Pick by pick analysis of the first round of the NFL Draft
The players, the schemes, the fits, the decisions
I guess we have Christian Kirk and Trent Baalke to thank for last night’s fun and games. 27 first-round picks were traded in the end. Two picks were traded three separate times. After a ho-hum, chalky start, teams spent the better part of three hours trying to slip and slide into just the right spot to squeeze maximum value out of their pick while still landing Their Guy TM.
That leads us to the ninth annual edition of Spending Too Many Words Breaking Down Each First Round Selection: the players, the scheme fit, the possibilities.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Travon Walker, Edge, Georgia
It became clear over the last fortnight that Walker would be the first overall pick. The Jags are in desperate need of some pass-rushing juice. Trent Baalke was always going to bet on the upside of a player with unusual traits over college production.
Walker fits the bill. He is a vintage tweener. At heart, he’s a big edge who can serve as a run-down enforcer before shuffling inside to offer some interior rush in obvious pass-rushing situations. Think of the Michael Bennett role (the question, I guess, is whether you would take a peak-of-his-powers Michael Bennett first overall? I think I would). Walker is an all-world run defender whose brief at Georgia was to play line-up in reduced fronts and knife to the path of the center. With long arm and burst, he was as good an interior, get-off-and-crash run defender in the SEC. He might not have always been the guy around the ball, but his penetration and tenacity forced runs to spill and kept the Georgia linebackers clean so that they can fly to the ball.
The question is what he can become as a pass-rusher. Georgia’s defense stuck Walker inside in a tight, 4i/heavy-5 alignment – in a squat stance.
It’s not a typical pass-rushing spot — and nor was that his role within the larger machine. He wasn’t unleashed as a traditional edge-rusher, lining up in a wider alignment or even consistently as a traditional 5-tech, giving him a chance to dip-and-rip around the edge. Georgia had other players for that; a designated pass-rusher spot that it would rotate. Walker was a chaos agent inside; someone whose job it was to occupy double-teams or use his get-off to disrupt the frontside of a play, forcing a back to pat his feet while Georgia’s linebackers zoomed to the backfield.
That he wound up going with the top pick is a testament to the pre-draft process. Walker is one of the strongest testers to ever enter the draft.
Walker tested unlike any pass-rusher to enter the league in the past five years, both in terms of his initial burst, power numbers, and natural length and how he was used in school. Baalke is betting that a beefy interior defender can take those tools and transform into an all-world edge-defender, too – or be such a dominant interior force that life is easier for the players on the edges. That’s an, umm, ask. Despite his measurables, there were few snaps, reps, games where Walker leaped off the screen as the obvious Best Athlete On The Field. Perhaps in a system where he’s stood up or planted in a sprinter stance in wide-nine alignment, he will be better able to showcase his hops.
Walker does at least have the raw skills to be the kind of malleable piece that can flex across the formation on an opponent-to-opponent or down-to-down basis.
Still: there are issues. On film, Walker didn’t show the dip or hinge ability to be a consistent threat turning the corner around the edge. It is still inside where he has the most value. It’s from that spot, when allowed to morph into get-up field mode, that he delivered splash plays. That’s not a bad (or non-valuable) thing. In the age of stunts and twists, he could be the league’s premier masher, looping inside to create havoc as more nimble rushers move and roam around him.
Oh, man. That is nasty. That is mean. And that is why the Jags are hoping his best football is ahead of him: The burst, the sink, and the contact balance. The three together are not outstanding by the standards of a pure edge, but they’re going to get a whole host of interior linemen in trouble.
Whereas some tweeners are sized out of certain roles, Walker has the flexibility to kick from the perimeter to anywhere inside to being a spot-dropper in coverage on a package-to-package basis – and to excel at all three. No one else in this class can offer that. And as the NFL moves increasingly into a zone-pressure/simulated pressure world, having someone who can be the dropper and a double-team demander is an invaluable skill, one that is worthy of consideration with the top pick. Who else can offer that in this class? *Tumble Weed*… And that’s why his value has skyrocketed as the draft approaches. Here’s hoping the Jags have a plan to maximize his strengths.
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