NFL teams are back in training camps. But they aren’t the only teams getting ready for an upcoming season. The 2021 college football season kicks off even earlier, with the first games starting August 28. That will begin the movement up and down boards for all draft-eligible prospects, which will continue up until April 28.
So before the season begins, I’m going position-by-position through the 2022 class, and previewing some names to know and be watching for throughout the college football season from a draft perspective. This is not an exhaustive rundown of every draft-eligible player, but a look at some of the more prominent and interesting names to watch this upcoming season, and where they are currently projecting for the upcoming draft. This preview continues on offense, with the offensive line. Due to a large amount of players who can be projected as tackles or guards in the NFL, the entire line is being done in one entry.
Steelers’ Need: Immediate
Even after using two mid-round picks on linemen in 2021, the offensive line is one of the Steelers’ biggest weaknesses as the upcoming season begins, and could become even more of a need by the start of the 2022 offseason.
Every one of the team’s projected O-Line starters this season is doing so for the first full year at their position. Kendrick Green and Trai Turner are completely new to the team on the interior, and Kevin Dotson started only four games there as an injury fill-in in 2020. At tackle, Chukwuma Okorafor started a full year in 2020, but on the right side. He is switching to left. Zach Banner was the starter at right last season, but suffered a season-ending injury Week 1. He gets another chance to start.
That’s a lot of variables and unproven starters, and unless all five pan out, Pittsburgh is going to be seeking at least one blue-chip prospect in 2022 to step in and anchor the next era of the team’s line. Even if all do develop into a high-end group, Okorafor and Turner are free agents next offseason, and improved seasons would earn each a big payday.
The Steelers were strongly linked to a tackle and a center in the first round in 2021. The latter might be a stretch as the team gives Green a chance to earn that job long-term, but tackle is one of the likeliest picks for the team in the first round of next year’s draft, and guard is very much in play for an early selection, as well. Given Green’s experience as a guard in college, even a high-end center that falls to the Steelers in the draft is on the board.
Evan Neal, Alabama: An incredible athlete for an offensive lineman and a player who is simply massive, Neal is this year’s prototypical, blue-chip, can’t-miss lineman who would need a very poor season to crater his draft stock. He has the strength and blocking ability throughout his game to handle any assignments, and has experience as a star on the Alabama line at both guard and tackle.
Kenyon Green, Texas A&M: As it stands, the biggest challenger to Neal to be the first lineman drafted next spring. Another top preseason prospect who projects as either a guard or a tackle depending on team need and fit, Green has played guard the last two seasons, showing an anchor and ability to push the pile and drive players out to clear a lane. Making the switch to tackle, he has to show whether he is quick enough and can handle faster rushers well enough to stick there.
Charles Cross, Mississippi State: Cross is a powerful man at left tackle, who can absorb an oncoming power rush and keep his man contained and tied up along the edge against top competition. His strength and anchor are ready to handle bull rushes, but he leaves room for improvement for dealing with twists and speed rushers. Overall, a high-end tackle prospect who has the traits to be a tone-setter on the edge in a power game.
Rasheed Walker, Penn State: Of all the linemen sitting as likely first-rounders, Walker’s position is the most tenuous, but he stands as one of the best tackles in the nation entering this season. Quick off the line and aggressive in driving his man off-base quickly, Walker has the mentality teams will love. Just needs to work on retaining some of his blocks, specifically along the edge, and he will lock in his status as a high draft pick.
Zion Nelson, Miami (FL): An active hand-fighter who can get upward leverage on his man and stall them along the edge, Nelson is another tackle with the aggressive mindset teams love. He has experience at both tackle spots and earned the left tackle job as a true freshman. He just has to avoid getting too far forward off the line and getting pulled off-balance, and another good season with growth can vault his name to the first round (some have it there already).
Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State: Ekwonu has excelled while playing both guard and tackle both of his seasons with the Wolfpack as an All-ACC player, though his skillset better translates to his being a guard in the NFL. His nasty demeanor (he has some vicious blocks on his highlight reel) will play anywhere, and his strength and ability to clear a man left/right in a tight space should make him one of the top guards in the class.
Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa: The top center in college entering this season, Linderbaum is a potential first-rounder that does his job correctly snap after snap. He is quick off the snap to fire into his man, surrenders no ground or pressure to the middle on rushing plays, and is quick to head downfield and deliver a second-level block when he is free. Not the sexy pick for a team to make in the early rounds, but the safe selection that will return a lot of value in the long-term as a stable presence on the line.
Other Names To Know
Jaxson Kirkland, Washington: Making his debut at tackle after playing guard formerly at Washington, Kirkland simply out-matched and bullied PAC 12 defenders in 2020. He could lock up and retain rushers without a problem and drive players wherever he wanted, while staying aware and finding the next oncoming player to pick up. A player who is on the radar for the first round, with a high ceiling.
