By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange/NFL Draft Scout - Best description of the NFL's 2022 college player draft was offered by Tom Hanks in his popular 1994 movie. Yes, this looks like a Forrest Gump draft, per his famous quote "My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get."
And when NFL teams bite into this year's draft beginning Thursday, April 28, they will select from an assortment of players that does not have a clear-cut No. 1. Most conspicuous is the lack of that popular delicacy at the top - quarterbacks, who were the first overall pick in 15 of the 21 drafts this century, including the last four and six of the last seven.
Even more curious, there is a small but real chance not one so-called skilled position player (somebody other than a center who handles the ball by design) will be selected among the top 10.
Although this draft lacks star power at the top, there is enough NFL-caliber talent to keep teams acutely focused throughout the lottery.
Meantime, there is no consensus on the first overall pick, where the most popular guesses have the Jacksonville Jaguars taking either an offensive tackle or an edge rusher. General manager Trent Baalke says they have four players on their radar.
Recent trendy opinions name DE Travon Walker (Georgia) and say the team is not interested in Aiden Hutchinson (Michigan), our top rated DE. Another line of thinking has Jags naming OT Ikem Ekwonu (North Carolina State) to better protect their No. 1 pick from last year, quarterback Trevor Lawrence. We think Neal, the Tide's massive pound tackle is the best long-term pick for the Jaguars and their quarterback.
Yes, only four offensive tackles were selected first overall in draft history - Ron Yary (1968 to Minnesota), Orlando Pace (1997, St. Louis), Jake Long (2008, Miami) and Eric Fisher (2013, Kansas City). And odds literally are long against Neal going first. In Las Vegas, site of the draft, Neal is a 25-1 shot. Walker is favored (4 to 7), followed by Hutchison (19 to 10) and Ekwonu (4 to 1).
Neal didn't ingratiate himself by skipping workouts at the NFL combine and his pro day. But game films tell the tale, showing this behemoth give up only two sacks in 1,073 snaps last season. Lawrence was welcomed to the NFL with 32 sacks and 33 pressures in 602 drop backs for the Bengals. Regardless of draft history and current odds against him, Neal has potential years from now for the Hall of Fame selection committee to compare him to 2013 class Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden (6-9, 345), who was stolen by Baltimore No. 4 in 1996 draft.
And while that debate continues until Thursday night, there are plenty of other top-10 quality offensive linemen - tackles, including Neal, Ekwonu, Trevor Penning (Northern Iowa), Charles Cross (Mississippi State) and even center Tyler Linderbaum (Iowa). Worthy defensive ends include Walker and Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon). Throw in cornerback Ahmad Gardner (Cincinnati) and free safety Kyle Hamilton (Notre Dame) and it's easy to see how quarterbacks could be squeezed out of the early picks.
OK, WAKE UP! You need a quarterback fix? Here you go:
There are a three or four who could be selected in the first round, regardless of pre-draft disrespect. History tells us that teams get an itchy trigger finger for quarterbacks by draft day. Among such questionable selections are recent former No. 1 overall picks Baker Mayfield (2018), Jared Goff (2016) and Jameis Winston (2015), whose careers are already on a downward spiral.
The tenuous list of viable quarterback prospects this year includes Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh), Malik Willis (Liberty), Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati) and Matt Corral (Mississippi). The pecking order there depends when you get an evaluation and from whom. Seems to be a moving target.
Early on, Corral had a strong following from those who contend he has the best upside of the bunch. But Willis seemed to overcome that small school stigma as he was very impressive during the draft process. Recently there has been a lot of chatter about Ridder's ability to run and throw on the run with arm talent compared to that of Aaron Rodgers. Through it all, Pickett seems to have kept a grip atop most lists despite the revelation that he has teeny hands (8 1/2 inches, smallest in the draft and smaller than any current starting quarterback in the NFL).
This draft does have a depth of talent in three key positions - wide receiver, defensive end and offensive tackle.
Starting with Ohio State's talented twosome of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave and including their former teammate Jamison Williams (transferred to Alabama), there are up to seven wide receivers worthy of a first-round pick and 14 who could go in the top 100.
The defensive end class begins with aforementioned Hutchinson of Michigan and includes versatile Travon Walker (Georgia) and controversial Thibodeaux of Oregon on a list of seven potential first-round pass rushers.
At the coveted offensive tackle position, Alabama's Neal and North Carolina State's Ikem Ekwonu are atop a group of six pass protectors who might be taken in the first round.
So those three positions could account for 20 of the 32 picks in the first round if the selections actually work out that way. OK, big if, but those are the deepest positions in the draft.
There are intriguing prospects all over the draft, including the recently devalued running back position and a punter who is causing quite a stir.
Prolific running back Breece Hall of Iowa State displayed stunning talents as a rusher and receiver. In years past would be a first-round prospect. Same with Kenneth Walker III, who flashed dazzling running style in his only season at Michigan State. Both are projected in the second round, for now. Welcome to the pass-happy NFL.
Then there is Matt Araiza, an outstanding athlete who happens to be a punter. A former soccer star and hurdler, Araiza set an NCAA record last year by averaging 51.2 yard per boot, with three going more than 80 yards. For perspective, the NFL hasn't had an 80-yard punt for eight years. A left-footer who has punted and kicked with his right foot in practice, Araiza had 62 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs last year and his career included making 96 of 97 PATs and 50 of 68 field goals.
He could hurt vendors as fans may not rush to get popcorn and hot dogs on fourth down.
Araiza is expected to become the highest drafted punter since Todd Sauerbrun went 56th in 1995. But who really knows? We will find out after the NFL begins to sort through this Forrest Gump draft Thursday evening.