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Giants’ Kayvon Thibodeaux Poised to Run Away With NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

AP Photo/Stephen Brashear, file

Kayvon Thibodeaux has the most upside of any player in the 2022 NFL draft class. The New York Giants plan to harness the No. 5 overall pick’s natural ability and turn him into the league’s best defensive rookie.

“He was just such a great fit for us in [Don “Wink” Martindale’s] defense,” outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins told reporters. “He has all the skill sets we look for. He can be a dominant edge-setter, explosive, violent, relentless pass-rusher and then everything else you can see that is required.”

The fact Thibodeaux was available when the Giants first selected is amazing unto itself.

Thibodeaux won the Morris Trophy in 2020, which goes to the Pac-12’s best offensive or defensive lineman. He entered last season as the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2022, but his draft stock took a few hits along the way.

Thibodeaux suffered a high-ankle sprain in Oregon’s first contest and played through it for most of his final season on campus. As a result, he finished with only seven sacks, but that only told part of the story.

Though the injury robbed him of some explosiveness, Thibodeaux still led the Pac-12 with a 91.8 pass-rush grade and 22.8 percent pass-rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Throughout the NFL draft process, matters worsened as anonymous quotes surfaced from multiple outlets.

“Does he like playing in the NFL, or like the NFL lifestyle and what that entails?” a scout questioned in a conversation with Go Long’s Bob McGinn. “If you put [Aidan] Hutchinson’s heart in Thibodeaux’s body then you’d have Myles Garrett.”

Meanwhile, NFL Draft Network’s Tony Pauline reported:

“In addition to concerns about his effort, there are also questions from some inside the scouting community and in league circles about Thibodeaux’s desire to be great. As one source close to Thibodeaux told me, he’s ‘acting like he’s already made it rather than someone who really wants it.’ Another source close to Thibodeaux said, ‘He has the ability to be great, yet he may never do what it takes to reach his ultimate level of ability.'”

Ultimately, four defenders heard their names called before Thibodeaux.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Travon Walker with the first overall pick. The Detroit Lions followed suit by taking Hutchinson at No. 2. The Houston Texans continued the early run by drafting cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. at No. 3, and the New York Jets took fellow defensive back Ahmad Gardner at No. 4.

However, where they were drafted doesn’t make any of them a better bet to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year over Thibodeaux, whose natural ability and landing spot make him the ideal candidate.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

As of late June, Hutchinson is the only heavier betting favorite to win the award, according to DraftKings. Walker, Green Bay Packers linebacker Quay Walker, Baltimore Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton, New York Jets edge Jermaine Johnson II and Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Devin Lloyd follow, albeit they’re comfortably behind the top two.

Hutchinson is essentially being positioned as the face of the Lions organization, which is why he’s the odds-on favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is a potential culture-changer if his time with the Michigan Wolverines is any indication of future success.

At the same time, Detroit is young along its defensive front and lacks pass-rushing punch. Hutchinson should help that group as it grows in Year 2 under defensive play-caller Aaron Glenn.

Walker has the advantage of being the No. 1 overall pick and an elite athletic profile, but he’s far from a polished prospect. He needs to learn how to be a consistent edge-rusher.

Both Stingley and Gardner will be tasked with covering opposing top wide receivers, so they will likely experience their share of ups and downs. Walker and Lloyd must show they can be every-down defenders. Hamilton is capable of contributing at multiple levels in various roles, though he currently resides among a loaded safety group alongside Marcus Williams and Chuck Clark. Johnson can be an instant-impact run defender as he continues to develop as a pass-rusher.

What separates Thibodeaux from the rest of this year’s top defensive prospects? It starts with his ability to get to opposing quarterbacks.

“Thibodeaux checks every box for a high-end pass-rusher with potential through the roof,” Bleacher Report scout Derrik Klassen wrote in his evaluation. “Primarily a speed-rusher, Thibodeaux shows threatening burst off the snap and accelerates as well as anyone through his next few steps, regularly giving him the outside edge against offensive tackles.

“While Thibodeaux’s hand usage and pass-rushing plan could use some development, he already has the speed, strength and bend to regularly win around the outside in rare fashion. Few players can bend and explode the way he can.”

Translatable traits are what scouts and evaluators want to see. Thibodeaux doesn’t have the same kind of heft as Myles Garrett working off the edge, but he’s also an elite athlete. It isn’t just straight-line quickness, either. Thibodeaux displays excellent lateral quickness and agility.

“He’s the guy,” Giants guard Shane Lemieux, who played with Thibodeaux at Oregon, told reporters. “He’s a real dude.”

Real dudes can still be rendered ineffective if they aren’t properly utilized. Fortunately, Thibodeaux now plays for one of the NFL’s best and most aggressive defensive play-callers. Prior to last year’s injury-plagued campaign, the Ravens finished in the top seven in total defense during their three campaigns under Martindale.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Puts a lot of people at the line of scrimmage,” an opposing scout told ESPN’s Jordan Raanan. “He doesn’t coach scared.”

The approach essentially boils down to a numbers game. The defense disguises its looks so it can get favorable matchups. Still, the players must take advantage of those matchups once they become available.

The Giants are already extremely strong along their defensive interior with Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence leading the way. They needed more of an edge presence and landed one with Thibodeaux.

Unliked others in the class, Martindale doesn’t need his rookie to be the focal point.

“Just to be Kayvon,” the defensive coordinator responded when asked what he expects of Thibodeaux this fall.

With ultra-aggressive defensive game plans, a strong defensive front and Thibodeaux’s propensity to create havoc in opposing backfields, the Giants have the right combination to develop this year’s No. 5 overall pick into a superstar.

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Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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