As Kayvon Thibodeaux is sinking, Travon Walker is doing more than just floating.
He is making waves.
Six months ago, Thibodeaux was viewed as the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Then Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson put together the better season and surpassed Oregon’s Thibodeaux as the top edge rusher and likely No. 1 pick in a light-quarterback draft class. It happens.
Except now it seems Thibodeaux has been leapfrogged again, by Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker, who recently became the betting favorite to be the No. 2 overall pick ahead of offensive tackles Ikem Ekwonu and Evan Neal, safety Kyle Hamilton and Thibodeaux. What is going on here?
“That’s the million-dollar question: Where is Thibodeaux going to go?” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He really doesn’t have many pass-rush moves at all. He’s strong and he’s got that great first-step quickness — and that’s what he relies on. In the NFL, the pass-rush moves have to be developed. How he is coached is going to go a long way in determining what kind of player he is going to be.”
Even with an ankle injury that caused him to miss three games last September, Thibodeaux was the better playmaker with 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles in 10 games. Walker totaled 7.5, six and zero, respectively, in 15 games.
But box scores can lie.
“Walker’s tape is freaky,” one NFL scouting source said. “I would probably take him over Hutchinson because he has more upside. Aidan is going to be a really good player for many, many years because he is a grinder. Walker is similar, but he’s a better athlete who is bigger, faster and stronger, and still coming into his own.”
Walker was so overshadowed on his own team that he didn’t even earn All-SEC honors. Georgia’s historic defense fielded three first-teamers — all of whom are projected first-round picks lower than Walker — and three defensive linemen other than Walker named either first- or second-teamers.
But the buzz around the 6-foot-5, 272-pound Walker started to pick up right before the NFL combine and exploded after he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds — the fastest time ever for a player weighing more than 270 pounds. The rest of his dazzling athletic display included a 35.5-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot 3-inch broad jump, a 6.89-second three-cone drill and a 4.32-second 20-yard shuttle.
“I think it’s more a case of Thibodeaux slipping than Walker rising,” the scouting source said. “Teams have been on Walker since the fall.”
Whereas Walker offers much-desired scheme versatility — including every-down effectiveness lined up on the interior or edge — there is some concern whether Thibodeaux is better on the interior. In that case, the 6-4, 254-pounder might be too light and at risk of losing quickness by adding muscle.
The two scouting knocks on Thibodeaux prior to Oregon’s Pro Day last week were that he looks “stiff” and gives inconsistent effort — worsened by his impromptu decision to pull out of combine drills after running the 40-yard dash (4.58 seconds) and bench pressing 27 reps. Because Thibodeaux has been on the radar since leading the nation in fourth-quarter sacks with seven as a true freshman in 2019, there might be some over-analysis of flaws happening.
Kiper counts Thibodeaux’s floor as No. 9 to the Seahawks but likes the fit with the Giants at No. 7. The Seahawks and Lions (picking No. 2) both sent seven representatives to Oregon’s Pro Day and the Giants sent five including general manager Joe Schoen to watch Thibodeaux finish his athletic testing and go through position drills. Afterward, Thibodeaux said it is “ridiculous” to call anyone else the best player in the draft.
“He will be motivated to prove himself in the NFL,” a second scouting source said. “You see crazy explosiveness in flashes. Look at his get-off.”
Walker is a one-year starter with less overexposure. One year ago, Odafe Oweh was a first-round pick after a sack-less final season at Penn State. But Oweh went No. 31 and succeeded with five sacks and two starts as a Ravens rookie.
Much more will be expected of Walker as a top-five pick — and the box scores will tell the truth.
“What he was asked to do at Georgia isn’t what he’s going to be asked to do in the NFL,” a third scouting source said. “Just turn him loose.”