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Making the case: Both sides of the Kayvon Thibodeaux debate

Is the Oregon pass rusher the right move for the Giants?

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Syndication: USA TODAY Chris Pietsch / USA TODAY NETWORK

This is the time of year when draft analysts put the finishing touches on their work for the current NFL draft, and start thinking about the next crop of prospects that will grab our attention in the fall.

Around a year ago, as analysts were turning from the 2021 draft cycle and beginning their work on the 2022 class, there were a few certainties inside the top five: Kyle Hamilton, Derek Stingley Jr., and Kayvon Thibodeaux.

The actual certainty? Things change.

Now all three players seeing their stock slide with the draft approaching. While Stingley perhaps stemmed the slide a bit with an impressive performance at the LSU Pro Day, the status of all three inside the top five is shakier than it was this time a year ago.

The most surprising is Thibodeaux, who a year ago seemed a lock for the top spot in the draft. Now he could slide out of the top five, and might end up the second, third or even fourth edge drafted depending on how high Travon Walker and Jermaine Johnson rise on draft night.

If he is on the board when the New York Giants are on the clock, is it a “rush to the podium” situation for GM Joe Schoen?

The case for Thibodeaux

The case for drafting Thibodeaux is, in my mind at least, an easy one.

He is an explosive player off the edge who can get home in a variety of ways. He can win with athleticism, he can win with technique, he can even with with effort. He gives a defense multiple pathways to get to the opposing quarterback, and in a league dominated by the passing game, having a player on the edge who gives you that is a valuable asset.

Let’s dive into each of those ways Thibodeaux can win off the edge. On this snap against UCLA, you see the technique. He dekes the right tackle by flashing his hands as he comes off the edge, and then pulls them back to dip under the tackle and then corners around the edge, getting to the quarterback for the sack:

These next two plays highlight his explosiveness off the edge. First against California, where he explodes off the snap and beats the tackle to the outside:

Then on this sack against Utah, you see the burst off the edge as he counters the tackle, cutting to the inside to get home for the sack:

My favorite part of this play is the pass-rushing plan you see from Thibodeaux. He sets the tackle up by pushing to the outside, threatening the right edge of the blocker. But then you see the burst and athleticism as he cuts to the inside, getting home for the sack.

Then you can see the effort, and as we will discuss in a moment, this is a big part of the conversation. On this sack against Washington State, he does not get home early in the down, as the left tackle initially locks him up. But you see the effort, as Thibodeaux transitions from a speed move into a long-arm, finally disengaging to the inside for the sack:

From where I sit, Thibodeaux checks so many boxes. He wins with athleticism, he wins with technique, and he even wins with effort. Perhaps the last piece to the puzzle was his testing numbers, but the pass rusher rounded out that part of the equation with his performance at the Oregon Pro Day recently:

What is not to love?

Apparently, a lot...

The case against Thibodeaux

This is where it gets tougher for me. As a former lawyer, I was often handed some difficult cases to make in my ill-fated legal career. But this might be one of the toughest. Because, well, I think Thibodeaux is an easy pick for any team in the top five of this draft.

But as we mentioned at the outset, the consensus seems to be trending in a different direction.

We can start with the easier aspect to this argument: The Giants might be given an offer they cannot refuse. As we have talked about this draft cycle, it appears that teams who want to guarantee they can draft their top quarterback might have a landing spot in mind in terms of a trade.

Five overall, where the Giants are first on the clock.

After all, the Carolina Panthers are sitting at six, and unless they want to roll into 2022 with Sam Darnold as their best option at the position, quarterback is likely their move. Getting to five, and ahead of the Panthers, seems like the move for QB-needy teams.

With the New Orleans Saints now holding a pair of picks in the first round, are they going to make such a move? And if you are Schoen, do you turn down a pair of picks still inside the top 20 of the draft? What if Pittsburgh comes calling, and offers you some future draft capital along with their selection at 20? Giving yourself that potential hedge on the quarterback position, and the capital to perhaps move up in next year’s draft to select a quarterback, is an appealing thought.

Of course, the follow-up question is this. Say you do trade out of five, and a quarterback goes in that spot, and another quarterback comes off at six, and Thibodeaux is still staring you in the face at seven.

Would you pass on him again?

Maybe you would. Maybe you would address offensive line, with one of the top tackles in the draft. Then later in the round you can address corner or pass rusher, as there will still be options later in the teens or in the twenties of the first round that can come in and play right away.

Again, the “passing on Thibodeaux because of a potential trade out of five” is the easier case for me to make.

The harder one is the straight-forward, we had a pair of picks at five and seven and instead of drafting him, we passed twice.

The case against Thibodeaux that has been building is ripped from the headlines provided during anonymous scout season. Questions about his effort, his passion for the game, his interests away from football. Daniel Jeremiah cited “spotty” effort recently, and Todd McShay stated that teams were concerned that Thibodeaux does not “play with the same fire as other prospects.”

These are two of the smartest, most plugged-in evaluators in the game. If they’re saying that, they’re hearing it.

To be clear, I have heard similar concerns, and from people around the game that do not have a dog in this fight, are not with teams that are going to be in position to draft him, and have seen him play in person and studied him on film.

Generally, I do not share the concerns, As we saw above, and as we can illustrate with more and more clips, the effort is there in my viewing. What might be at play is a failure on his part to counter, or hit blockers with a secondary pass-rushing move, as often as he should. As he remarked at the Combine: “Sometimes I get stalemated, sometimes I (don’t) have a second or third move, I can’t continue my pass rush and really finish through.”

We saw in the above clip an example of him showing the effort against Washington State. But as Diante Lee argued in The Athletic in his tremendous debut piece — congratulations Diante! — perhaps a change in mentality is necessary. Not with respect to effort, but approach:

A change in mentality will work wonders for Thibodeaux — and it has nothing to do with concerns over his effort or motor in this context. Thibodeaux has an elite trait at his disposal — his first step and bend — and he still hasn’t done nearly enough to maximize the threat of his speed on the edge.

Though it’s admirable that Thibodeaux thinks his way through his pass rush approach, his angles and timing are off when he tries the swipes, clubs and rips in his tool kit. Then, as he did in the second half of his 2021 game against Cal and throughout Oregon’s contest against UCLA, he’ll put together sequences of dominance that make it clear that he could be unblockable at a moment’s notice. The best pass rush technicians in the NFL — Nick and Joey Bosa — would likely trade their wide array of moves and counters for Thibodeaux’s 1.59 10-yard split. As it stands today, perfection has served as the enemy of good for the talented outside linebacker, and as he embraces his speed as his most important asset, the counter moves Thibodeaux wants to employ will be much harder to block.

If Thibodeaux leans into that speed more, he will be tougher to block, and more impactful at the next level.

Diante concludes by ranking Thibodeaux his top pass-rusher in the class. When he talks, I listen, and you should too.

Like I said, the case against Thibodeaux is much tougher to make.

Final thoughts

To me, this is an easy one. If Thibodeaux is on the board when the Giants are on the clock, it is a “run to the podium” situation. Now, if a team makes the Giants an offer they cannot refuse, offering up a bevy of draft capital in both this year and next, that makes it a tougher decision.

But absent that kind of offer, turn in the card.