NFL Draft Recap, The Defenders

With nearly one-third of the NFL season in the rearview mirror, now is as good a time as any to take a look back at some of the top players selected in last year’s draft and see how they’re progressing early on in their rookie years. As the players continue to establish themselves and make impacts on their respective squads, it will become increasingly reflected in the NFL odds.

Of the top 10 picks in last spring’s draft, general managers on the teams picking high obviously subscribe to the adage that defense wins championships, as the first five players selected all play on the defensive side of the ball.  Three down linemen heard their names called, along with two lockdown cornerbacks.  This emphasis on defense can be explained somewhat in that the teams picking early (especially Jacksonville, NY Jets, NY Giants) have invested significant capital in offensive skill players and were looking to upgrade their defense.

In The Trenches

The first pick of the draft was Georgia defensive end Travon Walker, who went to Jacksonville.  Walker, along with quarterback Trevor Lawrence and James Robinson led the Jags to a 2-1 mark in September, surprising many pundits with new coach Doug Pedersen at the helm. The early success resulted in significant to the NFL lines as the Jaguars exceeded expectations early.

While Walker played defensive end in college, Jacksonville elected to move him to outside linebacker, and thus far, he has taken all of his snaps at that position.  Early in the year, the top pick wasted little time registering career sack No. 1, getting it in Week 1 opposite Washington.

The Lions were on the clock next and took a player many (including those who make Vegas NFL odds) considered to be the consensus top draft pick.  Aidan Hutchinson, a defensive end from Michigan, stayed in the state and became a Detroit Lion.

Through the first five games, the 6-foot-7. 264-pounder has taken a majority of his snaps at the right defensive end.  He recorded three sacks, and 9 quarterback hurries in the early going and posted a season-best 80.1 Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade in Week 5 against New England despite his team getting shellacked 29-0.

The New York Giants took edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon, with the 5th pick.  Another player who was slotted to go early in the draft for the past two years, Thibodeaux, has fought the effects of a pre-season injury and has steadily worked his way back into the lineup.  Like Walker, Thibodeaux was shifted to the linebacking position. After being inactive in Weeks 1 and 2, the Los Angeles native has seen his playing time in the Big Apple steadily increase.

Statistically, he has yet to record a sack but has 5 solo tackles in three games with zero missed tackles.  On two occasions, he has scored over 70% on the PFF scale.

Locking Down the Receivers

Two players who did not see their positions switch from college to the pros went third and fourth in the first round.  The Texans took Derek Stingley Jr. from LSU at 3, while the Jets tabbed Ohio State CB Sauce Gardner at 4.

The grandson of Darryl Stingley, the New England Patriot who suffered a notorious career-ending injury in 1976, Stingley was one of America’s most coveted recruits coming out of high school. Unfortunately, injuries derailed him at LSU, as he appeared in only 10 games during his final two seasons.  NFL scouts and talent evaluators felt his potential and pure athleticism warranted an early first-round pick.

Through the first five games of 2022, Stingley has been Houston’s starter at both left and right cornerback, playing in all personnel groupings and packages.  On the PFF grading scale, He has hovered in the high 50’s/low 60’s and although he has not yet been burnt for a touchdown and has recorded a single interception.

The fourth pick, Gardner, who was called by his given name Ahmad early in the season as part of the rookie hazing process, has shown flashes of brilliance.  He has established himself as the team’s starting left corner, with the opposition only targeting him 24 times through 5 games.  He has recorded one interception while surrendering one score.

On the PFF grading scale, Gardner has a pair of games, including his debut in the low 70’s.  He is part of a strong Jets core and nucleus that has produced impressive results in the early going.

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