It's draft week! And what a fascinating draft week it is.
Honestly, this is the most wide-open NFL draft I can remember. The questions begin right at the top: Who's going No. 1 overall? And the grand uncertainty around the quarterbacks -- how they stack up and where they'll end up -- adds the ultimate layer of suspense to this genuine reality TV show.
Anything could happen in the 2022 NFL Draft, and I cannot wait. In related news, I'm overflowing with takes.
So, as we hurtle toward the first round on Thursday night, here are my strongest draft opinions, Schein Nine style.
This is the strongest -- and longest -- opinion I've held in this draft cycle. It's been abundantly clear since last college football season, and the pre-draft process only cemented the notion. Aidan Hutchinson is The Man. He's the top prospect in this year's crop, and I can't get enough. In fact, I think I'm more infatuated with the Heisman Trophy runner-up than most at this stage, but he's just terrific. I think he's closer to Nick Bosa than most people realize -- and I was one of the five AP voters who had Bosa as a first-team All-Pro this past season.
Why are some folks overthinking this? Hutchinson is a do-it-all beast with a high motor and high character at one of the most coveted positions in the game. There might be players in this draft with higher upside; but also, there might not be. Hutchinson doesn't get enough credit for his sheer talent and athleticism. At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, the guy ran the three-cone drill -- a crucial measurement for edge rushers in particular -- in an astonishing 6.73 seconds. That was the sixth-fastest time in the entire draft class, regardless of position. This is not a low-ceiling, safe pick. That said, the floor is luxuriously high.
I like Travon Walker. He can become a fine pro. But given his lack of production at Georgia, it's a projection. Meanwhile, Hutchinson is fresh off a 14-sack, 62-tackle, game-wrecking tour of a season. This isn't complicated.
I've got the need for speed! And no, I'm not remotely worried about the torn ACL. Modern medicine has worked wonders for the recovery from that injury, as evidenced by all reports on Williams' rehab process.
"It doesn't seem like it's that much of a concern to me from the teams I've spoken with," NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport said Monday on NFL Network. "I don't know if he's going to be the first receiver taken, but he is going to be taken very high. I would not be surprised if he is a top-15 pick, ACL or not."
Williams is a game-changing stud with a special knack for playing big in big spots. In Alabama's SEC Championship Game win over Georgia, he absolutely shredded the Dawgs' vaunted defense with seven catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. And he was en route to another monster night in the national title game vs. UGA before tearing his ACL early in the second quarter, racking up 65 yards on four catches prior to the injury.
Last fall, I got a text from an NFC executive that was simply Sauce Gardner's Cincinnati bio. The words that followed in the subsequent text: "Get to know this name. NFL star corner."
Indeed! With a rare combination of length (nearly 6-foot-3 with 33 1/2-inch arms) and speed (4.41 40-yard dash), Gardner completely shut down opposing receivers at Cincinnati. And I mean completely shut down: According to Pro Football Focus, this cat didn't give up a single touchdown over three college seasons! Along with QB Desmond Ridder (more on him shortly), Sauce helped change Cincinnati football, leading the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff this past season.
This is a no-doubt top-10 pick to me. I wouldn't have any hesitation taking Gardner as high as No. 2 overall. Sauce would be a star in New York with his unreal play, swagger and leadership for the Giants or Jets, both of whom hold a pair of top-10 picks.
4) Three offensive tackles will go FAST
In this wide-open draft class, Evan Neal, Charles Cross and Ickey Ekwonu feel like rock-solid options. Now, the pecking order of these top three tackles is very much subjective. I think Neal, who's as svelte a 340-pounder as you'll ever see, is going to be a fantastic pro bookend. NFL executives I text with love Cross, who could be the best pure pass blocker in the class. I'd put Ekwonu third, but it's semantics, as the N.C. State product is an absolute mauler with enticing traits to develop.
Seeing how the majority of teams drafting in the top 10 need O-line help, these three tackles should fly off the board on Thursday night.
And I'll bet they both go higher than many people anticipate.
