Kayvon Thibodeaux was set to put on a show at the NFL combine. The former Oregon star burst across the imaginary ticker tape in early March and clocked an eye-popping 4.58-second 40-yard dash time, after already benching a position-best 27 reps of 225 pounds. The 6-foot-4, 254-pound edge rusher posted the sixth-fastest 40 time among his position group at Indianapolis that day. He seemed destined for a memorable performance. Then, suddenly, Thibodeaux decided that he was done participating in the event.
On NFL Network’s broadcast, reporter Stacey Dales explained that as defensive line drills started, Thibodeaux determined he’d wait and do both D-line and linebacker drills at his pro day in Eugene the following month. The broadcast’s coverage team sounded perplexed.
“You can do both [drills] today,” said draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, responding to host Rich Eisen when he asked whether Thibodeaux’s abrupt exit made sense. “You can go through the D-line drills and then do linebacker right after that. Yeah, I don’t love that decision. If [a scout] had some of those concerns and something bothered you about it, he could’ve put all that to bed today. Now it’s going to be a little bit of a conversation.”
Nearly two months later, that conversation has spiraled. Once the betting favorite to be the 2022 draft’s top pick, Thibodeaux has become this cycle’s Bad-Discourse Prospect. Some NFL draft analysts have started to question his effort and competitive drive, and he has slipped in mock drafts and on big boards, falling behind some of his positional peers like Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Georgia’s Travon Walker. The discussion surrounding Thibodeaux magnifies not only how this kind of annual debate is endemic to the draft industry, but also how the NFL is still evolving in understanding its draft prospects, who are entering the league with more exposure and earning opportunities than ever before.
Thibodeaux has always held a gravitas about him, a spirit that’s buoyed by curiosity and thoughtfulness. It guided him to take interest in things other than football, like chess. Thibodeaux was among the biggest names in college football to take advantage of NIL rights, teaming up with Oregon mega-donor and Nike founder Phil Knight and United Airlines. He started his own cryptocurrency, $Jream. As the nation’s no. 2 high school recruit, he said he chose Oregon over Alabama in part because of a chance to capitalize on off-field opportunities. The day before Thibodeaux’s combine performance, he sat on a podium before a media contingent curious about whether he needed to assure NFL teams that he loves football.
“I don’t think I need to convince teams [that I love football],” Thibodeaux said. “But that’s the media narrative. There always has to be some narrative that’s drawn. For me, I’m an L.A. kid and if you know the adversity I went through to get here, and the things that I had to sacrifice, and the things my mother had to sacrifice for me to be here, you’d really understand how I feel in my heart. When you talk about fire, when you talk about passion, I think you can’t really explain it.”
There’s no Pro Football Focus metric that measures passion. In-game speed tracking can provide a glimpse of a player’s individual effort, but can’t quantify one’s internal drive. That’s where getting to personally know a player and learning what makes them tick is a crucial step for NFL teams during the draft process.
Chad Brown is the CEO and chief strategist of a software and consulting company called Profile. The company provides 20-minute behavioral assessments to players based on the DISC personality test, an exam devised to help enhance communication and team development. Before the NFL altered its psychological testing procedures at the combine in 2017, Brown, a former college football coach, spent three years working at the event as a consultant for all 32 teams. He still works with the Cowboys and consults for college football squads, in addition to college basketball and NBA teams.
“I believe that [NFL] upper management, the front offices, and the personnel departments absolutely believe and work hard at behavioral analysis,” Brown recently told The Ringer, “because it’s a data point that they can see.” But while front offices are more willing to adhere to behavioral analysis in studying prospects, Brown said that coaches aren’t typically as open to learning about it in-depth. “There’s a lot of traditional mindsets with age and longevity and tenure,” he said. Brown explained that when coaches or scouts say a player doesn’t work hard, full context needs to be considered as to why. That’s where criticism of Thibodeaux’s effort misses the mark.
Last year, the draft community praised now-Jets quarterback Zach Wilson’s hours-long drives from Utah to California to train with former NFL QB John Beck; Thibodeaux at one point made daily 80-mile commutes to high school. Top 2021 prospects such as Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons faced minimal judgment for opting out of the 2020 season; despite having been considered a highly rated prospect for years, Thibodeaux played this past season, and even returned to the field for Oregon after suffering an early-season ankle injury. Before the season started, the biggest concern surrounding Thibodeaux as a prospect was his lack of secondary pass-rush moves. Worries over his inconsistent motor weren’t raised until after the season, a good portion of which he played on a bum ankle. “I’ve always looked at college as a pit stop to kind of set up my life for the future,” Thibodeaux said last June. Even still, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that his effort wasn’t lackluster.
