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Kayvon Thibodeaux’s development is crucial for Giants

Expectations will be sky-high in Year 2

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Kayvon Thibodeaux was drafted to be a star. Whether that’s fair or not for a player entering his second season, the lineage of great New York Giants pass rushers is too strong for Thibodeaux not to be compared to past All-Pros every time he steps on the field.

It’s not just the media placing those expectations on Thibodeaux. Michael Strahan recently declared “this is a guy I know is gonna be a great player for the Giants.” Thibodeaux himself has said he wants to be a Hall of Famer one day.

How much closer will he come to realizing that goal in his second NFL season?

By the numbers

Height: 6-foot-5
Weight: 258
Age: 22
Position: Outside linebacker
Experience: 2
Contract: Four-year, $31.339 million rookie deal | 2023 cap hit: $7.123 million

Career to date

Thibodeaux finished his three-year career at Oregon with 19 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss. In 2021, he became the first Oregon defensive player to be named a unanimous All-American. He was also a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award, both given to the best defensive player in the nation.

At one point leading up to the 2022 draft, Thibodeaux was seen as the potential No. 1 overall pick, as was eventual Giant Evan Neal. He ended up going to the Giants at No. 5 overall, behind pass rushers Travon Walker and Aidan Hutchinson.

Thibodeaux sprained his MCL in the preseason and missed the first two games of his career. From there on out, he played at least 70% of the team’s defensive snaps in every game and made an impact both against the run and as a pass rusher. Even when he wasn’t showing up on the stat sheet, Thibodeaux showed the ability to disrupt the backfield and set up plays for his teammates.

He finished his rookie season with four sacks, 49 tackles, six tackles for loss, 45 pressures, and 13 quarterback hits in 14 games. His best work came later in the season. Three of his sacks came in his last five games. He had 19 pressures from Weeks 12-15, the eighth most in the NFL in that span. He finished the year with the highest pass-rush win rate among rookies, per PFF.

Thibodeaux flashed his true potential during a Week 14 meeting with the Washington Commanders, putting the Giants’ defense on his back in a must-win game. He returned a strip-sack fumble recovery for a touchdown and had 12 tackles (three tackles for loss) while generating consistent pressure. It was perhaps the best single-game performance by a Giants defender in recent memory.

Thibodeaux finished fourth in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, with Hutchinson the only pass rusher ahead of him.

2023 outlook

Thibodeaux’s rookie season proved he has the motor and physicality to eventually develop into a star. While it may be too much to expect Thibodeaux to reach Pro-Bowl level play this year, the hope is that his sophomore season sees him come closer to that goal.

His versatility also makes him a good fit for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who praised his high football IQ earlier this offseason.

“First of all, I love the kid himself,” Martindale said. “I said earlier he has no ceiling, and I believe that because he can do whatever he puts his mind to. We talked about last year after the season was over with, I said, ‘I think you need to get stronger in your legs and your core.’ That was his focus this year in the offseason, and you’re going to see that keep developing. He’s going to get better and better every game that he plays here.”

Thibodeaux has room to refine his technique and to start employing a wider range of pass-rush moves. His development should coincide with Azeez Ojulari’s ascent, another young pass rusher that the Giants hope will take the next step this year. Thibodeaux, though, is the one with the higher draft pedigree. He was also general manager Joe Schoen’s first draft pick. More eyes will be on him than on any other Giants defender.

The Giants don’t have much depth on the edge besides Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari. There’s potential, though, for the two of them to be cornerstones on the line for years to come.