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Oregon Ducks Football 2022 NFL Draft Look Ahead: Defense

Can the Ducks one up a historic draft class in 2022? The talent is certainly there.
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The Ducks had five players taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. Four more players signed as undrafted free agents, making Oregon's presence in the NFL stronger than ever.

Read more: Oregon Ducks 2021 NFL Draft Recap

The Ducks continue to excel at developing defensive players since they re-asserted themselves as top dogs in the Pac-12 in 2019. 

It's never too early to look ahead to next year, so let's take a look at players that could be selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.

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Note: Players included on this list are eligible for next year's draft after being at least three years removed from high school. Some players aren't listed because they haven't seen ample playing time. 

Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux | 6'5", 250 pounds | Junior | South Central Los Angeles, California

Kayvon Thibodeaux celebrates a defensive stop in the second half against the Arizona Wildcats on November 16, 2019. The No. 6 Ducks would win the game 34-6. 

Kayvon Thibodeaux celebrates a defensive stop in the second half against the Arizona Wildcats on November 16, 2019. The No. 6 Ducks would win the game 34-6. 

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. recently placed Thibodeaux atop his 2022 NFL Draft big board. Thibodeaux has lived up to every bit of hype he received as the the highest-rated recruit to ever sign with Oregon. 

He's excelled as a pass rusher that has developed a knack for showing up in big time games. If you want to know what type of player he is, just look at his performances in the 2019 Pac-12 Championship Game against Utah, the 2020 Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, and most recently the 2020 Pac-12 Championship game against USC in a return to his native Los Angeles.

He has a combined 18 quarterback pressures, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks combined in two Pac-12 Championship appearances. Thibodeaux manhandled one of the Jets' first round picks Alijah Verah-Tucker in their matchup last season and is the consensus top pass rusher in the country. 

He's emphasized the importance of developing his overall game, with particular attention to defending the run. KT has his eyes on the Heisman Trophy in 2021, and is poised for another strong year in what is all but certain to be his last year of college football.

2020 Stats: 23 solo tackles, 38 total tackles, 3 sacks, 3 passes defended

NFL Projection: Top five, potential No. 1 overall pick

Cornerback Mykael Wright | 5'11", 182 pounds | Sophomore | Antelope Valley, California

Mykael Wright (2), breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Stanford's Simi Fehoko (13) at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon on November 7, 2020. 

Mykael Wright (2), breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Stanford's Simi Fehoko (13) at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon on November 7, 2020. 

Wright is set for a big year in his first season as the team's top corner with the departure of Deommodore Lenoir, who was recently drafted by the San Francisco 49ers.

Read more: Deommodore Lenoir drafted by the San Francisco 49ers

He's the full package at cornerback and will be tasked with taking away the opponent's top receiving threat. Wright can do it all with his top-end speed, strong body control, and ability to track the ball in the air.

He proved to be too talented to keep off the field in his freshman year and was in a great situation to develop alongside both Lenoir and Thomas Graham, who is now with the Chicago Bears. Wright has additional value as a kick returner, although he didn't make as much of an impact in that aspect last season.

He's strong enough to press any wide receiver and is a smart player in coverage. Wright was an Associated Press Pac-12 All-Conference first-team selection in 2020 and his game has continued to evolve each year he's been in Eugene.

Wright will anchor a young cornerback room with a lot of talent that has been waiting for an opportunity.

2020 Stats: 18 solo tackles, 25 total tackles, 9 passes defended | 13 returns, 270 yards, 41 long, avg. 20.8 (down from 2019 avg. of 38.0)

NFL Projection: First or second round pick. Can solidify first-round stock with strong 2021 season.

Safety Verone McKinley III | 5'11", 196 pounds | Sophomore | Carrollton, Texas

Verone McKinley III (23) intercepts a pass against during the second half against the Colorado Buffaloes at Autzen Stadium on October 11, 2019. The Ducks would win 45-3. 

Verone McKinley III (23) intercepts a pass against during the second half against the Colorado Buffaloes at Autzen Stadium on October 11, 2019. The Ducks would win 45-3. 

McKinley has emerged as the leader of the Oregon secondary ahead of the 2021 season. He and Jamal Hill roam the defensive backfield together to give Oregon an incredibly talented duo.

He came to Eugene as a cornerback in 2018 and made a seamless transition to safety and has continued to excel. McKinley is strong in coverage and isn't afraid to step up and lay a big hit in run support as one of the more reliable tacklers on the team.

Further helping his case is that he developed alongside Jevon Holland, one of the premier ball hawks to play for Oregon in recent memory ahead of beginning his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins.

My most memorable play from McKinley thus far came against Colorado in 2019, when he snagged a ridiculous interception in the end zone to prevent a touchdown before falling out of bounds.

