It’s never too early to look at the 2022 NFL Draft, no matter what the mock draft detractors say.
Sporting News built its first Top 50 Big Board for next season, and that list is heavy on quarterbacks and receivers. A total of six quarterbacks and seven receivers cracked the top 50, a nod to the importance of those two positions on the last two national championship teams at Alabama and LSU.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell is the top player on the board for now, but the competition for that top QB spot will be more competitive now that Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is in the pro game.
Ohio State and Alabama – which played in last year’s CFP championship game — have the most players on this list with six apiece.
Here is a look at the best 50 best players available in the 2021 NFL Draft regardless of position, and how high each might be selected based on team needs, position scarcity and other factors.
NFL Draft prospects 2022: Big board of top 50 players
1. Sam Howell*, QB, North Carolina
Howell piled up 7,224 yards, 68 TDs and 14 interceptions at North Carolina as part of a program-wide makeover with Mack Brown, and he has put up nine games with at least 300 yards passing. Howell is 6-1, 225 pounds, dimensions that are close to Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Howell is the top quarterback prospect on the board for 2022, and QBs have been taken with the first pick in four of the last five drafts.
2. Derek Stingley Jr.*, CB, LSU
Stingley Jr. endured a sophomore slump for LSU after a superb freshman season in 2019, so there is a prove-it factor at work for one of the most-gifted players in the FBS. He has all the measurables to be an All-Pro cornerback at the next level. There is work to do with new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones. Just keep in mind a defensive back has not been selected with the No. 1 pick since 1956.
3. Evan Neal*, T, Alabama
Neal has made 26 starts, and the versatility between guard and tackle makes him an even more-attractive first-round pick. He played right tackle as a sophomore opposite Alex Leatherwood for one of the greatest offenses in FBS history. He allowed 1.5 sacks in 2020.
4. Kayvon Thibodeaux*, DE/LB, Oregon
Thibodeaux has 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in 20 games the last two seasons, and he has the most upside of the edge rushers in this class. The former five-star recruit continues to live up to expectations. He should challenge for double-digits sacks as a junior, which would ensure his top-five status.
5. Spencer Rattler*, QB, Oklahoma
Rattler endured some growing pains as a redshirt freshman, but he passed for 18 TDs and three interceptions in eight straight wins to end last season. Rattler has the advantage of a third year in Lincoln Riley’s system, and his game will translate well in the NFL. Can he follow in the footsteps of Mayfield and Kyler Murray and be a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick? It’s possible.
6. Kyle Hamilton*, S, Notre Dame
Hamilton is the most-talented safety in the FBS. He averages more than 50 tackles per season the last two seasons, an he’s totaled 5.5 tackles for loss and five interceptions in that stretch. The Irish have been creative in moving Hamilton around the field, and that should continue with new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
7. Christian Harris*, LB, Alabama
Harris has played ahead of the curve at Alabama the last two seasons. He averages 70 tackles and seven tackles for loss, and he improved in pass coverage as a sophomore. As far as safe picks go, Harris projects as one of those in the top 10.
8. Kedon Slovis*, QB, USC
Slovis will be a polarizing quarterback prospect. He is another classic passer from the USC lineage – and that has been good for a 70 percent completion percentage, 47 TDs and 16 interceptions the last two seasons. Sam Darnold, Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart are USC’s last three first-round quarterbacks. Slovis should follow in that line, but he will have to elevate his game to be a top-five pick.
9. DeMarvin Leal*, DT, Texas A&M
Leal is one of the most athletic defensive linemen in the country, and the 6-4, 290-pound defensive tackle anchored the middle of an improved Aggies’ defense in 2020. He’s a consistent run stopper – and he will get a handful of sacks with that straight-forward interior pressure.
10. Drake Jackson*, DE/LB, USC
Jackson is a top-10 pick across most early mocks, and the potential as a dominant hybrid pass rusher is there. He started every game as a freshman at USC, and he finished with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in six games last season. The 6-4, 255-pounder needs to build on that success.
11. Zion Nelson*, T, Miami
Nelson, a 6-5, 316-pound left tackle, has been a consistent force for the Hurricanes the last two seasons. Nelson bounced back from a tough freshman year to emerge as a dominant pass blocker, and he will challenge to be the first offensive lineman taken if that trend continues.
12. Justyn Ross*, WR, Clemson
Ross missed all of last season with after season-ending spinal injury, and those medical concerns could cause him to slip down a few team’s boards in 2022. Ross, however, averaged 16.7 yards per catch with 17 TDs the previous two seasons and would have been a first-round pick this year if not for that surgery. That talent will be on display again this season, and that is why we have him as the top receiver for now.
13. Garrett Wilson*, WR, Ohio State
Wilson, a former five-star recruit, is known for the highlight-reel catch. The 6-foot, 193-pound junior enjoyed four 100-yard games to start last season before the production dipped in the second half of the season. Look for a more consistent playmaker to emerge as a junior.
14. Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
Olave and Wilson are interchangeable in those two spots, but both Ohio State targets figure to be first-round picks. Olave, returned for his senior season, averages 16.1 yards per catch with 22 TDs for his career. He had five 100-yard games for Ohio State last season.
15. Kaiir Elam*, CB, Florida
Elam averages two interceptions and 7.5 pass breakups over the past two seasons. He has All-American potential as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC. The Gators have produced five first-round picks in the secondary since 2010. Elam is next in line.
16. Zach Harrison*, DE, Ohio State
Harrison is among the first-round prospects with the most to gain this season. He’s put up 5.5 sacks the last two seasons, and this is his third season working with defensive line coach Larry Johnson. That generally leads to first-round billing, and Harrison has that opportunity with the Buckeyes this season. If he takes advantage, then he could land in the top five.
17. Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati
Ridder is one of the most-experienced quarterbacks in this class. He’s been a reliable passer at Cincinnati with 57 TDs and 20 interceptions, but he also averaged 6.0 yards per carry with 12 TDs on the ground. He’s one of the top dual-threat QBs in this class, and that mobility could push him up the board.
18. Ventrell Miller, LB, Florida
Miller is one of the more well-rounded inside linebackers, and he returned to Florida for his senior season. He averaged 70 tackles the last two seasons, but he also had five pass breakups.
19. George Pickens*, WR, Georgia
This is tough because Pickens likely would be the first receiver off the board if not for a torn ACL suffered in spring practice. He averaged 14.6 yards per reception with 14 TDs the last two seasons with the Bulldogs. He’s still a first-round receiver, but we would like to see him back on the field first.
20. Perrion Winfrey*, DT, Oklahoma
The Sooners have improved on the interior line, and Winfrey is a big reason why. The 297-pound defensive tackle had 5.5 tackles for loss. Winfrey is a junior college transfer, and a second season in Oklahoma’s defense should produce similar results.
21. Brenton Cox, LB, Florida
Cox, a former five-star recruit who transferred from Georgia to Florida, has always had the talent. It started to resurface in 2020 in a season in which he had 10 tackles for loss. The 6-3, 250-pound linebacker should be even more disruptive in 2021.
22. Charles Cross*, T, Mississippi State
The 6-5, 305-pound left tackle ranked fourth in pass-blocking snaps with 528, according to Pro Football Focus. Cross will be a redshirt sophomore, and that reputation should enhance with another year in Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense. If Cross bolts for the NFL, then he will be in the first-round discussion.
23. Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State
Banks is the next first-round cornerback from Ohio State, and he will fill the lead role in the Buckeyes’ secondary left by Shaun Wade. This is banking on a true breakout season from the 6-1, 200-pound cornerback. The talent is there.
24. Bubba Bolden*, S, Miami
Bolden – a 6-3, 200-pound strong safety, returned for his senior season after leading Miami with 74 total tackles in 2020. He is an all-around talent who forced four fumbles and had 6.5 tackles for loss.
25. John Metchie*, WR, Alabama
Metchie would be the fifth Alabama receiver taken in the first round in the last three drafts at that point. Metchie steps into the WR1 role at Alabama this season, and he should have the production to match. The 6-0, 195-pounder fits the Crimson Tide prototype at the position.
26. George Karlafitis*, DE, Purdue
27. Rasheed Walker*, T, Penn State
28. Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan
29. Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama
30. Breece Hall*, RB, Iowa State
31. Jalen Wydermyer*, TE, Texas A&M
32. Cade Mays, G/C, Tennessee
33. Kenyon Green*, G, Texas A&M
34. Tyler Shough*, QB, Texas Tech
35. Thayer Mumford, T, Ohio State
36. Jordan Battle*, S, Alabama
37. Merlin Robertson, DE, Arizona State
38. Xavier Thomas*, DE, Clemson
39. Tyler Davis*, DT, Clemson
40. Isaiah Spiller*, RB, Texas A&M
41. Charlie Kolar, TE, Iowa State
42. Tyler Linderbaum*, C, Iowa
43. Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State
44. Frank Ladson*, WR, Clemson
45. Ty Fryfogle, WR, Indiana
46. JT Daniels*, QB, Georgia
47. Nik Bonitto*, LB, Oklahoma
48. Ahmad Gardner*, CB, Cincinnati
49. Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah
50. Brian Robinson, RB, Alabama
NFL Draft prospect rankings by position
1. Sam Howell, North Carolina (1)
2. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma (5)
3. Kedon Slovis, USC (8)
4. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati (17)
5. Tyler Shough, Texas Tech (34)
6. JT Daniels, Georgia (46)
1. Breece Hall, Iowa State (30)
2. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M (40)
3. Brian Robinson, Alabama (50)
1. Justyn Ross, Clemson (12)
2. Chris Olave, Ohio State (13)
3. Garrett Wilson, Ohio State (14)
4. George Pickens, Georgia (19)
5. Jon Metchie, Alabama (25)
6. Frank Ladson, Clemson (44)
7. Ty Fryfogle, Indiana (45)
1. Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M (31)
2. Charlie Kolar, Iowa State (41)
3. Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State (43)
1. Evan Neal, Alabama (3)
2. Zion Nelson, Miami (11)
3. Charles Cross, Mississippi State (22)
4. Rasheed Walker, Penn State (27)
5. Cade Mays, Tennessee (32)
6. Kenyon Green, Texas A&M (33)
7. Thayer Mumford, Ohio State (35)
8. Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa (42)
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon (4)
2. Drake Jackson, USC (10)
3. Zach Harrison, Ohio State (16)
4. George Karlafitis, Purdue (26)
5. Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan (28)
6. Merlin Robertson, Arizona State (37)
7. Xavier Thomas, Clemson (38)
1. DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M (9)
2. Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma (20)
3. Tyler Davis, Clemson (39)
1. Christian Harris, Alabama (7)
2. Ventrell Miller, Florida (18)
3. Brenton Cox, Florida (21)
4. Nik Bonitto, LB, Oklahoma (47)
5. Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah (49)
1. Derek Stingley, Jr., LSU (2)
2. Kaiir Elam, Florida (15)
3. Sevyn Banks, Ohio State (23)
4. Josh Jobe, Alabama (29)
5. Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati (48)
1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame (6)
2. Bubba Bolden, Miami (24)
3. Jordan Battle, Alabama (36)