What We Learned From the 2022 N.F.L. Draft

Most analysts agreed that the 2022 N.F.L. draft featured the weakest crop of quarterbacks in at least a decade. But few expected quarterback-needy teams to be almost historically unimpressed:

  • The Atlanta Falcons entered the draft having already signed Marcus Mariota as their starting quarterback. Mariota is so fragile he lands on injured reserve if he bumps into a porcelain vase. Yet the Falcons did not select a potential replacement for him until Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder in the third round.

  • Sam Darnold was rejected by the Jets after the 2020 season and has been losing ground ever since, yet his current team, the Carolina Panthers, waited until the third round before selecting Matt Corral of Mississippi as a possible successor.

  • The Seattle Seahawks’ starting quarterback is Drew Lock, whom the Denver Broncos tossed into the Russell Wilson trade like an extra packet of honey mustard with an order of chicken nuggets. With Geno Smith as the backup, the Seahawks did not select another challenger at the position. Nor did the Detroit Lions for Jared Goff, the quarterback equivalent of a seat filler at an awards show.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, chosen 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers to supplant the free-agent journeyman Mitchell Trubisky, was the only quarterback drafted in the first two rounds. The last time the draft had such a quarterback drought was in 2000, when the Jets selected Chad Pennington with the 18th overall pick and the next quarterback (Hofstra’s Giovanni Carmazzi) was chosen 65th.

Liberty’s Malik Willis, who has first-round talent but tumbled into the third round because of his small-program unreadiness, will serve an apprenticeship under Ryan Tannehill for the Tennessee Titans, because few teams at the top of the draft order could afford to invest in a quarterback who might not be ready to play until after their coaches have been fired.

Several teams can be counted upon in most years to panic and reach for unimpressive quarterback prospects, so it’s unclear why the league was so sour on this particular group. Perhaps general managers have learned their lesson from drafting players like Goff first overall, Mariota and Trubisky second and Darnold third: Reach for a quarterback too high, and you will be reaching again in a few years.

Or perhaps teams found themselves distracted by a new problem.

The N.F.L. operates according to its own chaos theory: Just as a butterfly’s wings can change the course of a tornado, an impetuous decision by the Jacksonville Jaguars in March engulfed this weekend’s draft in a tsunami.

When the Jaguars signed a midlevel receiver, Christian Kirk, to a reported $72 million, four-year contract at the start of free agency, it looked like a simple case of a poorly run franchise mismanaging its payroll. Instead, it set off a chain reaction. The All-Pro receiver Davante Adams wanted his own top-dollar contract extension, prompting the cap-strapped Green Bay Packers to trade him to the Las Vegas Raiders, who signed Adams to a reported $140 million, five-year contract. Tyreek Hill immediately wanted an Adams-like deal, forcing Kansas City to trade him to the Miami Dolphins. Soon, every big-name receiver in the league seemed to be demanding either a bigger contract or a trade.

On Thursday night, the Titans traded A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Baltimore Ravens sent Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals, each in exchange for a first-round pick. The Detroit Lions and the New Orleans Saints, meanwhile, traded away extra picks to move up in the first round and select Alabama’s Jameson Williams and Ohio State’s Chris Olave, creating a run on receivers who will be signed to rent-controlled rookie contracts.

The sudden rise in receiver salaries is currently a first-world problem; until the market balances itself, playoff teams like Green Bay and Kansas City may not be able to placate their superstar quarterbacks and their favorite playmakers. In that respect, a little shake-up may be a welcome change, because the league’s privileged class has gotten a little haughty lately.

Most N.F.L. teams in the early 2020s can be lumped into two categories: the Forever Rebuilders and the Live Fast/Die Broke Contenders.

The Rebuilders collect all the early-round draft picks they can muster, then spend them judiciously, often in search of golden quarterback tickets. The jet-setting Contenders, meanwhile, strive to trade their top picks for established veterans so they can nap through the early rounds. Fast forward a few years, and the Rebuilders usually find themselves in the same rut, while the Contenders perform a little salary cap sorcery and go right on enjoying their lavish lifestyle.

The league’s achievement gap reached absurd proportions this year: A record eight teams entered the draft with multiple first-round picks, while 10 teams ended up skipping the first altogether. The Jaguars picked first overall and twice in the first round, for the second consecutive year. (They chose the Georgia edge rusher Travon Walker and Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd.) The Jets and Giants each selected two of the top-10 picks (each performed uncharacteristically well, for whatever good it might do).

At the other extreme, the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams’ brain trust held a Thursday night news conference where they roasted other teams for their selections like dissolute aristocrats placing wagers on the peasants fighting over bread.

Not every team with two first-round picks was a perennial doormat: Kansas City and the Packers each chose twice in the wake of the Hill and Adams trades. For every contender hunting for bargains at the thrift shop, however, there was a team like the Lions, stuck with two top picks in a quarterback-less draft.

The only proven way to escape the rebuilder caste is to acquire a franchise quarterback. A handful succeed, like the A.F.C. champion Cincinnati Bengals did with Joe Burrow. A team that risks too much on such a prospect, however, can end up like the lowly Chicago Bears, who traded this year’s first-round pick to obtain Justin Fields last year and now lack the resources to build an adequate offense around him. Bad franchises get first dibs on top prospects, who fail because they become trapped on bad franchises, and the depressing metaphor for late-stage capitalism continues.

In a similar vein, it takes multiple years of decadent spending and arrogant drafting for a contender to fall back to the ranks of the rebuilders. We will revisit the New England Patriots on this matter next year.

A team must be both well run and a little lucky to escape an endless rebuilding cycle, which brings us back to that 2000 quarterback class. Pennington led the Jets through one of their rare periods of competence, and most of the others were as unsuccessful as anticipated. The real treasure in that nearly empty barrel draft was a scrawny lad selected in the sixth round by the Patriots.

There’s almost certainly no Tom Brady lurking at the bottom of the 2022 class, but in the days after the N.F.L. draft, everyone is allowed to dream.

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