EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Kayvon Thibodeaux's body was sore after the Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers Monday night, and he couldn't have been happier.
"When your body hurts after a game, you know you had an impact," Thibodeaux said. "It felt good, and I was happy to help the team get a win."
Thibodeaux's influential performance was the latest in his sensational sophomore season. He participated in eight tackles, including a half-sack, forced a Jordan Love fumble that was recovered by safety Xavier McKinney, added a quarterback hit and knocked down a pass in the Giants' last-second 24-22 victory.
It was his third consecutive game with at least five tackles and a half-sack and his second straight with a forced fumble. The Giants won all three of those games to improve to 5-8 as they prepare to play the New Orleans Saints Sunday in the Caesars Superdome.
Thibodeaux belongs in any conversation of the Giants' best and most valuable defensive players. He has started every game, and his 11.5 sacks are seven more than team runner-up Dexter Lawrence, seven more than he totaled in his rookie season, and ninth in the NFL. He is tied for sixth on the team with 44 tackles (22 solo), his 12 tackles for loss lead the Giants, and his 14 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles are each second.
"I feel like I've been playing good ball, consistent good ball for the past two years in the NFL," Thibodeaux said. "I feel like things have been going well. When you talk to my coaches and GM, whoever else in the building, I've done great things to contribute to the team. So now just continue and grow in that impact and do things like that.
"It's a blessing, and I'm happy things are clicking even more, and I'm getting the numbers and the stats, and hopefully we start to continue to get the wins. But yeah, I think I've been playing good ball. I think people just want to write stories. And for me, I'm okay with being the headline, I just want it to be new ones or fresh ones, or something that tells the real story of goal setting and reaching those goals. Because everything that I'm doing now, I had these goals. It's not new. I never thought I was going to do anything different. I just keep working until time pays off."
Head coach Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale are Thibodeaux's most influential backers.
"I've got a high amount of respect for Kayvon; glad we have him," Daboll said. "He's made progress since the day he walked in this door (s the fifth overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft). He's got good leadership traits about him, he's a talented player, he loves the game of football, he's a great teammate. I'm glad we have him. He's really made a lot of progress and he always strives for more. He's done a nice job for us."
As a rookie in 2022, Thibodeaux had just one sack in his first nine games, and one apiece in four of his 14 games. This season, he had 3.0 sacks vs. the Jets, and has at least a half-sack in eight of his 13 games.
"He's done a good job of finishing on the quarterback," Daboll said. "We ask him to do a lot of different things in our defense and he welcomes it with open arms. I can't say enough about what a good teammate he is. He's made a lot of progress since he's been here and it's a testament to him, it's a testament to the coaches, but he's the one out there doing it."
Martindale considered Thibodeaux a star in the making before the Giants even drafted him.
"The guy has no ceiling," Martindale said. "You remember me saying that before. The reason why he doesn't have a ceiling is because he doesn't allow himself to have a ceiling. He's in here working every day. He and (outside linebackers coach) Drew (Wilkins) are in there watching tape on everything from A to Z because that's what he does. He's dropping in coverage, and they handle all that. So, I can't say enough about his work ethic, and he has that knack.
"To me, he's a finisher at the football, whether it's a sack, a strip sack, or the play you saw on Monday night when we had Love held up and he dug the ball out. He's leading the defense. I mean, he's a vocal leader out there. Like I already said, it's crazy, because the guy is only 22 years old. He's becoming that football savant in the NFL where he sees things before they happen. He knows what's coming. That's a testament to, he and Drew Wilkins, and how hard they study the game. It's fun to watch."
Daboll said Thibodeaux is excelling within the Giants' defensive system.
"He's doing a good job with our rush plan, of how we're rushing players, whether it's with games, pressures," Daboll said. "I give him a lot of credit, but Drew, Dre (defensive line coach Andre Patterson), those guys work with him a lot. He's in there on afternoon meetings. You have the whole defense up there and different guys talk about different things in just the players meeting. It's good to be able to see him to do that, too."
Thibodeaux concurs with his coach in saying preparation is the foundation for his outstanding season.
"I study ball, and the more you study, the more you start to learn, the faster you start to learn, the faster you start to adjust and understand," Thibodeaux said. "Things have been moving a little bit faster as far as my processing and things like that. So yeah, it's been pretty good."
Because of his long hours studying opponents, Thibodeaux often reacts to a play as if he heard the call in their huddle. His anticipation is off the charts.
"Just watching the tape," was his explanation. "There are only so many directions a team can go. You think about when you watch the tape and it's like watching a movie and then going to act it out. Kind of applying that to my game and just being able to recognize things when you line up."
It's a formula that has worked perfectly for Thibodeaux and the Giants this season.
View photos of the Giants on the practice field ahead of the Week 15 matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
*Every Giants player on the active roster – and one who is not – practiced Thursday. Tight end Darren Waller was on the field for the first time since being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury on Nov. 4. No decision has been made regarding Waller's availability for the game Sunday in New Orleans.
Waller has 36 receptions this season – 20 from Daniel Jones, 16 from Tyrod Taylor and none from Tommy DeVito.
"We'll see how he does," Daboll said. "Tommy and he haven't thrown a lot of balls together since Tommy's been here. So, we'll see how it goes."
Waller and DeVito were infrequent passing game partners in training camp, but the veteran tight end has been impressed with the rookie quarterback.
"I got some work in with him in the one-on-one periods," Waller said. "I know (in the joint practices) in Detroit some and then here as well. But I've been keeping an eye on him since April. You just kind of watched everybody and saw some flashes when he first got here. It's a lot of volume in the offense but the stuff that was simple to him once he got there was just zoned it. It's like 'Woah, he's got something' so it's cool to see him capitalize."
Asked what it would mean to have Waller back in the offense, Daboll said, "It would be good. I hope he's ready to go."
*Waller was one of six players who were limited in practice, joining defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence (hamstring) and A'Shawn Robinson (hamstring/finger), tackle Evan Neal (ankle), linebacker Isaiah Simmons (ankle) and cornerback Cor-Dale Flott (shoulder).
Wide receiver Parris Campbell (knee) and linebacker Azeez Ojulari (shoulder) practiced fully.