NFL commissioner Roger Goodell figured this draft would be a return to normalcy in terms of major sporting events.
In a sense it was — precious few masks in sight on a balmy Nevada evening — but there was very little that was normal about the first draft in Sin City.
Five defensive players in a row to start the night?
A record six receivers in the first 20 picks?
Only one quarterback taken by a league so dominated by passing?
And NFL teams wrapping their arms around Georgia’s defense the way the commissioner bear hugs draftees on stage?
A memorable night, indeed.
Thirty-two observations from the first round of the 2022 NFL draft:
1. Aidan Hutchinson had his dreams written into the lining of his sports coat, including becoming a first-team All-American and a Heisman finalist. He’s the highest-drafted defensive player in University of Michigan history, surpassing Charles Woodson, taken fourth by the Oakland Raiders in 1998.
2. A year after quarterbacks went 1-2-3, the first five players selected were defenders. This was the first time since 2000 that defensive players went 1-2, let alone 1-2-3-4-5. It didn’t top 1991, though, when defenders were the first six players off the board. That went Russell Maryland, Eric Turner, Bruce Pickens, Mike Croel, Todd Lyght and Eric Swann.
3. Cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is a great pickup for the New York Jets. He’s tall, rangy and models his game after the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey. “He’s confident but humble, man,” Gardner said. “A lot of people think he’s cocky, but playing cornerback you can’t be like, `He’s going to win some and I’m going to win some.’ You’ve got to go out there like, `I’m going to dominate this guy,’ even if that’s not the outcome. I feel like that’s where we click.”
4. Quite a rise for Gardner. As the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah noted, he was the country’s 163rd-rated corner coming out of high school. Not only was he the first corner selected, but the highest-drafted corner in Jets history.
5. Get ready, Madison Avenue. With both Gardner and Thibodeaux coming to New York teams, that’s some serious marketing potential. Bruisers of Broadway, and both great talkers.
6. Travon Walker is the first Georgia Bulldog taken No. 1 overall since current Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford was the top pick by Detroit in 2010.
7. Goodell considers this draft the league’s first true return-to-normalcy event. “I think this is going to be the biggest coming-out party in sports,” Goodell told The Times. “I really believe people are going to come together in a way we haven’t seen in a while. You saw it at the Super Bowl, but I think this is going to be bigger as far as the total number of people over the three days.”
8. Backstage, selected players walk the pink carpet down a ramp toward the stage. Their last stop before stepping out to hug Goodell is a vanity so they can check themselves in the mirror. The hat of their new team is resting on it.
9. This is the first time the NFL has staged the draft west of Dallas, and the first in Pacific Time. Accordingly, it’s the first time the league has had to worry about sunlight in Roger Goodell’s eyes. Therefore, there was a contingency stage for Goodell that was pointed away from the sun, in case he needed to use it. Also, if the winds picked up, there was a way to stage the selection announcement indoors.
10. The draft has gotten to be such a mega-event, it now has a military flyover. That happened for the first time Thursday – a UH-72 Lakota, a UH-60 Black Hawk and a CH-47 Chinook from the Nevada Army National Guard and the U.S. Army.
11. Don’t crane your neck watching those Atlanta receivers. The Falcons took 6-foot-5 Drake London a year after using their first pick on 6-6 tight end Kyle Pitts. That’s high-altitude football.
12. Five Georgia defenders went in the first round, and that’s a record for one unit. And linebacker Nakobe Dean wasn’t one of them. He should go in the second.
13. How do they get the names on the No. 1 jerseys so quickly? Just off the stage is a room with at least five blank jerseys for every team. There’s also a nameplate for every player attending the draft – and in the individual fonts of all 32 teams. The people in that room are told the pick just before it’s announced, then have less than two minutes to press a jersey. They have two machines so they can press a pair of jerseys, in case one nameplate is skewed or something. The jersey that isn’t used is chopped up and used for fabric in special Panini rookie cards.
