NFL Draft: Hutchinson a home run, the Thibodeaux & Walker debates – Stacking a deep 2022 edge class

By Sports Desk April 21, 2022

The overarching narrative surrounding the 2022 NFL Draft class is well established. It's not a star-studded class, but it's a deep class.

And nowhere is this draft deeper than at edge rusher.

NFL teams place a premium on players who can get after the quarterback, but this year they may not have to spend a premium pick to land such a prospect who can make an immediate difference at the highest level.

Like quarterbacks, top pass rushers get pushed up the board, but some teams may be content to wait until day two of this year's draft to boost their front seven, safe in the knowledge that there will still be a host of talented edge players available.

By its very nature, the draft is a subjective exercise, but a look at the pressure numbers for the top edge rushers in this class provides an idea of how they should be stacked as opening night in Las Vegas draws ever closer.

The sure thing

He may not end up as the first overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson has the most compelling case as the most complete and the most 'pro-ready' edge rusher in the draft.

Hutchinson has the flexibility to bend around the edge but can also win with his bull rush and has the quickness to successfully attack the inside shoulder of opposing offensive tackles.

Boasting a well-refined repertoire off pass rush moves, including the cross-chop, two-hand swipe, rip, club and swim, Hutchinson's pressure rate of 30.8 per cent in 2021 was topped only by UAB sleeper Alex Wright (31.3 per cent). Similarly, Wright (18.7 per cent) was the sole player to top Hutchinson's run disruption rate of 17.9 per cent.

Yet while Wright recorded 11.5 sacks in three seasons at a Group of Five school, Hutchinson had 14 in the 2021 campaign alone as he helped Michigan come within touching distance of the mountaintop – the Wolverines losing in the College Football Playoff semi-finals.

He also demonstrated considerable prowess against the run, registering double-digit tackles for loss in 2019 (10) and 2021 (16.5).

Beating a man on 72 of his 85 pressures in 2021, Hutchinson has an array of tools by which to defeat pass protection and will enter the league as a high-floor, day-one contributor.

Should the Jags choose to go in a different direction, the team that land him may be sending thank you cards to Jacksonville for years to come.

Debate club

At the start of last season, it would have been tough to find much debate around Oregon star Kayvon Thibodeaux, a prospect almost universally seen as a future top-five pick.

Now there are questions over whether he will even go in the top 10.

Any potential fall down the board will not be down to his ability to generate pressure, which he did on 24.5 per cent of his pass-rush snaps in 2021, beating a pass protector on 44 of his 49 pressures.

Instead, doubts around Thibodeaux seem to be tied to a perceived lack of effort and concerns over his love of the game, a reflection of the archaic way in which the league often views prospects who have the temerity to have outside interests away from the field.

Any such worries over his other interests should certainly not overshadow Thibodeaux's consistently outstanding performances, which have seen him create pressure through his excellent first step and ability to translate speed to power.

Indeed, Thibodeaux can generate an exceptional bull rush but can also bend around the edge and has the quickness to win to create disruption up the middle, his tremendous physical traits supplemented by a well-stocked repertoire of pass-rush moves.

With 35.5 tackles for loss and 19 sacks in three seasons, Thibodeaux has the production, the athleticism and the tape of a sure-fire top-five prospect. More bemusing than talk of him falling down the draft is the hype around the player who could well go number one overall.

Georgia's Travon Walker has the God-given athletic gifts over which teams salivate, running the 40 at the Combine in 4.51 seconds at 272 pounds, yet he does not have the production to back it up, with his tape from an extremely successful collegiate career with the Bulldogs leaving more questions than answers.

Deployed primarily as a run defender and often asked on passing downs to either drop into coverage or open up rushing lanes for blitzing linebackers, Walker had only 9.5 sacks in college. 

That six of those came in 2021 could be seen as a sign of progress. However, with Walker posting a pressure rate of just 12 per cent and beating his man on only 16 of his 31 pressures, he clearly still has a long way to go as a pass rusher.

