The potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft was born with the Christian name of Yuri.
He played the trombone growing up.
He wasn’t considered the best player (or even the second- or third-best …) on his college defense, even if his defense was really good.
He hadn’t even started a college football game until last September.
Yes, it’s fair to say that this year’s draft has a little different feel to it than most years, starting right at the very top.
In a development that was unforeseeable as recently as January, Georgia EDGE Travon Walker (according to BetMGM) is now the betting favorite to be the first selection of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a mantle which Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson had held since about the conclusion of the 2022 NFL scouting combine.
The irony here is that Walker’s combine performance certainly was a massive reason why he’s the potential top pick. It just took us some time to arrive at this now very real possibility.
Prior to that, Alabama OT Evan Neal and North Carolina State OT Ikem Ekwonu each seemed to take turns as leading candidates for the top spot. Based on recent comments from Jaguars GM Trent Baalke, it appears Jacksonville has a final four of Walker, Hutchinson, Neal and Ekwonu.
Baalke appeared to be going out of his way to make the case for Walker and his massive upside last week, while simultaneously downplaying Hutchinson’s resumé somewhat.
“I think when you look at both those players, they’re both productive in their own way. (They were) used differently, totally different schemes, used differently within those schemes,” Baalke said. “… You’re looking at how they made their plays, how they were used, and then you have a vision for how you can use them. All of that plays a part, but traits are important, production is important. You weigh it all.”
Earlier Baalke sounded like a man who was at least hedging against potential public backlash for an unexpected pick at No. 1 when he said: “We worry about our board and how we have players valued.”
Now we wait. There’s a belief in league circles that Baalke, head coach Doug Pederson and owner Shad Khan might all have their individual preferences for the selection, which complicates matters. Technically, Khan (who is thought to be a Hutchinson fan, a league source indicated) could come off the top rope and overrule his GM and head coach.
Baalke also said with a smile that Pederson has implored him not to “overthink it” when it comes to the draft, which seems to keep Hutchinson in play. There are even some galaxy-brained, half-serious theories floating around that Baalke pumping up Walker over Hutchinson is thinly veiled torment aimed toward Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh — who had an acrimonious relationship with Baalke in their time together with the San Francisco 49ers — and that Hutchinson has always been the pick there.
But it certainly didn’t feel like Walker was fantasizing when he told Yahoo Sports last week that he still believes he’s very much in play for the top pick. Las Vegas now agrees heartily. Last week, Hutchinson was a -175 favorite to go first, with Walker at +140; now they’ve flipped, with Walker sitting at -175 and Hutchinson dropping to +140.
For a draft class that’s been roundly portrayed as rather blah up top, some pretty respectable 11th-hour drama is unfolding here.
So is Travon Walker worth taking first overall — or even top five, for that matter? That depends on who you ask. It’s clear he’s not your garden-variety top pick, and that appears to say as much about the top of the 2022 NFL draft as it does Walker himself. But he also might not be destined for Bustville the way some might believe.
“Perfect world, you’d like more options there, better options, picking at one,” a veteran AFC scouting director said recently. “I’ve said for a while now, (Hutchinson) might be the sixth pick in most drafts. Maybe (if 2022 Hutchinson was in last year’s draft) he goes ninth or 10th.
“But that’s not what this class is. You have to decide whether you’re gambling on the traits there or taking the safest option.”
Travon Walker’s ascension started last summer but really took off in January
Prior to the 2021 college football season, Walker was not any sort of unknown to Georgia followers. The former top-40 national high-school recruit was a coup of a commitment for the Bulldogs back in the summer of 2018, part of a wave of recruiting success for Kirby Smart and his coaching staff that eventually resulted in their national championship victory last season over vaunted Alabama, whom Georgia had not beaten since 2007.
But Walker had been stuck in the “potential” category for most of his first two college seasons, when he collected a combined 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 21 games (zero starts).
Part of this was because of the Bulldogs’ rare depth on defense. The 2020 Georgia defense featured a wealth of talent up front, with pass rushers Adam Anderson, Azeez Ojulari, Jermaine Johnson II and Nolan Smith and interior defenders such as Jordan Davis, Malik Herring, Devonte Wyatt and Jalen Carter, along with Walker.
Playing time was at a premium then, which is part of why Walker averaged a mere 22 snaps per game that season. But it’s arguable that premium carried over into 2021, when Georgia had constructed one of the best defenses in recent years, even as Ojulari and Herring graduated and Johnson transferred to Florida State. (Anderson also was suspended late in the season.)
The freakiest thing Walker had done up to that point, you might argue, was his performance as a nearly 280-pound athlete running down kickoffs — a rare sight for a player that large. On defense, however, the expectations were higher.
