With the 2022 NFL Draft less than three weeks away, The 33rd Team’s recent Wednesday Huddle featured former Los Angeles Chargers Defensive Coordinator John Pagano and former Head Coach Wade Phillips analyzing three of the top edge rushers in this year’s draft: Aidan Hutchinson – Michigan, Kayvon Thibodeaux – Oregon, and Travon Walker – Georgia.
The first round kicks off on April 28, and a controversial topic among pundits has revolved around the evaluation of this year’s top edge rusher talent. Running through many minds at this point is the question, “who will be the first edge rusher off the board, and in what order will the rest go?”
Each of these players present their own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and ideal positional fits, which Phillips and Pagano explored.
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan
Hutchinson exploded onto the scene this past season for the Wolverines, earning a spot in New York as a Heisman Finalist and garnering 78 first-place votes. Hutchinson posted 14 sacks (4th highest in the FBS and Michigan program record) and an FBS-high 94.5 PFF defensive grade. The Heisman Finalist was also elected unanimously as a First-Team All-American.
“What truly stands out on film is his high football IQ,” said Pagano, “He looks like a smart player on tape.”
Hutchinson paired with potential first-round pick David Ojabo on Michigan’s front seven in 2021, contributing to a dominant defense including potential first-round pick Daxton Hill. In no small part to Hutchinson’s efforts, Michigan won their first Big Ten championship since 2004.
Hutchinson, regarded as a polished defensive player, is technically refined.
“He always has a rush plan, and he uses his hands well . . . he takes what the offensive tackle gives him,” said Pagano. “At 6-foot-6 and 266 pounds, he is somebody who can still run. He has the play strength to keep [offensive tackles] off him. He is one of the best off the edge.”
Nevertheless, Hutchinson has received criticism about his below-average arm length, which could potentially cause difficulties against professional talent. “There’s a knock on his 32 and 1/8” arms, but I never saw that come up in his play—he plays hard,” Pagano added.
When former NFL General Manager and Executive Vice President Mike Tannenbaum asked Coach Pagano whether he had any concerns about coaching players who have short arms as pass rushers, Pagano ultimately said no. Pagano thought of Melvin Ingram, whom he coached during his time with the Chargers.
“[Ingram} measured in around 31 inches, but we could [scheme around it],” Pagano said. “We had to try and create certain things for him.” Pagano shared that they created favorable situations for Ingram by “using his quickness and speed and getting him those one-on-one matchups inside with guards but also strike and separate.”
Although Ingram has enjoyed a primarily successful career, Pagano shared the downside of short arms.
“Did it hurt him at times? Yeah, sure. Linemen could get into him, and he did not have [the length],” said Pagano. On the other hand, “he also was quick enough and strong enough to slip many of those blocks.”
Overall, Hutchinson figures to be a significant contributor at the next level.
“He’s solid in everything he does. This kid loves football — bottom line.”
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
Thibodeaux has been a force to be reckoned with for the Ducks’ defense. Thibodeaux entered D-I football as ESPN300’s top recruit in the 2019 class. In 2021, Thibodeaux’s collegiate career reached a fever pitch. Like Hutchinson, he was selected as a unanimous First Team All-American and tacked on his second First Team All-Pac 12 selection. The 2020 Morris Trophy winner logged nine sacks in 11 games during his 2021 campaign. All the while, Thibodeaux posted the fourth-highest PFF pass-rush grade (91.5) in the FBS among players with at least 560 snaps, not to mention a position-best 27 reps on the bench press at the combine.
Pagano began his discussion of Thibodeaux by remarking on his athletic ability.
“Watching Thibodeaux, you see quick twitch,” said Pagano. “Coach Philips brought it up a bunch, and Shawne Merriman was a lot like this player. The scheme he was in, he was squared up, and he did a good job with it,” said Pagano.
Despite the good, Thibodeaux’s report presents two issues: (1) a potential motor problem; and (2) lower-body stiffness.
“He has a tendency to stop, watch, and not truly finish,” Pagano added. “Coach Wade [Philips] always taught us that you can coach effort and demand it. That’s something that would have to be addressed, and it starts with Day One.
“It is a non-negotiable deal that they will be running to the football, and that is how it has to be.”
Elsewhere, Pagano and Phillips both felt that Thibodeaux didn’t have ideal bend for the position.
“His stiffness worries me a bit,” said Phillips, “he won’t be able to bend around the corner and make some of those plays.”
Overall, Thibodeaux’s upside on passing downs and in run defense is too high to ignore. He has a high chance to hear his name called within the top 10 picks come April 28.
“He is a physical player that has great get-off that is going to play the run,” Pagano says. “He is able to really close down the line and hit the ball carrier.”
Travon Walker, Georgia
Walker was a pivotal contributor to Georgia’s top-ranked defense in 2021. A former four-star recruit in the class of 2019, Walker will leave college football as a national champion. He was an eye-opener at the combine, where he tested in the top four for the position in the 40-yard dash (4.51), 3-cone agility (6.89), and 20-yard shuttle (4.32). Those numbers are awe-inspiring considering his stature at 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds. The former SEC Defensive Newcomer of the Year played all over Georgia’s defensive line, rushing from the edge and from inside.
“What a big, strong player Travon is. He’s got heavy hands,” said Pagano. “Very strong, athletic, big, physical player.”
Walker provides positional versatility in the NFL, where he could potentially fill out and slot in at the 5-tech, play traditional 4-3 defensive end, or play 3-4 outside linebacker.
“You can see him play 3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE,” added Phillips. “His versatility is good.”
Where Walker thrives is in the open field, leveraging his athletic ability to make plays.
“He’s fast, he’s got closing speed, and shows some speed-to-power ability,” said Pagano. “His ability to play out in space is impressive.”
“He also uses his heavy hands to strike, separate and find the ball carrier. He’s got explosive burst.”
Walker comes into the NFL rather unpolished, though. “There are still not many clips where you see him truly on the edge because of the amount of depth and personnel Georgia has,” said Pagano.
The potential top ten pick also has issues getting off the line.
“Probably a big weakness for him is slow get-off,” said Pagano. “At times, you don’t know if he’s keying on the man or the football.”
There are also concerns about his lack of production at the college level. Walker only accrued 9.5 career sacks in college.
“Would you be concerned if the team told you they were taking him in the top 10 and he does not have the production?” asked Tannenbaum.
“Production still matters. It just depends on the player,” answered Phillips. “They do not have to have the most sacks of anyone coming out [of college]. It is a factor you have to worry about a little bit unless his physicals are so good that he is going to overcome that.”
At the same time, Walker’s relatively low level of sack production could have other causes. There are several instances on tape where Walker put himself in a position to make a play on the quarterback but could not bring him down.
“[Lack of] ability to finish was something I saw a bunch on tape, but that was more of an issue of him not bringing his feet,” said Pagano.
Overall, Walker offers the tools on the edge that NFL evaluators covet. Georgia has been pushing out talent in their front seven in recent years, beginning with former top ten pick and recent Super Bowl Champion Leonard Floyd. Since Floyd’s draft selection, Georgia has also contributed Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, and Azeez Ojulari. Walker appears to be the next Bulldog to hear his name called by the end of the month.
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