How top picks Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson are doing in the NFL

How top picks Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson are doing in the NFL

Seven months ago, the debate raged over which defensive end the Jacksonville Jaguars would take with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft.

Would it be Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson – who was regarded as the top prospect by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. – or would they take Travon Walker, the best player from a strong Georgia class whom the Jaguars had rumored interest in?

The Jaguars chose Walker, and the Detroit Lions followed by taking Hutchinson with the No. 2 overall pick. Detroit was so excited Hutchinson was available that they turned in their pick card with his name on it just a minute later.

That day will link Walker and Hutchinson throughout their careers, and on Sunday they’ll share a field when the Lions (4-7) play host to the Jaguars (4-7) at Ford Field (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

The rookies are nearly three-fourths of the way through their first season. So how are they doing? How do they stack up against one another? And how are they adjusting to their teams?

Statistically, Hutchinson has outperformed Walker as a pass-rusher through the first 12 weeks, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. The general feeling during the pre-draft process was that he was likely going to make a more immediate impact than Walker, who primarily played inside in college and was going to have to learn to play outside linebacker with the Jaguars.

Ahead of their first NFL matchup, ESPN Lions reporter Eric Woodyard and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco answered six questions on how the rookies are settling in.

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DiRocco: Walker’s biggest asset is his strength. He is 6-foot-5, 275 pounds and powerful – especially in the run game. Defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell said Walker has done a good job of setting the edge and running down ball carriers from the other side of the field.

Walker is continually working on becoming a more consistent rusher. He’s getting pressure on only 7.4% of his rushes on a team-high 283 pass-rush snaps, according to NextGen Stats. Outside linebacker Josh Allen leads the team with a 14.4% pressure rate, and Dallas outside linebacker Dante Fowler leads all NFL players with a minimum of 100 pass-rush snaps with a 19.4% pressure rate.

“I show glimpses here and there and [he’ll be] making plays or sacks or whatever it is [but] I just need to be more consistent,” Walker said.

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He has also gotten aggravated at times after dealing with being chipped and double-teamed.

“He’s gaining the recognition and respect of the opponents, but at the same time, he needs to understand he can’t get frustrated,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “He’s got to continue to work and find ways to create rush and play within himself.”

What were the teams’ expectations coming in?

Woodyard: When Detroit selected Hutchinson, Glenn made it clear he was trying to improve a defense that had allowed the second-most points in the league in 2021. After finishing in the bottom five of the league in pressure percentage in each of the previous six seasons, the Lions picked the 2021 Heisman Trophy runner-up to help get after the quarterback.

Through 11 games, the Lions have four wins, which is already an improvement from the 3-13-1 record in 2021. Although expectations are naturally high for Hutchinson, he is meeting them. He is the first defensive lineman in the NFL to produce a season with at least five sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery since Jared Allen in 2010, and Hutchinson’s rookie season is far from over.

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DiRocco: The Jaguars were careful not to make a big deal out of what they wanted from Walker this season other than to learn his new position and show progress – and of course make some plays along the way. Walker has done OK, though the team – and Walker – would naturally like to see him make some more plays.

On the outside of the organization, however, expectations were naturally high for the first overall pick. Would he threaten Allen’s Jags franchise rookie sack record (10.5 in 2019) and be a big-time playmaker on a defense that has had few since 2017? It doesn’t look like it. But the defense as a whole has struggled, especially late in games, to hold leads and make a play to get the opposing offense off the field, and Walker hasn’t been that game-changer – yet.

Overall, the Jaguars aren’t unhappy with his progress.

“Expectations from the media or us, we might have this expectation, but he has a standard and he’s the type of player he wants to be, and he goes out there and we try to push him every day to be that player,” Caldwell said. “When you’re working and doing your best every day, there’s really no expectations. You go out there and do what you’ve been doing all your life.”

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How have they acclimated to their team and city?

Woodyard: Hutchinson has acclimated seamlessly – and with no ego – despite being a high pick. He’s often spotted in the locker room challenging teammates to competitive pool or ping-pong sessions, and his rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” during training camp was a hit with teammates as well as viewers of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series.

He has been a team-first guy from the start, even when the team began the season 1-4.

“I feel like people are now throwing us away and they’re writing us off, so that’s what a lot of these guys are used to, so I think we’re just gonna come together,” Hutchinson told ESPN during a practice on Oct. 20th. “It’s never been about who’s been believing in us, it’s all about our self-belief in this locker room. I don’t think much changes. Obviously, we had a lot of hype in the preseason, and I know that’s died down, but we’re going to keep playing ball.”

DiRocco: The defensive line corner of the locker room is by far the loudest. And while Walker is generally a pretty quiet guy, end Dawuane Smoot said Walker more than holds his own when it comes to the group cutting up.

“He fit in pretty easily,” Smoot said. “He’s a fun guy. We laugh a lot, for sure.”

Outside of the locker room Walker takes a low-key approach. He’s not spending a lot of time trying new restaurants and night spots, at least during the season.

“I’m the type of person, like once I’m off of work, I’m going to my place, do a little studying, and then it’s time to go to sleep,” he said. “Save me a little, save me a little extra money in this tax-free state [there is no state income tax in Florida], so I’m not complaining.”

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DiRocco: Walker’s best game came way back in Week 1 against Washington, when he had a sack, an interception and three tackles in his NFL debut. The interception displayed the skills that made the Jaguars take him No. 1 overall. Walker read a screen pass, cut his pass rush short and jumped in front of quarterback Carson Wentz’s pass to running back Antonio Gibson and returned the interception to the Commanders’ 11-yard line.

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“Once I got up field, I recognized he was about to try to dunk it somewhere around where I was and once he released it, his eyes made contact to where he was about to throw it and I just felt like I could go and get it,” Walker said.

Perhaps the most notable part of the play? Walker wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He was supposed to run a twist and end up inside but stayed outside and was in the right place at the right time.

Which players do they best compare to?

Woodyard: Upon drafting Hutchinson, Lions general manager Brad Holmes compared the 6-7, 264-pounder to former Rams defensive end and two-time Super Bowl champion Chris Long because of his impressive combination of speed and size.

“Since he stepped out there on the grass, he made it known pretty quickly that he was about business,” Holmes said of Hutchinson on Sept. 1 after watching him during the preseason. “And there are some things that he’s shown that I think some people didn’t even know that he had.”

Lions assistant general manager Ray Agnew agreed. “I can’t stop smiling. I love the kid, the kid’s relentless, effort, and much better athlete than you thought he was in the draft process,” he said.

“Man, the things he can do rushing the passer, inside, off the edge, using his hands. He’s very creative as a rusher. I would just say this, we got the right one.”

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DiRocco: During the pre-draft process, Walker was compared to defensive end Aldon Smith, the San Francisco 49ers’ No. 7 overall pick in 2011, because of their similar size (Smith was 6-foot-4, 263 pounds) and long arms.

Smith, however, was a big-time pass-rusher from the start, with 14 sacks as a rookie (a half sack behind Jevon Kearse’s rookie record set in 1999) and 19.5 in his second season. Smith clearly had an easier time making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker between his first and second seasons.

The big connection between the two players is Jaguars GM Trent Baalke. Baalke was the 49ers’ GM in 2011, and Smith was his first pick.