The first handful of games of the 2021 college football season are less than two weeks away, with everything really kicking into gear over Labor Day weekend. It will be an opportunity to see some of the top prospects in the 2022 NFL draft class, including a bunch of talented quarterbacks. As of now, the schedule for the season is back to normal after a very different 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which helps immensely in scouting the class.
That’s right — we’re already thinking about next April’s draft. After some time off over the summer, I got back into the tape and started making phone calls again. Let’s be clear: A lot will change over the next eight months. Players have double-digit games ahead of them to make an impression, then an extensive pre-draft process that includes the Senior Bowl, the combine and plenty of team visits and interviews. Remember, Joe Burrow and Zach Wilson weren’t even on the Day 1 radar at this point in their final college seasons before eventually going in the top two picks in their respective drafts.
With that said, I ranked my early top 50 prospects for the 2022 class right now as we head into the college season. The list includes six quarterbacks, and three of them land in the top 10. Defensive playmakers are also present at the top of the list, which will be welcomed by NFL defensive coordinators after the 2021 draft was dominated by offense early. Let’s dive in, starting with a potential future franchise QB.
Note: Underclassmen are marked with an asterisk.
Height: 6-foot-1 | Weight: 205
Rattler shows quick feet both in the pocket and extending plays, and unleashes a fast release to get the ball out, often changing his arm angle to make impressive off-platform throws. He has plenty of arm strength, but his accuracy stands to improve a bit. And I’d like to see him process plays a little faster at times, as he stays on his first read too long too often. He might not yet be a finished product, but Rattler has all the tools to be a franchise QB in the NFL, including the ability to pick up yards with his legs. He threw for 3,031 yards, 28 TDs and seven interceptions last season — his 81.2 QBR ranked 11th in the nation — while adding another six scores on the ground.
2. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina*
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 220
Howell has back-to-back seasons of at least 3,500 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, and he threw just seven interceptions in each campaign. His 2020 season saw a jump in completion percentage, as well, improving from 61.4% to 68.1%. His touch and timing on deep passes stand out, and while his ball placement is still improving, you won’t see Howell miss on many throws. He flashes the ability to hit tight windows, too. Howell can manipulate coverages with his eyes, and I love the way he gets the ball out quickly when he has a clean pre-snap read. He can extend plays, too, though he occasionally falls off his throws despite the time and space to step into them.
Take a look at highlights from North Carolina QB Sam Howell ahead of his junior season in Chapel Hill.
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 195
Stingley has been a standout in college football for two seasons, bursting onto the scene with six interceptions as a freshman in 2019. The numbers weren’t as eye-popping last season, but he still played a big role for LSU on defense. He is long, fast and physical, and he’s the premier defensive back in this year’s class with 20 passes broken up over two seasons. Versatility is also key for Stingley, who can play press-man, off-coverage, free safety and the overhang position. A bonus: Stingley also has experience returning punts.
Height: 6-5 | Weight: 250
Thibodeaux is a phenomenal pass-rusher off the edge with great speed and size. Over 21 career games, he has 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss, and he generated pressure on 13.5% of his pass-rush snaps over the past two seasons, the 18th-best rate in the country. He had three sacks over his final four games last season and dominated against USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker — this past April’s No. 14 overall pick — in a mid-December game.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 219
Hamilton is a nightmare matchup for offenses. He has great size and closing burst while playing all over the defense. You’ll see him line up deep in coverage, over the slot and even at linebacker. Hamilton can blanket tight ends, and with decent ball skills and an ability to read the QB, he will make plays. He has five interceptions over the past two seasons, along with 12 passes broken up. Against the run, Hamilton can fill the alley, but he will need to work on his angles to avoid missing tackles. Still, he had 63 of them in 2020, including 4.5 for loss.
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 193
Elam is instinctive and aggressive. He has loads of top-end speed (he ran track in high school), great closing burst and excellent awareness in coverage, and he is able to play in press or off-man. His 13 pass breakups in 2020 tied for the fourth most in the country, thanks in part to great length and former wide receiver hands.
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 215
Willis is terrific at extending plays and keeping his eyes downfield outside the pocket. His off-platform throws have plenty of “wow” factor, as he gets the ball out from various release points with velocity and hits tight windows. After transferring from Auburn and sitting out 2019, Willis threw for 2,260 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, and his 78.7 QBR ranked 16th in the country. But his production on the ground truly amazed, as he rushed for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. November games against Ole Miss and Louisiana will be big in his evaluation.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 195
Booth excels in press coverage and does a nice job of turning to locate the ball when running with a receiver. His balance and quick feet are plus traits, and he has a smooth pedal off the line of scrimmage. But while his recognition skills are solid in zone looks, I think he overreacts to receivers’ initial moves at times in man coverage. Booth had a pair of interceptions in 2020 and returned a fumble for a TD.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 290
Leal has outstanding takeoff speed and packs a powerful punch at the point of contact. His game is technically sound, and his versatility along the line will be valuable in the NFL. In 2020, he posted 2.5 sacks, 7.0 tackles for loss, 8 QB hurries, 37 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception.
