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Five most difficult 2022 NFL Draft prospects to evaluate; three quarterbacks in make-or-break year

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

But first, a look at five highly polarizing draft prospects ...

The 2022 NFL Draft is just weeks away, meaning conversations within meeting rooms are becoming a little contentious, with scouts and coaches clashing over grades and player rankings.

While every decision-maker obviously aims to build a championship roster by accumulating the best talent available, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder when it comes to evaluating prospects in any draft class. Whether valuing prototypical physical traits and football character or obsessing over production and performance, every scout has criteria for determining which players deserve to sit atop the charts at the end of the pre-draft process.

As a young scout, I quickly learned the art of debate. In pre-draft meetings, I had to advocate for top prospects in my area, selling them over players at the same position. To support my opinions, I needed to provide statistics, player comparisons and league trends in order to sway the room in my favor when challenged on a grade or report in front of the general manager, college scouting director and head coach. In addition, I had to be able to provide specific examples from film study that would support my points and projections to the group. These highlight tapes helped my peers understand why I was so passionate about a prospect's potential, and my conviction -- or lack thereof -- ultimately determined whether decision-makers would trust my opinion.

Surveying the landscape ahead of the 2022 draft, I see several polarizing prospects of note. Given some time to check in with a few NFL personnel folks about debates taking place behind closed doors, I'd like to spotlight five top prospects who are viewed as the hardest evaluations in this year's draft class.

Kayvon Thibodeaux
Oregon · Edge

It is hard to ignore the rare gifts displayed by the former five-star recruit during his time at Oregon. Thibodeaux is a disruptive force off the edge, with his exceptional first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation creating problems for offensive tackles. The 6-foot-4, 254-pounder burst onto the scene with a nine-sack freshman campaign. And he continued to tease evaluators with his natural skills as an explosive speed rusher with cat-like quickness and acceleration.

Despite possessing the raw tools to be a dominant edge rusher in the league for the next decade, Thibodeaux has faced persistent questions about his motor and love of the game. Evaluators have suggested that his film features too many "loafs" and low-effort plays for an elite player, and some wonder if his burgeoning off-field endeavors have impacted his focus on the game.

While it is not uncommon for prized prospects to show some complacency or caution in their final college seasons, the questions surrounding Thibodeaux's effort and energy have overshadowed a game that could pop in the NFL.

Derek Stingley Jr.

A spectacular freshman campaign during LSU's national title run in 2019 prompted some scouts to immediately tout Stingley as the best cornerback in college football. He displayed the footwork, balance, body control and ball skills of an All-Pro on the island, blanketing a talented collection of pass catchers in the SEC, including teammates Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson during intense practice battles.

In most instances, a player with a game that is ideally suited for the NFL would be celebrated at every turn, but Stingley's injuries and inconsistency over the past two seasons have led some scouts to wonder if he can regain his all-star form when he reaches the pros. Sure, the talent is intoxicating, but plenty of "can't-miss" prospects have underachieved and left scouts heartbroken in the past.

With a strong performance at LSU's pro day reigniting the interest in this silky-smooth cornerback, debates are undoubtedly raging in war rooms across the league about where to place the naturally gifted cover man on the draft board.

Christian Watson
North Dakota State · WR

If you have not been paying close attention to the draft stock market, you might not be familiar with the small-school standout who is shooting up the charts after putting together a string of impressive postseason performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.

Watson has garnered plenty of interest among scouts looking for big-play weapons with the potential to score from anywhere on the field. With 57 plays of 20-plus yards on 180 touches (receptions, rushes or returns), the former Bison standout electrified the FCS level. But some scouts question whether his success will translate in the NFL, despite the fact that he torched competitors at the premier college all-star game with a combination of size (6-4, 208 pounds), speed (4.36-second 40 time in Indy) and explosiveness (11-foot-4 broad jump).

Considering how Cooper Kupp has emerged from the small-school ranks to become the NFL's 2021 Offensive Player of the Year, the concerns regarding Watson's performance and production at a lower level should not prevent evaluators from appreciating his game and impact potential.

