After the 2021 NFL Draft didn’t see an edge rusher selected until No. 18 overall, three of the first five players off the board in 2022 were edge rushers. Pass rush is always at a premium in the NFL and this year’s crop of edge rushers featured plenty of top-of-the-first-round talent. But who will be the rookie sack king among the edge rushers selected in the first round?
Before I offer my predictions on this year’s crop of pass rushers and how many sacks they will produce in their first season, here’s a look at rookie sack leaders by season since 2014:
2021: Micah Parsons: 13
2020: Chase Young: 7.5
2019: Josh Allen: 10.5
2018: Bradley Chubb: 12
2017: Carl Lawson: 8.5
2016: Joey Bosa: 10.5
2015: Preston Smith: 8
2014: Aaron Donald: 9
Let’s examine how many sacks I expect to come from first-round rookie edge rushers in 2022.
Travon Walker, Jacksonville Jaguars
The No. 1 overall pick, Walker wasn’t taken that high because he is a polished pass rusher but rather because of what he can develop into given his rare blend of size, length and athleticism. In 36 games at Georgia, Walker collected 9.5 sacks with six of those coming in 2021. He has the potential to be a double-digit sack guy but I anticipate there being an adjustment period before that happens.
Rushing opposite of Josh Allen will be a benefit to Walker and I expect Defensive Coordinator Mike Caldwell to unleash Walker from a variety of alignments that should provide favorable opportunities for him to use his athleticism and affect the quarterback.
Projection: 4-6.0 sacks
Aidan Hutchinson, Detroit Lions
While Hutchinson doesn’t offer the same length as Walker, he is a more refined technician that racked up 14.0 sacks in 2021 alone. I’m impressed with the diversity of Hutchinson’s pass rush repertoire and he offers a deep arsenal of moves to beat blocks. He has tremendous vision to read the set of offensive tackles and execute to take advantage of the vulnerability of the blocker. His motor always runs hot so combining effort with technique and athleticism should be a good recipe for immediate sack production.
Finding more pressure off the edge was a notable area of the roster for the Lions to address. Hutchinson should earn immediate playing time and see the field for a high percentage of the defensive snaps. It’s a ripe scenario for Hutchinson to produce right away.
Projection: 7-9.0 sacks
Kayvon Thibodeaux, New York Giants
Thibodeaux’s doubters got loud during the scouting process but the Giants gladly made him the No. 5 overall pick and the first draft selection of the Schoen/Daboll Era in New York. While I do believe Thibodeaux has room to develop more rush variety, I love his fit in Wink Martindale’s defense. In 2021 with the Baltimore Ravens, Martindale coached rookie Odafe Oweh to 5.0 sacks in his first 11 games. Like Thibodeaux, Oweh is a dynamic athlete that needed to diversify his pass rush plan and repertoire of moves.
Slotting Thibodeaux into an aggressive defensive front will create favorable opportunities for him to take advantage. Rushing alongside the likes of Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence on the interior should create a strong push that will help Thibodeaux get home with more one-on-one matchups on the outside. For referenced, his running mate, Azeez Ojulari, collected 8.0 sacks in 2021 as a rookie.
Projection: 6-8.0 sacks
Jermaine Johnson II, New York Jets
If Johnson was a top-10 selection, it would have come as no surprise. The Jets landing him in a trade up at No. 26 overall is a steal. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, Johnson produced 18.0 tackles for loss and 12.0 sacks as a senior at Florida State. He dominated Senior Bowl practices and features an exciting pass rush profile in terms of his size, length, explosiveness, power, vision, flexibility and technique. Johnson enters the NFL with a fairly complete skill set to attack opposing quarterbacks.
Rushing opposite of Carl Lawson and John Franklin-Myers, with Quinnen Williams next to Sheldon Rankins along the interior, the Jets’ best rush groupings are potent, to say the least. That should benefit Johnson. The concern with his sack production as a rookie could be a lack of leads for the Jets where he can pin his ear back and rush the passer but he has the talent to make an immediate impact.
Projection: 6-8.0 sacks
George Karlaftis, Kansas City Chiefs
Considering the uneven contributions of defensive end Frank Clark and expired contracts of Melvin Ingram and Alex Okafor, the Chiefs needed more pass rushing help after producing just 31.0 sacks in 2021. Karlaftis is a power rusher with a motor that always runs hot who understands how to reduce rush angles and get after the quarterback. He has heavy hands that he uses effectively to soften the edges of blockers and create rush lanes. With that said, he doesn’t have ideal length or flexibility but I do like his projection to Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense with the presence of Chris Jones rushing from the interior.
Karlaftis should benefit from playing in Kansas City with a Patrick Mahomes-led offense that should score an abundance of points that will create plenty of rush opportunities for Karlaftis to sell out and attack the passer.
Projection: 4-6.0 sacks