Updated: May 4
Written By: David Hartman
The 2022 NFL Draft is in the books, and in the end, it was pretty wild, with 3 of the biggest storylines being a barrage of trades, the QBs tumbling, and then tumbling some more, and an early run on wide receivers. The trades were especially fun: 9 in Round 1 (including A.J. Brown and Hollywood Brown being moved for picks), 8 in Round 2, and 35 overall.
As you’d expect, there’s no shortage of post-mortem analysis out there for the NFL junkie to consume. How did your team do? Scan the web and you’ll find hundreds of Draft recaps, many of which assign “grades” to each team, or even each pick - as if each NFL franchise just sat for some kind of exam that tested its football smarts.
While I enjoy in-depth Draft analysis as much as the next guy, I’m not a big fan of Draft grades, and you won’t find them here. While it’s definitely a useful exercise to try to evaluate whether teams got good value and did a decent job of addressing their needs, trying to project how college players will perform as pros is difficult, to say the least. NFL teams don’t consistently hit on their Draft picks, so even for the people whose job it is to project NFL success, it’s a very inexact science. A number of players who just got taken in Round 1 are going to be busts - and maybe not a small number. There’s just no way around that, and it happens every year. More than 50% of players taken in Round 1 don’t turn into long-term NFL starters, and the numbers drop round by round from there.
It takes anywhere from 3 to 6 years before you can assess how a particular Draft worked out for a team. And yes, I know that the graders understand this, and claim that their Draft grades are based solely on whether teams addressed their biggest roster gaps and got good value with their picks. But by and large, much of that exercise ends up falling right back into the trap of trying to project NFL success, with lots of assumptions and judgments built in. So even with those caveats about team needs and big board values, my view is that Draft grades are pretty meaningless. If your favorite team just got assigned a C from a leading Draft expert, or even from a whole bunch of them, I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. What I think would be a more useful exercise is something more holistic - an evaluation of a team’s entire offseason, including the Draft as one component of a larger effort to improve the roster. If anyone wants to grade the 32 franchises using that approach, I’m all in.
So while I don’t have any Draft grades to give out, I do have some observations to share as we dissect the 2022 NFL Draft. As always, I've tried to focus on some things that might have been overlooked by many. Here are some of my key takeaways:
1. The NFL is a Passing League.
How do we know this? Well, obviously we can look at a bunch of statistics that show that. But also, like many other things, you can just follow the money. 4 of the 5 highest paid positions in football are the guys who throw the ball, the guys who catch it, the guys who protect the thrower’s blind side, and the guys who try to cover the pass catchers. We can also see it by looking at how NFL franchises use their most valuable draft capital, and the Draft that just concluded bears this out. 6 wide receivers flew off the board in the first 18 picks. Plus, as already noted, 2 more teams traded away their first round pick for another team’s top WR, bringing the total of such trades this offseason to 4. More on that in a minute. Starting with pick 8, there was a run on receivers, and teams that didn’t want to miss out on the top 6 guys traded up into the teens to get them. By pick 18, the 6 consensus first round guys were all gone. But the overall run didn't stop there. 13 WRs in total went in the first 2 rounds - do the math and that comes out to WRs making up a whopping 20% of the selections in Rounds 1-2! Round 1 also saw 6 DBs and 6 edge rushers come off the board, in addition to 5 OTs. Even with just 1 QB taken and no TEs taken, Round 1 of the 2022 Draft was dominated by players who play those highly paid positions that are critical to the passing game, and to the defensive effort to stop it.
2. The Value Proposition of the WR Position is Changing.
This is somewhat related to point 1. Stop me if you’ve heard this before - nothing is as valuable in the NFL as having a franchise QB on a rookie contract. Why? Because QB is by far the highest paid position in the NFL, and there’s an established pay scale for rookies. So any QB who excels very early in his career is an incredible bargain vs. the price for established franchise QBs who are past the rookie contract. Even better, for all players taken in Round 1, the club gets a 5th year option on those rookie deals. The Chargers and Bengals own 2 of the most valuable contracts in the NFL right now, and the price they’re paying for high-caliber play at the QB position for up to 5 years gives them a huge advantage in roster construction. In 3 years, when Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert will need to get paid, that’ll change.