2020 Stats: 21 solo tackles, 41 total tackles, 1 interception, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

NFL Draft Projection: Mid round selection

Linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia | 6'1", 235 pounds | Junior | Honolulu, Hawaii

Isaac Slade-Matautia tackles wide receiver Tony Brown in a game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Autzen Stadium.

Isaac Slade-Matautia tackles wide receiver Tony Brown in a game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Autzen Stadium.

Isaac Slade Matautia has been a mainstay on the Oregon defense for a while now. Since utilizing a redshirt year in 2017 he has been among the team leaders in tacklers.

Now entering his final season at Oregon, he's been mentoring the young linebackers and helping them adjust to the college game while learning Tim DeRuyter's new defense. He lead the team in passes defended with 11 in 2019, but doesn't wow me as a draft prospect.

He's been a good, not great player for the Ducks. That's no slight to his ability, but no one aspect of his game really pops, aside from his consistent tackling, which any good linebacker should be able to do. Another thing that hurts his NFL Draft outlook is his height.

At 6'1", he's on the smaller side for a linebacker in college football, let alone the NFL.

But maybe that's why he came chose to come back to Oregon for one more year. Perhaps his best season is yet to come and he'll be able to climb peoples' big boards for next year.

2020 Stats: 23 solo tackles, 45 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 5 passes defended

NFL Draft Projection: Late round selection

Linebacker Mase Funa | 6'3", 260 pounds | Sophomore | Anaheim, California

Mase Funa tackles quarterback Anthony Gordon (18) in a game against Washington State at Autzen Stadium on October 26, 2019. The Ducks would win 37-35 on a Camden Lewis field goal as time expired.

Mase Funa tackles quarterback Anthony Gordon (18) in a game against Washington State at Autzen Stadium on October 26, 2019. The Ducks would win 37-35 on a Camden Lewis field goal as time expired.

Mase Funa is one of the tougher players to project at the next level. He flashed as a true freshman, racking up 4 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He was a top-70 prospect coming out of high school and didn't play his senior season due to injury. 

Funa was on the heavier side when he arrived, but quickly got to work to mold his body for the college game. He didn't have the strongest season last year, as he took a bit of a step back from his 2019 production. 

However, it was a shortened season in the pandemic, so it's tough to put too much stock into what we saw in 2020.

Even so, he is pretty entrenched as a starter on defense so he has the opportunity to raise his draft stock with a stronger season. His top characteristic is probably his athleticism, and DeRuyter's new defense could be a reset he needs to realize his full potential. 

He will have remaining eligibility following next season but could choose to declare for the draft if he feels he has strong enough body of work.

2020 Stats: 18 solo tackles, 31 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss 

NFL Draft Projection: Mid to late round selection

Safety Jamal Hill | 6'1", 200 pounds | Sophomore | Rex, Georgia 

Jamal Hill celebrates one of his two interceptions against USC in the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game.

Jamal Hill celebrates one of his two interceptions against USC in the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game.

Jamal Hill announced his arrival in the Pac-12 Championship Game against USC by snagging two interceptions. His second interception was crucial in Oregon securing the win, as USC quarterback Kedon Slovis tried to throw the ball away as he escaped pressure. 

Hill is a soft spoken guy but his play does all the talking for him. 

He figures to be a steady contributor as a starter opposite of Verone McKinley in the defensive backfield. Hill excels at tracking the ball and is also more than capable of stepping up to deliver big hits in run support.

A full season of Jamal Hill could easily elevate his draft stock, after putting himself on the national radar under the bright lights in Los Angeles.

2020 Stats: 14 solo tackles, 20 total tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defended

NFL Projection: Mid to late round selection

Defensive tackle Brandon Dorlus | 6'3", 285 pounds | Sophomore | Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Brandon Dorlus rocks quarterback Chase Griffith late in the second quarter against UCLA. Dorlus' hit forced an interception that helped Oregon gain a slim lead going into halftime. 

Brandon Dorlus rocks quarterback Chase Griffith late in the second quarter against UCLA. Dorlus' hit forced an interception that helped Oregon gain a slim lead going into halftime. 

Dorlus is the name I am most excited about on this young defensive line in 2021. He flashed last year in multiple games, particularly against the L.A. schools. 

I spoke with him this spring and he told me he's trying to get closer to 290 pounds to help defend against the run. He saw action in every game last season, but was still competing for snaps against veterans Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu

With both of those players off to the NFL, I think this is going to be Dorlus' season to take over. He's the most athletic player on the defensive line aside from Kayvon Thibodeaux and he's got the frame to excel at the NFL level. 

I've been pounding the drum on Dorlus' potential and am excited to see what next season has in store. 

2020 Stats: 7 solo tackles, 12 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 pass defended

NFL Draft Projection: Mid round selection

Linebacker Adrian Jackson | 6'3", 235 pounds | Sophomore | Denver, Colorado

Adrian Jackson tackles wide receiver Antwone Williams in a game against Portland State in 2018. 

