2022 NFL Draft: Defense and optimism reign in the first round

By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Kayvon Thibodeaux danced into a cavernous convention center hall somewhere in the depths of Caesar’s Forum. Tea New York Giants‘fifth overall pick had just taken the customary NFL Draft day pictures with his family and was being led off to some combination of interviews and news conferences.

He grinned as he shuffled along in his brand-new hat. The red bedazzling on his black suit lapels shimmered in the bright overhead light.

Behind him, the Panthers’ pick at No. 6, Ikem Ekwonu, took deep breaths. In his crisp, white suit with striped lapels in emerald green, he kept sucking air in, holding it for a moment and blowing it out. He gave off very “I can’t believe this” vibes, shaking his head before he took selfies with his family.

A few minutes later, No. 2 pick Aidan Hutchinson sat at the news conference table in a room with two-story ceilings. A reporter asked about his draft day outfit, and he smiled, puffing up his chest and pulling his arm out of his shirt-sleeve to make sure the sparkling watch on his wrist was visible. The chains around his neck glittered.

A kid reporter asked him what he wants his new city to know about him, and he laughed.

“I hope they already know this, but I hope the city knows they’re going to get everything that I’ve got,” Hutchinson, Michigan’s favorite son, said. “The Lions franchise…”

He paused, choosing his words carefully.

“… you know, um, recently hasn’t been getting the wins that other teams have, and I’m going to try to go in there and do everything I can to get back to winning.”

Besides the ones after winning Super Bowls — which, sadly, not all of these players will do — the news conferences Thursday and into this weekend will probably be the greatest of these players’ lives. They haven’t yet failed at anything in the NFL. There isn’t much that is pure about sports, but there’s something moving about watching players get paid after grinding their whole lives and then having a chance to enjoy it.

These guys and their families have given everything to this game. To watch it give something back is a real gift.

No one gets injured on draft night. They only get rich.

2022 NFL Draft: Analyzing Lions’ No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson

2022 NFL Draft: Analyzing Lions' No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson

FOX Sports’ Bucky Brooks takes a look at Aidan Hutchinson, the highly touted edge rusher from the Michigan Wolverines chosen No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The 2022 NFL Draft was also a win for dads across America who like to tell their children that defense wins championships. It was, more specifically, a great night for Georgia’s defense, the group of players who spent last fall ruining the dreams of other college football programs as they held them to an average of a measly 11.9 points per game.

This was a strategy that — yes, dads — did indeed win Georgia a national championship. It was also the reason the Dawgs’ Travon Walker went No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars (sorry, Travon, and best of luck).

The next four picks were also on the defensive side of the ball, and fans cheered for players whose job it is to stop other players in their tracks the way die-hards normally cheer for quarterbacks and wide receivers. Even Ekwonu, the first offensive player to come off the board, is a tackle. His job is also to flatter other guys.

Perhaps the biggest offensive move of draft night came when the Titans sent wide receiver AJ Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles, followed by the Steelers’ taking quarterback Kenny Pickett at No. 20.

2022 NFL Draft: Pittsburgh Steelers No. 20 overall pick QB Kenny Pickett

2022 NFL Draft: Pittsburgh Steelers No. 20 overall pick QB Kenny Pickett

Geoff Schwartz breaks down what the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to get from Kenny Pickett, who was selected 20th overall in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Besides being a big night for Big Guys, the first round of the draft was a big night for Vegas. This city appeared fully back after COVID, with a sea of ​​fans stretching from the draft stage to the Linq’s giant Ferris wheel. If Roger Goodell is to be believed, there were more than 100,000 fans in Sin City for the event.

I do believe it, considering that the massive amount of people standing in the hot sun on hard pavement looked like a GCI generating crowd. It was the kind of scene you’d see in a movie set during Medieval times, with a ton of people waiting in a square to say hello to the king.

I admire the dedication.

Earlier Thursday, I wrote about how Vegas and the NFL Draft are perfect for each other. They are both all about spectacle, about pomp and circumstance, about making a party out of anything. Being at the draft in person was like watching a masterclass in putting on a show. From the NFL Network desk set over the Bellagio fountains to the magician brought on stage before the event started to the way the beautifully blinged-out outfits looked at home in the city of opulence, it was a seamless fit.

When I spoke to some Lions fans who traveled all the way from Detroit, they were adamant that, despite the abysmal record of last season (and every season going back to 1991), there was reason to think things could turn around. I must admit, dear reader, that I was skeptical.

But after Detroit took Hutchinson at No. 2 and then traded up to snag Jameson Williams, a receiver out of Alabama, at No. 12, I thought, “Maybe these guys have a point.” A Bucs fan I spoke to said the draft is so great because every fan can believe what they want to: that their team will be good.

There is no game on draft day to prove them wrong. Even I, someone with no ties to Detroit and no reason to believe in the Lions, found myself swept up in the hope.

That hope is why I can begin to understand why fans would come here to watch their teams hand out job offers. It might not be a sporting event, and many other fans might not understand the appeal, but living in that optimism for a moment — especially after a particularly dark stretch of years — starts to seem nice when you watch other people do it.

There’s something lovely about the moment before anything happens, about the suspension of belief and time before reality sinks in. Perhaps that state of mind is what the NFL Draft represents for players and fans.

It sure seems like a nice state to be in.

Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of “The People’s Sports Podcast” for FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.

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