Kayvon Thibodeaux said he has no expected sack total for himself in his rookie season with the Giants. The external expectations are burgeoning, but it sounds as if Thibodeaux — and the coaching staff — are trying to keep his feet on the ground and his mind out of the clouds.
On his first day on the field in his first rookie minicamp, Thibodeaux and head coach Brian Daboll were making jokes. The drill called for the edge rusher, who was picked fifth overall out of Oregon, to drop in coverage and Daboll had a question.
“You think you can run with Saquon?’’ Daboll asked.
Running back Saquon Barkley, the 25-year-old veteran entering his fourth season with the Giants, was not out there, of course. But Daboll’s point was made. You are in the NFL now and there will be offensive skill players, such as Barkley, for him to deal with. Not in this rookie camp, but soon enough.
So, what was the response? Could he cover Barkley?
“I just laughed because it’s like all these great guys that now you’re going against,’’ Thibodeaux said. “It’s a different level. I’ve just got to do everything I can to keep getting better.’’
For now, Thibodeaux stands out as the marquee newcomer, his presence rising above the other 84 players attending this camp, either as a 2022 draft pick, an undrafted free agent or a player invited on a tryout basis. It is not only because he was the first draft pick in the new regime of Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen.
The Giants did such extensive work on Thibodeaux leading up to the draft that the principals involved almost feel as if they know him by now.
“He’s a good, young man,’’ Daboll said. “Got a lot of energy. Even out there, we had a walkthrough a little while ago, he brings a little bit of juice. Good sense of humor. I appreciate him.’’
It is already apparent Thibodeaux feels perfectly at home in the spotlight. He said when he put on his blue Giants jersey for the first time — No. 5, after securing that uniform by making a $50,000 donation to kicker Graham Gano’s hand-picked charity — it still did not sink in.
“I felt like I’m not there yet,” he said. “I feel like there’s still some hoops and some hurdles. There is still some prelims I’ve got to go through to be part of the team. But I don’t have words for it. It still hasn’t hit me. I feel like it’s going to hit me once we really get into it. I heard some music and I almost cried. I said, ‘Man, we’re really here.’ ”
The song that got to Thibodeaux, “Juicy’’ by The Notorious B.I.G., contains the refrain, “You know very well who you are.” If that indeed rings true for Thiobdeaux, the Giants may have added their next great pass rusher. They view him as a terrorizer of quarterbacks, but also as a defender able to chase down running backs, a complete player.
He said his early study of the playbook reveals that there are interchangeable pieces all over the field. He will be asked to do many different things for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and admitted, “I lick my chops’’ when he sees what the plan is for him. Just then, he threw in a speed bump by adding, “I just gotta keep making sure I get all the ins and outs of the game.”
The concerns about Thibodeaux were minimal, as far as projecting him as an NFL prospect. His production in 2021 was not overwhelming — seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits — but he played most of the season on a bad ankle. It was more about his personality, his desire and where his values are, as far as football greatness versus building his brand.
The Giants put in the work and determined that just because Thibodeaux has star power does not mean he will be unable to stay grounded. He sounds bemused that so much of the pre-draft chatter about him now is so positive.
“The narrative, for sure, changed,” Thibodeaux said. “If you notice, everybody thinks I’m a good guy now, and it’s all funny, which is hilarious to me because I’ve been the same guy this whole time. I’m happy I get to be here with my team. I don’t have to focus on anybody any more. Now I can really just hone in on what I love to do.”
Turning his eyes to gaze out on nearby MetLife Stadium, Thibodeaux did not play it cool after his first day on the field. He took it all in and exclaimed, “Are you serious? You know what I mean?
“For me, it’s a dream come true.’’