There were plenty of questions about Kayvon Thibodeaux coming out of Oregon. How much did the star edge defender love the game? How hard did he really work? Did he take plays off? How good would he really be in the NFL?
After a rookie year that saw him earn only 4.0 sacks and be overshadowed by rookie edge defender Aidan Hutchinson of the Detroit Lions, some wanted to call him a bust.
These days, no one should be calling Thibodeaux anything other than a star. His 11.5 sacks leads the New York Giants, and he is one of only nine players to reach double-digit sacks in his first 11 games of his age 22 season.
Thibodeaux turns 23 on Friday, and the future is bright for the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
One of the reasons for that is that his 2023 production, which includes three forced fumbles and 14 quarterback hits, hasn’t been an accident. It’s because he has, in the eyes of defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, answered those work ethic questions and shown a voracious appetite for studying the game.
Martindale has often said Thibodeaux has “no ceiling.”
“We’ve talked about it before, and I’ve thought about it even more. I said that the guy has no ceiling. You remember me saying that before. The reason why he doesn’t have a ceiling is because he doesn’t allow himself to have a ceiling,” Martindale said. “He’s in here working every day. He and [Outside Linebackers Coach] Drew [Wilkins] are in there watching tape from everything from A to Z because that’s what he does. He’s dropping in coverage, and they handle all that. So, I can’t say enough about his work ethic, and he has that knack.
“To me, he’s a finisher at the football, whether it’s a sack, a strip sack, or the play you saw on Monday night when we had [Packers quarterback Jordan] Love held up and he dug the ball out. He’s leading the defense. I mean, he’s a vocal leader out there. Like I already said, it’s crazy, because the guy is only 22 years old. He’s becoming that football savant in the NFL where he sees things before they happen. He knows what’s coming. That’s a testament to, like I said, he and Drew Wilkins, and how hard they study the game. It’s fun to watch.”
Thibodeaux talked about the benefits of those study habits this week.
“I study ball, and the more you study, the more start to learn, the faster you start to learn, the faster you start to adjust and understand so yeah, things have been moving a little bit faster as far as my processing and things like that,” Thibodeaux said. “Just watching the tape. There are only so many directions a team can go. You think about when you watch the tape and it’s like watching a movie and then going to act it out. Kind of applying that to my game and just being able to recognize things when you line up.”
Nearing the end of his second NFL season, Thibodeaux believes his body is better prepared for the grind of a full season after an offseason and training camp focused on conditioning.
“I feel like things are paying off in the sense of how I feel health-wise, weight, size, things like that, strength. At the end of the season, things are feeling pretty good so yeah, I’m excited to finish this back half,” Thibodeaux said. “This is what I thought I was going to be.”
Thibodeaux said he has actually added some weight during the season, whereas last season he lost weight and wore down as the season neared its end.
“That feels great. My conditioning feels great,” he said. “I played the same number of games leading up to now but I missed four games last year. So, I feel stronger. I feel good. We’re in Week 15 of the season. It feels great.”
Thibodeaux said that even though the numbers may not have reflected it last season, he feels as though he has played well from the beginning.
“I’m happy things are clicking even more, and I’m getting the numbers and the stats, and hopefully we start to continue to get the wins. But yeah, I think I’ve been playing good ball,” he said. “I think people just want to write stories. And for me, I’m okay with being the headline, I just want it to be new ones or fresh ones, or something that tells the real story of goal setting and reaching those goals. Because everything that I’m doing now, I had these goals. It’s not new. I never thought I was going to do anything different. I just keep working until time pays off.”
He is certainly paying off big for the Giants.