Willis is a tremendous leader with supreme athleticism and a cannon for an arm. Yes, he'll need time to develop, but I feel the same way about him as I did about Trey Lance and Justin Fields in last year's draft. Especially Lance. Frankly, I think Willis has some Josh Allen traits, and regular readers of this column know I've been driving the Allen bandwagon from Day 1. Seattle, which holds the No. 9 pick, would be a great fit. Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit and New Orleans are logical landing spots, too.
I love Pickett's body of work and how it projects to the pros. Having started a whopping 49 games at Pittsburgh, his experience shows. The 23-year-old just does everything right. On "The Adam Schein Podcast" in November, Pickett compared himself to Ryan Tannehill. I can dig, with Tannehill being an athletic QB who can make all the throws and win games. Actually, I like Pickett more than Tannehill. He turned Pitt into a real college football team for the first time in years. He changed everything. I think he could immediately start -- and thrive -- on a team like Carolina. Could the Saints jump up above the Panthers and snag the Heisman finalist? Possibly. He'd also make a lot of sense for the Steelers.
It's a quarterback league, and I believe Willis and Pickett are legit franchise dudes. I wouldn't hesitate to take either in the top 10.
With how much quarterback money is (unsurprisingly) flying around this offseason, teams must consider the long-term ramifications of picks at the position. Anyone who's thinking of taking a quarterback in Round 2 should instead trade up into the last few picks of Round 1, thus securing the fifth-year option. It's a huge deal. So, which QBs could be in play in this range? I like Sam Howell and Matt Corral, but Ridder is my guy.
Ridder just has "it." A four-year starter at Cincinnati, he guided the Bearcats to levels we've never seen before. Cincy went 44-7 over the past for years, for God's sake. I talked to him on my podcast a couple weeks ago, and the 22-year-old oozes intelligence and confidence. His athleticism, knack for the moment, arm and leadership make me think Alex Smith, and I loved Alex Smith. Ridder raved about Detroit coach Dan Campbell on my podcast; I could see the Lions pouncing with their second first-round pick (No. 32 overall). I also could envision Atlanta or Carolina trading back into the first round to grab Ridder, if they don't go quarterback in the top 10. Seattle and Pittsburgh could be in play, too. Whoever picks Ridder won't be disappointed.
Travon Walker's stock has shot through the roof during the pre-draft process, and I get it. But don't sleep on Johnson, Walker's former Georgia teammate who transferred to Florida State for his final college campaign. Johnson put on quite a show during his lone season in Tallahassee, winning ACC Defensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in sacks (12) and tackles for loss (18) while serving as an FSU team captain. Then, during the ultimate football job fair in Mobile, Alabama, Johnson won Senior Bowl week with his off-the-charts play and attitude.
I think Johnson will be drafted somewhere in the range from the Giants at No. 7 to the Vikings at No. 12 -- he'd be great for either of those teams -- and I won't be stunned if he goes earlier.
There's some recent chatter about Hamilton sliding. I don't buy it. Not for a second.
So he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash in Indy ... Who cares? At 6-4 and 220 pounds, he's an excellent safety who dominated at Notre Dame while showcasing a versatile game that translates brilliantly to the modern NFL. Watch the college tape -- speed was never an issue.
Hamilton's a top-10 talent in this draft class all day long. There's no such thing as picking him too high on Thursday night. And if he somehow falls to Washington at No. 11, the Commanders should pop bubbly as they race the card in. Remember when everyone let versatile DB Derwin James fall all the way to No. 17 in the 2018 draft? That was dumb. Can't see history repeating itself here.
9) Zero running backs in Round 1
I'm not an RB hater -- far from it. As a matter of fact, I've argued that teams should consider particular running backs in Round 1 before each of the past two drafts. But this year, I see a lot of second-round value.
Breece Hall is close to first-round quality, and I could see the Bills falling in love and pulling the trigger at No. 25. Hall, James Cook and Kenneth Walker III can all be really good NFL backs. They just feel like Day 2 selections.
So, yes, I think the first round is RB-free for just the third time in common draft history, joining the 2013 and '14 proceedings.