Darian Kinnard, Kentucky: Kinnard at 345 pounds is one of the biggest linemen in the class, and he uses every bit of that weight to be a massive hitter in delivering blocks. Linemen noticeably get overpowered when he makes contact, and when he can catch a man square, they are not a factor in either the run or pass. Drawbacks to his size and strength are seen in his footwork and quickness, but improvements there to stay in front of guys will make him an incredibly interesting prospect for teams to consider early.
Thayer Munford, Ohio State: A quicker mover at left tackle for the Buckeyes, Munford is a standout at sealing off his man for any plays to his edge of the line. Overall, he is a sound tackle with few glaring weaknesses, and has been a Big Ten all-star the entirety of his career. Showing a better ability to quickly tie up faster rushers on the edge and avoid giving them a step will solidify his stock as a likely NFL starter.
Wanya Morris, Oklahoma: Showed at Tennessee he had the strength to tie his man up and hold him, but didn’t consistently show he could drive defenders or handle faster players without going back towards his QB. Now transferred to Oklahoma, has room to improve his stock protecting Spencer Rattler in a much more talented offense than the Volunteers’.
Cade Mays, Tennessee: A senior and one of the top returning linemen in the SEC, selected to the preseason first team. Can drive his man away with underneath leverage off the line, and continually fights to get it until successful. Good athleticism and foot speed for a guard, can handle a variety of assignments. Just needs to improve using those traits to stay in front of his man until contact can be initiated.
Nick Broeker, Ole Miss: Has spent his first two seasons as the team’s left tackle. Very quick player off the line, beats his assignment. A better blocker in the run than the pass, but high overall upside. Able to retain his blocks for ground plays to develop, has to work on anchoring in the pass game and avoiding getting walked back to his QB, as well as staying in front of faster rushers. When he ties his man up though, he keeps them contained.
Zion Johnson, Boston College: A graduate senior with tackle/guard versatility, and an All-ACC player every year since transferring from Davidson. Limited speed and athleticism will shift him to guard full-time in the NFL. A stout anchor and enough foot speed and strength to stay in front of and stand up interior rushers.
Daniel Faalele, Minnesota: Some players, including those above, stand out as large even amongst linemen. Faalele is a tier above all of them. The Minnesota mountain is listed as 6’9″, 380 by the Gophers, and has major NFL upside based just on that. A very strong player who can out-muscle any rushers he gets into contact with and does not lose a power battle. Room to improve in expected areas given size: Handling faster players, staying low and in stance, as well as take overall game to another level. Did not play last year due to COVID-19.
Jarett Patterson, Notre Dame: Another future draft pick from Notre Dame’s line that saw three players drafted in 2021. An all-star and multiple-year starter for the Irish, loves to get to and steer his man off the snap and combine to drive a lane on double teams. Holds his own in one-on-ones, main area for improvement is at second level and finding assignments when not picking up a man off the snap. A dependable center with room to grow and earn a chance to start in the NFL.
Who I’m Watching
Neal is a freak athlete and seems like one of the safest picks for the upcoming 2022 draft. Among others who profile as likely first-rounders right now, Cross could challenge for the OT1 in the group if he can get better against speed guys, and anyone who likes aggressive linemen is going to enjoy Walker’s tape.
A lot of players who are viewed as potential first-rounders have the ceilings to get to that point this year. Kirkland especially, who I think has one of the highest potentials of any lineman this class, but any team would love to work with the strength Kinnard brings. But if there is a player I’m picking to jump from “possible” to “definite” first-rounder this season, it’s Nelson. On the interior, Ekwonu has some issues to fix but brings the vicious edge top-end guards need. Linderbaum won’t be the highlight-reel pick fans clamor for, but he is the dependable type of center 32 teams in the NFL need, and people don’t appreciate nearly enough.
Everyone is in play for the Steelers as they send a lot of unproven players out together as the 2021 offensive line. The only dealbreaker will be players that are guaranteed to get drafted higher than the team is selecting, which if the draft were held tomorrow is definitely Neal, as well as potentially Green and whoever the biggest riser is from this year’s class.
Cross and Walker would easily fit what the Steelers and Adrian Klemm want in their new line, and either would be an immediate upgrade over Okorafor. Ditto that for Nelson and Kirkland. Munford and Linderbaum are safe, dependable picks that project as starters in the NFL. And the team would be fine with adding players who bring some of the traits the prior superstar O-Line had, such as Faalele to replicate Alejandro Villanueva’s size, or Ekwonu to add David DeCastro’s nastiness inside.