Malik Willis
Liberty · QB

Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes all rose to the ranks of the NFL elite after engendering great polarization as prospects. Could Willis be next in line? Obviously a tall order, but that line of thinking helps explain why some evaluators have fallen in love with the Liberty product's talent, tools and temperament.

The 6-1, 220-pounder is a dazzling playmaker with the kind of exceptional arm talent and athleticism that could make him a dual-threat superstar in a league that features more and more collegiate concepts with each passing year. Willis' ability to carve up opponents as a crafty runner and deep-ball passer makes him an intriguing prospect. Combine the alluring tools with Malik's strong leadership style and engaging personality, and you have the kind of prospect who could entice a team in need of a potential star at the game's most important position.

That said, the soon-to-be 23-year-old is far from a finished product, and a redshirt season might be required before he is ready to take the reins as a starter in the NFL. Willis' struggles against top competition are a concern. Conservative decision-makers might pass on a project that could take some time to develop in a league featuring a number of young, emerging superstars at the position.

Nakobe Dean
Georgia · LB

Size matters in a league that loves prototypes at every position. While production certainly carries weight, it is hard for some coaches and scouts to select players who fall below the line when it comes to height, weight and length at certain positions.

As a dominant playmaker with outstanding instincts, awareness and communication skills, Dean was the unquestioned leader of a championship defense that featured an absurd number of blue-chip players. He is a tackling machine with a track record of gobbling up runners at every turn. But he is also an undersized defender (5-11, 229 pounds) without a verified 40 time to confirm his speed and explosiveness between the lines.

While most coaches and scouts value production at a premium, the NFL draft definitely has a beauty-pageant aspect to it. Typically, top prospects must pass the eyeball test to earn high marks in draft rooms. Dean's production and leadership skills are impressive, but it is hard for some evaluators to ignore his sub-standard measurements when contemplating his long-term potential in a league built on assembling rosters with bigger, faster and stronger players than the opposition.

Three QBs in a make-or-break year

Ask old-school scouts and coaches how long it takes to determine whether a quarterback is a franchise player, and they'll say you need three seasons or 30-plus starts to make a solid assessment.

Yes, the count can vary based on how long the quarterback has been in the league and the circumstances impacting his performance. But the QB gurus I've been around have assured me that the real keepers will showcase enough potential in this time span to prove they are capable of leading a team to the winner's circle, whether via supreme individual talent or exceptional managerial skills and clutch play-making ability. The best field generals find ways to win -- or at least make their teams extremely competitive -- despite their circumstances. And considering team executives/coaches around the league just watched a collection of superstar quarterbacks dominate the postseason, expectations have been raised even higher.

With all of that in mind, here are three young quarterbacks heading into a make-or-break season.

Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · Age 23

The third-year pro has shown promise as the Eagles' starting quarterback, having just led the team to a playoff appearance as a dual-threat playmaker. In 30 games (including 19 starts), Hurts has amassed 1,138 rushing yards with 13 touchdowns, while also tallying 4,205 passing yards and a 22:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Yet, the jury is still out on whether Hurts can be Philadelphia's long-term answer at the position due to his accuracy issues and inefficiency as a thrower. Skeptics question if he can become a pinpoint passer capable of winning playoff games on the strength of his right arm.

With the Eagles now holding a pair of first-round picks in the 2023 draft after this week's trade with the Saints, Philly holds an insurance policy in case Hurts doesn't answer the bell in 2022. To keep the Eagles from plucking a talented quarterback from the '23 class, Hurts must continue to evolve as a playmaker and passer while winning games in a competitive division. That is a tough task, but the bar has been raised for quarterbacks around the league, as teams are no longer willing to settle for average returns from the position.

Daniel Jones
New York Giants · Age 24

Fair or not, Jones is on the hot seat to perform at a high level in 2022. Although the fourth-year pro has been dealt a losing hand at the poker table -- Giants co-owner John Mara says the team has "done everything possible to screw this kid up" -- the franchise must determine whether to commit to Jones long term or seek another option.

