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Kayvon Thibodeaux can save the day
The New York Giants fell apart in 2021... in every conceivable way. The new regime's first pick? This eclectic pass rusher out of Oregon. He may be exactly what the franchise needs, too.
The draft industrial complex needs heroes and villains. That’s how it works. These last 10 years, the event’s popularity has skyrocketed to this extreme. To the point of fueling the day-to-day conversation in a bingy, Netflix sort of way. Throughout the three-month drama, top prospects become caricatures of themselves to the soundtrack of Stephen A losing his mind.
Typically, star power at quarterback drives debate. If not? Surely, there’s a lightning rod of a prospect full of baggage worthy of playing the bad guy.
Then came 2022.
This spring was strange because supply didn’t meet media demand. This draft class lacked the pizazz for such epic drama, and that created a vacuum. Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux had taken full advantage of his marketability as one of the first college players to cash in on his name, image and likeness. Which made much of the league’s older guard uncomfortable. Which fed into a narrative that very quickly got away from Thibodeaux in the weeks leading up to the draft. He was widely panned as a draft prospect with too many interests outside of football. We even heard the skepticism here at Go Long. As one scout told our Bob McGinn: “Does he like playing in the NFL, or like the NFL lifestyle and what that entails? If you put Hutchinson’s heart in Thibodeaux’s body then you’d have Myles Garrett.”
There aren’t many athletes this young displaying so much interest in the business side of sports, thus concern grew. And grew. And grew as the national coverage heated up. Those closest to Thibodeaux — his trainer, his agent, his former college coordinator — had a feeling this was coming. They just didn’t expect the furor to be so loud.
Time will tell. But as the dust settles, it’s clear a new reality could emerge this fall (and beyond). Kayvon Thibodeaux, “KT” they call him, fell to the best possible team at No. 5 overall. Forget playing the villain. Thibodeaux has a chance to be the hero in NYC.
The New York Giants crash-landed to rock bottom about as hard as any team in recent memory. We chronicled the demise of Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge with a three-part series. It got ugly. This image-conscious organization was not happy that the dirty laundry aired, either. The embarrassing losses mounted and, wildly enough, such a calamitous finish proved to be the only way the status quo could change under the Mara family. Ownership was fully prepared to slap a few wads of gum on the holes of this sinking Titanic. The only way that John Mara would finally open his mind to hiring an outsider — to conducting a real search for a new GM — was if the Giants were blown out in fantastical fashion.
The QB sneak. Judge blathering on about golf clubs. The state of affairs needed to break this bad to be fixed. Last year’s 4-13 disaster marked the Giants’ eighth losing season in nine years.
Joe Schoen was hired as GM, Brian Daboll as head coach and this new regime made Thibodeaux its first pick.
The criticism did get frustrating — especially down to the wire. Thibodeaux’s agent, Kelton Crenshaw of Klutch Sports, believed critics were “piling on.” As if the public was forgetting how special “KT” was as a player whenever debating him vs. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. But don’t get him wrong. Nobody is too upset about how things went down on draft day. Rich Paul, the CEO and founder of Klutch who famously reps LeBron James, loves repeating three words to Crenshaw and all of their clients: “Fit over pick.” In basketball, of course, players are able to control their destinies with much more fluidity. An NBA draft prospect can flat-out refuse to work out for a team. NFL prospects more so hope for the best. While Thibodeaux was willing to play anywhere, his trainer and business manager, Travelle Gaines, asks a fair question: “Could Kayvon Thibodeaux be Kayvon Thibodeaux in Jacksonville? I don’t know.”
Adds Crenshaw: “The Giants, from a fit perspective, is the perfect market for Kayvon as well as organization.”
New York is where he can be himself in every conceivable way.
Now, the fun begins: Leading the Giants back to contention.
This coach would know. A decade ago, Tim DeRuyter mentored another edge rusher who broke the mold, who was also a bit… odd. At Texas A&M, coordinator Tim DeRuyter coached Von Miller. At Oregon, he had Thibodeaux. In personality and play style, the two pass rushers were strikingly similar.
