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Making the case: Travon Walker or Jermaine Johnson?

Which edge defender would be a better fit for the Giants?

NC State v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The New York Giants need an edge rusher to pair with 2021 second-round selection Azeez Ojulari. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson will likely be selected before the Giants pick at No. 5 in Round 1 of the 2022 NFL Draft, and Oregon pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux is a realistic option for the Giants. But what if New York goes in a different direction, or Thibodeaux is off the board at five or seven?

In the upcoming draft, two of Ojulari’s former teammates are top 10 EDGE prospects; Georgia’s Travon Walker and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson. Walker is one of the unique size/athletic prototypes to enter the NFL draft. Johnson is a well-rounded player with violent hands, great edge-setting ability, and an array of pass-rushing moves.

It’s a classic projection vs. production debate. Walker’s utilization at Georgia didn’t necessarily maximize his production, but it’s easy to prognosticate a Sistine Chapel type of ceiling; it’s very high and looks terrific.

Johnson bet on himself several times throughout his collegiate career, and it landed him in Tallahassee for his senior season. His 2020 tape at Georgia was good, but he was the primary defender and the heartbeat of the Seminoles’ defense.

Both players are very interesting for different reasons. Let’s start with Walker as we try to make the case for the two players.

Travon Walker

These numbers are elite and quite rare for 6-foot-5, 272-pound athletes with arms longer than 35 inches. None of what we see above can be taught; Walker possesses truly freaky athletic gifts and physical talent. Walker’s maximum speed per GPS tracking data was 20.1 MPH, and he had 31 plays where we was clocked above 16 MPH. Some of Walker’s drill work at the Combine was very impressive; he was bending on tight angles with great body control, not losing any momentum, and quickly moving his feet with no wasted movements.

Georgia’s defense was filled with five-star depth, leading to a deeper rotation and fewer snaps. That - and player utilization - was why Johnson transferred to Florida State. Walker was used all over the defensive front for the Bulldogs.

Walker aligned 43 percent of the time as a left edge, 27 percent as a right edge, 22 percent of the time from 4i-2i on either side and 7 percent as a nose tackle. Walker played 596 snaps in 2021, with 381 of them rushing the passer. He had 34 pressures, five sacks, 33 tackles, 7.5 for a loss, a pass defended, and 20 STOPs.

He converted 6.8 percent of his pressures into sacks. Georgia did have a very team-oriented approach to its pass rush, which often included blitzing linebackers; the big guys up front (Walker and Jordan Davis) were - at times - tasked solely to open up pass-rushing lanes for Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall, and Quay Walker. The defensive structure is one reason why Walker’s production was lower than typical top-10 selections.

Another reason for the lack of production is the true raw nature of Walker. He is a bull inside of a china shop with a matador goading him with a red muleta while Slayer (shoutout Chris) blasts in the background.

Walker’s a power-based end with little to no pass-rushing plan. His hands are heavy, pack violence, and he can put good offensive linemen on skates. Walker also flashed reps where he showed incredible timing and ability to evade with his quickness in tight quarters. His quarterback hit against Michigan, where he spun J.J. McCarthy around, was impressive; he used a swift double swipe and then dipped his outside shoulder inside and around the guard into the A-Gap. Walker’s original alignment was a 4i-shade; impressive body control, lower body bend, and movement (Q4, 9:45).

The raw power and bull-rushing ability is evident throughout his tape, but he also shows very good closing burst into the pocket. We don’t typically see players his size move anywhere close to how he can operate when coming forward at 272 pounds.

The pure explosiveness and lateral agility, combined with a hard inside arm club, that he showed against Kentucky (Q2 third-and-12, 13:28) was exceptionally quick. It forced quarterback Will Levis to step up and scramble, ending the drive. Walker’s already an excellent run defender who is challenging to move. He uses his length well, keeps his hips low with great leverage, and uses strength/violent hands to disengage.

He also showed some ability in coverage, albeit it was minimal. Playing middle hook against Florida, he jumped underneath a route and used his length to almost intercept the pass; he got his hands on the ball, popped it in the air, and one of his teammates came away with the pick.

The flashes that Walker showed screams upside. I would not be shocked if he is the best defensive player out of this draft in 2025, but that’s no certainty. The upside is incredible with Walker, but he is very raw and needs a lot of work as a pass-rusher because winning with power consistently won’t work in the NFL.

Walker’s versatility at the NFL level will be dictated by his development, but he could realistically play all over the defensive line as he did at Georgia. He would be a dominant EVEN front end; he could be a 3-4 OLB, and he would thrive being kicked inside during passing situations. He is scheme versatile but would be best utilized in a defense that uses multiple fronts as Patrick Graham did in New York.

