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How covid made 2022 one of the deepest NFL drafts ever

Many draft prospects took advantage of rules that allowed for an extra year of college eligibility, making this year's draft particularly deep. (Steve Luciano/AP)

In a normal year, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah studies about 350 players in the run-up to the NFL draft. But this year, he surpassed 400 — “pretty easily,” he said — in large part because of the number of players who received an extra year of college eligibility during the coronavirus pandemic.

Like many analysts, Jeremiah believes the 2022 draft will be relatively flush with talent through the last pick of the seventh round (No. 262) and into the undrafted free agent market. The extra covid season gave younger players more chances to develop at school and older players who might have been mid-round prospects in 2021 a chance to boost their stock for 2022.

“I’m glad that [the NCAA] gave those kids an opportunity [to play another year] because …it would have been hard to make teams last year,” he said.

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“We have a couple older guys in this draft than we’ve had recently, but I haven’t talked to too many teams that have thought that was that much of an issue,” he said.

The buzz about the depth in the 2022 draft, which begins Thursday at 8 p.m., started a full year earlier. In last year’s draft, for example, the Baltimore Ravens made their last selection in the fifth round and traded away picks to stockpile for this year, which Eric DeCosta, the team’s general manager, told reporters would have a “deeper talent pool.”

In the past few months, the full scope of that depth has started to come into focus. Chicago Bears Coach Matt Eberflus told the Cris Collinsworth podcast that he expected the team to find three starters with their three picks inside 71. Martin Mayhew, the Washington Commanders’ general manager, said he expected to find starters as far back as the fifth. The depth was so obvious that even Matt Groh, the new director of player personnel for the famously tight-lipped New England Patriots, admitted to reporters, “There is good depth.”

Jacksonville and Kansas City are tied for the most picks headed into the draft (12) while Miami (four) and Las Vegas (five) have the fewest. Washington is tied with three teams for the third fewest (six), though Mayhew said the team would entertain trade offers to move up or down. Baltimore has 10 — most in the middle rounds, which are traditionally devalued by the NFL’s draft-pick value charts and are even more valuable this year.

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“Look at all the picks Baltimore has in the third and fourth rounds [seven total],” one general manager told Peter King of NBC Sports. “Those picks are absolute gold. They are going to have a great draft. Five years from now, that will be the story to look back on.”

Overall, analysts believe the lack of top-end talent is severe. Jeremiah suggested there were as many as 10 prospects from last year’s draft who would be considered for the No. 1 pick ahead of anyone this year. But analysts also see the deepest positions in this draft as edge rusher, offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback and maybe safety.

The players who benefited most from bonus senior seasons are at those positions and expected to be selected in the mid to late rounds, such as Cincinnati cornerback Coby Bryant, Ohio State offensive lineman Thayer Munford and Mississippi wide receiver Dontario Drummond.

The depth at premium positions underscores the importance of mid-round picks this year and highlights how analytically savvy teams have managed to gain an edge on the league.

Traditionally, after most teams began using trade charts in the mid-1990s, GMs tried to make zero-sum trades in the mid to late rounds. Each team has different timelines and needs, and neither side wanted to be seen as having been fleeced. For some reason, Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus said, teams began devaluing future picks by one round; basically, a third-round pick in 2021 and a second-round pick in 2022 were seen as equal.

Last year, on Day 3 of the draft, Baltimore capitalized on this understanding by trading a fourth- and a sixth-round pick to Arizona for a fifth in 2021 and a fourth in 2022.

“[Smart teams know] that there is no time value of picks,” Spielberger said. “[Smart] teams have done a good job of taking the future draft capital and recognizing the inefficiency there.”

There’s a chance the draft will be somewhat deeper for the foreseeable future. Mayhew suggested the new policies allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) will enable younger players to stay in school. In previous years, some underdeveloped prospects may have declared for the draft because of financial pressure, but now the choice is no longer binary.

For teams such as Washington, which has several holes to fill in the draft, and Baltimore, which is preparing to make a Super Bowl push, the uniqueness of this year’s draft represents a massive opportunity.

“There’s just a lot of really good, talented players in that middle that haven’t been there in the past,” Mayhew said.