Kayvon Thibodeaux says he's always thinking ahead, whether it's on the chess board or on the gridiron.
"I tried to play chess with my uncles and they told me 'you can't play, get off the board,' " Thibodeaux, the well-regarded edge rusher out of Oregon said on Friday. "From there I knew I needed to get it right. I learned the game online, downloaded an app and learned it. So now, I'm a chess player, so I'm thinking moves ahead. How am I going to set the game to give me an advantage on the offensive lineman?"
Before, during -- and certainly after the completion of this week's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis -- Jets GM Joe Douglas and HC Robert Saleh will pore over the list of the top edge rushers who will be available in the NFL Draft in late April.
"This is a really good draft in terms of the depth of the pass rushers, defensive line, offensive line, even wide receiver and tight end," Douglas said earlier this week. "The opportunity to get any player that we feel can come in here and improve our roster, help our team on a team-friendly deal or a draft contract, it's a huge thing. We have an opportunity to add four dynamic difference makers to the team."
"Having a better defense, improving our defense, is at the front of our minds."
Saleh, like Douglas, believes it all starts up front, on both sides of the ball. But especially on the defensive line, the ability to stop the run and get at the quarterback helps every aspect of the defense. And with Carl Lawson (expected back from a season-ending Achilles tendon injury), Quinnen Williams (who will have his fifth-year option picked up) and John Franklin-Myers (who signed along-term contract last year), the Jets may add another bookend on the outside.
Thibodeaux, a Los Angeles native, could be that player. He was named an Associated Press First Team All-American after leading the Ducks with 7 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in 11 games in 2021. He missed time with an ankle injury. As draft analysts, prognosticators and, of course across social media, began to compile each player's strengths and weaknesses, opinions emerged that perhaps Thibodeaux was not all-in with his commitment to the game. A refrain emerged that "he's really talented, but. ..."
On Friday, he asserted that there are no ifs, ands, or buts.
"I don't think I have to convince teams, but it's always the narrative," Thibodeaux said. "I'm an L.A. kid, I know adversity, I've made sacrifices. I know how I feel in my heart. I wouldn't have made those sacrifices if I didn't love the game."
He added: "I don't pay attention to social media. It's a lot of clickbait, and a lot of people who want to drive a narrative."
Thibodeaux comes off as smart and eager to dispel any misconceptions. He's a planner, a thinker, a football player who wants to be thought of as "profound and articulate."
"Chess is life and chess is football," he said. "You have to think ahead to your second move, and then your third move. You talk about pass rush, I'm going to hit you with speed first, and then that's going to set up my power moves and then my counter. So if you're going to watch the games, you see me with the flash. It's about being able to dictate, it's like a heavyweight boxing match -- jab jab hook, you want to change it up. And then realize that when the fourth quarter comes around you have to put it all together."
See the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from all angles.
Aidan Hutchinson Is Confident in His Ability
Hutchinson is expected to be the first edge rusher off the board, possibly as the No. 1 overall pick, which is owned by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He is far from bashful or lacking in confidence.
Asked what he's talked about in interviews during the Combine, he said: "That they should take me. Because I am a very good football player and a guy who is very confident in my ability."
At Michigan last season, Hutchinson (6-6, 265) won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman and the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end. Want more accolades, try these: first team Associated Press All-American, Big Ten Conference MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year. He led the Wolverines with a school record 14 sacks, had 62 total tackles and 16.5 TFLs.
"I think I've gotten just a lot more mature in my game," he said. "I mean I'm a completely different player from what I was freshman year. You can't really compare 2018 Aidan to this Aidan now because I'm completely different. I am way more confident in my game and I'm just ready to go."
Pondering the possibility of going No. 1 overall, Hutchinson said: "It would mean a lot. A lot of hard work has gone into this, it's been a very long journey, but I'm ready to start a new chapter."
David Ojabo's Global Odyssey
Ojabo (6-5, 250) is another edge rusher with roots outside the United States (see also the next two players). He was born in Nigeria, moved to Scotland in 2007 then to the U.S., playing soccer and basketball in high school before he began playing football.
Playing opposite Hutchinson, Ojabo played in 14 games last year for Michigan, notching 11 sacks, 12 TFLs, and 35 total tackles after playing in only six games in 2020, mostly as a reserve and on special teams. After the season he traveled to Scotland and was marooned there for three months at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I learned a lot [from Hutchinson]," he said. "I mean coming into this season he was projected as a top 5 pick and I knew already that's a high-level guy. So it was the smart thing to do to get in his hip pocket. In my head I thought if I do what he did, I will be top 5. So, I just latched on, did everything he did, workouts, film, even asked him about his eating and sleeping habits. All of that, just to try to get in his shoes."
Ojabo said that he knew he had a future in the game after Michigan's victory at Wisconsin when he had 2.5 sacks, 7 tackles and forced a fumble.
"After Wisconsin I was like 'OK, I think I'm pretty good,' " he said. "I think everything just kind of clicked together from the run game, to playing in an away stadium with a hostile environment, and we were dominating. I had a dominant performance. That's when I really burst on the scene, too. I feel like that's when my confidence burst through the roof, too."
George Karlaftis: In a Word, 'Relentless'
The powerful Karlaftis out of Purdue could be a viable option in the latter half of Round 1.
He grew up in Greece (where he was part of the water polo national team), but moved to West Lafayette, IN, his mother's hometown, when his father died at age 44 in 2014.
"It definitely was different," he said about his early years living in Athens. "It was a little more dangerous, a busy lifestyle and more stressful. Not a lot of opportunity. I went through a whole different experience than my peers and teammates."
Since moving to the U.S., Karlaftis has been West Lafayette all the way -- in high school and then in college at Purdue. He finished his degree in three years with a 3.6 grade point average.
Asked to characterize his game he said: "In one word, relentless. In how I approach life, the game, my technique, my motor, my effort. Relentless."
Karlaftis (6-5, 275) was a first team All-Big Ten selection and third team Associated Press All-American in 2021 after leading the Boilermakers with 11.5 TFLs and 3 forced fumbles. He tied for the team lead with 5 sacks over 12 games. A couple of highlights included a fumble recovery that ended in a 56-yard TD ramble against Wisconsin and a blocked field goal against Northwestern.
"The most important thing this week has been to get a feel for these teams, get to meet them and do the interviews well," he said. "And blow it out of the park testing." He will not participate in the 40-yard dash, saying that's going to be saved for Purdue's pro day."
"I'm a high character guy," Karlaftis said. "And I know I have to step up my game. I can't get away with the stuff I did in college at the next level."
Arnold Ebiketie: 'I Love Competing'
Ebiketie's life has been about embracing the new, adjusting and excelling.
Born in the African nation of Cameroon and growing up speaking French and English while playing soccer, he moved to Maryland at age 12. He made the switch from playing with the round "football" to the oval pigskin as a linebacker and wide receiver in high school. Moving on to Temple University he embraced a shift into the trenches.
"The coaching staff I had [at Temple] helped me put together the pieces that were missing in my game," Ebiketie (6-2, 250) said. "It was the perfect seasoning for my game."
After leading Temple in 2020 with 8.5 TFL, 4 sacks and 3 forced fumbles, he transferred to Penn State for his senior season. He ended the year as a first team All-Big Ten Conference selection, leading the Nittany Lions with 9.5 sacks, 18 TFL and 52 quarterback pressures while starting in 12 games.
"I think I'm versatile and can play any position I'm asked to play, depending on what system I'm in," he said. "I know I have to put in the work. I feel I'm a much better player than going in [to college].
"I love competing and the lessons the game teaches you off the field. I just love going out there and competing."