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 188
I was surprised when Olave decided to return to school for his senior season last winter, but he should be right in the first-round mix again in 2022. The ball skills are excellent, and there is plenty of speed in his game. Olave’s route running also stands out, exploding off the line and creating separation vertically. He always seems to have a plan. I’d like to see him get stronger, but he is an extremely talented receiver prospect. Olave has 111 catches for 1,775 yards and 22 touchdowns over three seasons at Ohio State.
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 200
I remember working his first college start, a September 2019 game against a ranked Stanford team. He threw for 377 yards, three scores and zero interceptions in a 45-20 win, and I’ve loved his game ever since. No, he’s not super mobile, and yes, his arm is average. But he is accurate (71.9% completion rate last season) and tough and has great instincts. He has the tools to be a great offensive leader in the NFL, and I think he is a bit underrated right now. In 2020, Slovis passed for 1,921 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions in a short six-game campaign.
Take a look at highlights from USC quarterback and Heisman hopeful Kedon Slovis.
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 238
Disruptive and rangy are two words that come to mind with Bonitto. He moves really well for his size, both when dropping in coverage and rushing the passer. His inside and weave moves are effective, and he bends well off the edge. He is a bit on the lighter side for an edge rusher, but he can shoot his hands and stack tight ends. Bonitto tied for 13th in the nation last season with 8.0 sacks and added 10.5 tackles for loss.
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 188
Receivers have a hard time getting off the line against Gardner. He is tall and long, and he smoothers coverage underneath. Gardner has strong recognition ability in zone, is an adequate wrap-up tackler and flashes playmaking skill. He hauled in three interceptions in each of the past two seasons while breaking up 14 more passes over that time. One concern: He plays almost too physical sometimes.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 193
He won’t get the same hype as Chris Olave, but Wilson’s talent level is right there with his Buckeyes teammate. Consider this: Wilson finished second on the team to Olave in 2020 in receiving yards by six yards (723) and in touchdowns by one (six). He runs sharp routes and shows an excellent ability to pluck on the run.
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 290
A former wrestler, Linderbaum has great physical traits for a 290-pound center and is an easy mover. He has great range and has started all 21 games for the Hawkeyes over the past two seasons.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 270
Enagbare has very good length and quick hands, showing strength at the point of attack and stacking blockers against the run. In 2020, he had 6.0 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss, and his three forced fumbles tied for fifth in the country.
Height: 5-11 | Weight: 195
Washington produces many talented defensive backs, and McDuffie is next in line. He is ultra fluid in coverage, and he has fantastic body control. In four games last season, McDuffie had 14 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 325
Green played tackle in high school but shifted to guard — and has played both sides — at Texas A&M, starting all 23 games over his two seasons there. His game is all about power, and he is incredibly strong at the point of attack.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 215
Ridder has been consistent over three seasons with the Bearcats, throwing for at least 2,100 yards and 18 TDs and no more than nine interceptions in each campaign. And while he rushed for between 572 and 650 yards in each year, as well, his rushing TD count jumped from five in each of 2018 and 2019 to 12 last season. Ridder can extend plays with his feet and shows good zip on his throws thanks to a very strong arm. He gets through his progressions well, though he presses at times and forces throws. Ridder is tough in the pocket, but he takes a lot of big hits; he needs to get the ball out quicker. And while a 66.2% completion rate in 2020 was much better than the 55.1% posted a season earlier, ball placement remains a concern.
Desmond Ridder takes off to score a 91-yard touchdown, his third of the day, to push the Cincinnati lead to 35-13 over SMU.
20. Mike Rose, ILB, Iowa State
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 250
At this point, I think Rose can be a NFL starter as a rookie. He has the perfect blend of size, range, length and versatility. You’ll see him line up inside and outside, and he flies sideline to sideline. His 96 tackles tied for 15th in the country last season, and his five interceptions were tied for third — and checked in at No. 1 among non-DBs. As that suggests, ball skills are an above-average area for Rose, and he can cover a lot of ground in coverage. But it doesn’t end there: Rose flashes as a pass-rusher and shows good stopping power against the run.
21. Zion Johnson, OT/G, Boston College
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 316
Johnson has experience at guard and tackle, starting seven games at left guard in 2019 before starting 11 times at left tackle in 2020. He will prove versatile in the NFL, too, with the foot speed, range and balance to excel in zone-blocking schemes. I wouldn’t classify him as a consistent mauler, but he is smooth getting set and tends to stay in front of his assignments as a pass protector. His technique could use some refining, and he’ll need to improve his ability to anchor at the point of attack.