As an athletic playmaker with dual-threat capabilities, Jones has shown inspirational flashes, but his turnover woes (49 giveaways in 38 games) are devastating. Given all of the careless fumbles and questionable decisions that have led to interceptions, Jones must prove to a new coaching staff and management team that he is worthy of being Big Blue's franchise player while learning a new offense.

Moreover, Jones must thrive while playing with a supporting cast that lacks explosiveness, star power and steady protection. With a suspect offensive line in front of him, the 24-year-old must be able to overcome challenging circumstances to earn a lucrative deal beyond 2022.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · Age 24

It's now or never for the former No. 5 overall pick after Miami went on a shopping spree to significantly upgrade his supporting cast. With Tyreek Hill joining Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki, the Dolphins have assembled a 4x100-meter relay team on the perimeter with big-play potential on catch-and-run plays and vertical throws.

In addition, Miami added a five-star offensive tackle (Terron Armstead) to ensure Tagovailoa is upright and protected in the pocket. Offensive guard Connor Williams could end up being another notable addition. The revamped offensive line will not only provide the young passer with more time to throw down the field, but the Dolphins should be able to utilize a more balanced attack. To that end, the Fins added speedy backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert.

With all of the excuses off the table, Tagovailoa must convince new coach Mike McDaniel that he is a legitimate franchise quarterback to keep the job beyond this season. If Tua falters early in the coming campaign, Teddy Bridgewater is waiting in the wings as a competent backup. With Miami already holding two first-rounders in the 2023 draft, the franchise could definitely dive back into the prospect pool if Tagovailoa doesn't prove his worth.

Why the receiver market's exploding

If I could advise the parents of kids with football dreams, I would encourage them to start playing catch with their young ballers at an early age. While the pinpoint passers have always earned big money for their skills, the blockbuster contracts recently inked by a handful of elite receivers suggest that pass catchers have risen to marquee status in a league that is built around the air game.

While passers, pass rushers (namely, defensive ends/outside linebackers) and pass protectors (offensive tackles) have been coveted at a premium forever, the changing market for pass catchers confirms that decision-makers view top-notch wideouts as extremely valuable commodities, and teams are willing to pony up in order to acquire or retain blue-chippers at the position.

Receivers fought for quite a while to break the $20 million-per-year threshold. This offseason, Davante Adams (five years, $141.25 million), Tyreek Hill (four years, $120 million) and Stefon Diggs (four years, $96 million) have signed deals that have pushed the WR market into a different stratosphere. Just look at how much the landscape has changed over the past month, per NFL Research.

Highest APY (average per year) salaries among wide receivers on March 6, 2022:

  1. DeAndre Hopkins: $27.3 million
  2. Julio Jones: $22.0 million
  3. Keenan Allen: $20.0 million
  4. Amari Cooper: $20.0 million
  5. Michael Thomas: $19.3 million

Highest APY salaries among wide receivers on April 6, 2022:

  1. Tyreek Hill: $30.0 million
  2. Davante Adams: $28.0 million
  3. DeAndre Hopkins: $27.3 million
  4. Stefon Diggs: $24.0 million
  5. D.J. Moore: $20.6 million

While the league's increased revenues have certainly played a part in these recent raises at the position, the NFL's transition into a full-fledged passing league has made it imperative for top teams to feature at least one game-changing pass catcher in order to field an explosive offense in today's game. The presence of a true WR1 is more important than ever, with offensive coordinators routinely putting the game in the quarterback's hands and asking him to make plays. Just look at how Diggs has helped Josh Allen blossom into a superstar since arriving in Buffalo via trade. Over the past two seasons, Allen has targeted Diggs a league-high 331 times, allowing the receiver to pile up 230 catches, 2,760 yards and 18 touchdowns in a Bills uniform. That robust production has helped the Bills' offense join the ranks of the elite. Allen has become a legitimate MVP candidate, while Diggs has made his first two Pro Bowls.

With Adams and Hill brought into their respective teams to ideally have a similar impact on Derek Carr and Tua Tagovailoa, the position's value is rising across the league. And that is music to the ears of Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin and Diontae Johnson as they head into a contract year.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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