Kayvon Thibodeaux was a star in college football, but he's about to join a league chock-full of players who can say the same thing.
So, how will he handle the quantum leap, especially if things don't start out well?
The New York Giants, Thibodeaux said, wanted to know the answer to that question during their combine interview with the 6-foot-5, 258-pound edge rusher out of Oregon.
"Just giving me a hard time like what's going to happen if I'm not the star coming in?" Thibodeaux recalled of the conversation. "Five games in, if I don't have a sack – this is one thing we talked about – the media is going to be down on me. I'm going to be in the doghouse. How am I going to [handle] that? And I let them know I've been in the media since I was a sophomore in high school. So I've been trained for this my whole life, and I know that most of it is entertainment. So I'm not really worried because whatever happens between the four walls of the team and the organization is what's going to dictate the future. And if I have five bad games, we're going to focus on that next week and how we're going to dominate the team that is next."
That is easier said than done for some. After all, the pressure in a big-time media market like New York is a little different than the comforts of the Ducks' campus in Eugene.
"We had a great interview," said Thibodeaux, ranked No. 7 in Daniel Jeremiah's top 50 prospects. "They were kind of on me. They were giving me a hard time, but you know, I feel like it was like that big brother moment where they give you a hard time because they're interested in you and they like you. So, for me, just showing them that … I grew up in a big city, so a big city is nothing new to me."
View photos of 2022 draft prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux.
From South Central Los Angeles, Thibodeaux was named the USA Today High School Defensive Player of the Year and became the highest-rated signee in Oregon history. He immediately made an impact, setting the program freshman record with a team-high 9.0 sacks and leading the nation with 7.0 fourth-quarter sacks.
He lived up to the hype then, and now NFL clubs must decide if they think he can do it again.
"I think the biggest thing I want to articulate to teams is that I'm really a student of the game," he said. "I really love this game. This is something that has done a lot for me. Football has taught me a lot. It's helped me grow a lot through my life. It'll be there until the day I die. So, for me, just letting teams know that this is the main thing and I'm always going to keep the main thing the main thing. No matter what else I do off the field, football is my main focus and winning a Super Bowl, getting a yellow jacket, being Defensive Rookie of the Year is on my list of goals."
If Thibodeaux checks all of his boxes, he will be a tremendous piece for any NFL team. And he doesn't plan on being a pawn.
"Chess is life, and chess is football," said Thibodeaux, who learned chess the hard way from his uncles and determined to get better by playing on-line. "You talk about your first move, and your first move is going to set up your second move, and then you've got to think about your third move ahead. So when you talk about pass rush, I'm going to hit you with speed first. I'm always going to hit you with speed, speed, speed. And that's going to set up my power moves, and then my power moves are going to set up my counter."
There aren't many chess players who would want to go up against Thibodeaux, so he applies another sports analogy.
"It's a heavyweight match, like a boxer," he said. "You've been giving him the jab, jab, jab, you want to come with a hook, change it up. Just having that longevity and realizing that, when the fourth quarter comes, you've got to put it all together."
View photos from the Giants' suite in Indianapolis, where the team is gathered to evaluate the top draft prospects.
Thibodeaux was among the group of defensive linemen and linebackers who were scheduled to meet with the media on Friday at the combine. Here's a look at the other top prospects:
EDGE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan (No. 1 in Jeremiah's top 50)
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 265 lbs.
A rundown of Hutchinson's accolades:
- Heisman Trophy runner-up (2021), the third defensive player to finish second in the history of the award
- 2021 Woodson-Nagurski Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
- 2021 Smith-Brown Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year
- 2021 Consensus All-American
- 2x All-Big Ten
- 2x Team Captain
With a resume like that, he doesn't have to say much to NFL teams. Nevertheless, he was asked what his message is to clubs this week in Indianapolis.
"That they should take me and because I am a I'm a very good football player," he said. "And I'm a guy who's very confident my ability."
There you have it.
Jeremiah's scouting report: "Hutchinson is an ultra-productive edge rusher with ideal size, quickness and polish. He stood up this past season in defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald's system at Michigan. As a pass rusher, he has a quick first step and a wide array of hand moves to generate pressures/sacks. He's collected wins with dip/rip moves, quick hand swipes, long inside-arm bull rushes and swim moves. He can feel when OTs overset and he is quick to counter inside. He also has the ability to grab and control the wrist of his opponent. He doesn't have elite bend at the top of his rush, but once free, he has an impressive closing burst. In the run game, he holds the point of attack and his effort is nonstop on the backside. Hutchinson isn't in the same class as the Bosa brothers, but he's not far behind."
LB Nakobe Dean, Georgia (No. 8 in Jeremiah's top 50)
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 225 lbs.
Dean said he met with the Giants and was asked how he could fit Don "Wink" Martindale's system, which is known for its aggressiveness and creativity.
"Not to get too technical, I feel like I can be a great fit in any defense," he said. "At Georgia, we were able to run 4-2-5, 3-4, 4-3 [schemes]. We ran basically all different types of personnel. So I just feel like I have to get in with a system, learn it, and I feel like I can thrive at any one."
