When the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Georgia’s Travon Walker first overall in the 2022 NFL draft on Thursday night in Las Vegas, it ended a whirlwind of speculation over what direction the woebegone franchise would go with what feels like a critical pick.
If last year’s No. 1 selection (Trevor Lawrence) was a layup, this year’s top pick looked more like a 3-pointer. The degree of difficulty is higher because this draft class lacks a prospect anywhere close to Lawrence’s pedigree.
Walker was the preferred selection of Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke, sources told Yahoo Sports before the selection, so it served as a reminder that team owner Shad Khan still believes in Baalke’s judgment to help pull the franchise out of the gutter.
For weeks, we’ve ridden the wave of speculation over which direction the Jags might head. Around scouting combine time, offensive line was the common refrain, with Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu receiving quite a bit of sentiment at No. 1. Then Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson was the post-combine favorite, holding that mantle for more than a month.
Last week, the winds changed and Walker ended up No. 1. Hutchinson followed him as the Detroit Lions' first-round pick. LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. rounded out the top 3 as the Houston Texans' pick.
Why Travon Walker over Aidan Hutchinson?
Over the weekend, Walker surpassed Hutchinson as the expected choice, both in the betting markets and in the draft sphere. Guess they should have listened to the young man, even if there has been understandable doubt and skepticism cast on this possibility playing out.
Now it has. It’s time for Walker to prove those doubters wrong.
And he can. Walker’s raw physical skills are about as impressive as it gets. At 272 pounds, Walker runs as fast as some of this class’ wide receivers and he might end up being the updated prototype for the modern defender.
There’s belief that many NFL defenses soon will be playing more “positionless” units, a riff on what’s happened in basketball, where many college and NBA teams eschew traditional starting lineups in lieu of getting the best starting lineup on the floor.
Walker can be a run stuffer, has the chops to rush the passer one day and didn’t look awkward in the handful of snaps he was asked to drop in coverage. He did some freaky things at Georgia, such as run down kickoffs as a 280-pound sophomore and chase down an Alabama wide receiver (25 yards downfield) in the national title game victory.
Let’s be clear: Walker is a rare athlete.
Why this is such a big gamble for Jaguars, GM Trent Baalke
But will he be dominant?
He's not there yet. Walker might not be there for a few years. At no point was Walker the Bulldogs’ best defender last season, and he might not have been second or third either.
Even for as historically rare as that defense was, Walker is about as atypical a No. 1 overall draft pick as we’ve had in a minute.
This is a Jaguars franchise that always feels like it’s teetering on disaster. But it can make big strides if Lawrence develops, new head coach Doug Pederson provides stability and Walker and others help rekindle a defense that has lost its teeth.
Passing on Hutchinson will be something in discussion for years to come. If he ends up a star (or close to it) and Walker becomes, say, Solomon Thomas, well, you know how that will go. Baalke likely will be the fall guy, and the Jaguars once again will pivot in a new direction with its front-office leadership.
Baalke is betting his career on Walker’s traits. He’s falling back on the scouting dogma he forged in San Francisco with the 49ers, a franchise that was built up under his watch — first as college scouting director, later as GM — into a Super Bowl contender before later crashing and burning.
One way they got there is with some outside-the-box thinking; another way was by seeking out athletes who fit Walker’s prototype. Will that model work for the Jaguars? We won’t know for months at the very least, and most likely for years.
Fortune favors the bold and all that, sure. But if you’re a Jaguars fan, fresh off the Urban Meyer disaster, are you feeling all that comfortable with this selection?
As often is the case, Duval County must patiently await the results while knowing that disaster could be right around the corner again, playing out in a slow, frightening march over the next few years.
If Walker is a hit, Baalke will be proven right amid a sea of naysayers. If he’s wrong, the Jaguars will once more have some explaining to do.