Corn is a staple in Indiana, much like the NFL Scouting Combine. But picking the cream of the crop isn’t easy. A trip to Indianapolis, 12 interviews and four hours of sleep later, Sports Editor Ryan Chien and football beat reporter Kabir Rao are ready to break it all down. Watch out for these top-10 Pac-12 prospects to make waves during the 2022 NFL draft.
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon
Thibodeaux is a rook on a field of pawns. An avid chess player, the 6’4”, 254-pound prospect always looks ahead when playing football, assessing every possible option before it happens. It’s what explains his quick change of direction, intangible instincts and –– perhaps most importantly –– calm demeanor under pressure. We saw this time and time again in the Pac-12, where he tallied a total of 49 tackles, seven sacks and 46 quarterback pressures in just 11 games last season. At the Combine, he solidified his standing with results. Opting into the 40-yard dash and bench press, he ran a respectable 4.58 and registered 27 reps –– the most of any defensive end or edge who participated in the workout. Clearly, Thibodeaux has a trifecta of blistering speed, explosive power and an even more powerful mind. And for those who doubt his “motor”? Here’s what he had to say:
“Playing for free, it’s a different love for the game, it’s a different competitiveness, it’s a different spirit,” Thibodeaux said when asked what he’ll miss most about college. “It’s a different sense of camaraderie when everybody’s just in it for the common goal of winning.”
Projection: Early first-round pick
2. Drake London, WR, USC
Over the years, USC has produced some outstanding talent at the wide receiver position — and London is no exception. Before an ankle injury cut his season short in October 2021, London was in the Heisman Trophy conversation and for good reason. Standing tall at 6’5’’, London possesses a long frame that allows him to bully defensive backs at the point of catch. London is a multisport athlete, and his days playing basketball give him excellent ball skills. In the mold of Mike Evans and former Trojan Michael Pittman Jr., London excels at high-pointing 50-50 balls. He lined up on the outside and in the slot at USC, and though he lacks explosive speed, London’s size and toughness make him extremely hard to defend. While his injury prevented him from completing drills in Indianapolis, he is said to be recovering well and should still be selected in the first round.
Projection: Mid first-round pick
3. Trent McDuffie, DB, University of Washington
McDuffie has had professional football potential ever since high school. A St. John Bosco alumnus, he was a four-star recruit before committing to the Huskies and was the 19th-best prospect in California in his 2019 class. Over the course of his three years at Washington, he did not disappoint –– and neither did he in this year’s Combine. Showing off his footwork and sprinting a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash, the All Pac-12 first team selection further proved that he can go toe-to-toe with any assignment. Adept at collapsing windows, mirroring routes and controlling his body to pressure receivers, McDuffie is one of the top cornerbacks in his class. Having played 28 games at the 70,000 capacity Husky Stadium, he also knows what it’s like to have the spotlight shining down on him –– a source of energy that tends to elevate his play, more often than not.
“Husky Stadium is energetic. It’s one of the loudest stadiums I’ve ever played at,” McDuffie said. “Our Cal game freshman year, we started the game at like 10:30 at night, and there were fans in there screaming. I’m like, ‘OK, this city’s dedicated, and I love Husky Stadium.’ ”
Projection: Mid first-round pick
4. Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah
Instinctual, physical and calculated –– that’s how the Pac-12’s top linebacker prospect described himself when asked in his Combine press conference. With the length and strength to show for it, Lloyd carries a 6’8” wingspan and ranked second among linebackers in bench press at 25 total reps at this year’s Combine. The 2021 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year is a confident and vocal leader who can disrupt passing lanes at an elite level. Such situational awareness can be traced back before his arrival to Utah, in which Lloyd also played safety, receiver and punter at Otay Ranch High School. A jack of all trades, he caught the attention of scouts by adding 52 tackles, 43 punts for 1,596 yards and 29 receptions to his resume. Once he honed in on the linebacker position at Utah, Lloyd’s defensive potential was realized. As a Ute, he finished with 43 tackles for loss, the fourth-most in program history, and started 68% of games played. As a three-star-recruit turned into a formidable NFL prospect, Lloyd is just getting started.
“That competitive nature of going up and getting the ball sparked my interest in playing receiver; I was primarily a receiver,” Lloyd said.