DeRuyter begins this conversation by declaring Thibodeaux the steal of the draft.
“He’s an interesting guy,” DeRuyter says. “I think he’s a little understood. But one thing people should not mistake? Football is important to the guy. And he likes to work. He likes to work at his craft. He’s a guy that’s also all about his brand, but he knows his brand gets amplified when he works hard and produces. So it’s not like he’s just worried about the brand, and says, ‘I’ve arrived.’”
The best proof that his priorities are not out of whack? Thibodeaux easily could’ve shut it down last fall.
In a season-opening 31-24 win over Fresno State, Thibodeaux suffered a high ankle sprain. Considering he was universally pegged a potential top 5 draft pick, it would’ve been smart to shut it down and preserve his future earning potential. Others have. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa established himself as a premier pass rusher by the time his junior season began. In September 2018, he underwent core muscle surgery and was done. The following spring, the San Francisco 49ers still made him the No. 2 overall pick. “Guys like Nick Bosa checked out,” DeRuyter says, and he doesn’t even blame them. There’s too much money at stake. There’s no need to add to the resume.
And here was Thibodeaux already cashing in. He inked a deal with United Airlines, established an NFT with Nike’s Phil Knight and artist Tinker Hatfield and, for good measure, started his own cryptocurrency.
“He could’ve easily shut it down,” DeRuyter says, “and he worked his ass off to get back as quickly as he could. He kept fighting our trainers to let him play. That told me a lot about the kid.”
Thibodeaux wanted to play the very next week against Ohio State but there was no way Oregon would let him. An injury that can sideline players for months kept him out 3 1/2.
Nowhere near 100 percent, he still had 49 tackles and seven sacks.
To DeRuyter, Thibodeaux possesses Miller’s same “elite get-off.”
“They’re uncanny,” he adds. “KT will jump offsides every now and then but they do a great job of studying tape to get a great get-off. Both of them, if they can get to the edge before the tackle gets there, they’re going to turn and are powerful to get to the quarterback. Then, there’s nothing you can do.”
Miller is much more agile and fluid in space. “A freaky athlete” who could’ve played wide receiver and returned punts. Thibodeaux? Not so much. He’s a bit stiff but also far, far more powerful at the point of attack when he takes on blockers.
“Von would just assume slip blockers and run around them and then go make a play,” DeRuyter says. “KT wants to knock guys back. He doesn’t care if it’s a 325-pound tackle. He is extremely powerful coming out of his stance. And his strike, he’ll knock blockers back and just throw ‘em. That’s where I see the big difference between the two of them. And then in space, Von is such a freaky athlete. Von could play receiver. He could return punts. He’s just different. Where KT’s not quite as fluid in space.
“I think he could be the pass rush version of Von. He can play coverage but that’s not his strength. I’m sure there are a lot of left tackles in the league who’d rather see him drop back into coverage than rush the passer. So, I’m sure they’ll make sure he’s going forward most of the time.”
That being said, Thibodeaux remains a 6-foot-4, 254-pound man with 33 1/8-inch arms who ran a 4.58 and benched 225 pounds 27 times. It’s just that there’s no need to get too wacky with how you utilize him. His No. 1 asset is rushing the passer. DeRuyter moved Thibodeaux all over the field out of necessity — teams were constantly double-teaming him, he says. Thibodeaux was the focus of every team’s gameplan.
In other words, exactly the type of game-wrecker the Giants have lacked since winning the Super Bowl 11 years ago.
“He’s going to make people have a plan for him,” DeRuyter says. “Because if you just put him on a tackle all day long, he’s going to make people sorry that they did.”
Off the field? Yeah, he’s different. “Odd,” the coach admits. He gets why coaches and scouts alike would be taken aback when they first encounter him.
“He’s a guy who’s going to talk about all that esoteric shit. Coaches don’t want to hear that. They want to hear, ‘I’m going to work my ass off and play.’ That’s not KT. He’s going to be involved in a bunch of other stuff.”
Want to buy his NFT? Well, you must purchase it with his cryptocurrency.
The what now? This is a foreign language to so many people in the NFL.
