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On a wild night in Vegas, chaos reigns at the NFL draft

Aidan Hutchinson, the former Michigan defensive end, was seen as the safe No. 1 overall pick Thursday at the NFL draft. But few played things safe, and he shared the stage with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after Detroit took him at No. 2 once Jacksonville banked on the potential of Georgia's Travon Walker at No. 1. (David Becker/Getty Images)

The 2022 NFL draft revived a feature that had long grown foreign to the event. As the draft grew into a year-round obsession and a colossus on the sports calendar, the night itself frequently trafficked in anticlimax. Saturation squeezed out surprise. On Thursday night in Las Vegas, mystery and mayhem returned.

The element of surprise, defensive players and large men dominated the initial phase of the first round, at which point they yielded to a flurry of trades — including two thunderbolts involving top wide receivers — and the wait for when quarterbacks would finally be taken. It was an atypical night, with no shortage of intrigue.

The Jacksonville Jaguars took Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker first overall, the first of five consecutive defensive players to begin the draft, the most since 1991. A pair of offensive tackles came off the board before the Atlanta Falcons made USC wide receiver Drake London the first skill player taken at No. 8 and the first of six wideouts taken among the first 18 picks, a reflection of the evolving value of the position. By the end of the night, A.J. Brown was a Philadelphia Eagle and Marquise Brown was an Arizona Cardinal.

About two hours into the proceedings, it felt natural to wonder what happened to the time-honored draft practice of pinning hope on a quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers filled the void with the 20th pick, taking hometown standout Kenny Pickett out of Pittsburgh, choosing a polished passer over the athleticism and potential of Liberty’s Malik Willis, who like every other quarterback went unpicked in the first round. To replace Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers tabbed a player who played his college games at their stadium.

“It’s funny,” Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters. “We circled the globe — or the United States — and we ended up with the guy next door.”

The Washington Commanders, Minnesota Vikings and Houston Texans could all be seen as winners on principle. They traded out of their spots at picks 11 through 13, all of them gathering extra picks in a draft regarded as long on depth but short on high-end talent.

Walker’s selection at the top set a fitting tone. When the college football season ended in January, nobody would have guessed the first pick would have been Walker, a defensive lineman of supreme potential who blended in more than he stood out on Georgia’s national championship defense and then blew away the Jaguars with his athleticism and size during the spring. But then few people would have guessed Derek Stingley Jr., who played 10 of LSU’s 23 games in his sophomore and junior seasons, would be the third player taken. That’s what the Houston Texans made happen.

Why such unpredictability? For one, the quarterback class was regarded as the worst in years, and quarterbacks typically provide order at the top. And turnover in the NFL’s executive ranks meant few key operators had track records to study. General managers who held 12 of the first 13 picks entering the night had been running their teams for two drafts or fewer.

The perceived weakness of the quarterback class governed the first round. Walker became the first non-quarterback taken first overall since 2017 — and not just because the Jaguars had a franchise quarterback in place, having taken Trevor Lawrence first overall last year. Most years, Jacksonville could have auctioned off the first choice to quarterback-needy teams and recouped a bundle of picks. Without a highly coveted passer, the Jaguars had to stay put and decide which player was best in the class.

They took Walker, a gamble fit for the host city. Walker recorded 9½ sacks his entire career while lining up across the defensive line. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, who had 14 sacks last season, had for weeks been considered the likely choice before Jacksonville General Manager Trent Baalke grew enamored of Walker’s immense potential.

In selecting Walker, the Jaguars chose their conviction over conventional wisdom, which is a reason to applaud the pick. In another sense, Jacksonville opened itself to justifiable criticism. The Jaguars grew enamored of Walker because of his freakish athletic testing numbers — at 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds, he ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and produced other stunning figures.

But Hutchinson’s numbers were close — he ran the three-cone shuttle faster and leaped higher than Walker at the combine. The Jaguars could have taken that athletic cocktail and gotten the superior proven production of Hutchinson. The point of holding the No. 1 overall pick is not having to compromise ceiling for safety. Hutchinson provided heaps of both, while Walker offers more potential than security.

Maybe Walker will be the better player. Will he be so much better than Hutchinson that it is worth gambling on projection? Walker will play with that question hovering over him.

The Lions waited about a nanosecond before submitting their pick of home-state star Hutchinson, who grew up in Plymouth and became a Heisman finalist in Ann Arbor. After the Texans took Stingley, the New York Jets (Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner) and Giants (Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux) completed the defensive fivesome at the top.

Three offensive tackles came off the board in the next four picks, starting with North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu to the Carolina Panthers, at which point the board started to shake up. The New Orleans Saints, who already had added a second first-rounder in the weeks before the draft, moved from 16th to 11th and nabbed Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave.

The Lions moved up from No. 32 to 12th — not for a quarterback, even though their best option remains Jared Goff, but for Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams, who will sit out the start of the season with the torn ACL that probably prevented him from being a top-five pick. And the Philadelphia Eagles crept up to 13th and took massive Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis. In a nod to the year’s oddity and lack of clear-cut quarterback prospects, teams sacrificed draft capital to move up for non-passers.

At that point, the biggest trades of the night fell out of the sky. The Ravens shipped speedy and underachieving wide receiver Marquise Brown and a third-rounder to the Arizona Cardinals for the 23rd overall pick, which they flipped to the Buffalo Bills for No. 25 overall and a fourth-rounder to recoup the one they lost. The trade netted them Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, one of the safest choices in the draft, but it may require damage control. Franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson, who grew up with Brown and does not have a better friend in the sport, tweeted, “Wtf” after they took Linderbaum.

An even bigger shocker followed. The Tennessee Titans traded A.J. Brown, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, to the Philadelphia Eagles for the 18th pick and a third-rounder. The Titans then used that choice on Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks. Given the flood of wide receiving talent entering the league, the Titans’ trade added up in a way growing popular across the league.

Brown will be a free agent next year, while Burks — a similarly imposing wideout — may be able to replace Brown’s production at a fraction of the cost. The Chiefs and Packers made similar calculations when they made megatrades involving Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams this offseason. The Titans lost the certainty of Brown, but they gained a high-upside and cheap replacement.

The Eagles, meanwhile, added a complement to last year’s first-round wide receiver, DeVonta Smith, and immediately signed Brown to a four-year, $100 million contract extension, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. It would have been hard to predict that when Thursday night started, but then this first round showed how much fun not knowing can be.

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