Fifty-three picks passed between the first two quarterbacks of the 2022 NFL draft going off the board—the Steelers selected Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett at 20th overall and, after a long wait, the Falcons took Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder at 74th overall. It marks the longest gap between a draft’s first two signal-callers being picked in the common draft era (since 1970).
For months, it’s been clear that the 2022 quarterback class is not considered a strong one. As my colleague Steven Ruiz wrote, in bypassing the QBs through the entire second round, the NFL emphatically revealed just how lowly it regarded this crop. Not even the argument of positional value nor the philosophy of building around passers on cheap rookie contracts could tempt any teams to invest early draft capital in a QB this year.
Perhaps that was for the better. After five QBs were drafted in the 2021 first round alone, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly rated only six quarterbacks in his top 100 overall prospects for 2022. Pickett (Kelly’s no. 3 QB) went to Pittsburgh in the first round; Ridder (no. 2) went to Atlanta, Liberty’s Malik Willis (no. 1) went to Tennessee, and Ole Miss’s Matt Corral (no. 4) went to Carolina in the third round; North Carolina’s Sam Howell (no. 5) went to Washington in the fifth round; and Nevada’s Carson Strong (no. 6) signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent. Most of these players joined teams where there is a pathway to immediately competing for or eventually inheriting a starting job. Below, we assess the landing spots of four of those passers.
Desmond Ridder, Falcons (third round, 74th overall)
Falcons QB depth: Marcus Mariota, Feleipe Franks
The Ringer’s Ben Solak recently explained how Ridder is an exciting prospect because of both his physical traits (he’s 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds and ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash) and his sharp processing ability. Ridder reportedly told a team he “has a plan outlined for how he’s going to beat out a veteran in a training camp setting” as a rookie. That kind of moxie will be needed if he’s going to beat out Mariota, whom the Falcons signed to a two-year deal this offseason and whose physical profile closely resembles that of Ridder.
“I didn’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth,” Ridder told reporters. “But I’m like, man, if they’re going to get [Mariota], why not get a younger guy just like him? That’s obviously myself. So when they picked him up, that got me really excited for Atlanta.”
Mariota is reuniting with Atlanta coach Arthur Smith, who was the offensive coordinator in Tennessee while Mariota was there, after spending the past two seasons backing up Derek Carr on the Raiders. As a starter, the 28-year-old has a history of dealing with injuries, but flashed enough potential during his recent stint in Vegas to earn another shot. Smith has not publicly committed to Mariota as the Falcons’ unquestioned QB1 going into the 2022 season, but Mariota already has a leg up on Ridder because of his familiarity with Smith’s offense.
Ridder will almost certainly start the 2022 season on the bench. Perhaps he shows enough rapid development to supplant Mariota at some point in Year 1, but even if he doesn’t, he has a pathway to the starting job during the next few seasons, provided he continues to improve. Smith’s offense should highlight his athleticism, his downfield aggression—the Falcons just drafted receiver Drake London (6-foot-4, 219 pounds) eighth to pair with tight end Kyle Pitts (6-foot-6, 245 pounds)—and his ability to hit intermediate throws over the middle of the field.
Malik Willis, Titans (third round, 86th)
Titans QB depth: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside
Titans general manager Jon Robinson said Willis was Tennessee’s top player left on its board when it traded up with the Raiders to take him late in the third round. It seems like a steal. Willis is widely regarded as having the most upside of any quarterback in this class. He boasts cardinal traits, including a huge arm and dynamic running ability, that could one day catapult him into superstardom. While he will need a season to acclimate to the NFL and grasp the Titans offense, if Mike Vrabel’s staff can maximize his potential the way that it has with current starter Ryan Tannehill, then Willis’s selection would prove to be a bargain.
The fit itself is not perfect. Consider how Tannehill wins: using play-action and nailing throws in the intermediate and short game, primarily over the middle of the field.
Now, compare that with Willis’s target map featured in Steven Ruiz’s breakdown:
In Hugh Freeze’s Liberty offense, Willis was routinely asked to make throws to the deep boundaries—a type of throw that he’s shown great touch for, despite being one of the most difficult to make, and one that Tannehill rarely attempts. (Tannehill was 11-for-39 targeting the deep boundaries, according to PFF.) It’s great that Willis already has this ability in his bag, but improvement in the short and intermediate game will be monumental in establishing himself as a star. It all boils down to how quickly and how deftly Willis can master an NFL playbook, and perhaps unlearn some bad habits that were a byproduct of circumstance, such as taking sacks because of constant pressure.
