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Travon Walker could be the No. 1 draft pick, and it would be a huge mistake

This team needs to become comfortable not trying to make a splash.

NFL Combine Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

We’re three days away from the NFL Draft and nothing is certain, but the tea leaves are settling to reveal the Jaguars taking a huge risk with the No. 1 overall pick. There’s no need for subterfuge and smokescreen when you’re selecting first overall, and at this point it’s really feeling like they’re going to take Travon Walker. His odds to go No. 1 overall in the 2022 NFL Draft are now tops at DraftKings Sportsbook.

It’s a complicated, weird draft. The 2022 class is exceptionally deep, with few truly standout players. There’s a very real chance a team selecting at No. 9 or No. 10 could get a player with talent equal to anyone in the Top 5. That would be the internal justification for taking Walker, because his athletic upside is so pronounced, so rare, that he really could become a force like we haven’t seen in the NFL.

Or he’s dealt for peanuts in four years, and out of the league in six.

If you’re looking for a solid, Pro Bowl player who will start for a decade, 2022 is your year. If you’re wanting a league-defining All-Pro, that’s when this all gets more difficult. The Jaguars seem intent on trying to find that high upside guy, overlooking potential issues and gambling on promise. It’s something we’ve seen before in the draft, but never with the No. 1 overall pick, and of course it would be GM Trent Baalke and the Jaguars to take this risk.

Baalke loves taking risks on draft picks. It’s his favorite pastime, and he is actively terrible at making selections. Honestly, it’s unclear who needs to shoulder the blame when it comes to Baalke’s selections, but whether it’s the scouting departments under him, or if he likes to go rogue and pick with his gut, there is an established history of him missing in almost every round. In 2018 when Niners Nation looked at Baalke’s selections it was astonishing how bad the team’s drafts were under his watch. We’re not talking about players just not living up to their potential, it’s them being so bad they were either traded, or out of the league. An unreal 41 percent of his selections didn’t last seven years on the team, and he was the biggest catalyst for the downfall, and rebuild of the dominant Jim Harbaugh Niners.

The shift in thinking from Aidan Hutchinson to Walker began a couple of weeks ago, when “chatter” began that the Jags could be looking at the Georgia pass rusher. It’s only picked up steam since then. As recently as last week Baalke seemed to already be justifying picking Walker to the media, trying to advocate that Walker and Hutchinson were equally productive players in college.

“[They’re] used differently, totally different schemes, used differently within those schemes,” said Baalke. “Again, you’re looking at them, you’re looking at how they made their plays, how they were used, and then you have a vision for how you can use them. All of that plays a part, but traits are important, production is important. You weigh it all.”

To be clear: They absolutely were not equally productive players in college. There is literally no evidence of that being the case, and any argument to the contrary is just an effort to assuage concern. Hutchinson had 14.0 sacks last year, 16.5 tackles for a loss — he forced two fumbles, and batted down three passes at the line of scrimmage. Walker had 9.5 sacks ... in his career, 13.0 tackles for a loss ... in his career, three passes defended ... in his career, and forced one fumble, you guessed it ... in his career.

That’s not the point though. There are justifications for talking Walker over Hutchinson that don’t involve lying about their college careers. You don’t take Walker for what he did at Georgia, you take him for what you think he could become — and that’s where there is no comparison between the two top pass rushers in this draft.

Hutchinson hasn’t reached his ceiling, but he’s close to it. He’s a player innately similar to Joey Bosa, who had a 16.0 sack season his final year ay Ohio State, and has gone on to be a reliable defensive end who gets 8-12 sacks a year and is a staple of the Pro Bowl.

In Walker, you’re hoping he’s J.J. Watt — but taken even further. Watt was a decently productive pass rusher at Wisconsin, who finished his junior year with 7.0 sacks, but certainly didn’t blow anyone away to the point he was a must-pick. Taken 11th in 2011, two pass rushers were selected before Watt (Von Miller and Aldon Smith). Watt was an upside pick, who had tremendous athletic potential, and ended up realizing all of it, turning into a monster who recorded 20+ sacks ... twice. And when I say Walker could be even more than Watt, that’s ludicrous hype, but it’s deserved.

You’re seeing almost identical agility ratings between the two, they’re more or less equal size, but Walker demolishes Watt in raw speed. We are seeing absolutely unheard of upside at defensive end, rivaled only by Myles Garrett in recent years — though it should be noted Garrett elected not to run the shuttle or cone at the combine, so the true comparison is skewed a little.

Now, it’s easy to get caught up in all this. When you use the phrase “he could be a better J.J. Watt,” it’s simple to imagine any team sprinting to the podium with the No. 1 pick card and being thrilled. What that doesn’t account for is the downside, the risk. What if the stars don’t align? What if the NFL doesn’t click for Walker the way it did Watt? What if coaching can’t make him realize that potential?

It’s here we get to the crux of the issue, and why I feel Walker at No. 1 would be a mammoth mistake for Jacksonville. This is a team who has whiffed time, and time, and time again with their first round picks, especially on the defensive line. Whether it’s Dante Fowler, Derrick Harvey or Tyson Alualu, the Jags have missed on first round defensive linemen so many times it defies belief. The shared DNA between these players: Upside over production.

Something is baked into the Jaguars that tells this front office that they have to try and make a splash, no matter what. It’s as if Jacksonville is allergic to the idea of hitting a double, and will instead swing for the fences every chance they get. No matter how many times they strike out, they’re going to come back and keep trying to hit it out of the park. If you want to know how a team becomes perennially awful, it’s because of this thinking. There’s value in playing it safe when you’re terrible, because it’s the only way you can functionally improve.

Whatever potential and perceived upside Travon Walker has is vastly outweighed by the risk. The Jaguars desperately need to add reliable talent that can anchor them for a decade, even if that means potentially looking wistfully at a 15-sack defensive end when you’ve got a 10-sack guy. Jacksonville needs to become okay with just being okay, because that’s a damn sight better than what they’ve been doing. Aidan Hutchinson is the right pick, at the right time, for a team that needs to make the right choice. I’m afraid they’re going to gamble once more, and find themselves back here in a year, ready to make the same mistakes all over again.