Adrian Jackson tackles wide receiver Antwone Williams in a game against Portland State in 2018. 

Jackson may be the most athletic linebacker on the Oregon roster not named Noah Sewell. The only problem is that he's battled injuries since arriving in Eugene as the top player from Colorado in the 2018 class.

Whenever I think about Jackson I'm reminded of his performance against UCLA last season. Chase Griffin had the Bruins driving down the field late in the fourth quarter and Jackson pressured the quarterback on what eventually became the most important plays of that game. 

The Ducks were able to hold on for the win, something I don't think they would have pulled off had it not been for Jackson's late-game heroics. 

After appearing in 12 games as a true freshman and just 4 in 2020, we've yet to see his talents truly unleashed with a full season. He's one of my picks as a player that can break out on defense as another consistent pass rusher.

2020 Stats: 4 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss in 4 games

NFL Draft Projection: Late round selection

Cornerback DJ James | 6'0, 185 pounds | Sophomore | Mobile, Alabama

DJ James (12) breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Drake London (15) against the USC Trojans in the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game.

DJ James (12) breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Drake London (15) against the USC Trojans in the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game.

James has appeared in 20 games since coming to Oregon in 2019, but last year was his first taste at being utilized more as a cornerback than a special teams contributor.

Much like with Mykael Wright, this team will be expecting a lot from James as he looks to step into a larger role at CB2 for the Ducks in 2021. He did not play in the spring game but the samples that we've seen from James have been encouraging. 

He showed up big against USC last year (pictured above), as well as against Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl, defending some absolutely massive tight ends in pass coverage.

It's hard for me to make a projection on James since I haven't seen very much of him, but 2021 could very well be his breakout year as a full-time starter on defense. 

2020 Stats: 12 solo tackles, 14 total tackles, 1 pass defended.

NFL Draft Projection: Mid to late round pick with potential to work into earlier rounds

Linebacker Dru Mathis | 6'3", 224 pounds | Senior | Ventura, California

Dru Mathis (54) works with Isaac Slade-Matautia (41) to bring down Stanford running back Justus Woods. 

Dru Mathis (54) works with Isaac Slade-Matautia (41) to bring down Stanford running back Justus Woods. 

Mathis came to Oregon from Moorpark College and has yet to carve out a significant role at Oregon. 

Given the talent the Ducks have brought in at linebacker in recent years, it might be tough for him to see enough production to enter NFL Draft conversations.

2020 Stats: 3 solo tackles,  11 total tackles 

NFL Draft Projection: Undrafted free agent

Safety Bennett Williams | 6'1", 203 pounds | Junior | Campbell, California

Bennett Williams (15) celebrates an incomplete pass on fourth down against the UCLA Bruins at Autzen Stadium on November 21, 2020. Oregon would hang on to win a thriller 38-35.

Bennett Williams (15) celebrates an incomplete pass on fourth down against the UCLA Bruins at Autzen Stadium on November 21, 2020. Oregon would hang on to win a thriller 38-35.

Williams is another player that is a bit more difficult to project, but it isn't due to his skill set. 

He saw time in every game last year, but there were many instances when Nick Pickett was getting more reps on the field than the junior safety. 

Williams was a top JUCO recruit (No. 14 nationally per 247Sports composite) in the class of 2020 and was a freshman all-American at Illinois. He just hasn't gotten the play time to prove himself. 

He clearly has loads of potential because he can make a real impact on the game when he's on the field. It just doesn't always show up on the stat sheet. He's a hard hitter that can rove all over the field and excel in the nickel package. 

Verone McKinley and Jamal Hill aren't going to be easy outs from the first unit, but Williams should thrive under new secondary coach Marcel Yates and be able to assert himself as one of the top safeties on the roster with all of the experience he's had at the JUCO and division one level.

2020 Stats: 8 solo tackles, 15 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 passes defended

NFL Draft projection: late round selection or undrafted free agent

Safety Jordan Happle | 5'11", 205 pounds | Senior | Portland, Oregon

Jordan Happle celebrates a pick-six with teammates as time expires against the UCLA Bruins.

Jordan Happle celebrates a pick-six with teammates as time expires against the UCLA Bruins.

Happle came to Oregon after transferring from Boise State following the 2019 season. His familiarity with Andy Avalos' system helped him quickly carve out a role on the Ducks' defense, but we haven't seen a ton of production. 

His best performance came against UCLA, when he intercepted a pass from Chase Griffin and returned it for a touchdown to close out the first half. 

I believe the Ducks have stronger options at safety. 

NFL Draft Projection: undrafted free agent

2020 stats: 16 solo tackles, 28 solo tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass defended, 1 TD

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