He’s opinionated, too. Thibodeaux was never afraid to share his opinion with peers or coaches alike. DeRuyter found it refreshing because he has always enjoyed a hearty debate. They’d have long discussions about how Thibodeaux should attack blocks because Thibodeaux would actually research everything he was taught. He needed to know the “Why?” Many times, DeRuyter would even swallow his own pride and agree to do something Thibodeaux’s way.
The coach’s only rule was that there were no debates allowed on the practice field.
Otherwise, he welcomed pushback.
“If you’re an old school football coach who says, ‘You’re going to do it my way,’ he’s probably not your guy,” DeRuyter says. “But I don’t ever think there’s one way of doing things. I think it’s refreshing to have a discussion with someone who had an educated pointed of view about how to do it.”
Thibodeaux was not perfect. He wanted to be viewed as a team leader and — at times — DeRuyter let him know he was being too hard on younger players. Some teammates could handle it; others couldn’t. He’d point out to “KT” that a different tact was needed with the latter. Both Thibodeaux and Miller possessed personalities, he says, that were “really, really off from normal people.” Miller experienced his own turbulence as a leader. DeRuyter describes him as “a little squirrely,” though Miller’s tendency to get distracted at practice also had to do with a medical situation. Miller has been open about his ADHD, a condition he later said he’s dealt with since his freshman year of college.
At A&M, his mind could wander. He’d stop hustling. DeRuyter once ripped him in front of the entire team. “You don’t care about your teammates!” he shouted out loud. “You’re telling them, ‘F you. I’m Von Miller. I don’t have to run. You guys run.” Miller started crying — instantly — so DeRuyter pulled him aside. “Coach, I love my teammates!” he said, choking up. “Don’t say that about me. I would never do that.” DeRuyter told him that he may not realize it, but that is how his actions were speaking.
Miller vowed to fix it. He did.
It never got to this point with Thibodeaux, but DeRuyter would remind both players that the best way to bolster their brands was by busting ass.
“Both of those guys,” he says, “understood that.”
And that’s what it takes for this to work out: a coach who’s willing to work with a talented edge rusher.
Edge rushers tend to come in all shapes, all sizes with plenty of red flags. This year’s draft was chockfull of question marks. If you’re an old-school operation writing everybody off, then you’ll never affect the quarterback. Choir boys don’t register 15 sacks a season. Librarians strike minimal fear. As a GM, you better be willing to take a chance to some degree. True success is found in the right gamble with the right coaching in the right situation. On the flip side, the darker side, we shouldn’t be too surprised if Sam Williams flames out in Dallas. The 56th overall pick was deemed downright undraftable by some teams for serious off-field issues.
A few scouts told DeRuyter that they didn’t think Thibodeaux was playing as hard as he could. To which, the longtime coach said he wasn’t going 100 percent… because he wasn’t supposed to. His ankle was recovering. He shouldn’t have even been out there. This is what one of the brightest analysts covering the sport noticed, too. Former New York Giants guard Geoff Schwartz, who graduated from Oregon in ‘08, has watched every single one of Thibodeaux’s collegiate snaps.
Concerns over his effort level? Schwartz is not buying it. He dives right into the specifics.
On the second drive of the 2021 season, Thibodeaux sacked Fresno State’s Jake Haener and forced a fumble. Oregon scored. And, shortly after, he injured that ankle when he was clipped from behind. The way Schwartz interpreted the film the rest of the season was that Thibodeaux was being smart, that he wasn’t running downfield because he didn’t want to hurt himself again.
“If you watch him from the snap to getting to the quarterback, and chasing down the running back, it’s great!” Schwartz says. “I never really got the lack of effort thing. I didn’t see it on film. Was he running 30 yards downfield? No. But was Aidan Hutchinson doing that every play?”
Schwartz believes criticism is rooted in an old West Coast stereotype — the fact that everyone out on that coast is too laidback, lazy, carefree.
It’s exactly how he says people described quarterback Justin Herbert, too.
Of course, Herbert now resembles a future MVP.