Height: 6-7 | Weight: 295
Kirkland is a three-year starter who transitioned from right guard to left tackle in 2020. He is massive on the outside and excels in pass protection, earning first-team all-Pac-12 honors last year. Kirkland didn’t allow a single pressure or sack on 119 pass-block snaps last season, and he did not miss a single run block on 137 such snaps.
Height: 6-5 | Weight: 230
Anderson’s speed off the edge is exceptional. He plays with explosion, and his sack production continues to rise, as he posted 6.5 in 10 games last season. (He also forced a pair of fumbles and had 10 QB hurries.) Anderson is long and lean, and he definitely needs to get a little stronger, but he has the traits you want to see in an edge rusher.
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 210
Battle isn’t the biggest safety, but he will take on ball carriers and is a very good wrap-up tackler. He plays hard and has great closing speed. Battle had 66 tackles (including three for loss), broke up four passes and hauled in an interception in 2020.
Height: 6-5 | Weight: 210
London runs stellar routes and is extremely smooth in the way he moves around the field. In six games last season, he caught 33 passes for 502 yards and three touchdowns.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 225
Dean is an off-the-ball linebacker who has good speed on his blitzes and strong area awareness. However, he struggles at times getting off blocks. Dean posted 71 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 10 games last season.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 260
McBride is my top tight end right now, as he’s a matchup problem who lines up out wide, in the slot and in-line. The tape shows him making plays downfield, adding yards after the catch and bringing down contested balls in traffic. McBride does a nice job leveraging his routes, and he’s a natural hands catcher. But as a blocker, he gets top-heavy at times and loses late. Averaging 15.0 yards per catch, McBride caught 22 passes for 330 yards and four TDs in just four games last season.
28. DJ Dale, DT, Alabama*
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 307
Dale has started at nose tackle for the Crimson Tide since his freshman season, and in 2020, he had 22 tackles, returned a fumble and broke up a pair of passes. He has short arms for a defensive lineman, but he still shows great leverage and lower-body strength.
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 297
Winfrey could play defensive tackle or 3-4 end in the NFL, as he is a little on the lighter side for full-time inside work. But he blows up plays with regularity, showing first-step quickness, power and active hands to get into gaps. Winfrey had 6.0 tackles for loss last season. However, gap discipline is inconsistent, and he stalls out a bit too frequently.
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 192
Joseph tied for the national lead in interceptions last season as a redshirt freshman, hauling in six picks. In addition to the excellent ball skills, he has fast eyes, great speed and solid change-of-direction ability.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 215
Strong has a lot of arm talent, threading the needle and driving the ball vertically. He hit 26 passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield in 2020, and his 13 such TDs ranked third in the country. In the pocket, Strong can get through progressions, keeps his eyes downfield while moving and isn’t afraid to take a hit to make a play, but the foot speed isn’t there to regularly evade pass-rushers. He finished last season with 2,858 passing yards — 11th in the nation — 27 TDs and four interceptions, and his 70.1% completion rate was one of just nine over 70% in the FBS. However, it’s worth pointing out that it was cushioned with a lot of quick-hitters, and his ball placement could still improve.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 195
Williams is slippery, evading defenders at the line of scrimmage and in space. He shows great contact balance and is very patient, but his second gear isn’t elite. In addition to rushing for 1,125 yards and 13 scores (tied for 10th nationwide), he caught 35 passes for 313 yards and a TD last season. Two areas that stand to improve are pass protection and ball security.
Notre Dame goes for it on fourth-and-goal with Kyren Williams bulldozing into end zone for a short touchdown.
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 265
Harrison is still raw as a pass-rusher and needs some refining. But he moves well, snaps off the ball and has length. In 21 career games, Harrison has 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. He has plenty of upside, and the production should jump a bit in 2021.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 305
Patterson has the tools to develop into a starting center in a zone-heavy scheme early in his career, thanks to good size and quickness. He walls off defenders at the line of scrimmage, though he’s not a mauler. He gets set quickly and works his hands inside, but he tends to be top heavy and will lunge at times.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 195
Another Alabama receiver? Despite sharing the field with DeVonta Smith and at times Jaylen Waddle last season, Metchie still posted the nation’s 17th-most receiving yards at 916 and scored six times. That included a big eight-catch, 81-yard performance in the national title game. Metchie has good speed, runs solid routes and tracks the deep ball well. After stepping up as the No. 2 receiver when Waddle got hurt in 2020, he now gets his shot to be the No. 1 target in the Alabama offense this season. I’m excited to see what he does with the opportunity.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 245
McDonald can get home, that’s for sure. His 10.5 sacks were tied for first in the nation last season, and his 13.5 tackles for loss were tied for 16th. McDonald is explosive as a pass-rusher, displaying effective weave, inside and dip-and-rip moves. He actually has some room to still grow as a hands fighter, which is understandable considering he converted from linebacker during the 2019 season.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 194
Injuries have plagued Daniels, who has appeared in just four games over the past two seasons. Even so, he broke up four passes in those contests. Daniels can line up inside and outside, and he shows good balance and top-end speed. I really like the way he rips the ball out before a receiver completes the catch. He is at his best in press, but he is scheme-versatile, showing an ability to read the QB and recognize patterns in zone.
