JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – About an hour before the Jacksonville Jaguars ended the suspense and selected Georgia defensive end Travon Walker with the No. 1 pick overall in the NFL draft on Thursday night, new coach Doug Pederson addressed a few thousand fans at a draft party and made a bold promise.
“This will be the last time we pick first overall!” Pederson bellowed.
And the crowd roared.
You can’t knock Pederson’s vibe, stirring up the fans at the amphitheater adjacent to TIAA Bank Field while realizing there’s no place to go except up for a franchise that had the top pick in the draft for the second year in a row.
Yet it would have been even more impressive if Pederson went on record to guarantee that in choosing Walker over seemingly more polished edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux – picked second and fifth, respectively, by the Detroit Lions and New York Giants – it is a power move that they will never regret.
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Sorry, Travon. While there’s no disputing his raw athleticism and the major force he provided for one of the best defenses in college football history, Walker steps foot into the NFL already challenged to prove some serious doubters wrong. Before and after the pick, one TV draft analyst after another warned that the Jaguars would have been better off passing on Walker with the top pick.
Time will tell. Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said that Walker’s versatility – he played all along the defensive front for the Bulldogs – was one of the many boxes he checked that influenced the decision. Then again, before envisioning Walker rushing inside as part of some “NASCAR package” like Pederson’s defense employed during his Philadelphia Eagles tenure, the Jaguars were quick to declare that the first priority will be establishing a primary position – defensive end.
That’s one reason eyebrows were raised when comparing Walker to Hutchinson and even Thibodeaux. Walker never had a multi-sack game during his career at Georgia and tallied 9 1⁄2 sacks in three seasons, although he also had a team-high 36 quarterback hurries last season in helping the Bulldogs march to a national title. Hutchinson, meanwhile, had 14 sacks for Michigan last season, and Thibodeaux brought down the quarterback 19 times in three seasons at Oregon.
Baalke knows all about the sack numbers. He also put them in context in assessing Walker, who drew high marks as a “gap-sound” lineman who rarely was found out of position.
“You can’t make excuses for any player,” Baalke said, asked about Walker’s modest sack production. “What we can do is look at the film and (ask) what’s production. There’s a lot of things that go into production. It’s not, at the end of the day, how many sacks they tally or how many pressures they have. There’s a run element to the game, too. So, there’s a lot of ways to look at production.”
And a lot of other measurables that make Walker, 21, so alluring when considering his upside. Walker’s monster workout at the combine included an uncanny 4.51-second 40-yard dash time for a man measuring 6-5, 272 pounds. And if Baalke wasn’t drooling when he rattled off Walker’s long arm length (over 35 inches) and ultra-wide wingspan (over 85 inches), he sure sounded like it.
Will Walker become the next Bruce Smith? Another Myles Garrett? Or in considering a less-accomplished example from the history of defensive ends taken No. 1 overall, will he be another Courtney Brown?
Therein is the rub of this draft business. They call it an inexact science for a reason, which is why Tom Brady, the man with more Super Bowl rings than anyone, lasted until the sixth round (199th overall) in 1999. And this week, we were reminded of the Dallas Cowboys’ decision near the end of the first round in 2017, when they drafted defensive end Taco Charlton with the 28th pick overall. Two picks later, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted T.J. Watt, now the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Charlton, meanwhile, is with his fifth NFL team.
Call it a template for charting the course from this point with Walker, with an eye out for Hutchinson and Thibodeaux.
None of this, mind you, seemed to faze Walker as he spoke to media on a Zoom call while celebrating his big moment with family at a hotel in Atlanta.
The best advice for handling the expectations?
“Just be where your feet are,” Walker said. “You can’t do more than you can. Don’t make it any bigger than it’s supposed to be.”
Similarly, he low-keyed an automobile accident recently that might have made Pederson’s heart skip a beat. Walker confirmed the reports that he was involved in a wreck and emerged without injury but didn’t provide many details.
“Things happen,” he said. “It was nothing to be concerned about. I’m human.”
Although Hutchinson was considered as the favorite to be chosen with the top pick for weeks – it was only last week that Walker was installed by the betting lines as the likely pick over Hutchinson – the newest Jaguar felt he’d ultimately be the option after a visit with Jacksonville’s decision-makers and coaches in early April.
Turns out his hunch was right, while the Jaguars protected their intentions like a state secret. With last year’s No. 1 pick overall, Trevor Lawrence, in place as the franchise’s centerpiece, Walker will be expected to become the player to build a defense around. With new coordinator Mike Caldwell, consultant Bob Sutton and defensive line coach Brentson Buckner having their hands on his development, Walker will line up opposite bookend rusher Josh Allen (whom the team exercised a fifth-year option on this week).
All eyes will be watching. Being picked No. 1 overall is such as honor. And it comes with No. 1 pressure.
Welcome to the NFL. Is Walker ready for this?
“I’m definitely prepared for it,” he said. “There’s a lot of expectations that come with it. But it’s just the game of football. And not making any more pressure than it has to be.”
Unless, of course, that pressure is applied to the opposing quarterback.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.