LAS VEGAS — One of the leading candidates to be the No. 2 overall pick in Thursday’s NFL draft said there is no merit to claims he would not be a culture fit with coach Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions.
Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux said he and Campbell have developed a close relationship during the pre-draft process, talking frequently in recent weeks as the Lions whittle down their draft board.
“I talk to Dan too much,” Thibodeaux joked Wednesday at a community service event for prospects attending the draft in Las Vegas. “I’m tired of talking to Dan. Dan got me on speed dial. Not like that, I’m just joking. But we’ve had lots of talks.”
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Asked how frequently he’s been in contact with Campbell in recent weeks, Thibodeaux said, “Often.”
The Lions are believed to be eyeing a defensive player with their top pick in the draft and could have their choice of pass rushers.
Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker is the favorite to go No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, while Thibodeaux, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II project as top-10 picks.
The Lions hosted Walker, Thibodeaux, Hutchinson and Johnson on pre-draft visits. General manager Brad Holmes also led a contingent of Lions evaluators to visit Thibodeaux at Oregon’s pro day — Campbell did not attend that workout — and the Lions met with Thibodeaux at the NFL combine.
Campbell praised Thibodeaux as a player during a sit-down with reporters earlier this month, but some scouts have expressed concern about Thibodeaux’s effort on the field, how his strong-willed personality will fit in some locker rooms and whether he’s more concerned with building his brand than he is with becoming a great football player.
Thibodeaux has been open about his desire to be a role model for his family and community in ways outside of football, though he insisted at the combine football “is the main thing and I’m always going to keep the main thing, the main thing, no matter what else I do off the field.”
“I’m a guy who I’ve never been quite on my journey, so I’ve been bringing people along,” Thibodeaux said Wednesday. “I’ve been trying to get a game for as long as I can remember. Now, just seeing my friends, they can’t even believe it. I’m getting calls right now that I got to go check after this, but it’s amazing. It’s amazing (to be in this position).”
Thibodeaux said he would “love” to play for Campbell and the Lions, and he questioned the legitimacy of reports suggesting he would not be a culture fit in Detroit.
“I want you to know, all that is — who’d they say said that, that I wouldn’t be a (fit)?” Thibodeaux said. “I hope they didn’t say a person said it. I hope it was a ‘source,’ cause I’m like, ‘Dude.’ ”
From his standpoint, Thibodeaux said his interactions with the Lions have been “great” and he could see himself as the No. 2 pick of the draft.
“Great relationship, great coaches,” he said. “Now we’re just waiting to see what they want to do.”
Stanford coach David Shaw, whose teams went 1-2 against Thibodeaux’s Oregon teams the past three seasons, gave a nuanced answer when asked about Thibodeaux’s every-down effort Wednesday.
“I’ve answered this question multiple times and for me there’s a sweet spot in my answer to where I don’t think, in my opinion, it’s a negative for Kayvon as much as it is in comparison to the other guys we’re looking at,” Shaw said. “So as you compare him to an Aidan Hutchinson, where the motor is on every single play, almost unnatural. It’s natural to get tired, it’s natural to take a play off here or there, and you don’t see that from Aidan, you don’t see that from some of the other guys, and maybe you see that a little bit from Kayvon.
“Now, the other question is, who’s the most talented pass rusher? And it may be Kayvon, with the most tools. He’s got length, he’s got explosion. He’s super fast. I don’t care what the 40 time says, which I guess he ran a fast 40. He’s faster than his 40 time on gameday. This guy’s a game-changer. So that’s the tough part in comparison to some of the other guys.”
Thibodeaux had a half-sack in his three games against Stanford, but Shaw said he was a disruptive presence in those games and had several other quarterback hits.
If the Lions draft Thibodeaux, Shaw said they could be uniquely positioned to get the most out of the pass rusher because of their coaching staff.
“Environment matters,” said Shaw, who is working this week as an analyst for NFL Network. “I think the environment that’s being established at the Lions is one that we’re going to fight and we’re going to push and this is the way everybody’s going to be, and it’s a standard set by the head coach. I think that’s an environment that can inspire a young man like this to say, ‘OK, this is the environment I’m going in, in order for me to play and be great, I’m going to have to adhere to the organizational imperatives.’
“Kayvon’s also a really, really bright guy. He’s really smart. He understands the situation that he gets into. So if leadership is that way and that’s what it is, I think absolutely this could be something that is just — this is the air that we breathe. Like I said, I don’t think this is an indictment upon him, which I think some people have taken it there. I don’t think most scouts I’ve talked to, that’s not the way they’ve taken it. They’re just comparing the guys and if there’s one thing that separates a guy like him and Aidan Hutchinson it’s that 100%, every single play as opposed to 100% two out of every three plays.”
Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner said he did not end up taking his scheduled local visit to the Lions because of travel issues.
“My flight kept getting pushed back,” said Gardner, who played at Detroit King. “There was a flight before mine where they took off and somebody kept asking to get off the plane, so they had to come all the way back. They just kept pushing my flight back more and more.”
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Gardner grew up a Calvin Johnson fan and said it would be a “blessing” to stay home and play for the Lions. He could be a top-five pick and the first defensive back taken.
“I feel like I’m the best cover guy and best cornerback in general in the draft,” Gardner said. “I don’t just say that. If it wasn’t what it was, I wouldn’t be saying that. I genuinely feel that way. I done seen some of the other corners. I been in the same environment with other corners. I just seen their work ethics and looked at mine and was just like, ‘I know this ain’t who they think is better than me.’ Just little stuff like that, that’s just how I feel.”
Ohio State receiver Garrett Wilson, another possible top-10 pick, said he and USC receiver Drake London took their top-30 pre-draft visits to the Lions on the same day.
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