The buzz word that kept popping up when NFL Network discussed Thibodeaux’s early combine exit was “compete.” Jeremiah commended Thibodeaux for competing by playing his junior season at Oregon, as well as for returning from his ankle injury. Former NFL linebacker and current analyst Willie McGinest, who’s known Thibodeaux for years, said, “At the end of the day, these dudes gotta do what’s best for them. I don’t think it’s an effort thing or anything about competing if a guy decides to not wanna do the drills.”
Competitiveness doesn’t manifest itself in the same way for every prospect. “Is competitiveness what we think it is?” Brown posited. “There’s definitely [mentalities of] ‘I want to win in checkers. I want to win in video games. I just want to win all the time.’ But what about people that want to constantly learn and develop? They listen to podcasts, they constantly study film, they’re learning from mentors.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, show me Tom Brady’s score and then I’ll take this kid over here who scored like Tom Brady,’” Brown added. “Not how it works.”
Hutchinson’s football obsessiveness has been considered one of his hallmark traits during the draft process. It makes sense: His father, Chris, also played along the defensive line at Michigan, so he was born into a football family. Hutchinson’s commitment to football has gone unquestioned over the past few months, even as he released a multi-part podcast series with PFF this month. Thibodeaux might not be as obsessed, but he revealed a competitive streak during his pro day at Oregon a few weeks ago. “The most ridiculous thing I’ve heard is that I’m not the best player in the draft,” he told reporters. “I really don’t listen to anything else, but to me, that’s outrageous. With the film, with the numbers and what I can do as far as my ability, I have confidence in what I can do.”
The top 2022 edge rushers in pass rush snaps leading to a "win" per @PFF_College:— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) April 5, 2022
Kayvon Thibodeaux: 37.1%
Aidan Hutchinson: 37.0%
Arnold Ebiketie: 34.7%
George Karlaftis: 28.3%
David Ojabo: 28.0%
Boye Mafe: 24.7%
Jermaine Johnson: 19.8%
Travon Walker: 13.8%
Every year, there is at least one prospect who comes under this kind of bizarre scrutiny. Whether it’s boredom with having seen the same player for an extended period of time, fatigue from the draft process itself, smoke screens, or something else, there’s always one, and it can influence where a player is drafted. Last year, it was Justin Fields, the former Ohio State quarterback whose work ethic and drive came into question. Justin Herbert, now one of the NFL’s best QBs, was scrutinized for his leadership style ahead of the 2020 draft. Ahead of the 2018 draft, Josh Rosen received criticism for being outspoken on his political views and his displeasure with the college football model. Lamar Jackson, a former Heisman winner who went on to win league MVP, faced questions over his Wonderlic score and hiring his mother as his agent. (There was also the Bill Polian thing.) Thibodeaux’s scrutinous process best rivals that of former no. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney—one of five recruits to ever receive a perfect rating from 247Sports—faced all kinds of questions about his motor and work ethic leading up to the 2014 draft. The Texans still drafted the former South Carolina pass rusher with the first pick. Because of external expectations for his career, some view the three-time Pro Bowler as a letdown. So perhaps that’s why some found it curious when Thibodeaux said at the combine that he views himself as being “Jadeveon 2.0.”
“I feel like I have the skills and I have a hunger to keep going,” Thibodeaux said. “And I’m gonna steal pass-rush moves. If I see something I like, I’m gonna add it to my toolbox.”
As for where Thibodeaux could best fit, Brown suggested that it depends on the team’s coaching staff. A traditional group with an old-school mentality might decide that Thibodeaux isn’t as competitive as he should be, but a more open-minded staff could better serve his development.
“If you go back to Thibodeaux and his point about having outside interests and there being more to life than football, with social media, with technology, with the internet, with life in general today,” Brown said, “there are more opportunities for young people. They are more educated through those streams, so the coaches that are traditional, many refuse to adapt.”
It’s possible that Thibodeaux won’t hear his name called until the fourth pick or beyond. The Lions were once seen as the favorite to take him at no. 2, but that scenario is fading. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, a league executive said that Thibodeaux’s “personality is a lot and you hear [Detroit’s] head coach isn’t a fan.” New York Daily News Jets reporter DJ Bien-Aime tweeted Monday that NFL executives have suggested Hutchinson and Walker are likely to be the top two edge rushers drafted, and the third edge rusher could be a “coin flip” between Thibodeaux and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II.
There’s still a week before the draft, but Thibodeaux will likely remain the lightning-rod prospect. At his pro day earlier this month, a reporter told Thibodeaux that everything he does creates headlines. Even as he’s remained out of the spotlight for the past few weeks, he’s generated plenty of debate regardless.
“I love it,” Thibodeaux said, seemingly unbothered. “I love it in the sense [that] I just think it’s something to talk about. And as long as people are talking about me, I consistently stay [true] to who I am, and I know that I’m doing everything in my power to do things the right way, and I talk to the coaches, and I’m creating a relationship and doing the things with the coaches? I’ll let the media run wild. You guys can make [of it] what you want. Just gets me more followers.”