14. The Saints were so determined to get a receiver, they traded up from 16 to 11 to grab Ohio State’s Chris Olave, one pick after the Jets took former Buckeyes star Garrett Wilson. This wasn’t the first time two Ohio State receivers went in the first round. In 2007, Buckeye teammates Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez also went in the opening round.
15. You can exhale, Jared Goff. The Detroit Lions traded up 20 spots to get… a quarterback? No, they took Alabama receiver Jameson Williams, becoming the third consecutive team to select a wideout. Williams is coming off a knee injury or he might have gone earlier.
16. Defensive tackle Jordan Davis could have some epic battles with former Alabama teammate Evan Neal. Davis is headed for Philadelphia, whereas Neal will be with the NFC East rival New York Giants.
17. The Ravens took Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton at 14 and traded back into the round, sending a pick and receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown to Arizona for No. 23. It has been a turbulent offseason for Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, but he’s got to be happy about reuniting with Brown, a college teammate at Oklahoma.
18. Before Oklahoma, Brown attended College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita. When enrolled there, he had a job at Six Flags Magic Mountain loading people onto “Full Throttle,” a ride the amusement park called the tallest and fastest looping roller coaster in the world. “I’m not a ride person,” the soft-spoken Brown told The Times in 2019. “I don’t really see the kick out of it. They made me try it one time and I regretted it. Yeah, that’s not my thing.”
19. Huge acquisition by Philadelphia, sending the No. 18 pick to Tennessee for receiver A.J. Brown. When healthy, he is a game changer. The Eagles have used a premium pick on a receiver each of the last three years – and in a sense, this is the fourth. In taking Treylon Burks, the Titans got a similarly physical replacement for the $100-million Brown, and for a lot less money.
20. The Steelers sent a message by drafting University of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett over Liberty’s Malik Willis. Pickett is widely considered the most ready-to-play of the quarterback prospects in this class. Clearly, the idea of moving forward from Ben Roethlisberger with Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph was unappealing.
21. As noted by ESPN Stats & Info, with Pickett going 20th, it was the latest into a draft the first quarterback was taken since 1997 when San Francisco took Jim Druckenmiller with the 26th pick.
22. So for the first Thursday Night Football game broadcast exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, it’s the Chargers at the Chiefs. The Chargers have won three of their last four games at Arrowhead Stadium, including a Thursday game in 2018.
23. Why did Kansas City trade up to grab a corner? Look around the AFC West – Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson and Derek Carr.
24. There’s a special room backstage set aside for family photos. The lighting, the professional photographer, everything. The NFL used to invite entire families onstage, but that led to traffic jams in the fast-moving event.
25. No reason for Jets fans to boo this draft. Their team got three outstanding players. They haven’t had a premier edge rusher since trading John Abraham in 2006, and Thursday they traded back into the first round and grabbed a slipping Jermaine Johnson II.
26. Jacksonville made a trade with Tampa Bay for a second first-round selection. The Buccaneers really liked Georgia safety Lewis Cine, and maybe they thought he would last until the first pick of the second round. But Minnesota grabbed him at No. 32.
27. A collection of Hall of Famers and others announce the picks on the second night of the draft. One of Goodell’s favorite tricks is to hand a nervous presenter a card with an impossible-to-pronounce name and wish him luck. Then, with a laugh and a slap on the back, the commissioner will hand him the actual card.
28. Green Bay has gone 20 consecutive drafts without taking a receiver in the first round.
29. NFL Network host Rich Eisen noticed an interesting pattern. In 2000, a year after quarterbacks went 1-2-3, there was only one selected in the opening round (Chad Pennington). That happened again from last year to this year.
30. Had to be a pins-and-needles night for 49ers fans, but their team didn’t trade Deebo.
31. New England surprised a lot of people by taking Chattanooga guard Cole Strange in the first round. An interesting stat on him: Strange surrendered just one sack in the last four years.
32. Just-retired Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth was honored Thursday night as the reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year. He’ll be talking football on one of the networks next season. A natural.