(Mandatory Photo Credit: Brian Spurlock - USA Today Sports)
(Pictured: Myles Garrett. Yes, he’s still a freak. 4.64 40 at 272 pounds!)
Written by: Joseph Yun
The 2022 NFL Scouting Combine is set to kick off this week in its fullest possible form (well, in a pandemic era, full as can be) in Indianapolis. Who are the defensive players to watch as they go through the drills, medical checks, and the charcuterie of other events in Lucas Oil Stadium? Are there any sleepers who can emerge from the stop unit to make a name for themselves in the eyes of front office executives? Is there a candidate who can challenge Jalen Myrick's all-time best 40 (4.29) for a defensive back? Who's the freakiest lineman that can come closest to touching the all-time greatness that is Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett?
If you missed the offensive preview of the Combine, you can find it below:
The Favorites: Jermaine Johnson II Florida State | Nik Bonitto Oklahoma | Aidan Hutchinson Michigan | George Karlaftis Purdue | Kayvon Thibodeaux Oregon
- Johnson has been on a hot streak since transferring to Florida State, dominating the Senior Bowl during the week before pulling lame with injury. While he’s not the athlete like some in this category, he’s athletic enough to continue the good run of form. Bonitto was an athletic boon for the Sooners defense. He should test exceedingly well during the drills. Hutchinson has been battling Thibodeaux for EDGE1 honors throughout the season and is well-positioned to be the first one taken. The former Oregon Duck KT is the former five-star prince that was promised. He’s a freaky athlete that frequently gets compared to another five-star recruit turned workout star, Jadeveon Clowney. Karlaftis has been a rock during the past two seasons for an inconsistent Boilermakers squad. He’s not a top-tier athlete on the level like his colleagues but is sufficiently adequate enough to make an impact. Four of the five prospects from this group should be considered as first-round locks.
Sleepers: David Ojabo Michigan | Arnold Ebiketie Penn State | Kingsley Enagbare South Carolina | Myjai Sanders Cincinnati | Travon Walker Georgia
- Talk about a group that has been overshadowed by conference, regional colleagues, or even teammates but they have special talents themselves. Hutch may get a majority of the love from the draft world but Ojabo burst onto the scene and is considered a late Day 1 / early Day 2 selection. He’s an athlete in every sense of the world and is just tapping into his talent as he didn’t pick up football until his HS junior campaign. Expect him to test well. Walker is a toolsy prospect who has put on a show despite much more heralded teammates. Speaking of tools, Sanders has a lot of potential and should test well after leading Cincy to a playoff berth. Stop me if you’ve heard this before but Penn State has yet another fun EDGE prospect in Ebiketie. Enagbare might not get the pub-like his more accomplished SEC counterparts but he is a talent that will rise up the boards.
Super Sleepers: Drake Jackson USC | Tyreke Smith Ohio State | Cameron Thomas San Diego State | Josh Paschal Kentucky
- A quartet of intriguing pass rushers with one or two talented skills defines this group. Jackson is probably the best athlete of the group but the least fundamentally sound. Thomas is woefully underrated and he should have a good time in Indy. Paschal isn’t Josh Allen (the Jaguars version) but is very tight fundamentally but a little lacking in the athleticism department. Watch for him to turn some heads. Smith is just the latest out of the Buckeyes defensive line factory.
The Favorites: Jordan Davis Georgia | DeMarvin Leal Texas A&M | Devonte Wyatt Georgia |
- Two of the heavy favorites for IDL1 reside in this category with Davis and Leal. Wyatt is a newcomer as a presumptive favorite to go in round number one with an understated season performance along with Senior Bowl dominance. Leal isn’t Justin Madubuike but he has had an impact through his career but dipped some in 2021. Davis is just a freak athlete, man. Yeah, he probably won’t reach anywhere close to 80% game snaps in his career but his reps are so dang good. It will be interesting to track where Wyatt ultimately goes in the draft.
Sleepers: Perrion Winfrey Oklahoma | Phidarian Mathis Alabama | Thomas Booker Stanford | Zach Carter Florida
- Winfrey is the rising star from this group as he has been steadily climbing the boards since the season ended. Mathis has been at Alabama for an eternity it seems like but that time has been used well. He’s developed into at least a fourth-round selection while in Tuscaloosa, finally getting consistent big-time reps in 2021. Booker was a four-year starter for the Cardinal and showed out as a senior last season. He’s athletic for his size and should test well. Carter was the key anchor for the Gators defense who suffered a ton of downgrades in 2021. He played his way into maybe an early Day 3 selection. Watch for both guys to do well.
Super Sleepers: Otito Ogbonnia UCLA | Haskell Garrett Ohio State | Travis Jones UCONN |
- Can this current OO named Bruin make a name for himself like the previous one did during the process? This trio of interior linemen is a fun group to watch with different and unique skill sets. Can Garrett live up to his Buckeyes predecessors and be great in Indy? Jones played well in 2021 after being forced to sit out for the 2020 season as the pandemic canceled the Huskies season.
The Favorites: Nakobe Dean Georgia | Devin Lloyd Utah | Boye Mafe Minnesota | Christian Harris Alabama | Quay Walker Georgia
- Dean is without a doubt, the best off-ball linebacker in the class. He's going to test well early and often. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he's the first true blue linebacker taken in the draft. Following in his teammates immense shadow is the underrated Walker who impressed many during the season. Lloyd was the star of the 2021 campaign. He's everything you want in a modern-day linebacker. Utah knows how to develop defensive prospects in bunches and he's the latest one. He will challenge Dean for the honor of the first linebacker selected. The real star of the show here is Mafe after his crazy good time in Mobile. Can he carry over his performance to Indy? Harris has to be the least hyped Alabama defender of recent vintage but he's still plenty good. Expect a good run from him.