Between his obvious explosiveness and the power he has in his hands, Walker is, in essence, an exciting project for the right defensive line coach to mould. However, the presence of more proven higher-floor pass rushers at the top of the draft makes the prospect of the Jaguars putting the burden of rapidly developing him on their staff a needless risk for Jacksonville.

Destined for day one

If the Jags are determined to hitch their wagon to a former Georgia star with only one season of college production, they would be better served by choosing Jermaine Johnson II to be that player.

Johnson transferred from Georgia to Florida State and thrived on a poor Seminoles team in 2021, racking up 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. 

A force against the run in his lone season in Tallahassee, Johnson's pressure rate of 16.8 does not paint the picture of an elite edge prospect.

However, only Hutchinson had more adjusted sacks (18) than Johnson's 17, a two-hand swipe move and a spin move helping him beat a pass protector on 40 of his 50 pressures. If he can become more consistent in pairing his explosiveness with leverage and use his flexibility to turn the corner more regularly, Johnson has a chance to emerge as the cream of this year's edge rush crop.

Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie is another transfer who made the most of his change of scenery, excelling in his single year with the Nittany Lions after switching from Temple, using his long arms to superb effect as he posted a pressure rate of 21.1 per cent, his success in getting into the pads of opposing pass protectors allowing him to record 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.

Ebiketie is still building his pass rush weaponry but blends leverage, speed and power to win with his bull rush. Able to win to the inside and around the edge, the arrow is pointing up for Ebiketie and there will be no shortage of teams ready to try to keep him on that trajectory in the pros.

Explosiveness and power are the calling cards of Purdue's George Karlaftis, who, after playing only two games in 2020, had a pressure rate of 21.9 per cent last season.

Only Hutchinson and Wright beat a pass protector more often than Karlaftis (47), and the former Boilermaker figures to soon be testing the anchor of tackles around the league after consistently putting Big Ten competition on skates.

Each of that trio are likely to come off the board on night one. That same honour probably won't be afforded to South Carolina's Kingsley Enagbare or Drake Jackson of USC, though both had top-five pressure rates in 2021.

Enagbare (24.6) has an array of moves to rival Hutchinson and a bull rush akin to that of Karlaftis when he puts it all together, but a lack of speed and flexibility to turn the corner may force him to wait until day two. Jackson (24.2) was third in adjusted sack rate (6.7 per cent) and flashed dominance with his first step and dip to get around the edge, but a failure to truly take over games at the Pac-12 level will likely mean his celebrations will have to wait until the Friday of draft week.

The injury gamble

Hutchinson's former Michigan team-mate David Ojabo would almost certainly be in the first-round mix had he not suffered an Achilles injury during his pro day.

Due to that piece of misfortune, teams must now decide whether they are willing to take a risk on a player who may not be healthy enough to contribute significantly as a rookie.

Agreeing to that gamble will mean putting faith in Ojabo's long-term potential, which is undoubted.

Nigerian-born Ojabo moved to the United States from Scotland in 2017 and originally played basketball before turning his attention to American football.

Still relatively inexperienced, Ojabo has enticing room to grow but at the same time demonstrated impressive polish as he broke out in 2021 with 11 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

With a pressure rate of 21.3 per cent and the highest adjusted sack rate in the class at 7.6 per cent, Ojabo can get the better of pass blockers through a number of avenues.

He has the speed to get around the edge, has developed an excellent spin move and possesses a rip move with which he has also found success.

For a player who came to the sport late, Ojabo has also demonstrated impressive awareness of the importance of playing half a man when rushing the passer.

Encouragingly refined but still boasting untapped potential, there is obvious risk in taking Ojabo, but depending on the progress of his recovery, he could quickly make an impact as a designated pass rusher on third down.

Related items

  • Arsenal sign Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City Arsenal sign Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City

    Arsenal have completed the signing of Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City, the Gunners have confirmed.

