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As an NFL fan, you might not be ready to shift into draft mode.
But we like the idea of introducing some of the bigger-name prospects for the 2022 NFL draft now, at least giving readers a big-picture familiarity of how things stand now.
Had we written this one a year ago, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance almost certainly would have made our top 10. All three went in the top 11 picks this spring.
A lot can change for even highly touted prospects over the course of a single season.
The 10 players we’re profiling here — five quarterbacks and five non-QBs — aren’t guaranteed to be first-rounders in 2022. But they’re prospects who enter the season with the opportunity to lock up that caliber of draft status — and perhaps also have the potential to tumble.
Let's start with a fascinating quarterback who could crash the first-round party in 2022.
Nevada QB Carson Strong
6-foot-4, 205 pounds
Year: Redshirt junior
2020 stats: 249 of 355 passing (70.1%), 2,858 yards, 27 TDs, four INTs; 33 rushes, minus-95 yards; three punts, 101 yards, two inside the 20
If you’re just dipping your toes into the NFL draft waters, Strong’s name might be unfamiliar. Perhaps you’re just not a fan of staying up late for West Coast night games. (Which we completely understand.)
Strong was the 2020 Mountain West Player of the Year, leading the Wolf Pack to a 5-0 start, a 7-2 final record and a win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Against the three best statistical defenses Strong and Nevada faced — Wyoming, San Diego State and San Jose State (all ranked in the top 26 nationally) — he completed 103 of 146 passes (70.5%) for 968 yards, seven TDs and one pick.
Strong had his breakout season without much help from Elijah Cooks, who had 926 receiving yards and eight TDs in 2019. Cooks got hurt in the opener and never was healthy after that. He is back at full strength, as are two other NFL-caliber pass catchers in Romeo Doubs (1,002 yards, nine TDs in 2020) and TE Cole Turner (605 yards, nine TDs).
Nevada’s 2021 schedule is respectable, with some quality road tests against Boise State, Cal and Kansas State. There is some concern with a knee injury Strong is currently working his way through. He’s still expected to start the opener at Cal but has recently missed practice time.
Carson Strong’s strengths
It starts with his arm. It is above average, and Strong confidently delivers the ball to all levels of the field. He can rip the ball down the seam and also rainbow deep shots to the inside and out.
Strong will climb the pocket and let it fly. He has some natural passing feel and isn’t afraid of facing the rush. Sometimes that confidence boils over, but you’d probably rather have a QB who tones down his aggressiveness rather than one who is in constant checkdown mode.
The good news is that Strong has generally taken care of the ball well at Nevada. He has only 11 career interceptions in 730 pass attempts and had a streak of 299 passes without a pick. Strong also cut down on his turnover-worthy throws, per Pro Football Focus, from 12 to seven over the past two seasons. His 10 career fumbles are on the high side, but there was a drop from six in 2019 to four last season.
It looks like Strong has a solid grasp on the offense and rarely looks confused or overwhelmed at the line or when under duress. He generally delivers on-target passes, operates with mostly solid mechanics and is starting to become a more consistently dangerous vertical thrower.
With his good height, field vision and throwing ability, all the key elements are there for him to become a quality NFL passer.
Plus, as you might have noticed, Strong is an adept pooch punter. This isn’t something he’ll be asked to do on a regular basis in the NFL, but Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Kordell Stewart dabbled with early in their careers, and it’s never bad to have an emergency punter.
Carson Strong’s weaknesses
The biggest immediate concern might be health. Strong suffered a knee injury in high school in 2017 that wiped out his senior season, and it revealed osteochondritis dissecans (a joint condition often found in children and younger adults where the bone underneath the joint cartilage can die because of a lack of blood flow) and a crack at the tip of his femur.
Strong played in 2020 through some knee pain that’s believed to be related to the high school injury. In January, he underwent a cleanup of the knee and was fully cleared for camp. Strong has had to have his knee drained more than once since after chronic swelling and bleeding.
Head coach Jay Norvell has been coy on the injury to date. Last week Norvell said, “He's not quite healthy, and when he is, we'll put him out here. ... We have a long season. Even this first game is not the only important game we'll play. The most important thing is we get him back for the bulk of the season.”
This is an issue that won’t go away, especially as NFL scouts descend more frequently on Reno. Outside of his health, Strong can do a better job of consistently setting his throwing base and executing from cleaner platforms. There are still some times when he’s slinging the ball off-balance or with his body not in proper alignment. Strong also has a slim build and limited athleticism to be a scramble threat or avoid the rush.
The Air Raid offense in which Strong operates is a very read-friendly one, and he has some excellent targets to which to throw. Figuring out protections might be an area where Strong could stand to improve, as it appeared he was responsible for at least some of the 20 sacks he took in nine games last season.
If Strong is healthy, everything points to another banner season. The weapons are there. The system is in place. The schedule is stronger than last year, but there isn’t an opponent the Wolf Pack can’t reasonably beat. Strong is expected to put up monster numbers again.
But will he start the full season?
Even with the mechanical concerns, Strong’s biggest concern among NFL scouts might be the knee. If that doesn’t become a major issue, he could quickly enter the first-round discussion. Most teams we’ve spoken to have given him a preliminary grade in the second- to third-round range now.
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