2022 NFL Draft: Breece Hall and Tyler Linderbaum head Next Gen Stats model's can't-miss prospects

At Next Gen Stats, we believe that the most effective draft strategy an NFL team can employ is one that fuses together the expertise of talent evaluators with robust data analytics. Three years ago, we set out to test the numbers side of the equation. Can we predict (with reasonable accuracy) whether a prospect will become a starter within his first three seasons in the NFL? What about his odds of making a Pro Bowl?

First introduced ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft, the new-and-improved ensemble of machine-learning models combines size, athleticism and college production to predict a prospect's odds of pro success. The results of each position-specific model are transformed into composite scores, ranging from 50 to 99, representing quantifiable dimensions of an NFL prospect. A score above 90 depicts a profile that ranks within the top five percent of historical prospects at the position relative to all other players invited to the NFL Scouting Combine since 2003.

The 2022 draft will mark the third time we have released our list of "can't-miss" prospects. Out of the 14 prospects noted over our first two years, all four AP Rookies of the Year were accounted for -- Ja'Marr Chase and Micah Parsons in 2021, Justin Herbert and Chase Young in 2020 -- and all 14 started games as rookies:

Using Daniel Jeremiah's mock draft 3.1 as a proxy for round projection, we identify seven can't-miss prospects who enter the draft with an overall draft score of 91 or higher and are generally projected to be top-50 picks. These seven guys stood out on tape and scored in the top five percent of players in the NGS model.

(**NOTE:** Players who did not participate in drills at the NFL Scouting Combine are given an estimated athleticism score based on their size and projected time in the 40-yard dash.)

Rank
T-1
Breece Hall
Iowa State · RB · 20 years old
  • Production Score: 89
  • Athleticism Score: 99
  • OVERALL DRAFT SCORE: 99
  • PRO BOWL PROBABILITY: 23%


In past NFL decades, Hall would be talked about as a potential top-10 pick. But today, the running back with a 99 overall draft score is no lock to come off the board at any point in Round 1. (NFL.com's latest mock draft from Charles Davis doesn't have the Iowa State product going in the first 32 picks.) The devaluation of the running back position certainly has something to do with this -- the last back selected within the top 20 picks was Saquon Barkley, who went second overall in 2018.


Nevertheless, Hall rates as one of the most analytically-clean prospects in this year's class, agnostic of position value. Back-to-back first-team All-America selections, rushing touchdowns in 24 consecutive games (an FBS record), a sub-4.4 40-yard dash (4.39), a 40-inch vertical jump -- these are just a few of the accolades, metrics and measurables that led to Hall's sparkling score in the NGS model. And he is young, too -- an important note on any running back's pre-draft profile.


To put his scores in perspective, Hall is only the sixth running back in our historical combine data set (since 2003) to enter the draft with a 99 overall draft score. The others: Reggie Bush, Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, Najee Harris and Travis Etienne.

Rank
T-1
Tyler Linderbaum
Iowa · C · 22 years old
  • Production Score: 91
  • Athleticism Score: 91
  • OVERALL DRAFT SCORE: 99
  • PRO BOWL PROBABILITY: 49%


The Next Gen Stats overall draft score is a representation of how well an NFL prospect stacks up -- analytically speaking -- against historical players at the same position. A max score of a 99 is a sign of an outlier, and that's the case with Tyler Linderbaum. The 2021 Rimington Trophy winner (awarded to the nation's top center) ran an unofficial 4.98 40-yard dash at a rescheduled pro day workout. Better yet, his 4.38 short shuttle would have ranked as the fastest time by any offensive lineman at this year's combine. Rarely do you find a prospect with 90-plus scores in both production (91) and athleticism (91). In fact, Linderbaum is the only center in our data set (since 2003) to eclipse both marks.


Although he's tied for first on this list, Linderbaum is expected to be drafted later than the five players listed below, all of whom play premium positions (edge rusher, offensive tackle and cornerback). Still, in the mid-to-late first round, there might not be a prospect with a higher floor than the Iowa pivot.

Rank
T-3
Aidan Hutchinson
Michigan · Edge · 21 years old
  • Production Score: 96
  • Athleticism Score: 95
  • OVERALL DRAFT SCORE: 95
  • PRO BOWL PROBABILITY: 54%


Analytically speaking, DJ's No. 1 overall prospect meets all of the critical thresholds of a premier, high-floor/high-ceiling NFL pass rusher. Hutchinson is the first edge defender in our data set (2003-2022) to enter the draft with production, athleticism and overall draft scores of 95 or higher. The three edge prospects to meet the 90-plus threshold across all three marks have made a combined 15 Pro Bowls: Mario Williams (four Pro Bowls), Von Miller (eight) and Myles Garrett (three).