    The Brazil striker has signed a long-term deal at Emirates Stadium, with reports suggesting the deal is worth around £45million.

    Jesus becomes the fourth player to arrive at Arsenal in this transfer window after Matt Turner, Marquinhos and Fabio Vieira.

    Arsenal confirmed the signing on their official website on Monday and manager Mikel Arteta said: "I'm very excited.

    "The club has done a tremendous job to recruit a player of this stature.

    "I know Gabriel personally very well, and we all know him well from his time in the Premier League and being really successful here.

    "This is a position that's been on our radar for a long time now and we have managed to get a player that we all wanted, so I'm really happy."

    Jesus joined City from Palmeiras in 2016 and scored 95 goals in 234 appearances for Pep Guardiola's side in all competitions.

    The 25-year-old also had a strong end to the 2021-22 campaign, scoring four times in City's 5-1 win against Watford in April as they went on to retain the Premier League title.

    However, with the added competition of new arrivals Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez at the Etihad Stadium, Jesus has moved to Arsenal in search of more regular game time.

    Since he signed for City, excluding penalties and of players who have played 5,000+ minutes in this period, only Sergio Aguero (0.91) and Mohamed Salah (0.88) have a better goal involvement per 90 minutes in the Premier League than Jesus (0.81).

  • Women's Euros: Putellas, Hegerberg and the stars ready to take centre stage Women's Euros: Putellas, Hegerberg and the stars ready to take centre stage

    A year later than planned, the pandemic-delayed Women's European Championship takes place in England this month, at a time when the women's game is enjoying a popularity surge.

    Barcelona Femeni packed out Camp Nou twice for Champions League games in the season just ended, in what was the most eye-catching sign of years of steady growth.

    Many players who a decade ago would have needed part-time work to supplement their playing wages are now enjoying the trappings of being full-time professionals.

    It means these players are physically sharper, more tactically astute, and skill levels are soaring skywards, making Euro 2022 an unmissable prospect.

    Here, Stats Perform looks at seven players who could emerge as dominant stars of the tournament.

    Alexia Putellas, Spain and Barcelona

    Generally considered to be the world's best player, Putellas became the first Spain women's international to reach 100 caps on Friday when she played and scored in a 1-1 friendly draw against Italy. She runs the show for Barcelona, captaining the team, and delivered a flood of goals from midfield. She hit 34 goals across all competitions last season, including a four-minute hat-trick against Valencia, and in the Champions League she was named player of the season, despite her team's 3-1 defeat to Lyon in the final.

    Irene Paredes, Spain and Barcelona

    If Putellas pulls the strings in the opposition half, it will likely fall to Paredes to organise at the other end of the field, as favourites Spain look to keep it tight at the back. The Barcelona centre-back is set to captain Spain, who are seeking their first European Championship title. After joining last year from Paris Saint-Germain, Paredes helped Barcelona to a polished Primera Division campaign of 30 wins from 30 games, with only 11 goals conceded. Almost 11 years since making her debut in Euro 2013 qualifying, Spain will look for Paredes to lead by example.

    Pernille Harder, Denmark and Chelsea

    Harder is a serial winner at club level, having won four consecutive league and cup doubles with Wolfsburg before joining Chelsea for a reported world-record fee in September 2020 and adding back-to-back WSL and FA Cup doubles. The classy forward will create chances for others but is also a deadly finisher, scoring 68 goals in 134 internationals. Runners-up last time, Denmark will look to Harder to ensure they are in the mix again this month.

    Ada Hegerberg, Norway and Lyon

    Hegerberg is the returning Norway heroine, coming back into the fold in March after almost five years in self-imposed exile, having previously been upset by the national federation's treatment of the women's game. A true superstar of the game, the Lyon striker and former Ballon d'Or Feminin winner suffered an ACL injury in early 2020 that kept her sidelined for 20 months, but she is emphatically back now, as she proved when scoring in the Champions League final win over Barcelona – a 59th European club competition goal in her 60th such game.