While Tannehill and Willis are quite different as passers, they do both possess rushing ability. Last season, Tannehill scored seven rushing touchdowns (second most among QBs) and logged 32 first downs (fourth) on the ground. But according to PFF, he registered only 11 carries that went 10 yards or more and none of his designed carries went for 15 yards or more; his longest rush of the season was a 28-yard scramble. He also fumbled 10 times. Tannehill’s rushing ability is featured as a clear secondary option to complement Derrick Henry and the Titans rushing attack, mostly effective in short-yardage situations and around the red zone. It stands to reason that Willis’s rushing ability will be built into the Titans offense in virtually any situation on the field, and would add an explosive element that only a few teams boast from under center. Perhaps Tennessee will get Willis’s feet wet by deploying him as a wildcat QB, similar to how the Eagles initially used Jalen Hurts during his rookie season.
“His role,” Robinson told reporters of Willis, “will be determined by how quickly he comes in here and learns the offense and improves and gains the respect of his teammates.”
Tannehill, 33, has two years remaining on a four-year, $118 million deal he signed in 2020. Willis will have time to develop. And while he’s not expected to become the Titans’ franchise QB because of when he was drafted, there’s a route to him helping carry Tennessee into a post-Tannehill era, whenever that begins.
Matt Corral, Panthers (third round, 94th)
Panthers QB depth: Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker
Despite speculation about whether the Panthers would trade for Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Carolina GM Scott Fitterer traded a 2022 fourth-rounder and next year’s third-rounder to the Patriots to move up to take Corral near the end of the third round. Coach Matt Rhule suggested to reporters that Sam Darnold will remain Carolina’s starter for now, adding that the plan is to “bring [Corral] along slow.”
At Ole Miss, Corral piloted an RPO-heavy scheme that prioritized getting the ball out quickly—a perfect offense for the slight QB (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) with a rocket arm, lightning-quick release, and tough running ability. Under newly hired coordinator Ben McAdoo, the Panthers are more likely to resemble the West Coast–influenced offenses he’s directed in the past, maybe with some influence from coaching on Dallas’s staff last year. That could benefit Corral, who wasn’t consistently aggressive as a passer.
The Panthers have tried to upgrade at QB each of the past two seasons, to no avail. Darnold was once benched last season in favor of Walker for performance, then later went on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury. With the franchise keen to move on from him, perhaps there could be an opportunity for Corral to get on the field this season, but he’ll be stuck behind the veteran at the outset.
Sam Howell, Commanders (fifth round, 144th)
Commanders QB depth: Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke
Howell joins Washington’s roster squarely as its no. 3 QB. The Commanders traded for Wentz this offseason, while Heinicke started 15 games for them last year after taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Howell’s addition likely doesn’t immediately threaten Wentz or Heinicke’s standing.
The Ringer’s Danny Kelly aptly compares Howell to Baker Mayfield, but “with wheels.” The 21-year-old opened last season as a favorite to be the no. 1 pick, but saw his stock plummet after he struggled, in part because much of the Tar Heels’ NFL-caliber talent had departed for the league the year before. Howell has a good arm and is a tough runner, but he played in an RPO-heavy offense and is undersized. His skill set should translate to Washington’s offense, which is likely to continue relying on an RPO-based passing attack—last season, Wentz (sixth) with the Colts and Heinicke (eighth) with the Commanders were in the top 10 in RPO pass attempts, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
Howell will be reunited with former Tar Heels receiver Dyami Brown, who recorded 12 catches for 165 yards and started six games after Washington selected him in the third round last year. The Commanders feature Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, 2022 first-round pick Jahan Dotson, and tight end Logan Thomas to round out a strong receiver and tight end core. If Howell ascends to the starting job anytime soon, it would be an ideal skill group; the offensive line also finished ninth in ESPN’s pass block win rate last year. Howell himself seemed to approve of his landing spot on Saturday, noting that he gets to learn from Wentz “what it’s like to be a pro.”
“I’m so glad it was Washington that called,” he told reporters. “This is a perfect spot for me. It’s a team I wanted to play for all along, so I’m fired up.”