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 220
The FBS’ top rusher in 2020 with 1,572 yards, Hall has good top-end wheels and burst while also showing strong contact balance. He has three-down upside in the NFL, showing some pass-catching traits with back-to-back 23-catch seasons. Hall is patient, but at times, he is overly patient. I’d like to see him get downhill a little faster. His 21 rushing TDs last season ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 225
Burks can pluck the ball and immediately transition upfield for extra yards after the catch. He has big hands and shows exceptional body control. In 2020, he caught 51 passes for 820 yards and seven TDs.
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 269
Hutchinson was in the Day 2 conversation last fall before fracturing his right leg in November and opting for another year at Michigan. He plays a powerful game and is truly relentless in pursuit. Hutchinson also has fast eyes and locates the ball really well. He played only three games in 2020 before getting hurt and didn’t fill the stat sheet, but he posted 4.5 sacks, 10.0 tackles for loss and 68 tackles in 13 games back in 2019.
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 200
Doubs has the play speed to stretch the field and tracks the deep ball well, securing 11 passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield in 2020 (tied for eighth in the nation). There’s some savviness to his route running, and look for him to find and sit in windows against zone defenses. He has good hands, though he doesn’t win enough 50-50 balls. Doubs was one of 11 receivers in the country to eclipse 1,000 yards last season (1,002), and his nine touchdowns tied for 12th in the FBS.
Carson Strong fires a pass up the middle to Romeo Doubs who makes the grab for the touchdown to seal a 37-34 overtime win for Nevada over Wyoming.
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 340
Davis is a space eater. He’s massive and shows excellent gap control. The production isn’t overwhelming — 1.0 sack, 1.0 tackle for loss and 16 tackles over seven games last season — but Davis does his job in the middle of the Bulldogs’ defense. I see him as a strong 3-4 nose tackle in the NFL.
Height: 6-5 | Weight: 258
Sanders’ greatest ability is shooting his hands and stacking blockers both as a run defender and pass-rusher. He doesn’t have elite initial quickness, but he bends well, has the foot speed to beat linemen inside and recorded 7.0 sacks last season (tied for 19th). Against the run, Sanders occasionally gives up some ground, but he rarely stays blocked and had 10.5 tackles for loss in 2020.
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 232
I love this kid. Harris looks a bit undersized and isn’t super powerful, but he is all over the field, showing high-end instincts, quickness and toughness. A former high school receiver and safety, Harris played the Will linebacker role last season, and he compiled 79 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, six QB hurries and an interception over 13 games.
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 220
A transfer out of Clemson, Jones plays the overhang position and brings serious versatility to the LSU defense. He has range both in coverage and against the run, but he is still developing. I picture him potentially as a weakside or sub-package dime linebacker in the NFL. In 10 games last season at Clemson, Jones had 26 tackles, four tackles for loss, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 270
Karlaftis played just three games in 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19, but he is back and healthy this season. And in his last full season, a 12-start campaign in 2019, Karlaftis was unstoppable, posting 17.0 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 54 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He wins with his power.
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 200
Pickens tore his ACL in March, and his status for this coming season is still uncertain. Even so, he has the talent to be a top receiver in this draft class. He is smooth but also sudden in his route running, and he shows strong ball skills. Pickens caught 36 passes for 513 yards last season, and he has 14 touchdowns over two seasons at Georgia.
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 315
Munford has 34 career starts over three seasons, and he is powerful and long with a good lower-body base when getting set. He allowed pressure on just one of 246 pass-block snaps last season and wasn’t flagged on a single play all season.
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 250
Cox has average instincts and doesn’t play with a lot of power, often stalling out, but he has good versatility and is a speed rusher with some wheels. He is long and lean, and he has decent hands in working his way to the QB. He does struggle to turn the corner a bit, but there is room to grow in his game. In 12 games in 2020, Cox had 4.0 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, 41 tackles and 18 QB hurries.
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 310
How much Lole will be able to play this season is in question after the defensive lineman tore his right triceps and is set to have surgery. But when he is on the field, he is a difference-maker. Lole moved to the inside at Arizona State and has excelled as a 3-technique tackle. He penetrates and disrupts in the backfield quickly, recording 1.5 sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss in only four games last season.