs to improve the technical aspects of his game, he is a high-ceiling prospect with as much physical potential as any edge rusher in the 2022 draft and right now is right there among the 4-5 guys at the position.
And there’s more as at least a couple more DEs flirting with potential first-round grades in Isaiah Foskey of Notre Dame and San Diego State’s Cameron Thomas. Foskey is still just a 3rd year junior who could be expected to stay in school given that Notre Dame players are often less inclined to leave early than players from some other programs, but if he does decide to enter the draft, he’ll be another really athletic 6-5, 260-pound type DE with a huge edge rushing ceiling, although he is still a work in progress from a technical standpoint. Johnson was originally a TE in high school and has only played DE full-time for three years, but he’s explosive off the snap and relentless in pursuit and so far this fall has racked up 9 sacks while forcing three fumbles.
Meanwhile, its hard to call a guy who was a frosh All-American a late bloomer, but that’s the case in many ways for San Diego State’s Cameron Thomas who just doesn’t get that much national exposure playing on the west coast on a non-Power 5 conference team. It also probably didn’t help that Thomas played as an undersized DT for a couple of years before making the switch to end midway through last season. Thomas doesn’t have quite the athleticism of some of the other guys on the list, but like Purdue’s Karlaftis has elite strength and is a master technician with a heavy punch, not to mention another non-stop motor that has helped produce 8.5 sacks so far this fall, including at least one in each of his last straight games.
And speaking of San Diego State, another Aztec who has started to generate some serious draft buzz is P/PK Matt Araiza, the first specialist to make the GBN Big Board Top 100 so far this year (he’s #53). Araiza was actually an All-Conference PK coming into the season, but added punting duties to his job resume this fall and has really blossomed. Indeed, Araiza leads ALL football (including the NFL) with an average of over 52 yards per punt this fall, which is kind of remarkable when you figure he’s put almost 1 out three kicks inside opposing 20-yard lines. At the same time, though, over 40% of his kicks have been over 50 yards with a long of 86 yards!