The hand usage needs to improve and part of Schwartz understands being a smidge worried about ankle flexion off the injury, but KT’s first step? My God, it’s rare. Schwartz points out that Thibodeaux bench-pressed both Washington’s Jaxson Kirkland (6-7, 310) and Washington State’s Abe Lucas (6-7, 319). And similar to Herbert, he believes Thibodeaux will benefit from a scheme in the pros that maximizes what he does best. Even though Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale gets exotic with his blitz packages, he fully expects the former Ravens assistant to keep it simple with a talent like this.
And if Martindale’s staff teaches the rookie how to use his hands properly, he sees an unlimited ceiling.
“I’m sure in New York, they’ll say, ‘Hey, go get the passer. I want you to spend all of your time working on hitting the quarterback,’” Schwartz says. “I think it’s going to make him a much better football player. I just don’t buy this ‘lack of effort’ thing. I don’t buy the ‘he has a life after football.’ OK. So does everybody. Who cares? Can he rush the passer or not? That’s his job. To rush the passer. I didn’t get the gripes about him, and I feel like in general that’s an anti-West Coast thing. Guys from USC. ‘Oh, I don’t know about their effort!’ We always hear about this stuff from guys on the West Coast and I don’t like it.”
Fair enough. But en masse, scouts noted that Thibodeaux was quite opinionated during his predraft interviews. As McGinn’s reporting revealed, some teams liked this confidence. Others did not. Where one scout sees swagger, another sees cockiness. Thibodeaux wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, one said, “on what he’s seen in life and his perception of himself and the world.”
“I get that he gave weird answers at the Combine,” says Schwartz. “Whatever, man. I was in those interviews. He definitely cares about his brand. But, again, is he practicing football? Yes. Is he in the weight room? Yes. Is he supposed to never talk about and worry about his life outside of the eight hours a day he does football? I don’t get that mindset from NFL people.”
When Thibodeaux returned to the field Oct. 2 and was tossed on a questionable targeting call against Stanford, Schwartz figured he’d shut it down. Title hopes were all but dashed with the overtime loss. Instead, he played the next week against Cal.
After missing the first half due to that targeting flag, he dominated:
It’s not quantum physics. There isn’t anything more valuable to an NFL defense than an edge rusher with a first step. That’s what makes Aaron Donald so dangerous inside and T.J. Watt so dangerous outside. If you’re late a split-second vs. these guys? “You’re screwed,” Schwartz says. Jump out wide too quickly and the best pass rushers are smart enough to jet inside.
He noticed this element to Thibodeaux’s game at Oregon, too. He reacts.
“You have to start somewhere to be really elite,” Schwartz says. “He can start with that point: he’s going to have a good get-off and work from there.”
Remarkably, Thibodeaux was the third edge rusher drafted. The Jacksonville Jaguars chose the mystery box at No. 1 overall. Georgia’s Travon Walker had all of 9.5 sacks in three collegiate seasons, but Jaguars GM Trent Baalke historically rolls the dice on workout phenoms. Walker ran a 4.51 in Indy with a 35 ½-inch vert all at 272 pounds. (“He’s a freak athlete,” DeRuyter adds, “and everybody’s looking at upside. Did he even start at Georgia? He wasn’t all-conference.”) The Detroit Lions opted for the opposite, the safe bet, the local kid in Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. What you see is what you get. (“He’s going to be the first guy in the building. He’s going to say the right things. He’s going to be very corporate. That’s a good, safe pick.”)
In Thibodeaux, there’s both upside and productivity.
DeRuyter, having coached in both the SEC and Pac-12, agrees that the offensive tackles are better overall in the SEC. Surely, that was on Baalke’s mind in choosing Walker. The SEC is its own planet of athletic specimens. Still, DeRuyter points out that Thibodeaux “abused” USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker in the Pac 12 Championship Game and Vera-Tucker was the 14th overall pick in the 2021 draft.
He believes Thibodeaux can be every bit as good as Von Miller, a man with 126 career sacks and eight Pro Bowls to his name.
“Kayvon can be that guy,” DeRuyter says. “He has the potential to do it. He’s going to demand that teams find a way to double him somehow because otherwise he’ll just wreck an offense.”
