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There’s Never Been a First Overall Pick Like Travon Walker

The former Georgia defensive end had an unremarkable college career, yet now finds himself heading to Jacksonville as this year’s top pick. The Jaguars’ bold selection is a case study in how much potential matters in the NFL draft.

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With the first pick in the 2022 NFL draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select: Travon Walker, defensive end, Georgia.

Never has the first pick garnered such a resounding, unified cry from the league fan base at large. Not one of rejoicing and celebration, nor one of jeering and booing—but a clear, resonant “... Who?”

After months of hype for Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson—a Heisman finalist for a team that made the College Football Playoff—out of the blue comes Walker, the Georgia edge rusher on the opposite sideline of Hutchinson during that playoff game. No characteristic eye black, no biographical predraft podcast. Just a good ol’ fashioned anonymous ass-kicker from the great state of Georgia.

If you didn’t really know who Walker was until this draft cycle, I don’t blame you. The list of Walker fans pretty much started and ended with the Georgia football fan base for much of his career. The no. 26 recruit in the 2019 recruiting class and one of four five-stars to join Georgia, Walker was an exciting addition to a loaded defensive line, and announced his arrival to the Bulldogs faithful with a game-sealing sack against no. 12 Auburn and SEC Freshman of the Year Bo Nix.

This is one of 2.5 sacks Walker had in his freshman year—quiet production, but understandable for a freshman in a rotation that featured several other NFL-bound defensive linemen in Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, Azeez Ojulari, Jermaine Johnson. But what’s important about Walker’s freshman season isn’t the number of sacks he recorded, but where he lined up. He was at nose tackle.

Walker was a defensive tackle for most of his first season with the Bulldogs. He was recruited as a defensive tackle—the no. 2 defensive tackle in the country, mind you. He rumbled down the field on kickoff coverage at 285 pounds. He and Davis were destined to become a dynamic pair, a dominant interior force, future first-round draft picks running side by side. Who’d care about Walker’s 2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFLs when he was an interior player?

But Walker didn’t remain an interior player. For the same reason he had to compete for rotational snaps as a five-star recruit, Walker was forced to make a positional switch entering the 2020 season. Davis and Wyatt had locked down the starting roles on the interior of Georgia’s line. Plus, four-star defensive tackle Jalen Carter arrived in Athens and immediately forced his way into the rotation.

Davis, Wyatt, Walker, Carter. All four potential first-round picks. Georgia had to find a way to get all of them on the field as much as possible. Walker was the lightest of the bunch, and had high school experience playing on the outside, so the solution was pretty straightforward: Georgia moved Walker to the outside.

Walker didn’t immediately dominate on the edge—in fact, he never really did. COVID-19 protocols took away many of Walker’s learning opportunities during the 2020 offseason, minimizing his preseason reps—and there were, of course, still four- and five-star recruits to compete with at that position, too in Ojulari, Johnson, and Adam Anderson. So he produced quietly again with one sack and two TFLs.

Then Ojulari declared for the NFL draft. Johnson transferred to Florida State. Anderson was suspended indefinitely by the team after a woman said Anderson raped her (a grand jury later indicted and charged Anderson). And there was Walker, suddenly the starting edge rusher for the national championship–bound Georgia Bulldogs.

2021 was the first season in which Walker was a starter. He played 419 defensive snaps—more than he had in the previous two seasons combined. He finally started to produce: 6.0 sacks, 7.5 TFLs—neither a team-leading number, but actually impactful numbers on the stat sheet. Then he went to the combine and posted some actual paramount numbers: a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and a 6.89-second three-cone drill at 272 pounds. All of a sudden, he was an elite athlete at one of the league’s most premium and coveted positions.

And now, Walker is the first pick. And there’s never been another first pick like him.

It took the right team for Walker to become the draft’s top selection. It’s not hard to understand why a one-year starter, ex-defensive tackle, 9.5-career-sack player isn’t the consensus top player—it’s because the first pick is almost never this unproven. The only prior first picks who started for just one season are quarterbacks. That’s Kyler Murray, the Oklahoma quarterback selected in 2019, and Cam Newton, the first pick in 2011 who took the JUCO route before winning the Heisman in his lone season as a starter at Auburn. At non-quarterback positions, there has never been a first pick with only one season as a starter since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970—that is, there hadn’t been until the Jaguars selected Walker.

It’s not that first picks have to be experienced players—rather, it’s that first picks are usually so dominant at the college level, there’s no way they don’t start for a couple of seasons. But that wasn’t true for Walker. The Georgia defense as a whole was just so dominant that there wasn’t room for Walker to start early in his career. He had to switch positions just to earn those reps.

And because he didn’t start as much as a first pick usually does, he also didn’t produce like a first pick usually does. On a per-game basis, Walker is one of the least productive edge rushers to be selected in the top five since 2008. Here’s per-game sack and TFL career production for pass rushers selected within the first five picks, with the three pass rushers who have gone first overall in that span highlighted. You tell me who sticks out.

Walker isn’t totally alone down there, which is nice—but the history detailed by the players who came before him isn’t pretty. Ziggy Ansah is the most commonly cited comparison for Walker, as the fifth pick in 2013 had only 4.5 sacks in his college career. But Ansah didn’t even know how to put his pads on three years before he was drafted in the top five. Ansah was a one-year starter like Walker, a stratospheric tester like Walker, and went on to have a delightful NFL career, with 50.5 career sacks—including 30 in his first three seasons—before injuries took him out of the league in his early 30s.

