August 15, 2022

NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Georgia
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With the second pick in the POD Community Mock, the Detroit Lions select…

Well, the day has finally arrived: the Detroit Lions are on the clock in POD’s Community Mock Draft. The actual draft is still roughly a month away, but don’t let that darken your mood, we’re talkin’ draft and we’re talking Lions, so settle in.

POD Community Mock Draft picks so far:

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan

Hutchinson would have been great in Honolulu Blue, but him coming off the board at pick No. 1 takes away the easy option for me. Instead, I am left with four logical picks to choose from: Malik Willis (QB, Liberty), Travon Walker (EDGE, Georgia), Kayvon Thibodeaux (EDGE, Oregon), and Kyle Hamilton (FS, Notre Dame).

I debated this selection for a considerably long time, even going back to the tape to rewatch a few games from each player looking for new perspectives and hoping to get a gut feeling on who to select. When examining the top prospects, it’s easy to get caught nitpicking. But the reality is, all prospects have flaws. The question that needs answering is: which are correctable with coaching and which are part of the player’s approach to the game.

I started with Willis. There is no doubting his potential, and the intangibles he possesses (athleticism, arm strength, and leadership) are impressive, but he is also very raw and there is no guarantee he ever reaches his ceiling. Right now, Willis is an incomplete player, and for a general manager that can’t afford to miss on this pick or at the quarterback position, I have to pass.

Hamilton was next up. For the first portion of the game I watched, Hamilton’s impact was average for a safety, then he exploded for a significantly above-average play (a theme in Hamilton’s tape). After setting up 10-yards deep on a fourth-and-1, Hamilton’s recognition and burst to the ball carrier closed the distance in an instant, then he delivered a crushing blow to stop the back short of the sticks. That’s the thing with Hamilton, he has those incredible splash plays virtually every game, showing off rare skills for the position. But the rub for me is, as a safety, there isn’t a down-to-down impact. Is he incredible? Certainly. But the position doesn’t always translate into consistent production and that’s something the Lions need and can get from an edge rusher.

Thibodeaux was next. Watching his tape a second time through and projecting him into the Lions scheme produced mistakes I overlooked the first time. When you watch Thibodeaux, the athleticism is obvious and he is so efficient in his movements that you can get locked in on what he does well. The second time through, I started to pick up on the things he didn’t do. The first thing that stood out to me was that while he was a strong tackler against the run, he often lost the edge and got washed inside too easily. Setting the edge is a massive requirement in this scheme and he failed to secure it a frustrating amount of times. Next were the effort plays that are being harped on relentlessly in the media. I do think things are largely being overblown, but those plays are there.

I saved Walker for last because I have been slowly leaning his way for a while now and I wanted to give the others a chance to change my mind. The rewatch made me confident that selecting him was the right choice.

What Travon Walker would bring to the Lions

Walker is not a traditional edge defender that comes ripping off the edge with bending flexibility. In fact, he is rather limited in his pass-rushing arsenal right now, often relying on a bull rush to defeat blocks and get to the ball. But he has a rare combination of speed, power, size, athleticism, and positional flexibility that makes him a unique player.

“Georgia played me at multiple positions and put me in different scenarios throughout my time here,” Walker told Justin Melo of the Draft Network. “It really enhanced my resume just for the simple fact that I’m able to play every position on the defensive line. They exposed me to everything and it makes me different from every other defensive player in this draft.”

Different, indeed. At Georgia, Walker saw time literally everywhere along the defensive line, taking snaps at the 0-technique all the way out to an off-the-ball linebacker role. While Walker’s range will be very appealing, it does come with some concerns in statistical productivity. Because he was used all over the field and part of defensive line rotation on a deep Georgia team, Walker lacks the statistical output you’d expect from a top-tier edge rusher (six sacks and seven and a half tackles for loss in 2021).

“Playing on that defense teaches you a very valuable lesson,” Walker explained how playing with so much talent impacted him. “At the end of the day, it’s not all about you.”

And that team-first, selfless approach is exactly what the Lions are looking for in a defensive lineman. And that’s really what he is, a multi-positional defensive lineman. Technically he gets labeled as an edge rusher because that is where he will be impactful at the next level, but he’s much, much more.

In the NFL, Walker will likely be at his best lining up between the 3- and 9-technique, including as a standup outside linebacker, but he can take over at the nose in sub-packages or drop into coverages due to his freakish physical attributes.

Let’s take a look at his athletic profile courtesy of Kent Platte’s RAS:

He put on a show at the Combine, not just in measured events, but in on-field drills as well.

Make no mistake, he is not a workout warrior who only shows up in shorts, his movement and athleticism show up on tape too. Players his size simply don’t move like him.

As noted earlier, Walker isn’t a quick-twitch athlete but instead leans on his unprecedented power and length (35.5-inch arm length). When attacking, he uses a speed-to-power approach, getting upfield and shooting his arm into offensive linemen’s chests/shoulders. This often jars them off their spot, allowing him to regularly reset the line of scrimmage and get into the backfield.

“Early on in a game, one of my go-to moves is my ability to convert speed to power,” Walker explained. “I’m a big speed-to-power guy… I feel like it keeps opposing offensive tackles on their toes. They have to stay ready for everything I’m throwing their way. They have to look out for my speed but if they start overstepping me, I can convert it to power as well.”

Power is really the name of the game for Walker when he is on the line of scrimmage. He sets the edge with force, stays disciplined in his role, and is patient to maintain his assignment. His ability to 1- and 2-gap also makes him a player that doesn’t need to leave the field regardless of if the Lions are operating out of a 3- or 4-man front.

He is still developing a secondary pass-rushing move—right now it’s simply doubling down with a move that relies on length—but he has the athleticism, mentality, and work ethic to add moves into his toolbox with proper coaching.

As a run defender, he not only holds his spot on the edge, but he doesn’t get stuck on blocks and rarely lets the ball carrier get away from him. He attacks downhill towards the ball and closes with purpose.

His motor is relentless and he never gives up on a play, regardless of how far he seems out of it. There’s a great example of this from the National Championship game. In the clip below, Alabama completes a pass to a speedy receiver at the 34-yard line. Take notice that Walker is in the trenches at the time, roughly seven yards behind the play. Walker immediately starts working his way back to the ball, and when the receiver breaks a tackle and gets loose, it’s Walker who turns on the jets for the potential touchdown-saving tackle.

That type of range pays off when he drops into coverage as well. Walker isn’t going to turn and run with all types of skill players, but he is comfortable working through a zone, and his length allows him to cover lots of ground.

Finally, Walker’s ability to contribute on special teams probably won’t come into play in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch his athleticism and power on display—and it’s a nice insurance option if you need it.

At the end of the day, Walker—like the rest of this year’s draft class—is still developing parts of his game, but he has rare traits, the ability to impact the game from all over the defense, and a hard-nosed, team-first mindset. As soon as he steps on the field he will improve the team’s run defense and pass rush both on the edge and on the interior.

A bigger, more athletic version of Trey Flowers, Walker has a high developmental ceiling and a chance to elevate his game to Cam Jordan/Za’Darius Smith-like levels.

Now it’s your turn. Vote for a grade and sound off in the comments.

The Houston Texans are on the clock in the POD Community mock draft.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.