Dean was named to the AP & Coaches' All-SEC 1st Team and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year by Pro Football Focus. He was one of four permanent team captains on the Bulldogs' national championship team and a semifinalist for the 2021 Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the outstanding defensive player of the year.
Jeremiah's scouting report: "Dean is an undersized linebacker with exceptional instincts and play-making ability. Against the run, he is quick to read, flow and fill for tackles. He is two steps ahead of everyone on the field because of his combination of knowledge, vision and instincts. He has excellent speed and range. He is a firm, chest-up tackler with a high batting average in space. Against the pass, he has the athleticism to match up with RBs and TEs underneath. He has good feel and burst to close as a zone dropper. He is an outstanding blitzer, utilizing timing and the ability to slip blockers for sacks/pressures. The Georgia staff raves about his leadership. Dean reminds me a lot of Jonathan Vilma coming out of Miami."
LB Devin Lloyd, UTAH (No. 9)
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 235 lbs.
Lloyd also said he met with the Giants and talked about his playing style.
"I'm somebody who hunts, I get to the ball, but also, I'm very calculated in my moments," he said. "And I'm somebody who's just an instinctual player, that plays with physicality, plays with instincts. Somebody who just really smart and nasty."
Jeremiah's scouting report: "Lloyd is a tall, rangy linebacker with excellent versatility and production. He split time between lining up on the edge and at inside linebacker. Against the pass, he can run and mirror TEs all over the field. He is very instinctive as a zone dropper, able to anticipate, drive and make plays on the ball. His ball skills are special for a linebacker (SEE: pick-six against Stanford). Lloyd is an effective blitzer off the edge, displaying a burst to close and wreak havoc in the backfield. Against the run, he plays downhill and uses his length to play off of blocks and collect tackles. He has excellent lateral range. He does have some stiffness in space, but is a reliable tackler. I love Lloyd's play speed, passion and aggression. He has Pro Bowl potential."
EDGE Travon Walker, Georgia (No. 10)
Height: 6-5 | Wight: 275
Walker said he has met with the Giants, who drafted his former college teammates Azeez Ojulari and Tae Crowder.
"Playing with those guys, it would make it just seem like I'm just at home again," Walker said. "Because I know they were great leaders at the University of Georgia, and I know they're great leaders now from the career that they're on. It would mean a lot."
Jeremiah's scouting report: "Walker is a versatile edge defender with exceptional length and athleticism. He primarily aligned on the edge, but played inside, too. As a pass rusher, he isn't ultra-explosive, but he's smooth and powerful. He loves to widen the offensive tackle with his upfield rush before using his inside arm to jolt and walk him back to the QB. He also flashes a quick swipe move to create pressures. He's very disruptive, but he's left some sacks on the field because of missed tackles. The Bulldogs dropped him into coverage quite a bit, and he's made some incredibly athletic plays, including one particular pass breakup versus Florida. Against the run, he dominates with his length and power at the point of attack. He destroys tight ends. I believe Walker's best football is ahead of him."
EDGE George Karlaftis, Purdue (No. 16)
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 275 lbs.
Karlaftis described himself in one word: "relentless."
He added, "That's how I approach life, how I approach the game, in terms of my technique, in terms of how I play, my motor, my effort. Everything about it is relentless."
Jeremiah's scouting report: "Karlaftis has outstanding size, power and instincts off the edge, but he doesn't have ideal length. As a pass rusher, his best weapon is converting speed to power. He explodes upfield before jolting tackles with his hands and powering through them. He also will flash a nifty arm-over or spin move on occasion. He has a GPS system to feel and locate the QB once the passer tries to escape the pocket. Even if Karlaftis gets stuck early in the play, he refuses to stay blocked and creates late pressure. He isn't a bendy/loose athlete at the top of his rush, though. Against the run, he sets the edge easily against single blocks and he shoots gaps to split double teams. Overall, Karlaftis reminds me a lot of another former Boilermaker, Ryan Kerrigan."
EDGE David Ojabo, Michigan (No. 18)
Height: 6-5 | Weight: 250 lbs.
A consensus All-Big Ten selection, Ojabo set the Wolverines record for most forced fumbles in a season with five and learned a thing or two plaing alongside Hutchinson.
"Coming into this season, he was a projected top-five pick, so I knew already that's a high-level guy," Ojabo said. "It was a smart thing to do to get in his hip pocket, and in my head, I thought if I do what he did, I'll be top five. So I just latched on, did everything he did, workouts, film, even asked him about his eating, sleeping habits, all that.'
Jeremiah's scouting report: "Ojabo was a very productive edge rusher for the Wolverines despite sharing play time. He has ideal size, explosiveness and fluidity for the position. He has a dynamic get-off and once he gets to the top of his rush, he can bend and flatten to the quarterback. His hands are still a work in progress. The dip/rip move is his bread and butter, but he needs to add to his arsenal. He does flash the ability to generate power and is an outstanding finisher, often dislodging the ball upon arrival. He is raw against the run. He turns his shoulder instead of using his hands to hold the point of attack. Overall, Ojabo is still learning how to play the game, but he has as much talent as any pass rusher in this draft."