Well, it turns out that having an elite WR on a rookie deal is also really valuable, for many of the same reasons. But it’s hard for NFL teams to pay top dollar to both an elite QB and a stud WR (and maybe also an elite left tackle) who are no longer on rookie deals, while still having enough money left over for everything else. Top WRs are getting huge contracts. It’s not QB money, but the Hopkins, Hill, Adams, and A.J. Brown deals - all given out by the new team that traded for them - have reset the market at a new level. One of the fascinating developments of the last 2 months is that 4 teams decided to move on from their top WR (and a central piece of their offense), rather than giving him his next very big contract. Instead, they all got moved for draft picks. And these aren't just good WRs. Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill are unquestionably 2 of the game’s top wideouts. A.J. Brown already qualifies as a star, while Marquise Brown is somewhere just below that, and now will be reunited with Kyler Murray, his college QB at Oklahoma. And all 4 are under 30.
Here’s part of the rationale for why those trades - which you’d almost never see for QBs in their 20s - went down. Finding a young franchise QB is football's holy grail, and there are never enough of them to go around. But finding an elite young receiver, or at least a highly productive one, is a lot easier as there are more of them to go around, more of them excel fairly quickly, and it harms a franchise a lot less if they fail. More and more elite receiving prospects - coming in a variety of shapes, sizes, speeds, and specific skill sets - are coming into the NFL every year, as the college game continues to evolve and to feature more and more pass-happy offenses and sophisticated schemes. And a by-product of that evolution is that it’s no longer the case that most WRs need 2 or 3 years to adjust to the NFL game. In recent seasons, we’ve seen a bunch of rookie and second year receivers putting up impressive numbers, and in a few cases (such as Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase) they’ve quickly jumped all the way up into the top tier of players at the position by the end of their rookie year. In the past 3 drafts, a total of 17 WRs (plus Kyle Pitts) have been taken in Round 1, and another 19 in Round 2. Those are huge numbers and it’s evident that NFL teams are coveting the position and taking their swings at it, in the hopes of landing game-changers who can produce big numbers while on a cheap rookie deal. We saw that very clearly on Thursday and Friday night. Wide receivers do have a high bust rate - but unlike QBs, when that happens it’s a lot easier to go back to the well right away to try to find another one in the early rounds of the Draft, or, as we’ve seen, to sign or trade for a proven one that someone else might not want to pay.
3. Surprise! The QBs Tumble!
Do you remember the last time only 1 QB got taken in the first 70 picks? Neither do I, and maybe neither does anyone else, since this was the first time it happened in the Super Bowl era. One of the burning questions heading into this Draft was when the QBs would get taken. We heard over and over that this was a very weak QB class, and it was; certainly the weakest since at least 2013, when only 2 QBs went in the first 2 rounds. But even with a weak class, there were some intriguing prospects and I think everyone expected that teams would do what they always do - which is to talk themselves into reaching for QBs in Round 1. It looked like as many as 3 of them could go in Round 1, and as many as 5 would be gone by the end of Round 2. Well, Kenny Pickett did go in Round 1, moving just down the street from Pitt to the Steelers. But then a funny thing happened. In a rare showing of good judgment and self-restraint, the teams that were potentially in the market for a QB waited, while addressing other positional needs and taking higher rated prospects in the process. In the end, 5 of the teams that were the most likely landing spots for QBs - Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina and Washington - took the consensus top 5 QBs, but none of them other than the Steelers did so until Round 3 at the earliest, and the last one (Sam Howell of UNC) didn’t get taken until the top of Round 5. As noted above, a boatload of trades went down, starting at the 11th overall pick through the end of Round 2 - but none of those deals featured a team moving up to grab a QB, which was surprising. Maybe NFL GMs are getting smarter.
