This is the seventh in a series of position previews for the 2022 NFL draft, which runs April 28-April 30. Today: Defensive linemen.
THREE NAMES TO KNOW
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan: Frequently projected as the No. 1 overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Hutchinson (6-7, 260 pounds) is coming off a breakout season in which he led the Wolverines with 16.5 tackles for losses and 14 sacks. This is considered a deep edge rusher class, but one that lacks the All-Pro talent of former No.1-overall picks Myles Garrett and Chase Young. Hutchinson could be the closest with reputed work ethic, desired size and incredible production last year that earned him the Ted Hendricks Award as college football’s top defensive end.
Travon Walker, Georgia: A former five-star recruit, Walker didn’t exactly stuff the stat sheet – 13 tackles for losses and 9.5 sacks in 29 games – for the Bulldogs’ loaded defense. But he reaffirmed his special talents in pre-draft workouts, running an impressive 4.51-second 40-yard dash at 272 pounds with strong marks in leaping and agility testing as well. He’s a rare 6-foot-5-inch athlete who could grow into being a more productive NFL player than he was in college. He played both inside and outside for Georgia, and could be among three Bulldogs D-linemen, including defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, taken in the first round.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon: Another former five-star recruit, Thibodeaux lived up to his billing for the Ducks with 34.5 tackles for losses, 19 sacks, seven pass deflections and three forced fumbles in 30 games. He’s a hard-charging, powerful edge rusher who could quickly contribute at an NFL level after being the first Oregon defensive lineman to be named an All-American pick since Colts’ All-Pro DeForest Buckner. Thibodeaux (6-4, 254 pounds) is uber confident, comparing himself to form No. 1-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney: “I’m like Jadeveon 2.0,” he said at the combine. Perhaps a team with a top-10 pick will agree.
Dominique Robinson, Miami (Ohio): Just two years into playing defense, Robinson is a former high school quarterback who played wide receiver in his first three college seasons. He led edge rushers with a 41-inch vertical jump at the combine, showcasing the athleticism and stand-still burst he can bring at 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds. His production at such an early stage, with 8.5 tackles for losses and 4.5 sacks in 12 games last year, hint at a higher ceiling. Analysts pinpoint Robinson as a fit for a stand-up edge rusher role in a 3-4 defensive front like what the Vikings will feature under coordinator Ed Donatell.
As the Vikings shift to a 3-4 front, they could use more depth along the entire line. The addition of edge rusher Za’Darius Smith creates a strong outside linebacker duo with Danielle Hunter, but they currently have only DJ Wonnum and inexperience behind them. The Vikings signed ex-Bills nose tackle Harrison Phillips to man the middle and replace the released Michael Pierce. Dalvin Tomlinson figures to start at “3-4 end,” which moves him slightly farther outside and over offensive tackles as he’s done before for the Giants. Will Armon Watts earn the other spot in the five-wide front (with three downed linemen and two stand-up edge rushers)? Or could the Vikings take an early-draft swing to plug that hole? That fifth D-line spot is a part-time role, with that player leaving the field to be replaced by a slot corner in the often-used nickel defense.
VIKINGS’ LEVEL OF NEED
Moderately high: The Vikings could stand to upgrade depth on the edge and in the middle of the defensive line, especially with Hunter and Smith coming off surgeries last year. For all the attention given both nationally and here to highly valued edge rushers, a sneaky need for the Vikings is the interior defensive line, where Tomlinson and Watts are in the final years of their contracts.