Sleepers: Zakoby McClain Auburn | Jeremiah Moon Florida | Nephi Sewell Utah | Terrel Bernard Baylor | Leo Chenal Wisconsin
- Athletes galore in the sleeper category, especially McClain and Bernard. Moon is listed as a linebacker but has played EDGE primarily for Florida so he’s listed as such. Sewell of course is the older brother of Lions star tackle Penei. He transferred to Utah this past season after playing at Nevada and translated well for the notoriously efficient Utes’ NFL development program. Chenal isn’t your typical Wisconsin linebacker as he’s uber-productive and athletic to boot. He’s played his way into the top 10 positional-wise and could sneak into the third round or higher with a good Indianapolis performance. Bernard has been yet another gem for Baylor and took that step to stardom under Dave Aranda.
The Favorites: Sauce Gardner Cincinnati | Roger McQueary Auburn | Derek Stingley, Jr LSU | Andrew Booth, Jr Clemson
- The battle for CB1 rages on as Gardner throws his hat into the ring with an outstanding 2021 season with the slight dip in form by Stingley, Jr. The former LSU product was long considered to be a mortal lock for the honor of being the first cornerback drafted this season but that is no longer the case. McQueary will likely be a first-round selection much like his Tigers predecessor Noah Igbinoghene once was. He’s more developed as a prospective starter at their respective stages in their college careers. The third entrant into the CB1 war is Booth, Jr the former Clemson Tiger. He has the potential to rise like A.J. Terrell did a couple of years ago and retain his standing at the top to the middle of the first round.
Sleepers: Trent McDuffie Washington | Derion Kendrick Georgia | Mykael Wright Oregon | Tariq Castro-Fields Penn State
- A ton of untapped yet somewhat realized potential residing in this category. Wright has been primarily the starter for just one season while doubling as the return specialist for Oregon. Kendrick’s tenure in Athens was brief but relatively successful. Teams will question his dismissal from Clemson, however. McDuffie is just the latest defensive back from Washington to take a star turn in Seattle. It will be interesting to see if he can surpass Elijah Molden who was drafted in the third round last draft. TCF has been consistently good throughout his career but has some flaws that need to be ironed out. It will be interesting to see how he tests.
Super Sleepers: Kyler Gordon Washington | Cam Taylor-Britt Nebraska | Jalyn Armour-Davis Alabama
- JAD isn't the first name that pops off the play sheet but he was a key figure after sitting behind some serious talent. He emerged last season as a starter. Expect him to shock a few folks. CTB was a bright spot in the disastrous husk of a 2021 season for Nebraska. He brings CB and S versatility plus was a QB in high school so he knows how to attack that position. Sneaky value play on Day 3 for some lucky team. Gordon could outdo his former Seattle colleague McDuffie and test off the charts. NRC vibes from him. Washington has put a lot of good DBs into the league in the past, he has that kind of potential.
The Favorites: Kyle Hamilton Notre Dame | Lewis Cine Georgia | Verone McKinley III Oregon | Jaquan Brisker Penn State | Dax Hill Michigan
- Hamilton is by far the name to watch here despite the injury issues. He’s miles ahead as the top safety in the class. In fact, he could make a legitimate argument as the best overall prospect in the 2022 class. Cine was, shall we say, a fine safety for the reigning national champions. VM3 has been an outstanding big nickel type this past season as a Jevon Holland replacement. He played well enough to merit a last-minute addition to the Senior Bowl. Expect McKinley to improve upon his shaky Mobile performance and show out in Indy. Brisker and Hill are likely to challenge for the honor of safety number two behind Hamilton. The former Nittany Lion is the more versatile of the two Big Ten rivals but not by much. It will be interesting to see which one tests better. Hill was the higher-ranked recruit so there’s that. A lot of Day 2 selections reside in this group.
Sleepers: Nick Cross Maryland | Jalen Pitre Baylor | Yusuf Corker Kentucky |
- Cross was a surprise commitment to Maryland despite fielding a handful of bigger offers ala Stefon Diggs all those years ago. Like Diggs, he’s an athletic marvel that really didn’t settle on a set position but excelled at a variety of roles. Watch for him to make bank and surprise a few folks in Indy in terms of his testing numbers. Pitre was a find for the Baylor staff as he shined in multiple roles for the stingy Bears defense. He merited an invite to the Senior Bowl and stood out there according to reports. Corker was a key asset for Kentucky’s defense as he played more of a box safety role a la Landon Collins. He will need to test well and is a name to watch on the rise.
Super Sleepers: Smoke Monday Auburn | Juanyeh Thomas Georgia Tech | Quentin Lake UCLA | Markquese Bell Florida A&M
- These four safeties have the potential to wow people in Indy this week. Smoke Monday is awesomely named and led the Tigers secondary alongside McQueary. Lake has been efficient throughout his career with the Bruins, showing out in 2021. Bell is an intriguing prospect in that he transferred in from Maryland due to ethics violations with the Terrapins. Teams will certainly look into his past. Thomas was a bright spot for the still-recovering Yellow Jackets program. The quartet will need to test well in order to get on the Day 3 radar.