2022 NFL Draft Preview: Quarterback sleepers and Broncos fits
The Denver Broncos have finally addressed their quarterback position and will not be looking to add a starter in the 2022 NFL Draft. General manager George Paton made the blockbuster trade for superstar quarterback Russell Wilson, and this move shifts the priorities of the Broncos in the draft.
Wilson is a superstar, and I think the Broncos could get the best out of him this year under new head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Expect the Broncos to “let Russ cook”, but also expect them to seek a potential backup plan with upside in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft.
This is not a strong group of quarterbacks, but there is some talent worth looking at – even for teams unlike the Broncos who are in the starter’s market. It’s not as strong or as top heavy as last year’s class, but there is one sleeper that I believe the Broncos should pursue. Not only does this sleeper have upside to start one day and be a good fit for Hackett’s offense, I believe the Broncos can play “keep away” from other teams by adding a late-round selection who is flying under the national radar – but not under the radar in the scouting community.
In this article, I will look at the market for the position. I will also write about sleepers at the quarterback position and some players who could fit what the Broncos need in the 2022 NFL Draft.
I have graded Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh) as the top quarterback in this draft class. He’s the most “pro ready” of the group, but that’s a term that’s always made my skin crawl. The truth is, no quarterback is ready for what the NFL is going to throw at him. However, Pickett seems to have the tools to be the most prepared and he certainly has the experience.
With four years of starting experience, Pickett has impressed NFL teams with his steady hand and leadership ability. While he doesn’t have a rocket arm, Pickett’s arm is strong enough to make all the throws. While he’s not a scrambler, Pickett does have good short area burst and can be a threat to run when the play breaks down. His experience as a starter means that off-script plays are no big deal for him. He doesn’t panic but instead will try to take what a defense is giving him – even under pressure. I like how Pickett keeps his feet and eyes in sync when under duress.
I believe Matt Corral (Ole Miss) is the second-best quarterback in this draft. When I started the process of grading this class in the fall, Corral was my No. 1 quarterback. Now, I put him behind Pickett, mainly because of Pickett’s experience and sensational redshirt senior season (and Corral’s propensity to get banged up). I toiled with the decision and honestly may end up regretting not standing on the table for Corral as the top guy. This class does not have “that dude” at quarterback, so I’ll reserve that sort of stance for a player with more upside.
I like Corral’s toughness and resilience. During his college career at Mississippi, Corral was injured and lost his starting job. Many quarterbacks would transfer after something like that happens, but Corral stayed and fought to get his job back – which he did. Corral is a master of the RPO game and has the tools of a modern-day quarterback. He’s not the biggest guy, and I think Corral could be what everyone thought Baker Mayfield would be. Corral has a strong enough arm and he’s athletic to threaten a defense with his legs. He does tend to play “hero ball” too much, and that gets him in trouble when it comes to taking big hits – a reason why injuries are a concern with Corral.
Malik Willis has the highest upside of any passer in this class, but he also has arguably the most work to do for his game to translate to the pro level. When I was at the Reese’s Senior Bowl earlier this year, Willis made the week of practice a fireworks show nearly every day. While five of the top six quarterbacks were competing that week, Willis was the guy who owned the show. Willis did that with his physical traits, which seemed off the charts when compared directly to other guys in attendance like Pickett.
We could see Willis go off the board with a top-five pick. If he makes it to No. 6 overall, then expect the Carolina Panthers to strongly consider drafting him. Any team that drafts Willis, is doing so based on what he could be – not what he is today. The Steelers love Willis, but they’re at no.20 overall and have little shot of seeing him on the board when they’re on the clock unless they move up. Willis is a tremendous athlete and incredibly dangerous as a runner. His arm might as well be called “Big Bertha” because it’s a cannon. He’s got little control as a passer, lacking touch on deeper throws, and Willis tries to throw every pass through a brick wall regardless of the distance the receiver is from him.
Because of the quality at other positions (I have six edge players rated in the top 20), I think only three quarterbacks will be selected in the first round of the draft. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if any of the following made it into the top round – or if they were to go off the board early in the second round.
Carson Strong (Nevada) is a big-bodied pocket passer with more mobility than some give him credit for. Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati) has all the tools that you want in a pro quarterback. Sam Howell (North Carolina) was once thought of as a potential top-10 pick in the draft before a down senior season.
There are a couple of sleeper quarterbacks to highlight – one I really like for the Broncos – and one I like because of his experience. This is not a great class of quarterbacks, so the sleepers are guys who would likely be graded much lower in a better class of player. However, I do think both of these prospects are worth considering on Day 3 of the draft.
The experienced sleeper is Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe. I watched him earlier this year during the week of practice for the Senior Bowl and came away impressed. He wasn’t the star of the week like Willis was, but Zappe did prove that any team interested in a developmental quarterback should add him to the roster.
Zappe is a confident passer who can attack man or zone coverage – mainly with manufactured openings by the Hilltopper offense. He knows how to drop passes into windows, but too often his decisions were predetermined by the play design. At the pro level, Zappe will have to show the ability to read the defense and react to coverage changes after the snap. I love his quick release which keeps him ahead of the play, and he doesn’t stare down his intended target. I think at the end of the day Zappe is a career backup, but he’s a smart player pro teams should be able to trust in that role.
The sleeper I think the Broncos should be interested in is Skylar Thompson from Kansas State. Some of my most trusted scouting sources are really high on Thompson. I watched him during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Bowl and liked what I saw. He certainly backed up what he did on film for the Wildcats, but Thompson is the type of player who could be a better pro than he was a collegian.
While Zappe projects as a career backup – at best – I think Thompson could be a starter someday in the right offense. Could that offense be the one Hackett is implementing? Let’s take a look.
Thompson is the player the Broncos should target on day three of the NFL Draft. The Broncos offense is going to be built around Wilson, and I think Thompson’s game does match up to the veteran quarterback to a certain degree.
Thompson is a true dual-threat quarterback. Only Willis could be in that category as well this year because most passers (Pickett, Corral, etc) are good-to-very-good as runners. Willis is great. Thompson is great. Any team that embraces his rushing ability, like Hackett’s offense should embrace Wilson’s rushing ability, could get a fine quarterback in Thompson.
I like his ability to run the ball, but there are times when Thompson is too quick to abandon the designed play because he likes to take off to run. It’s a great weapon for him in his toolbox, but there are times when better pocket patience is needed. This is why Thompson will be a day-three pick.
Don’t look at his modest numbers and overlook his game – and how Thompson fits what the NFL wants to do at quarterback. Thompson is not going to fit every system, and he’s not going to challenge for a starting job for a few years at least. With Wilson here for five to seven years (at least), the Broncos could develop then trade a guy like Thompson to a quarterback needy team.