Jermaine Johnson

Johnson made an incredible amount of money for himself at the Reese’s Senior Bowl and the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, but it’s not like the film doesn’t substantiate his skills.

Johnson was a JUCO transfer into Georgia before leaving the Bulldogs and heading to Florida State. Johnson was one of many part-time players for the Bulldogs but was effective with the role he was asked to perform. He had 11 pressures and four sacks.

Johnson only played 189 snaps in 2020 and dropped into coverage 17 times. In 2021 with Florida State, he had 736 snaps and only dropped into coverage eight times - most of those were as a read defender off an RPO. He was much more of a true pass-rusher in a 3-3-5 defense out of a two-point and three-point stance.

Johnson aligned 41 percent of the time as a left edge, 54 percent on the right side, and 4 percent of the time as a defensive tackle. His role was defined and he was very good at getting after the passer and being an exceptional run defender.

Johnson is also a great athlete at his size. He’s a bit more explosive than Walker; albeit, his vertical jump didn’t represent that. Johnson also has very violent hands. They’re not as heavy as Walker’s hands when they land at the point of attack, but they’re quicker, more efficient, and get to counter moves much faster.

Johnson’s 2021 was impressive for many reasons. He rushed the passer 415 times out of the 736 snaps for starters. He was the lone wolf on Florida State’s defense and frequently saw chip blocks sent his way. He recorded 46 pressures and 14 sacks - a 30 percent sack-to-pressure rate, which is insanity. That’s nearly double the average edge rushers in the FBS (17 percent).

According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson’s pass-rush win rate was only 14.1 percent (ranking 79th in the FBS). Walker’s was 10.1 percent (133rd). I don’t look at those statistics and think Johnson can’t rush the passer - he can, but the win rate was lower than other top edges in this class.

Johnson also had 17.5 tackles for a loss, 70 tackles, two forced fumbles, two passes defended, and a touchdown. He also had 37 STOPs. Johnson’s sack totals could have been a lot higher. There were multiple plays where he crashed the pocket from the edge and forced the quarterback to step into pressure. He certainly deserved credit for some of his teammates’ sack production. He used speed and precision against Boston College (Q2, 15:00); from a wide alignment, Johnson used an excellent swipe of the inside hand/violent chop of the outside, followed by an inside shoulder dip and bend to flatten his angle to the quarterback for a hit that ended up being a teammates’ sack.

He used a similar move against Louisville with a well-timed swat/chop followed by a noticeable rip move to raise the tackle’s center of gravity before bursting into the pocket and sacking the quarterback (Q2, 0:55).

Johnson explodes off the ball and uses an excellent inside stutter to freeze tackles while getting hip-to-hip and bending through contact to corner. His bend is good - not elite - but his use of hands up the arc and his ability to employ counter moves will be valued. Johnson converts speed to power and has several plays where he puts tackles on skates.

The power and pop in his game are for real. He has excellent play strength, is quick, and uses his length well. His top GPS speed was 19.3 MPH, with 20 plays clocked at more than 16 MPH.

Like Walker, Johnson would make an excellent EVEN front end, but he could also play ODD front OLB. He’s not scheme-specific, even though he doesn’t have a lot of ability when dropping into coverage. Neither Walker or Johnson were used much in coverage, but both looked functionally fluid in coverage drills at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine.

Final thoughts

Both Travon Walker and Jermaine Johnson possess great power at the point of attack. Both are excellent run defenders who utilize leverage (despite their frame), and they both do an excellent job maximizing their length.

Both players are excellent tacklers who are physical, and they both play with elite competitive toughness, flying around the field and making tackles in pursuit. Walker is the better athlete with a higher upside; his collegiate production doesn’t reflect the freaky athletic ability he possesses.

Johnson is a very good athlete who produced well in his senior season. He’s almost two years older than Walker - Johnson will be 23 at the start of the season.

Joe Schoen and company more than likely love the idea of Walker with his length and potential. It’s hard to overlook, and every defensive line coach in the league is likely saying I’ll turn that guy into a star. One of those coaches will have that chance.

Walker’s ceiling could be one of the highest in the draft class, but his floor is still low, albeit I am optimistic about his development. Johnson’s ceiling is also high, but his floor is high, too. If I had to choose between the two, I’d go with Jermaine Johnson.

Johnson is more developed than Walker - a safer bet with high upside. There were too many times when Walker was stuck on blocks with a frustrating inability to disengage and effectively deconstruct the grasp of an offensive lineman. His power approach worked at times in college, but that success is difficult to replicate in the NFL.

I understand the appeal of Walker because of the unfair physical traits, heavy hands, length, and the potential of what he may become, but that’s still just potential — selecting Walker in the top 10 is a gamble. I don’t view Johnson as a gamble, so that’s my pick in this scenario.