The New York Giants haven’t just found their next Michael Strahan. As lofty as putting the former Oregon Ducks’ All-American into a threshold in the stratosphere, in Kayvon Thibodeaux they might have found a player better than the gap-toothed Hall of Famer. And perhaps Thibodeaux will end up hosting Good Morning America for good measure in two decades once his playing days are done.
There are no guarantees in the NFL Draft. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick (Trevor Lawrence) hasn’t lived up to his “best quarterback in a decade” billing after a season with Jacksonville. Heck, the Giants know a thing or two about draft potential not panning out. How’s the post-Eli Manning quarterback situation looking in East Rutherford? Show me a Giants fan that wants to ride with Daniel Jones over the next several years and I’ll show you a bald-faced liar.
Anyway, back to the reason for this story, Thibodeaux will be a smash hit.
We’re more than a week removed from the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and with each passing day, I’ve become more convinced the first four teams drafting, especially the first two in the Jaguars and Lions, will live to regret passing on Thibodeaux in favor of fellow defensive ends Travon Walker and Aidan Hutchinson. The three were heavily tied to each other because of collegiate success and playing the same position ahead of the draft. Whether it’s choosing someone from the reigning national champions or a local fit (Hutcinson attended Michigan in Ann Arbor, not too far from Detroit), seeing those three as comparable is comical.
At full health, Thibodeaux’s ability to beat pass blockers is by far better than Hutchinson’s and Walker’s. If he draws a double-team? No problem. He wore green most of the time in Eugene and did his Bruce Banner impersonation, Hulking is way through offensive lines to take down quarterbacks. If teams committed too many players to stopping Thibodeaux, someone else feasted for Oregon. Thibodeaux’s ability was a big reason why the Ducks were one of the few Pac-12 teams to get a sniff of the College Football Playoff in recent years.
And his first step off the line of scrimmage is faster than the two defensive linemen drafted in front of him. He’s more physical, too, sometimes overpowering 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive tackles at will, instead of just using finesse. Hutchinson might’ve doubled Thibodeaux’s sack total from 2021, but it’s a one-season jump. Hutchinson hasn’t sustained that success over time. Thibodeaux is the only one of the three who has.
Had Thibodeaux not sprained his ankle in Oregon’s first game of the 2021 season and sat out the next two contests, this isn’t a conversation. Thibodeaux with at least eight more quarters of game film against Fresno State, Ohio State and FCS-level Stony Brook would’ve put him well over the top and be the clear top player in this draft. To me, he was that anyway. And seven days after heading to the NFC East, I’m puzzled as to why those in Jacksonville and Detroit didn’t see things the same.
Maybe Thibodeaux needed that one huge hit that drew millions of hits on social media to put him over the top? One like Jadeveon Clowney had for South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. The “hit heard around the world” where a Wolverine running back’s helmet went flying feet away from the ferocity. Clowney was the No. 1 overall draft pick a year later and Walker was only the second defensive lineman taken first after Myles Garrett in 2017.
When comparing Walker, Thibodeaux and Hutchinson, statistics only go so far. Five Georgia defensive players went in the first round and 10 were selected overall. How do we know how any of them will perform at the next level without the influence of the others? That’s one tackler short of a whole defense leaving the SEC to go on professional endeavors. Hutchinson had a fellow Wolverine defender chosen in the first round, too. Thibodeaux did not.
Thibodeaux has been open about having his legacy be more than on the gridiron. He has plans to open a charter school later this year and started his own cryptocurrency. He stated in pre-draft interviews a desire to be a role model in whatever community he was drafted into, and there’s no bigger market than New York City. That’s brought doubts as to whether Thibodeaux’s mindset is solely focused on football.
Are those questions there for LeBron James, who won a championship with the Lakers after starting the More Than an Athlete TV series in 2019 or when he opened a school in his hometown of Akron? No. Thibodeaux should be applauded, not downgraded.
The Texans and Jets went to address bigger needs and let the Ducks’ juggernaut fall into the Giants’ lap. And he’ll be a monster in the easiest division to win in football. New York may still finish fourth in the NFC East this season. How will they scorel? Great question. How will the Giants stop teams from running the score up on them? It’s a tough task. Thibodeaux is someone tangible to point to as a difference-maker. Those prospects don’t come along every day. Cheers to the 2022 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.