Should Jacksonville be leery of drafting a top pass rusher again?
Jacksonville has been through this before.
The Jaguars entered the 2020 draft with two first-round picks and needs along the defensive and offensive lines, cornerback and linebacker. Quarterback was also a consideration.
So when Jacksonville went on the clock at pick No. 20, they had options almost everywhere. Justin Jefferson of LSU was one of several receivers still available. The best center in the draft, Cesar Ruiz, was a consideration, as was the best remaining QB, Utah State’s Jordan Love. Cornerback was no longer a major need after the team took Florida’s C.J. Henderson with the No. 9 overall pick, but several inside linebackers were still up for grabs.
Jacksonville, though, needed a pass rusher, and only two had first-round grades by most publications, including Ohio State’s Chase Young, who wound up going No. 2 overall to Washington. That left the Jaguars with LSU star pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson as the best-remaining option.
However, Chaisson came with some red flags.
He missed all but the first game of his true sophomore year after tearing his ACL in the season-opener. It took Chaisson a few games to round into shape during LSU’s historic run to the championship. He also wound up missing a few games, and he wasn’t as productive as many were predicting, finishing with a respectable-but-not-spectacular 60 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in what would be his final season.
Still, the raw talent proved too much to pass up, and Chaisson wound up being the pick by Jacksonville despite playing in just 24 career games.
It’s been a struggle for Chaisson since then.
He started three of 16 games as a rookie, finishing with 19 tackles, 3 TFLs and 1 sack. Still, Chaisson received 568 snaps on defense, a respectable 51 percent of the snaps.
Expecting a much-improved sophomore season under a new coaching regime, Chaisson didn’t fare much better this past season. He finished with 31 tackles, 3 TFLs and 1 sack while starting eight of 15 games. His snap count took a significant dip, too, as he played in a total of 384 snaps, or 39 percent of the team’s defensive plays.
By no means does any of this mean Chaisson is a bust. Under another new coaching regime, he still has a great shot at showing everyone why he was such a coveted prospect.
But Jacksonville was hoping for more production out of him by now.
Fast-forward to the April draft, and the Jaguars face a similar dilemma: Armed with the No. 1 overall pick in a year in which there’s no consensus “star” player, should Jacksonville take the top pass rusher, even if that player has productivity and injury question marks?
Of the two, Hutchinson has played in more games, 43, and has 30 career starts, while Thibodeaux has played in 31. And Hutchinson had a far-better final season, as the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end finished with a school-record 14 sacks to go along with 62 tackles and 16.5 TFLs this season.
Hutchinson, though, is far from the perfect prospect. He missed most of the 2020 season after suffering a fracture in his right ankle in what was expected to be his final season at the school. He played in three games that year.
Of course, Hutchinson came roaring back this season, finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up, a feat that’s only been accomplished by a defensive player two other times. However, his historic season will wind up as his best one by a wide margin, so scouts may view him as a “one-hit wonder.” Hutchinson had 12 tackles, 1 TFL and 0 sacks as a freshman, then had 69 tackles, 10 TFLs and 3.5 sacks the following year.
Thibodeaux also comes with his share of question marks.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thibodeaux burst onto the scene at Oregon with 35 tackles, 14 TFLs and 9 sacks as a freshman. He wasn’t quite as dominant his sophomore season with 42 tackles, 9.5 TFLs and 3 sacks, but much of that can be pinned on the challenges of the Covid-shortened season.
So Thibodeaux entered this season as the clear-cut top defensive player and probable No. 1 overall pick – and he didn’t disappoint in the season opener, finishing with 2 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble. However, Thibodeaux sprained his ankle and wound up missing the next 2 1/2 games. He slowly returned, as coaches purposely kept his snap count down upon his return against Arizona – a game in which he wound up not recording a stat.
He was solid the rest of the way but only had one “wow” game, a 9-tackle, 4.5-TFL, 2-sack game against UCLA. He also had 3 tackles, 1 sack and 1 TFL in Oregon’s Pac-12 Championship loss against Utah after not recording a TFL or sack against them in the regular season.
All told, Thibodeaux’s statistics his final season at Oregon look a lot like Chaisson’s final season at LSU: 49, 12 TFLs and 7 sacks.
It’s enough to cause some teams to question how high Thibodeaux should be drafted.
Here’s what an area scout told Walter Football in a recent Senior Bowl rumors report: “I watch Thibodeaux and I see Whitney Mercilus. … I do not see a Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Bosa brother, Myles Garrett, etc. I see an athletic tweener on the edge who beat some average college offensive tackles on occasion. I see a solid starter level guy who could have – like Whitney – a couple good seasons if whoever drafts him has a running mate to help Thibodeaux.”