Looking ahead to the 2022 NFL Draft
When I interviewed Rasheed Walker last Thursday afternoon for a story in an upcoming edition of Blue White Illustrated, I asked him whether he planned on watching the NFL Draft that night and, if so, whether he would be thinking about his own professional future as Roger Goodell stepped to the podium to read off all those names.
Walker said that he would definitely be watching, and he would definitely be envisioning himself on that stage next April. Truth is, Walker is always thinking about what comes next.
“I do that all the time,” he said. “When I was in high school, I remember watching the Nike Opening on TV. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to get there, that’s going to be me next year.’ And I made it to The Opening. Same thing with the Army All-American game. I feel like [visualization] is true. So that’s just going to motivate me to go harder, watching the draft tonight. Around this time next year, I’m going to be up there. I truly believe that.”
By all accounts, Walker has good reason to be optimistic. As he preps for his third season as a starter at Penn State, he’s viewed as one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the 2022 draft. Come next April, he’s likely to be the headliner in a sizeable Nittany Lion draft continent, a group that figures to include proven players such as Jaquan Brisker, Jahan Dotson, P.J. Mustipher and more. In addition, there are a number of highly regarded players who are just one breakout season away from being draftable commodities, such as Ji’Ayir Brown, Adisa Isaac, Caedan Wallace and Sean Clifford. And there are also three senior transfers on the roster – Arnold Ebiketie, John Lovett and Derrick Tangelo – who we haven’t yet seen in blue and white but who presumably came to Penn State with the intention of bolstering their resumes in advance of the next draft.
In the interest of brevity, I held the list of potential 2022 draftees to 10. Most of the players mentioned below are either sure things or strong contenders to be selected, but there are a few wildcards, too.
Brisker would have been an NFL draftee this past weekend had he opted to leave Penn State after the 2020 season – a season in which he missed just one of 60 tackle attempts according to Pro Football Focus and won first-team PFF All-America notice. He was even invited to play in the Senior Bowl, an invitation he initially accepted, seemingly confirming that he was coming out early. But Brisker was not, in fact, coming out early. In January, he announced that he would be returning for his final year of eligibility, and he has since been hailed by some as the best safety in the Big Ten. If he lives up to that billing in 2021, this decision figures to work out nicely for all involved.
Of all the players who announced plans to return this year, Castro-Fields was probably the least surprising. He played hurt for much of the 2019 season, and last fall he missed six games with an undisclosed injury. Now, in addition to showcasing his coverage skills, he needs to show that he can stay healthy. Even taking into account the setbacks he’s had the past two seasons, Castro-Fields could have been a middle-round pick if he had come out this year, cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said this spring. We’ll never know if that was the case, but all the things that NFL scouts like about Castro-Fields, they’ll like a whole lot more if he’s able to play a full season this fall.
Penn State has had three wideouts taken since 2017. Next April, Dotson will become the fourth. He would have been chosen this year if he had come out, but he said he wants to finish his college career with a season for the ages. “Every day I go to meetings, I write on top of my notebook, ‘Be legendary,’” Dotson said earlier this spring. “That’s one thing I want to preach this year, being legendary, basically leaving my mark on Penn State football, college football as a whole.” If he does that – and there’s no reason to think he won’t – he’ll have a chance to leave his mark on the NFL, too.
Luketa is an interesting prospect. He was miscast as a Will OLB last season, a year in which the Lions had to scramble to rearrange their linebacker corps following Micah Parsons’ decision to opt out, but he figures to see action this fall in spots that will better showcase his skill set. James Franklin said in April that the staff wants to move the middle linebacker around in Penn State’s defense in a way that will make the best use of his talents while also enhancing his pro resume. That presumably means that the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Luketa will be getting some snaps at defensive end this season – or at least that the coaches will be taking a look at that option in preseason camp.
There were 19 interior linemen taken in this year’s draft – eight centers and 11 guards. Miranda has started 18 games at guard the past three seasons, and he’s most likely going to be Penn State’s starting center this fall. That show of versatility is only going to help the 6-3, 310-pounder at the next level.
Mustipher is getting set for his second starting season, and this one shows all the signs of being a great springboard to the NFL. He’s up to 326 pounds after playing at a listed weight of 308 last season and he’s set to see action at a more natural position, the one-technique defensive tackle spot.
Joey Porter Jr.
I went back and forth on whether to put Porter on this list. He’s only played in 12 games to date, but he’s coming up on his third year in the program, so he’ll be eligible to leave after the 2021 season. A nine-game starter last season, he’s got a rangey 6-2, 195-pound frame that pro scouts are going to love, regardless of whether they view him as a cornerback or safety at the next level. Another All-Big Ten season – he won third-team honors from the media in 2020 as a first-year starter – could be just the springboard Porter needs to reach the NFL, where his father spent 13 seasons and became a four-time Pro Bowler with the Steelers.
Like Luketa, Smith is a bit of an edge case. He’s only played one season as a starter, and it was a mixed bag. But he’s a marvelous athlete with a 6-3, 240-pound frame, and he’s seemingly only beginning to tap into his full potential. Smith’s recent move to the Will OLB spot could be just what he needs to position himself as a draft-worthy prospect in the next year or two.
Of the 259 picks in the 2021 draft, only two were spent on kicking specialists, with Florida place kicker Evan McPherson going to Cincinnati in the fifth round and Georgia Tech punter Pressley Harvin III to Pittsburgh in the seventh. So this choice is, admittedly, a bit more speculative than some of the others here. But Stout is unique in that he’s either a kicker who can punt or a punter who can kick, depending on what you consider to be his primary role. One such player was chosen in 2019 when Cleveland drafted Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert in the fifth round. The difference between Seibert and Stout is that Seibert was the Sooners’ primary field goal kicker, whereas Stout specializes in long-distance attempts and kickoffs, with Jake Pinegar handling the majority of the field goal tries. But if he excels in 2021, he’s got a skill set that could intrigue some teams late in the draft.
Believe it or not, it’s been well over a decade since a Penn State offensive lineman was chosen in the first round. That player was Levi Brown, who went to Arizona with the fifth overall pick in 2007. Brown went on to play seven pro seasons, and Walker would like to follow his lead. The 6-6, 312-pound Walker thought about forgoing the 2021 season but ultimately decided to return along with Dotson, Brisker and Castro-Fields. He’s the most highly regarded NFL prospect on this list, having appeared in the first-round of several way-too-early 2022 mock drafts. There’s a long way to go, but everything is trending in the right direction for Walker.
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