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Jaguars GM Stakes His Reputation on Travon Walker After Picking Him No. 1 in NFL Draft

Despite being a marked man, Trent Baalke avoids the safe pick in Aidan Hutchinson and takes a gargantuan swing for the fences on a hybrid player defensive coordinators struggle to maximize.

Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke walked into this draft a marked man. He is an executive with a spotty reputation who may have scared away some coaching candidates this past winter. He pilots a team desperate to grasp normalcy after Urban Meyer’s tumultuous tenure set the franchise’s league-wide perception drastically adrift.

The easy route for Baalke on Thursday night with the No. 1 pick—the second straight year Jacksonville is picking atop the NFL draft order—would have been to take the player everyone assumed he would select. For a majority of the predraft process that was Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.

But as commissioner Roger Goodell uttered the words Travon Walker, confirming a week’s worth of pointed speculation and a massive shift in most sportsbooks toward the Georgia pass rusher, Baalke staked his reputation on one of the most fascinating top picks in modern NFL history.


Walker could be many different players at the NFL level. He could represent the Jaguars’ reemergence from the pit of deserved lampooning. Or, through no fault of his own, he could symbolize why the franchise seems destined to stay there.

Walker could merely be the product of a phenomenally talented Georgia defense. Indeed, some advanced statistics compiled by Pro Football Focus have almost half of Walker’s career quarterback pressures in college as either unblocked pressures or the result of “clean up” duty from another member of the defense. The Bulldogs’ defense was projected to have as many as five first-round picks from its front seven alone Thursday.

Walker could be the NFL’s next great pass rusher, alerting the draftnik status quo who largely ignored him throughout the season and began discussing him only after it was clear he was heavily on Jacksonville’s radar. His highlights at Georgia are a terrifying combination of speed and strength. Walker has chucked beefy Power 5 centers into the laps of their own quarterbacks. He has stunted through defensive lines as if he were coated with invisible ink. He has dropped into pass coverage, ably covering speedier wideouts, shutting down throwing lanes. Pairing him with the established Josh Allen could make the Jaguars suddenly relevant after a year lost in darkness.

Walker could also have an incredible season and compile almost none of the typical “glamour” statistics we associate with Rookie of the Year candidates. Jacksonville, recognizing the threadbare status of its defense, could view Walker as more of a salve for multiple woes. He could rush the passer, but more frequently be used on passing downs as a defensive tackle or hybrid edge and linebacker, alternating between situational rusher and run stopper. While this versatility may have ultimately tipped the scales in his favor over Hutchinson, or any of the other small handful of players Baalke was considering with the top pick, it could also complicate Baalke’s ability to tout him as an immediate success.

Georgia draft prospect Travon Walker

While every draft selection is, in essence, a lottery pick, the Jaguars are transitioning from one of the easiest and least straining choices in recent draft history—Trevor Lawrence—to the 2022 equivalent of Jadeveon Clowney versus Khalil Mack. In the 2014 draft, Mack, like Walker, was a similarly late riser and complicated what seemed to be an obvious decision just a few months before the draft. Mack turned out to be the more explosive and accomplished player, though that particular draft was littered with future stars throughout, such as Aaron Donald at pick No. 12, Dee Ford at pick No. 23, DeMarcus Lawrence at pick No. 34 and Shaq Barrett in undrafted free agency. Eight years later, neither Mack nor Clowney remains with his original franchise.

Walker is unique in that so much of what Baalke is betting on has yet to manifest itself on the field. While the highlights are tempting, they are only that. Hutchinson had more sacks during his senior season than Walker did in three years at Georgia. Baalke has to trust that an NFL defensive coordinator—a breed that has tried and failed consistently to wrap its collective imagination around hybrid players for years now—will see what he sees.

How’s that for a gamble from a man who many believed wouldn’t even be calling the shots right now? A person who the entire NFL expected to get washed away with the rest of the Meyer detritus? Perhaps Baalke thinks there is no such thing as a safe pick anymore, anyway. Maybe once you’re a marked man, gargantuan swings for the fences don’t seem all that scary anymore. 

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