Elite Pass Rusher Could Fall to Vikings at Pick 12

Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux enters the stadium for the game against Oregon State on Nov. 27, 2021. Syndication The Register Guard

The Vikings started the off-season with a gaping hole at the pass rusher position. The only starting-caliber player was Danielle Hunter, and he was a question mark, too. As a result of playing only seven games in the last two seasons combined, there were rumors that the Vikings could try to move on from Hunter.

General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah did the opposite. He restructured Hunter’s contract and moved some parts of his cap hit into the 2023 season by converting his $18 million roster bonus to a signing bonus. That resulted in a $13.5 million cap saving in 2022 and allowed multiple new signings while keeping the star pass rusher on the team.

Hunter is not the only star pass rusher on the team anymore. The Vikings used parts of the cap savings to sign another edge defender: Za’darius Smith. The two-time pro bowler was released from NFC North rivals Green Bay Packers and found his new home in Minnesota. 

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Hunter and Smith are one of the most dangerous duos for opposing quarterbacks in the NFL when they are both on the field at the same time. There is just one problem. Too often, they are not on the field. The newly acquired Smith played only in the first regular-season game of the 2021 season against the Saints and missed the remaining games, while Hunter missed the entire 2020 season and ten more games in 2021. 

Plan B

The Vikings need a good plan B if one of the two misses time in the future. Behind Hunter and Smith, the Vikings have only unproven players on the roster.

D.J. Wonnum ranked near the bottom of all edge defenders in the NFL with grades just above 50 in each of his two seasons per PFF. Kenny Willekes has shown some flashes, but he missed his rookie season with a knee injury. In his second season, he played just 202 snaps, despite Hunter and Griffen missing most of the season. 

Third-round rookie Patrick Jones II has played almost 100 snaps with underwhelming results. Fourth-round rookie Janarius Robinson meanwhile, missed his rookie season on injured reserve. 
Despite having multiple young backups with potential, the Vikings should look to add someone else in the off-season. 

Kayvon Thibodeaux

As a consequence of already using most of the cap space, the draft is undoubtedly a possibility to look at edge rushers, and the new front office might be fortunate. Rumors are spreading that star prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux could fall in the upcoming draft. 

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

How far could Oregon phenom fall in the draft? ESPN’s draft expert Matt Miller answered that question recently.

“The Lions or Texans could take Thibodeaux at No. 2 or 3, but the word from sources in the league is that Thibodeaux is expected to be drafted outside the top five picks and could even be selected outside the top 10.”

Matt Miller, ESPN

Question Marks

The unanimous All-American was expected to be the first player selected in the draft just a few months ago. Matt Miller named reasons why Thibodeaux could be available later than expected. 

Production: Thibodeaux didn’t show the quickness and burst expected on his way to seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss – good numbers, but not those expected of a player deemed a front-runner for the No. 1 pick. Beyond those numbers, scouts and front-office execs with whom I’ve spoken have praised his talent but consistently questioned his motor. “Lack of fire” is not the type of label prospects want.
Interviews: Reporting on prospects’ interviews with NFL teams is always tough because I want to be fair to the player, which is why it’s important to not report information gleaned from a single source. More than half a dozen scouts have told me that Thibodeaux did not impress in interviews with their teams. The word consistently used to describe his interviews is “poor.” That’s a red flag, especially for teams looking to use a premium pick.
Injury: Thibodeaux sprained his ankle in September, an injury that takes time to heal. One scout charged with evaluating Thibodeaux, however, thought that he was timid after the injury and said that those within the Oregon program agreed.”

Matt Miller, ESPN

Why Thibodeaux is Worth Consideration

It sounds like he has some considerable question marks. On the contrary, he has some elite skills. Thibodeaux earned a lot of praise from PFF. His pass-rush grade was 91.5, which is an elite number and his run defense was not bad either, with a 76.8. His pass-rush win rate and run stop rate were ranked among the top edge defenders in college football. Their pro comparison for the prospect is an exciting one: Rawer Myles Garrett. 

Even if the Vikings already have two good edge rushers on the roster, teams in the draft should always try to select the best player available. A player with his explosiveness can be an instant contributor and a superstar in the long run. 

If Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux starts to fall in the draft, he will be a popular demand among Vikings fans, given his elite potential.