The draft is a very interesting process. Prospects have been doing their best to impress the 32 teams for months. But it only takes one team to be impressed for a player to get drafted. We spend a lot of the offseason looking at big boards and mock drafts from the experts but at the end of the day, each team has its own rankings of the soon-to-be rookies. Every year there is at least one surprise in the first round, usually in the back of the round. Inevitably, there will be at least one player taken this year that will befuddle a lot of people. But I am here to help ease your confusion when that player is selected by explaining five possible candidates for that surprise selection.
Tariq Woolen, CB UTSA
The only quality that NFL teams value more than speed is the ability to throw the ball 80 yards on a dime, and the players that can do that are typically drafted quite early in the first round. Woolen doesn’t have the arm talent that teams are enamored with but he certainly has the speed. He ran the forty-yard dash in 4.26 seconds, making him one of the fastest players to ever be recorded at the combine. That alone is enough to convince a team to take him in round one (unfortunately for Woolen, the Raiders traded away their first-round pick or else they would definitely draft him). But Woolen also measured 6-foot-4 and weighed 205 pounds at the combine. His combination of speed and size should have front offices salivating. In my opinion, he is the most likely of these options to be the surprise player of the first round because he has off-the-charts physical abilities that will win over at least one NFL team.
John Metchie, WR Alabama
Metchie checks all the boxes required for a shocking first-round selection. Productive collegiate career. Check. Played at a big school with a ton of exposure. Check. Suffered an injury late in the season that dropped his draft stock. Check. There were probably more than a few teams that had a first-round grade on Matchie before he tore his ACL in the SEC Championship Game. It is also very likely that a team or two still believes in his talent despite the injury. The teams picking at the end of the first round usually have a pretty solid roster and could take a chance on the upside of Metchie. Kansas City, Buffalo, Green Bay, and Tampa Bay could all be possible destinations for him.
Phidarian Mathis, DT Alabama
Mathis is another Alabama that could surprisingly end up going in the first round. The defensive line seems to be the most nuanced of all the positions to evaluate. Each team has its own way to evaluate defensive linemen since they are all looking for different qualities. Mathis clearly proved himself as a solid defender just by virtue of playing on a stacked Crimson Tide defense. Mathis is more of a ‘floor’ pick than a ‘ceiling’ pick because he probably won’t develop into some sort of All-Pro player. But he could very easily be an extremely reliable and productive player in the league for a while, even if he never wows anyone with his individual statistics. If a team is looking to make a generally safe selection of a player that has proven himself at a very high level of competition, Mathis could be that guy.
Daniel Faalele, OT Minnesota
What’s that old saying? You can’t teach size? Even though that is more applicable to basketball it still works for football. And if there is one thing that Faalele has, it’s size. We seem to have mostly moved past the days of drafting the biggest and most physically intimidating players regardless of skill but I guarantee you that there are some NFL GMs or owners that are obsessed with Faalele. Standing at 6-foot-8 and weighing in at 384 pounds, he would immediately usurp Trent Brown as the largest player in the NFL. Faalele’s size is certainly his most endearing quality to NFL teams but he has also been a pretty good player in his time at Minnesota. He was named to the All-Big-Ten first team this past season so he has demonstrated his blocking ability. There is a lot of risk associated with drafting a player like Faalele but I wouldn’t be surprised if a team decides to overlook that and bet on the upside of the giant tackle.
Sam Howell, QB UNC
There are a few reasons why I believe Howell could be an unexpected first-rounder in this draft. The first is that all teams view quarterbacks differently. That is obviously the case with every position in the draft but quarterback rankings are the most polarizing. Although Howell is widely viewed as the number five quarterback prospect in the 2022 class, it wouldn’t be completely surprising if a couple of teams have him higher on their draft boards. The second reason is that teams are much more likely to reach for a quarterback in the first round than any other position. When a team selects a player in the first round, they get the extremely valuable fifth-year option attached to that player’s rookie contract. That proves especially helpful with quarterbacks because it gives the team five years before they have to back up the brinks truck for him (if he has earned it). So even if a team in the early second round wants to take Howell they may elect to trade up into the back of the first to secure him and that extra year. The final reason for Howell’s first-round candidacy is that he is a good quarterback. He was a three-year starter for the Tar Heels beginning in his freshman year and he threw for over 10,000 yards and 92 touchdowns at North Carolina. Howell had legitimate Heisman and first-round buzz before a lackluster 2021 season so the potential is there for him to be a successful pro. A team may get criticized for taking Howell in the first round but it will be all worth it if he becomes a franchise quarterback.