Projection: Late first-round to early second-round pick
5. Kyler Gordon, DB, Washington
Measuring in at 5’11.5’’ and 194 pounds, Gordon is a near replica of his Huskies teammate McDuffie; and both Huskies are primed to make an impact at the next level. Gordon plays up to his size, often lining up with receivers in press coverage, and his penchant for big hits makes him a threat in blitz packages and against the run game. Gordon’s athletic ability pops off the tape, having allowed him to contribute in off-man and zone coverage schemes at Washington. However, at times, Gordon struggles with route recognition and relies on his athleticism to make up for it. He’ll need to improve that aspect of his game if he hopes to terrorize NFL receivers in the same way that he did Pac-12 playmakers. While Gordon did not participate in several events at the Combine, his 4.52 40-yard dash time and upside might propel him into Day 1 starter status.
Projection: Early second-round pick
6. Drake Jackson, EDGE, USC
Drake Jackson is a boom or bust player who didn’t have a great final season with USC — but there’s a reason he was invited to the Combine. When put in the right situation, Jackson has all of the necessary tools to be a more than effective defensive end in the NFL. With a quick first step, strong lateral agility and decent tackling ability, the 6’4” former Trojan boasts a kind of natural-born versatility that’s hard to teach. Pair that with his dangerous rip move and ease in getting in gaps and you’ve got a sure-fire NFL player. In a draft where edge rushers are particularly hot commodities, Jackson has taken inspiration from the likes of Von Miller, Maxx Crosby and Aaron Donald to incorporate style into his own game. Recounting his favorite memory with USC, Jackson seems confident that he can replicate a breakout season in the NFL as he did his freshman year with the Trojans.
“Definitely me getting the sack against Utah –– the safety. And then right after the game, they put me on the ladder with the sword in front of the fans my freshman year,” Jackson said. “As a freshman, that’s one of the biggest things you can ever see. You never know if you are going to do that in your four years there, and as a freshman, being able to do that was one of the most crazy experiences of my life.”
Project: Early-to-mid second-round pick
7. Cade Otton, TE, Washington
A four-year starter for the Huskies, Otton enters the 2022 NFL draft with plenty of experience. Otton was productive in his time at Washington, tallying more than 1,000 career yards and eight touchdowns. While the 6’5”, 247 pound Otton possesses the quick feet and agility necessary to get open, more impressive is his commitment to blocking in the run game. Otton still has room to fill out his frame as he was often outmuscled at the point of attack, but that is a problem that many face when entering the NFL. Unlike the 2021 NFL draft, which boasted Pro Bowler Kyle Pitts, this year’s class of prospects does not appear to boast any generational talents at the tight end position. That should help bump Otton up on some tight-end-desperate teams’ big boards, and he could sneak into Day 2 of the draft.
Projection: Late-second-round to early-third-round pick
8. Sean Rhyan, OL, UCLA
Out of all of the players on this list, Rhyan arguably benefitted from the Combine the most. Participating in all but two workouts in Indianapolis, Rhyan recorded the highest vertical jump of any offensive lineman at 33.50”. A three-year starter at UCLA, the Southern California local is also nimble in tight spaces and a powerful brick wall who can absorb bullrushes accordingly. His former track and field background in shot put is evident when put up against powerful defensive lines, in which he’s proven to keep even the most violent of pass rushers at bay. Though he has been known to be antsy at the line of scrimmage, resulting in false start penalties, Rhyan’s “all-out” mentality will likely serve him well beyond his time with the Bruins.
Projection: Mid third-round pick
9. Verone McKinley III, DB, Oregon
McKinley has a knack for finding the football. Although he will likely be undersized compared to most of the NFL receivers he will be tasked with defending, McKinley has a feel for the game that you simply cannot teach. The safety racked up 11 interceptions in his time with the Ducks, and six of those came last season when he was tied for the Football Bowl Subdivision lead in the category. McKinley may not be as physically intimidating as others at his position, but he weighed in at 198 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine: a huge step up from the 166 pounds that he began with as a freshman at Oregon. McKinley will likely start his NFL career as a backup, but he has the versatility and drive to develop into a savvy starting nickel cornerback or free safety.
“I want to improve on everything,” McKinley said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It’s like Madden — you don’t just want to have an 86 rating here or an 83 rating there. I want to be at 99 across the board.”
Projection: Mid-to-late third-round pick
10. Kyle Philips, WR, UCLA
In an electric Bruins’ offense, Philips often fell in the shadow of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But make no mistake about it: Philips is the real deal. Nothing jumps off of the screen when you look at Philips physically, and his lack of outstanding measurables at the NFL Scouting Combine appears to confirm that his size is his biggest knock. However, UCLA’s No. 4 all-time receptions leader more than makes up for it with his speed and route running. Playing both outside and in the slot for the Bruins, Philips is shifty and knows how to get open — skills that almost always translate nicely to the professional level. Scouts may be sleeping on him now, but in an NFL spread offense system, Philips can and should break out as a solid starting slot receiver.
Projection: Early fourth-round pick