Perhaps fittingly for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the 2022 Draft will be held amid the backdrop of casinos on the Las Vegas strip. The NFL Drafts is always a high-stakes poker table. Even with rookie wage scale contracts, drafting the wrong guy is a multi-million dollar mistake. There’s a reason why the same losing gamblers plunge into debt and disciplined gamblers typically win. Bad gamblers make more risky bets on propositions where the house has the edge.
One glorious upside to the 2022 NFL Draft lacking a premier superstar at the top pile of prospects is that we get to watch some of the NFL’s worst general managers try to discern talent. Picking prospects is as much about talent evaluation as risk assessment. Jags General Manager Trent Baalke has approximately two more weeks to decide who he’ll select with the first overall pick.
It appears the casino energy has activated their worst inclinations and the Jaguars might be ready to risk it all on the slim odds that Georgia defensive end Travon Walker is the defensive game-changer they need. Last week, Jaguars cornerback Shaq Griffin made a persuasive case to activate the engine drive on the Travon Walker hype. Baalke may have been listening.
The presumption for weeks has been that the Jags would address their defensive line woes by drafting Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson with the first pick. However, history suggests that Baalke will reach for Walker, the combine champ. In 2011, as GM of the 49ers, Baalke drafted Aldon Smith with the seventh pick, and he took DeForest Buckner seventh in 2016 after a monstrous combine. That history ignores that Aldon Smith was a proven pass rusher at Missouri while Buckner was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Whatever Baalke’s instincts are telling him, he should do the opposite.
Selecting Walker No. 1 feels like Baalke putting up the Jags’ mortgage on a risky futures bet. What are they thinking? Sure, there’s a chance Walker can prove Baalke right, but why reach so far with the first pick when there are options with better odds available? Only nine Jacksonville first-rounders have made it to a second contract with the Jaguars, and the last player to re-up was Blake Bortles.
Last April, Baalke selected Trevor Lawrence with one of the easiest first overall picks in recent memory, then followed that by making the inexplicable decision to draft his Clemson teammate Travis Etienne with the 25th pick. Picking a first round running back is a moronic draft strategy, but even more so when you factor in the presence of 2019 undrafted free agent gem James Robinson in the backfield.
Like Jake Locker and many others before him, Walker is this year’s unicorn whose production pales in comparison to his exploding hype. There have been flashes, but the No.1 pick is for the can’t-miss superstars. In Walker’s breakout season, he totaled 37 tackles and six sacks in 15 games on national championship-winning defense. Can he be that guy on the worst team in the NFL?
Walker’s chase down tackle of Alabama’s Agiye Hall in the National Championship game is the clip that scouts have been salivating over. On Alabama’s final possession of the first half, Bryce Young connected with Hall for a short gain. However, after Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo whiffed on the tackle, Hall sprinted up an open lane with a blocker in front. Walker, who was near the line of scrimmage after Hall’s catch, raced up the field to wrap up the Tide’s freshman receiver and saved a touchdown. Walker’s measurements of 6-foot-5, 271 pounds, coupled with a 6.89 in the 3-cone drill and a 4.51 40-yard dash, is a buffet of physical skills.
However, in three seasons, he’s recorded only 9.5 sacks. Last April, Pro Football Focus rated Jacksonville the 29th worst team at drafting first round picks since 2010. In drafts like this, the mystery becomes an allure.
Baalke already made this mistake before, in 2020, when the Jags selected LSU pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson. There’s a bit more leeway to miss on the 20th pick in their defense. One of the few picks Jacksonville has hit on was Jalen Ramsey, whom they traded to the Los Angeles Rams. There’s no excuse here.
In a draft where Kayvon Thibodeaux and Aidan Hutchinson are the top two pass rushers, a franchise that needs to stop the bleeding shouldn’t be chasing long odds. If they want to gamble, take a shot at injured Michigan edge rusher David Ojabo in the second round.
There’s more at stake for Baalke than just the season. Baalke’s reputation is in tatters right now. He overpaid a slew of veterans in free agency in the largest spending spree in league history. Reportedly, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was interested in the Jags’ head coaching job if Baalke was removed from his post. His career is on the line. But Baalke has a gambling problem–metaphorically speaking. After the last decade of bad bets, doubling down and continuously swinging for the fences with these get-rich-quick gambles is the worst possible move for a franchise in search of stability.