Former defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who is now Oregon’s head coach, set the bar high for Walker — while also noting that he hadn’t yet fulfilled expectations.
“I expect really big things to show up with him,” Lanning said last August, adding that he hoped Walker could add “a lot of TFLs, a lot of plays in the backfield. I want to see this guy running sideline to sideline. I have high expectations for Travon.
“His athleticism is really unique. He’s a guy that we’re always trying to figure out how we can incorporate in our scheme, and we’re asking him to do more this year. We’re doing more with him this year than we’ve ever done, and I think Travon has really bought into that, and it’s showing up daily out there on the practice field.”
The 6-foot-5, 272-pound Walker earned a starting role, often lining up as the 5-technique (or 4i) in the Bulldogs’ front. And Lanning was right: Georgia’s system typically asked its front-three defenders to, in a general sense, occupy gaps and free up plays for the linebackers.
Even so, Walker had a sack in his first start against Clemson, contributed to a generationally good defense and helped get his team into the national championship game, where he really made an impression.
Along with multiple pressures and a game-sealing sack to preserve the 33-18 victory over the Crimson Tide, Walker also flashed his trademark athleticism in the now-viral clip (at the 2:08 mark here) of him running down Alabama WR Agiye Hall from behind — 25-plus yards downfield.
“When I got to that play on the tape, I said, ‘Holy sh–,’” the AFC director said. “Now, that’s what I wanna see.”
To Walker, it was just another play that typifies his approach to the game. “At the end of the day, I always run to the football, regardless how far down the field it is.”
‘That’s how they should all look, but few do’
But more “holy sh–” moments for Walker followed at the NFL combine. He ran an obscene 4.51-second 40-yard dash — faster than 12 wide receivers at the event — at 6-5 and 272 pounds. Walker measured with a condor’s wingspan (84 1/4 inches), turned in video-game numbers in the vertical (35 1/2 inches) and broad jumps (10-foot-3) as well as the short shuttle (4.32 seconds) and 3-cone drill (6.89), and was a demon in the on-field positional workout.
Pair that with the strong hands, edge-setting ability and high-energy style Walker displayed on tape last fall, and the talk of him going very high in the draft didn’t sound so wild.
“(The combine workout) definitely shined a light on the skill set I have,” Walker told Yahoo Sports last week. “Just my versatility to be able to do a lot of things — move through the bags, quick feet, things of that nature.”
That really was the first time Walker could reasonably be billed as a top-10 pick. His production (37 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, six sacks, zero forced fumbles) was not typically befitting of that high a pick. In the past 10 drafts, there have been 15 defensive linemen taken in the top 10. Their average output in their final college seasons (excluding Nick Bosa, who played parts of three games in 2018): 57.5 tackles, 15.4 TFLs, 7.5 sacks and 1.9 forced fumbles.
The closest statistical comps among that group of players for Walker’s 2021 season are probably Stanford’s Solomon Thomas (61 tackles, 14 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, one forced fumble), the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft; Houston’s Ed Oliver (54 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, three sacks, one forced fumble), the ninth pick in 2019; and BYU’s Ziggy Ansah (62 tackles, 13 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble), the fifth pick in 2013.
But the difference? One, nearly all of their numbers were better on the whole. Two, Thomas and Oliver had started and performed well in previous seasons, too (Ansah, like Walker, had not).
“To me, it’s a Solomon Thomas type of situation all over again,” the AFC director said. “To me, (Thomas) was a kid who was young, athletic as heck, position-versatile and all that, and where is he now? A backup on his second team. In Year 5.
“That’s the worry (with Walker). Is he more tester than player? Can you count on him suddenly becoming a producer in the NFL? Not many can do that. At least with Hutch, you’ve seen it before already. You’ve seen it with (Oregon’s) Kayvon Thibodeaux.
“This is a projection here (with Walker), plain and simple. It’s a gamble on his traits, is what it is. But he’s got those goods: explosive, powerful, great motor, great length. That’s how they should all look, but few do.”
Nowhere are looks more deceiving than in the NFL draft. Body-beautiful, athletically blessed athletes fail all the time. Below-average physical specimens and low-round picks have played to All-Pro and even Hall of Fame levels for years. The opposite scenarios, of course, also can be true.
Which camp Walker will fall into and whether he ends up at No. 1 remain unknowns. We might not know how the first question plays out for a few years. But the second one will be answered in just a few days’ time. And if there’s ever a year to have this unorthodox of a No. 1 overall prospect, it’s probably this year.
“Trickiest top 10 we’ve had in recent memory,” the director said. “But that’s also the fun and the challenge with scouting. Jacksonville has an interesting choice here.”