NFL combine will help clear up battle to be No. 1 draft pick

Mar 3, 2022, 11:10 PM | Updated: Mar 4, 2022, 1:13 pm
Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson speaks during a press conference at the NFL football sc...

Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

(AP Photo/AJ Mast)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Kayvon Thibodeaux looked like a lock to be this year’s top NFL draft pick — until Aidan Hutchinson played his way into the conversation.

Now, with eight weeks until draft night, offensive linemen Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu and Evan Neal are in the debate, too.

This four-man race to the top has become a hot topic at this week’s annual scouting combine and has rekindled a familiar question: Who’s No. 1? With no quarterbacks likely to be selected right away, the guys in the trenches are the favorites.

“You have to take the player you think is the best fit for the organization and makes the biggest difference,” Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said earlier this week in Indianapolis. “If that’s an offensive tackle, you do it. If it’s an edge rusher, you do it. This draft has a lot of unique players. There may not be that clear No. 1, but there are a lot of good football players at the top.”

Baalke’s job is to sort it all out in a draft that comes with several unique features.

First off, Baalke is drafting first for the second straight year; no team other than Cleveland has held that distinction since 1988. The Browns picked No. 1 in 1999-2000 and 2017-18.

Plus, the Jags already have their franchise quarterback after taking Trevor Lawrence last year. Lawrence’s presence presumably gives Baalke the option of adding either a coveted pass-rushing cornerstone, a massive pass protector who can keep Lawrence upright and healthy for years to come, or a trade that could fill multiple holes.

The one seemingly virtual certainty: A seven-year run of quarterbacks going first or second will end. None is likely to even make the conversation.

Until recently, Thibodeaux, the All-American out of Oregon, appeared to be the odds-on favorite. He had seven sacks last season despite missing 2 1/2 games with a sprained ankle that slowed him through some other games. But with his stock apparently waning amid questions about his consistency from play to play, Thibodeaux went on the offensive Friday.

“I can’t really compare it to other guys and what they do because I know that I have great teams that I went up against, and I had a lot of great opportunities to show what I can do,” he said, describing his aggressive style.

If Thibodeaux’s slide continues, Hutchinson could emerge as the best.

The former Michigan star broke the school’s single-season record with 14 sacks, led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title and their first playoff appearance while becoming the third defensive player to finish as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. He did it all after recovering from a fractured right ankle that ended his 2020 season.

Just don’t expect Hutchinson to make the pitch. He’d rather let his play suffice.

“I’ve been playing football for a long time, so I know what pressure is, I know the type of player I am and that calms me a little bit,” he said. “I think we’re all trying to be the best players we can be and whichever team picks us is going to get a good player.”

The bigger surprise might be the recent emergence of Ekwonu and Neal, though it certainly makes sense for Jacksonville after the Jags allowed 32 sacks and Lawrence finished near the bottom of the league in passer rating (71.9).

It’s not clear yet which player is the best lineman.

Ewkonu got his nickname from a former coach who thought he looked like former Bengals running back Ickey Woods. Last season, Ewkonu was an All-American and the ACC offensive lineman of the year..

He’s the son of a doctor who played college basketball, a mother who ran high school track, and at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds seems to have combined the best of both worlds. Only two North Carolina State players have gone No. 1 overall, DE Mario Williams to the Houston Texans in 2006, and QB Roman Gabriel to the Oakland Raiders in the 1962 AFL draft.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if I went No. 1 overall,” Ewkonu said one day before working out. “I feel like that is something I put the work in for. I feel like when the time comes, I would deserve it.”

Neal checked in at 6-7 1/2 and a svelte 337 pounds after arriving on campus at 385. A three-year starter at Alabama, he helped pave the way for two Heisman winners, two straight national championship game appearances, and a 2020 title.

But what really turned heads was his viral video of a box jump. And if Neal’s name is called first on April 28, he would be the first Alabama player to earn the honor since Joe Namath was picked by the New York Jets in the 1965 AFL draft. Quarterback/halfback Harry Gilmer was taken No. 1 in 1948 and is the last member of the Crimson Tide selected first in an NFL draft.

Could the drought finally end with Neal? Stay tuned.

“You have a whole lot of Alabama players that were worthy of having the No. 1 spot, and for that to be me, that’d be extremely special. I feel like the whole state of Alabama would be proud,” Neal said. “What prospect wouldn’t want to go No. 1 overall? That would be a dream come true.”


More AP NFL: and and

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Arizona Coyotes forward Barrett Hayton, left, collides with Anaheim Ducks defenseman John Klingberg...
Associated Press

Drop the puck: What to know about the 2022-23 NHL season

The NHL is back to normal with the regular season stretching from October through the middle of April before the two-month thrill ride that is the chase for the Stanley Cup. Over that time, teams are scheduled to play a total of 1,312 games over 189 days, starting with Nashville and San Jose facing off […]
1 day ago
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) battle for t...
Associated Press

LeBron in Vegas? He makes an expansion pitch to Adam Silver

LAS VEGAS (AP) — LeBron James came to Las Vegas for a preseason game. And a pitch. James, who has spoken in the past about wanting to eventually own an NBA franchise — with Las Vegas on his mind — sent a crystal-clear message to Commissioner Adam Silver on Wednesday night, reminding him of his […]
1 day ago
FILE - Dallas Stars' Jason Robertson skates during the third period of an NHL hockey game against t...
Associated Press

Stars sign 41-goal scorer Robertson to $31M, 4-year deal

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Jason Robertson has signed a $31 million, four-year contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp. The Stars announced the deal late Wednesday night, after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at […]
1 day ago
The ski slopes are almost devoid of snow at the Tūroa ski field, on Mt. Ruapehu, New Zealand on Se...
Associated Press

Missing snow puts famed New Zealand ski areas on precipice

TUROA SKI AREA, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s Turoa ski area is usually a white wonderland at this time of year, its deep snowpack supporting its famed spring skiing. This season, it’s largely a barren moonscape, with tiny patches of snow poking out between vast fields of jagged volcanic boulders. The ski area was […]
1 day ago
FILE - Kansas City Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred in the seventh inning of a baseball game, May 1...
Associated Press

Royals fire manager Mike Matheny after 65-97 end to season

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred were fired by the Kansas Cty Royals on Wednesday night, shortly after the struggling franchise finished the season 65-97 with a listless 9-2 loss to the Cleveland Guardians. The Royals had exercised their option on Matheny’s contract for 2023 during spring training, […]
1 day ago
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) blocks a shot by Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25...
Associated Press

James scores 23 points, but not enough as Suns defeat Lakers

LAS VEGAS (AP) — LeBron James flashed his midseason form Wednesday night, scoring 23 points in 18 minutes before the Phoenix Suns beat the Los Angeles Lakers 112-115. James, who missed all seven of his shots in Los Angeles’ loss to Sacramento on Monday, was much more aggressive with the Lakers playing without Anthony Davis. […]
1 day ago
NFL combine will help clear up battle to be No. 1 draft pick