The Giants modernized their leadership in a hurry. Out is Gettleman, a crusty old salt seeking hog mollies and ineptitude. Out is Judge, quarterback-sneaking on third and 9. In is Schoen, a key force behind the Buffalo Bills’ pursuit of Josh Allen. In is Daboll, a coach who has adapted and evolved immensely over the course of his career. Neither is rigid in their thinking. They’ll be open to learning new ways of building a team, coaching a team — and count on Daboll relishing those zany conversations with Thibodeaux.
Players from all walks of life loved playing for him in Orchard Park, NY.
When he says he cares about players as people, he means it.
DeRuyter told those same scouts flying into Eugene that Thibodeaux will want to know why he’s asked to do something. He would ask questions. Many questions. Not in a belligerent way, rather in a quest for information. He’s pretty sure this honesty turned some scouts off. In New Jersey, though? Count on this back-and-forth dialogue being valued.
The Giants will quickly realize just how intelligent he is. Thibodeaux, the valedictorian of his high school class, graduated in two years at Oregon. He’s like any young millionaire, splurging on cars and jewelry and sparkling suits. But he’s also big into chess, into the idea of one move affecting so many future moves because that’s life. DeRuyter sees New York City as the perfect home for Thibodeaux.
“That’s the kind of place that can give him the air to be who he wants to be,” he says. “Where a lot of places, that may get snuffed out because of the location or organization.”
Gaines first met Thibodeaux when he transferred from Dorsey High School to Oaks Christian his sophomore year. That early, the kid trained with pros such as Davante Adams, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Randall Cobb and DJ Reader. He’s been destined to star since then, signing with Oregon as the No. 1 recruit in the country. Heading into his junior year — with NIL opportunities awaiting — he asked Gaines to help manage with business affairs. Well. Actually. He didn’t merely ask him… he created a 38-page PowerPoint presentation to present to him. The union has paid off handsomely. He has made a ridiculous amount of money while, all along, continuing to train three times a day. There aren’t many loafers in the world capable of bulking up from 213 to 250 pounds of rock-solid muscle in college.
It may be hard for traditionalists to do the calculus, but it’s true: Thibodeaux both trains like mad and maximizes his worth in business. In-between those three workouts, he has a daily meeting with Gaines for an hour.
He doesn’t play video games. He isn’t a party animal, at all. Time isn’t an issue.
“During most peoples’ down times,” Gaines says, “when they’re out doing what young 21-year-old kids do, he’s focused on how he can better himself on the field and off the field. He’s a student of the game. He studies film relentlessly all day every day to work on pass rushing moves. In my 17 years of being involved with professional sports, I’ve personally never seen anybody like him ever. And you’re talking to somebody who had five No. 1 overall picks and 48 first-rounders. I’ve never seen anything like Kayvon Thibodeaux — ever.”
It should be noted Gaines has trained both Andrew Luck and Myles Garrett.
Like Garrett, he describes Thibodeaux’s work ethic as “insane.” There should be zero worries about his dedication as far as he’s concerned.
The franchise needs a large personality to rise from the rubble, so why not a 21-year-old who knows LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade? Pressure shouldn’t get to him. His agent, Crenshaw, assures this is a role that Kayvon Thibodeaux seeks. He wants to be the force who galvanizes the locker room. And as Klutch’s NFL clientele beefs up, they’re trying to foster real relationships across the two sports. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis and Commanders’ Chase Young have become close. So are Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II and Cavs guard Darius Garland in Cleveland.
Thibodeaux will pick LeBron’s brain as much as possible.
“LeBron is the gold standard in regards to taking care of your business on the court as well as off,” Crenshaw says. “One thing that can get lost in translation sometimes is that all the efforts that LeBron puts in on the court — all the accolades — that really drives the car. So you have to remind guys not to get caught up in all the cool stuff LeBron is doing off the court. As it relates to a football guy, you want to make sure you’re locking in on your craft. Everything else will follow.”