    Beth Mead, England and Arsenal

    Once a teenage revelation at Sunderland, now at Arsenal, Mead had to wait until just before her 23rd birthday before earning a first England cap. In the four years since that debut, she has floated in and out of the team, with the Lionesses having serious riches with their attacking options. This could be the Whitby-born player's tournament, with Sarina Wiegman expected to include her in an attacking three behind a main striker. Mead has hit three hat-tricks for England in the last nine months and is also a highly creative player from the flanks. She is one of a handful of England attackers who could light up the tournament.

    Vivianne Miedema, Netherlands and Arsenal

    Mead's club-mate has enjoyed a stunning five-year spell in the English top flight, hitting a record 74 Women's Super League goals in 89 games. In May, the former Bayern Munich player agreed a new deal with the Gunners, and now she will spearhead the Netherlands' European title defence. Described by team-mate Jill Roord as "an absolute killer", Miedema helped the Netherlands reach the 2019 World Cup final and scored a record 10 goals at the Tokyo Olympics, despite the Dutch campaign ending with a quarter-final penalty shoot-out loss to the United States. Miedema surprisingly missed from the spot, so she is not perfect, but defences will fear her presence over the coming weeks.

    Marie-Antoinette Katoto, France and Paris Saint-Germain

    The PSG and France men's teams have Kylian Mbappe, and the women have Marie-Antoinette Katoto, a record-breaking superstar in her own right. Both are 23 years old, both have over 100 goals for PSG, and both could lead their country to trophy glory this year. Katoto became PSG's record scorer in the women's game last season, and last week agreed a new contract tying her to the capital club until 2025. There lies another Mbappe parallel, with PSG determined to keep the striker out of the clutches of rival clubs, knowing she is the sort of talent that could make an explosive impact on Euro 2022.

  • Wimbledon: 'Phew! I am lucky!' – Djokovic relieved to get job done just before curfew Wimbledon: 'Phew! I am lucky!' – Djokovic relieved to get job done just before curfew

    Novak Djokovic beat Tim van Rijthoven on Sunday to take his place in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, and was very relieved to get the job done ahead of the 23:00BST curfew.

    World number one Djokovic saw off the Wimbledon debutant 6-2 4-6 6-1 6-2 on Centre Court to set up an intriguing last-eight clash with Jannik Sinner.

    The contest did not go all the defending champion's way, however, as Van Rijthoven's display in the second set suggested Djokovic would have to dig deep.

    But the Serb's response was emphatic as he went on drop just three games in the following two sets, blowing the 25-year-old Dutchman away impressively to reach a 13th Wimbledon quarter-final.

    It was also Djokovic's 25th successive win at Wimbledon, a sequence that has only ever been bettered three times in SW19.

    For a while there seemed to be a real threat of Van Rijthoven taking the match into a second day, with the curfew looming.

    Djokovic suggested he was not entirely aware of the deadline, and that only increased his relief after clinching victory with 22 minutes to spare.

    Speaking on court afterwards, Djokovic said: "I don't know if there was a curfew, 11pm? Is that still on? Okay, phew!

    "I am lucky, I am lucky. It's only 20 minutes, too, so I'm lucky. I have had some previous experience of playing a match over two days under the roof against [Rafael] Nadal some years ago, and it's never really pleasant if you can't finish the match the same day.

    "I am glad I did and now I am just looking forward to the next challenge."

    Specifically on Van Rijthoven, Djokovic added: "He was very tough, he's kind of a new face on the tour and actually won his first ATP match in the tournament he won a few weeks ago in his country, beating players in top five, top 10 in the world.

    "He was on a streak on this surface, so I knew it wasn't going to be easy with that serve and a lot of talent, great touch and a powerful forehand. He can do a lot of damage.

    "It took me a little bit of time to get used to his pace, and the conditions under the roof are a little bit different, a bit slippery, so it takes a bit of adjusting, but overall I closed out the match well."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.