Before I get into the reason I took Kayvon Thibodeaux in the 2022 SB Nation NFL mock draft, let me first say that the Detroit Lions will have an extremely difficult decision on their hands. I think sound arguments could be made for at least three other players in this spot.
Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton very well could be the best, safest pick in the draft, fits a huge need for the Lions, and I believe concerns about positional value are overstated. It’s also hard not to be enthralled by the athletic traits and versatility of Georgia edge defender Travon Walker. If he reaches his full potential—a huge if—he could be the best defensive lineman in the draft. And, of course, there’s Malik Willis. The timing to draft a quarterback couldn’t be more perfect for the Lions, and there’s no guarantee they’ll have the opportunity to pick this high again any time soon—even if they aggressively try to trade up in future years.
But ultimately, Detroit would be taking on far too much risk with these picks. Walker and Willis may have the physical traits, but there’s no guarantee they become the best version of themselves, even if Detroit has a ton of confidence in their coaching staff. Hamilton, in my opinion, is going to be a very, very good player in this league, and I would not be surprised to see him be the pick here, but Lions general manager Brad Holmes said Detroit needs a “game-changer” with the No. 2 pick, and I’m not sure Hamilton is that guy—especially when a player like Kayvon Thibodeaux, who plays a premium position, is still on the board.
I will start by saying I think Aidan Hutchinson is absolutely the pick if he’s still on the board, but Thibodeaux shouldn’t be thought of as a consolation prize—more of a 1B to the Lions’ 1A.
Let’s start with the culture fit to get it out of the way. I don’t believe the concerns about Thibodeaux’s character should be outright ignored, because we know how much Detroit values character when acquiring new players. There has been plenty of smoke regarding Thibodeaux’s love for the game, with some anonymous coaches and scouts wondering “how important is football to him?”
If there’s fire with that smoke, Thibodeaux will be off Detroit’s board completely. Head coach Dan Campbell, speaking not specifically about Thibodeaux, made that abundantly clear last week when meeting with the local media.
“Does he love ball? Because if you’ve got all the other stuff and you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Some questions… pfffft. It’s not worth it,” Campbell said.
But from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, Thibodeaux’s love for the game should not be questioned. Some may be turned off by his interests in things outside of football, but there’s no indication football doesn’t come first. You don’t get to where Thibodeaux has in the pre-draft process without a clear devotion to the game.
Others seem turned off by a certain amount of perceived arrogance, but that couldn’t be further from how I perceive the player. Recently a quote from Thibodeaux went viral in what seemed like a blatant attempt to defame his character. Courtesy of “Good Morning Football”:
Imagine turning this full quote into this.— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) April 5, 2022
Just not a good look from a show I typically respect. pic.twitter.com/00rlOIAy7K
“There’s nothing [a coach] could tell me that I don’t already know.”
Yikes, that guy sounds uncoachable! Stay away!
Except, the full context of the quote actually reveals a player who is somewhat humble about his own game. Here’s the quote after being asked what his weaknesses are:
I’d tell the coach there’s nothing he can tell me that I don’t already know, and that’s because I’m honest with myself and I watch the tape. If you’re a student of the game, you know what you could get better at, and for me, I feel like sometimes I get stalemated, sometimes I can’t have a second or third move, I can’t continue my pass rush and really finish through. I feel like there were a couple sacks that were left out there because I got stuck on blocks, so just getting off blocks and creating that extra move to finish through.
He refers to himself as a student of the game, admits he has faults, and is working like hell to improve him. Sounds like a Dan Campbell guy to me.
Now that we’re nearly 800 words into this, let’s start talking about what makes Thibodeaux an awesome player, and it starts with that explosive first step—which just so happens to be the one common trait amongst all elite pass rushers in this league. He matches that step with elite athleticism in every other facet of the game, including the all-important bend around the edge that should give offensive tackles hell at the next level.
And unlike Walker, these athletic traits translating to production is not theoretical. Thibodeaux racked up 9.0 sacks in his first year as mostly a rotational player, and nearly matched it last season despite only playing in 11 games and dealing with an ankle injury for the majority of the year. His pressure rate—which ESPN’s Seth Walden points out translates almost completely linearly to NFL production—was among the best in this year’s class:
This is, in my view, quite concerning for Travon Walker -- who had just an 8% pressure rate in college.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) April 7, 2022
Here's where he, Hutchinson, Thibodeaux and Bonitto (!) stand on the x axis of this chart. pic.twitter.com/NVrN70TJhe
There may be some concerns about his fit in Detroit now that they’ve said they will be employing more four-down sets, and Thibodeaux is coming from a 3-4 scheme at Oregon. And, yes, he will have to improve as a run defender at the next level.
But what Thibodeaux provides as a pass rusher in this league is rare and extremely coveted. The Lions finished 30th in sacks, 29th in pressure rate, and 31st in team pass rush win rate. Thibodeaux will immediately improve the weakest point in Detroit’s defense. Perhaps the best part about him is that his physical tools will make him a Day 1 impact player, and he has a lot of room to improve his technique, meaning his ceiling could even be higher than his college level of production.
Lions general manager Brad Holmes recently said that with the No. 2 overall pick, you need to get a game-changer with such high draft capital. Ask anyone that followed Oregon football for the past three years. They’ll all tell you Thibodeaux changed the game.
Best players remaining:
- Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
- Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
- Charles Cross, T, Mississippi State
- Ikem Ekwonu, T, NC State
- Evan Neal, T, Alabama