2022 NFL Draft’s most pivotal picks: Saints’ decisions at Nos. 16 & 19 could change everything

The first round of the NFL draft can be like a game of dominoes. We’ve all got it mocked out the way we think it will go, and then one team makes a certain move — or doesn’t — that turns everything upside down. These draft decision points could define the way we look at the composition of the first 32 picks once the dust settles in Las Vegas. In this piece, I’m predicting a few of these potential moments of draft drama.

The QB market generally offers the biggest potential for draft drama, and that’s why the Panthers are the focus here at No. 6 overall. The Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold acquisitions haven’t worked out as planned. Not to mention, Carolina has swung and missed on several attempts at high-profile passers during Matt Rhule’s tenure. Clearly, the franchise is looking to improve at the position. Darnold, who’s in the final year of his rookie contract, went 4-7 in 11 starts last season with a 9:13 TD-to-INT ratio. So the evaluation for GM Scott Fitterer comes down to whether he thinks there’s a prospect in this class who represents a clear upgrade under center. I like Kenny Pickett in this spot, assuming he’s still on the board, as he’s the most pro-ready passer in this year’s group. If Pickett goes to the Panthers at No. 6, then some interesting dominoes could start to fall as soon as the very next selection; a team who likes Malik Willis may look to jump in front of the Atlanta Falcons, who pick at No. 8.

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Speaking of Atlanta … Here we are with another big decision point for the Falcons, who passed on a QB at No. 4 overall last April. Does GM Terry Fontenot decide now is the time to pick a signal-caller? Meanwhile, the Jets at No. 10 sure are hoping there’s a run on passers at this point, keeping more of the best non-QBs on the board for New York’s second turn on the clock in Round 1.

Here’s why I don’t see the Falcons going with a QB in this spot: NFL.com draft analysts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, both former pro scouts, have talked about how all five of the QBs taken in the first round last year would grade higher than each QB in this year’s class. So it doesn’t totally square that the Falcons would pass on Justin Fields and Mac Jones only to take one of this year’s passers. Instead, it feels like this could definitely be a spot where the first WR hears his name called, considering the team’s significant need at the position. Whether Atlanta goes QB or WR here could have a ripple effect on the total number of prospects from those two position groups to go in the first round.

Are the Saints done moving? I’m not so sure. Their recent deal with the Eagles for the 16th and 19th overall picks feels similar to when Philadelphia incrementally climbed up the board to take Carson Wentz second overall in 2016, or when Buffalo traded up twice in 2018 to select Josh Allen at No. 7.

If this initial trade is a precursor for another move up for one of the top QBs, then we’re looking at the biggest turning point in this year’s draft. The Saints would likely have to get to at least No. 5 so they leapfrog the Panthers. (For what it’s worth, there’s been plenty of talk about the Giants potentially moving down from the fifth overall pick.) Would Carolina shift to the second QB on its board if New Orleans were to snag its preferred choice? The Saints could also wait and see who the Panthers pick at No. 6 and then swing a trade with the Giants at No. 7 to get ahead of Atlanta. There are plenty of possibilities on the table, all of them quite intriguing.

Another potential scenario involves the Saints staying put at both picks, preferring to land two impact players — and the accompanying cost control that comes with their first-round designations — as a means of managing the franchise’s future cap burden.

Much to Aaron Rodgers’ chagrin, it’s been 20 years since the Packers selected a receiver in the first round of the NFL draft. Surely that streak ends this year … right? After trading Davante Adams to the Raiders, picking up an additional 2022 first-rounder in the process and letting Marques Valdes-Scantling walk in free agency, Green Bay has plenty of draft capital to address the glaring need in its receiving corps.

Garrett Wilson and Drake London are likely to be gone by the time the Packers come on the clock, as might be Jameson Williams, who’s still a wild card as he recovers from ACL surgery. But I think the Packers are squarely in Chris Olave/Treylon Burks territory at No. 22 and perhaps the Jahan Dotson/Christian Watson neighborhood at No. 28. What if the team doesn’t have an available receiver high enough on its board to warrant picking one at either spot? Would GM Brian Gutekunst instead entertain an offensive lineman like Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann or a defensive lineman like Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt? I’m sure that scenario would go over well in Wisconsin …

The Packers could be a great case study in what we discussed last week, regarding drafting for need versus best player available. Another possibility is that Green Bay dangles one of these picks in front of a team looking to get back into the first round, allowing the Pack to acquire some additional selections on Days 2 and 3.

There’s so much uncertainty around this year’s QB class, it’s possible anywhere from two to five passers are already off the board by this time. If someone the Lions like is still available, they could stick and pick, with the fifth-year option and the presence of incumbent starter Jared Goff providing a prime development opportunity for a rookie signal-caller. Detroit taking a quarterback here not only represents a pivotal point in this draft, but potentially a legacy-defining decision for second-year Lions GM Brad Holmes.

For many of the same reasons, this first-round finale could also be a prime trade target, making it that much more intriguing. A team that passed on a QB earlier in Round 1 could re-enter the fray if a preferred target remains on the board. We saw this play out in 2018, when Ozzie Newsome, in his final draft as GM of the Ravens, traded into No. 32 overall to select Lamar Jackson. If either Detroit or another team goes quarterback here, we could see the waves ripple through the second round, where some QB-hopeful teams might act out of desperation or end up left out in the cold.

Follow Rhett Lewis on Twitter.

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