If you knew you were drafting Ansah with the first pick, you’d feel great about that. Only, you don’t. You might be drafting Tyson Jackson, the third pick in 2009. Jackson was viewed as a reach at the time, and quickly flamed out of the league. He never had more than four sacks in a season as a pro. Or you could be drafting Dion Jordan, the third pick in 2013, by the Miami Dolphins. Over 63 career games, Jordan has tallied only 13.5 sacks.

Pass rushers who weren’t productive in college don’t typically go in the top five—and when they do, they typically fail. That’s the future currently laid before Walker, and it’s difficult to make that future look prettier. Even if we scrap Walker’s 2019 and 2020 seasons, and just focus on his one year of starting in 2021, Walker still belongs to the same group of unproductive pass rushers, and falls short of Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux, the latter of whom looks far more like the typical top-five edge rusher.

There are even more mitigating circumstances to Walker’s career production, though. Even beyond the positional switch and uniquely competitive defensive line in Georgia, both of which limited his opportunities for reps and production, the “edge rusher” position that Walker plays is a lot different than the “edge rusher” position that Hutchinson and Thibodeaux play. Namely, even when Georgia was playing Walker on “the edge,” the Bulldogs were still asking him to line up directly across from the tackle, instead of lining up outside the tackle—literally on “the edge” of the offensive line. Instead of placing him out wide, in a two-point or three-point stance, to explode upfield, he was in a four-point stance, ready to initiate contact with the tackle. Just look at the difference:

This difference in alignment is critical. If you want your defensive end to rush the passer, you would never line him up directly opposite the tackle. This makes the job easy on the opposing tackle. He can set himself directly next to the guard, closing off the inside route, and force the rusher to take a long, looping path to get to the quarterback.

By alignment, Georgia was indicating that Walker’s primary responsibility was not rushing the passer. Rather, Georgia wanted Walker to play square to the tackle, oriented on strength and horizontal movement more than speed and upfield movement. He was often inside of tight ends and even kicked inside, between the tackle and the guard, to gum up interior gaps and allow the linebackers behind him to first play the pass before playing the run. On clear passing downs, Walker could use his lighter, quicker frame to win one-on-one matchups with guards on the interior, or loop and crash in blitz games to help open avenues for other pass rushers to get to the quarterback. As Steven Ruiz wrote on the Georgia defense earlier this week, Walker was often a “low gear” player in Kirby Smart’s defense—read, react, play two gaps, play the run. It’s a role that is intuitive for an ex-defensive tackle, big defensive end, “tweener” type player. It is, however, not intuitive for the modern NFL, where pass rushers are plonked directly outside of the tackle and told “no matter what, get to the quarterback.”

Walker rarely, if ever, received that edict from Smart and the Georgia defensive staff. That’s why his opportunities were so few …

… his production was so situational …

… and his skills as a traditional edge rusher are sorely lacking.

The importance of these stats should not go understated: As an “I’m going to line up opposite this offensive tackle and beat him” player, Walker is not even one of the top five in this draft. On a third-and-10 with nothing to do but hunt the quarterback, I’d rather have Hutchinson, Thibodeaux, Arnold Ebiketie, George Karlaftis, Jermaine Johnson … I’d rather have a lot of players over Walker.

Yet Travon Walker is the first pick.

Because the NFL draft isn’t about what you are—it’s about what you can be. Athletically, Walker looks like some of the truly great pass rushers in the past decade of football—most notably Aldon Smith, whom Jaguars GM Trent Baalke apparently recalls fondly when he watches Walker play. Smith was quite like Walker as an athlete: tall, long, fast, explosive. Baalke selected him seventh with the 49ers in 2011—and had that pick been in the top five, Smith would have landed about where we’d expect on our chart of college production.

Walker isn’t Smith, because Smith was already something. Walker is closer to Ansah, and Walker’s “learning how to put his pads on” moment will be those times, in the first few games of his career, when he’s expected to line up against an NFL-caliber offensive tackle and beat him, straight up. There might not be proof that he can be that player yet, but that makes it all the more exciting to imagine what he could become when given the chance.

And that’s really what this boils down to: Family Guy’s animated dullard Peter Griffin and his mystery box. Almost all draft decisions—especially the jaw-dropping ones—can be explained by Peter Griffin, who, when presented with the option between a free boat or a mystery box, selected the mystery box because “A boat’s a boat, but the mystery box could be anything! It could even be a boat!”

Walker is the mystery box. He could be anything, and with the proper development, he could really be something. And there were boats on the board. Not the boats of years past, perhaps—there was no Myles Garrett cruise liner, no Jadeveon Clowney yacht—but boats nonetheless. Hutchinson, Thibodeaux, Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu. Polished, multiyear starters with far more certain career outcomes (at least by NFL draft standards).

But they weren’t enough for Jacksonville. Enamored of the glimmering question marks on the mystery box, the Jaguars made Walker the first pick—a historic first pick in the sheer gumption necessary to make it. All you have to do is close your eyes, dream up the magical pass rusher that Walker could possibly become, and never look back.