4. The Trade Chart Lives! And so Does Trading!
I loved all the wheeling and dealing - the Draft turned into a swap meet and it was great to see so many GM’s jockeying for position and moving around to get the guys they targeted. It made the Draft exciting in real time. I think almost every team is still using the Jimmy Johnson trade value chart, or an updated version that’s pretty similar. Well, maybe every team except the Vikings, who got a patently insufficient return when they traded down a whopping TWENTY spots with the Lions in Round 1, from 12 to 32. What’s worse, that was just the first of 2 trades they made inside of the first 34 picks that allowed a division rival to move up to take a big, fast receiver that the Vikings might not be able to cover. Skol! But the funny thing is, I actually liked the Vikings draft and think they got a number of good values and potentially impactful players for their defense. It was an interesting night for them.
5. Zach Wilson Gets Some Help
I like what the Jets did in this Draft, and more broadly in this offseason. The Jets are the only team in the NFL that’s drafted a QB in the top 5 twice in the last 5 years. In fact, they’re the only team to have taken a QB anywhere in the first round twice during that period. It’s a list you don’t want to be on. Like, ever. Sam Darnold flopped as a Jet, but at the end of the 2020 season (his third with the team), it was hard to evaluate him, because the team did such a terrible job of surrounding him with talent. When NFL teams use high picks on guys who play the most important position in the game, they owe it to themselves to make sure they give their QB enough of an opportunity to succeed so that the evaluation is clear and the decision (of whether to stick with him or move on) isn’t murky. It’s what Miami is doing right now with all they’ve added around Tua, and the Jets are smart to be doing the same with Zach Wilson. The addition of free agents Laken Tomlinson (G) and C.J. Uzomah (TE), and the re-signing of WR Braxton Berrios should all benefit Wilson, but the biggest help might come in the form of high draft picks WR Garrett Wilson (pick 10) and RB Breece Hall (early second round) - who were the top WR and top RB on many boards and who should nicely complement the solid WR-RB pairing that the team drafted last year (Elijah Moore and Michael Carter). The Jets are giving Wilson the weapons he needs to succeed. Or not succeed. At least they’ll know this time around, which again, is really important. Bears and Jaguars - are you paying attention?
A few other teams whose drafts I really liked, especially in the context of their entire offseason, are the Eagles (pairing A.J. Brown with Devonta Smith and their other weapons should really help Jalen Hurts, and should allow the team to evaluate him in the manner discussed above), the Titans (yes, even though they moved on from A.J. Brown), the Ravens (ditto, as it relates to Hollywood Brown), the Chiefs, the Packers, and the Seahawks (and the Giants, at least with how they handled Round 1). And a few teams left me scratching my head - namely the Bears, Patriots, and Jaguars. I'll come back in 3 to 6 years to evaluate these snap judgments...
6. Will the Draft Format Ever Change?
The NFL has used roughly the same format - teams drafting from worst to first - for more than 80 years. Should this be modified? Tanking in the NFL isn’t easy. I don’t have the space to explain why that’s the case, but it is. Still, why even allow for the possibility or appearance of it? The NFL just cleared the Cleveland Browns of the allegation that they asked former Head Coach Hue Jackson to tank games. A similar allegation against Miami owner Stephen Ross is still being investigated. You can bet that if they find anything, they’ll come down very hard on Ross. Anything that could compromise "the Shield" or the competitiveness or integrity of NFL games (which lots of people wager on - shocking, I know) is not something the NFL takes lightly. A finding of wrongdoing could also push the league to institute some kind of draft lottery like they use in the NBA - and in recent days Roger Goodell has said he isn’t opposed to that. I’ve heard some other ideas that I like even better, but I’ll save that for another time. For now, count me as one person who’d like to see some modification in this area.
And I'll end this piece with a couple of predictions that are sure to be wrong. Offensive Rookie of the year: WR Treylon Burks (Ten). Defensive Rookie of the year: S Kyle Hamilton (Bal). Please, don't put any wagers on those.
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