Who will be top draft pick? NFL combine should help clear up the debate

Published 11:02 am Saturday, March 5, 2022

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By Michael Marot, AP Sports Writer

Kayvon Thibodeaux looked like a lock to be this year’s top NFL draft pick — until Aidan Hutchinson played his way into the conversation.

Now, with eight weeks until draft night, offensive linemen Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu and Evan Neal are in the debate, too.

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This four-man race to the top has become a hot topic at this week’s annual scouting combine and has rekindled a familiar question: Who’s No. 1? With no quarterbacks likely to be selected right away, the guys in the trenches are the favorites.

“You have to take the player you think is the best fit for the organization and makes the biggest difference,” Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said earlier this week in Indianapolis. “If that’s an offensive tackle, you do it. If it’s an edge rusher, you do it. This draft has a lot of unique players. There may not be that clear No. 1, but there are a lot of good football players at the top.”

Baalke’s job is to sort it all out in a draft that comes with several unique features.

First off, Baalke is drafting first for the second straight year; no team other than Cleveland has held that distinction since 1988. The Browns picked No. 1 in 1999-2000 and 2017-18.

Plus, the Jags already have their franchise quarterback after taking Trevor Lawrence last year. Lawrence’s presence presumably gives Baalke the option of adding either a coveted pass-rushing cornerstone, a massive pass protector who can keep Lawrence upright and healthy for years to come or a trade that could fill multiple holes.

The one seemingly virtual certainty: A seven-year run of quarterbacks going first or second will end. None is likely to even make the conversation.

Until recently, Thibodeaux, the All-American out of Oregon, appeared to be the odds-on favorite. He had seven sacks last season despite missing two-and-a-half games with a sprained ankle that slowed him through some other games. But with his stock apparently waning amid questions about his consistency from play to play, Thibodeaux went on the offensive Friday.

“I can’t really compare it to other guys and what they do because I know that I have great teams that I went up against, and I had a lot of great opportunities to show what I can do,” he said, describing his aggressive style.

If Thibodeaux’s slide continues, Hutchinson could emerge as the best.

The former Michigan star broke the school’s single-season record with 14 sacks, led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title and their first playoff appearance while becoming the third defensive player to finish as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. He did it all after recovering from a fractured right ankle that ended his 2020 season.

Just don’t expect Hutchinson to make the pitch. He’d rather let his play suffice.

“I’ve been playing football for a long time, so I know what pressure is, I know the type of player I am and that calms me a little bit,” he said. “I think we’re all trying to be the best players we can be and whichever team picks us is going to get a good player.”

The bigger surprise might be the recent emergence of Ekwonu and Neal, though it certainly makes sense for Jacksonville after the Jags allowed 32 sacks and Lawrence finished near the bottom of the league in passer rating (71.9).

It’s not clear yet which player is the best lineman.

Ewkonu got his nickname from a former coach who thought he looked like former Bengals running back Ickey Woods. Last season, Ewkonu was an All-American and the ACC offensive lineman of the year.

He’s the son of a doctor who played college basketball, a mother who ran high school track and at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds seems to have combined the best of both worlds. Only two North Carolina State players have gone No. 1 overall: DE Mario Williams to the Houston Texans in 2006 and QB Roman Gabriel to the Oakland Raiders in the 1962 AFL draft.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if I went No. 1 overall,” Ewkonu said one day before working out. “I feel like that is something I put the work in for. I feel like when the time comes, I would deserve it.”

Neal checked in at 6-7 1/2 and a svelte 337 pounds after arriving on campus at 385. A three-year starter at Alabama, he helped pave the way for two Heisman winners, two straight national championship game appearances and a 2020 title.

But what really turned heads was his viral video of a box jump. And if Neal’s name is called first on April 28, he would be the first Alabama player to earn the honor since Joe Namath was picked by the New York Jets in the 1965 AFL draft. Quarterback/halfback Harry Gilmer was taken No. 1 in 1948 and is the last member of the Crimson Tide selected first in an NFL draft.

Could the drought finally end with Neal? Stay tuned.

“You have a whole lot of Alabama players that were worthy of having the No. 1 spot, and for that to be me, that’d be extremely special. I feel like the whole state of Alabama would be proud,” Neal said. “What prospect wouldn’t want to go No. 1 overall? That would be a dream come true.”