The inner circle found criticism of Thibodeaux obsessive and weird. Since there was no real controversy to agonize over at the top of the draft, we all over-analyzed a talented player who just so happens to talk about things that aren’t related to football. A lot. Crenshaw’s only advice to his gregarious, talkative client is to do more listening. Gaines actually reached out to high-profile media members directly to ask where certain comments were coming from because, to him, this was invented slander that was not remotely close to true. He didn’t even want Thibodeaux to play last fall. As his trainer, he advised he shut it down. High ankle sprains can take 8 to 12 weeks to fully heal.
Multiple teams and agents told KT to do the same. He refused.
“That’s who he is,” Gaines says. “He understood he could go out there and get hurt at any time.”
And he still got his wish by heading to a New York team. The Giants were always preferable over the Jets, too, as the more iconic club.
Gaines is going to stay with Thibodeaux in New York through the season.
Now, he’s eager to build a legacy. Crenshaw assures Thibodeaux is bringing lofty goals to the Big Apple. Check that. “Extreme goals.” As in hitting the 20-sack mark and entering a Lawrence Taylor stratosphere.
“He’s definitely got some super high goals for himself,” Crenshaw says, “and I look forward to seeing him crush them.”
The bright lights won’t blind him. When the Giants made Thibodeaux the pick, Schwartz reached out to a buddy who has connections in the team’s marketing department to tell him this is the greatest thing the organization could ask for because the Giants encourage players to use the media. Schwartz spent the 2014 and 2015 seasons in New York himself and notes how countless ex-Giants have gone on to become media personalities locally and nationally — a product of all the exposure they get.
The continuous stream of appearances and charity events and media sessions is a reality Thibodeaux will embrace. Schwartz played for four different teams. It didn’t matter if his Giants were 3-3, 5-7, or 6-10. To his shock, the locker room was always sprawling with reporters.
“In my opinion, a player like Kayvon — again, I want to emphasize, works very hard at football — but will also embrace the big city feel of New York, the media, stuff like that,” Schwartz says. “That is important. Eli was the outlier. And even then, Eli had a weekly radio hit. That’s part of playing in New York. If you’re good, you have to embrace the media around you. And I think Kayvon is perfect for that. New York can overwhelm you if you’re not ready for that. He certainly is ready for that environment. There’s a lot of things to do and you just don’t have those opportunities in other cities.
“The Giants are OK with that. Other teams aren’t OK with these options you have outside of football.”
So far, so good. Thibodeaux looks the part. At one recent presser, he told the story of nearly quitting football in eighth grade. He let doubt enter his mind, briefly, and then crushed that doubt. He realized it was up to him to create his own legacy. Moments later, he laughed off the predraft criticism. Thibodeaux joked that everybody thinks he’s a good guy now. “Which is hilarious to me,” Thibodeaux added, “because I’ve been the same guy this whole time.”
Asked if he could lead as a rookie, he wasn’t shy.
“Not just football,” Thibodeaux said. “You can lead in any position in life. It’s about doing the right things at all times. For me, as long as I’m leading myself down the right path, people are going to follow. As long as I’m going the right way, it’s going to be easy to have people go with me. Not saying that I’m going to step in and be a vocal leader but I’m going to make sure I do everything the right way so when people see me they know I’m the last one leaving and I’m the first one in.”
It's also true that the Giants are historically at their best — era to era — when they boast a relentless pass rush. From LT in the 80s and early 90s to Michael Strahan, to Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. When New York is collapsing a pocket, New York is winning Super Bowls. It was true when Bill Belichick found a way to neutralize Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills’ K-Gun Offense and it was true when two different sets of defensive fronts harassed the hell out of Tom Brady.
Eventually, the Giants will need to get around to addressing their own quarterback. This could be Daniel Jones’ last shot.
Starting with the pass rush is smart. There’s a good chance they took the best player in the draft.
“I think Giants fans will feel at home,” Schwartz says, “when their pass rush returns to what they expect it to be.”
There’s work to be done — no way can Schoen and Daboll fix this franchise in one year — but if they do turn this thing around? Everyone will point back to the first pick that started it all.
Kayvon Thibodeaux welcomes that pressure, too.