So, what makes Hutchinson such a rare prospect? Runner-up for the 2021 Heisman Trophy, Hutchinson became just the fourth defensive player over the 86-year history of the award to finish among the top two in voting. Pretty impressive stuff, and then he turned additional heads with an inspired performance at the combine. At 6-foot-6 5/8 inches and 260 pounds, Hutchinson registered the quickest three-cone time (6.73 seconds) of any player over 6-5 at a combine since 2003. There simply may not be a more complete prospect in this year's class than Aidan Hutchinson.

Rank
T-3
Evan Neal
Alabama · OT · 21 years old
  • Production Score: 93
  • Athleticism Score: 83 (Estimated)
  • OVERALL DRAFT SCORE: 95
  • PRO BOWL PROBABILITY: 27%


Offensive linemen who weigh over 335 pounds typically do not have the body type of Evan Neal. And while the hulking tackle did not participate in measurable drills at either the combine or Alabama's pro day, we can use a statistical method called imputation to generate an estimated athleticism score based on his size (6-7 1/2, 337 pounds) and projected speed (approx. 4.90-5.00 seconds in the 40). We can also watch video of him performing a ridiculous split box jump. Massive human beings with that kind of explosive dexterity are rare, to state the obvious.


Add in a strong résumé (40 starts over three seasons) and position versatility (starting experience at left tackle, right tackle and left guard), and Neal's in the conversation to hear his name called within the top picks of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Rank
5
Sauce Gardner
Cincinnati · CB · 21 years old
  • Production Score: 97
  • Athleticism Score: 72
  • OVERALL DRAFT SCORE: 93
  • PRO BOWL PROBABILITY: 25%


Speed, length and multi-faceted production -- those are the key measurable traits of successful NFL cornerbacks, according to the NGS model. Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner -- DJ's No. 3 overall prospect -- is an outlier in all three. Gardner's 40 time (4.41) and arm length (33 1/2 inches) draw comparisons to Jalen Ramsey (4.41 40, 33 3/8-inch arms). Those are traits that match up well with any receiver type, no matter the skill set. A 2021 first-team All-American, Gardner earned the third-highest production score (97) of any cornerback prospect since 2018, trailing only Denzel Ward (99) and Patrick Surtain II (98) in that span. According to Pro Football Focus, Gardner did not allow a single touchdown in coverage over his three-year career at Cincinnati.


If the exploding market for veteran cornerbacks -- and wide receivers -- is any indication of how teams currently value the position, Gardner has a realistic chance to hear his name called within the top five picks of the draft's opening night.

Rank
6
Kayvon Thibodeaux
Oregon · Edge · 21 years old
  • Production Score: 86
  • Athleticism Score: 73
  • OVERALL DRAFT SCORE: 92
  • PRO BOWL PROBABILITY: 58%


Thibodeaux has long been on the radar of pro-talent evaluators. The former five-star recruit and 2021 first-team All-American certainly has the pass-rushing traits of a perennial Pro Bowler. At 6-4 and 254 pounds, Thibodeaux posted a 4.58 40-yard dash, 1.59 10-yard split and 27 reps on the bench press in Indianapolis. Only one other edge rusher invited to the combine since 2003 also ran a sub-4.60 40 at 250-plus, put up 25-plus bench reps and earned an 80-plus production score: DeMarcus Ware in 2005.


Among all prospects in this year's class, Thibodeaux has the highest chance of making a Pro Bowl within his first three seasons (58%), according to the NGS model. Only Josh Allen (62%) and Nick Bosa (60%) entered the draft with higher odds -- and both of them have indeed hit the Pro Bowl.

Rank
7
Ickey Ekwonu
N.C. State · OT · 21 years old
  • Production Score: 90
  • Athleticism Score: 76
  • OVERALL DRAFT SCORE: 91
  • PRO BOWL PROBABILITY: 21%


When it comes to the factors that best predict success for a prospective NFL offensive tackle, Ikemefuna "Ickey" Ekwonu checks every box. He has the tape (ranks as the no. 2 overall prospect in DJ's latest top 50), the accolades (consensus first-team All-American in 2021), the experience (31 consecutive starts since his freshman season), the athleticism (4.93 40-yard dash), the length (34-inch arms with an 84 1/4-inch wingspan) and the smarts (had offers from Ivy League schools coming out of high school) that put him squarely in contention to be the first offensive tackle selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.


An honorary member of Bruce Feldman's 2021 college football "Freaks List," Ekwonu reportedly reached a top speed over 18 miles per hour during practice (via GPS player-tracking technology), a mark we can contextualize with Next Gen Stats player-tracking data from the pros. Only one NFL offensive lineman reached a top speed over 18 miles per hour on any play from scrimmage over the course of the entire 2021 season: Saints guard (and 2020 first-round pick) Cesar Ruiz hit 18.33 mph chasing down an opposing ball-carrier on a strip-sack play in Week 9 against the Falcons.

Follow Mike Band on Twitter.

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