By MARK LONG
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Travon Walker “had a good feeling” he might be the top pick in the NFL draft when he visited Jacksonville earlier this month.
He was way ahead of just about everyone else — maybe even the Jaguars.
The Georgia pass rusher rose up draft boards following an impressive combine and ended up being the No. 1 selection Thursday night. It wasn’t a total shocker since he was the betting favorite in Las Vegas, but few saw it coming a month ago.
Placing more emphasis on pro potential than college production, the Jaguars chose Walker to pair with Josh Allen in hopes of turning a mediocre pass rush into one of the best in the league.
“I was hoping it was the Jaguars from the get-go,” said Walker, who grew up about four hours north in Thomaston, Georgia.
Jacksonville took the 6-foot-5, 272-pound “athletic freak” over Michigan star Aidan Hutchinson, who set a school record with 14 sacks in 2021 and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting.
General manager Trent Baalke had been leaning toward Walker for weeks, maybe even months, and new coach Doug Pederson insisted he was totally in agreement on selecting the former Bulldogs defender at No. 1.
“This thing was never split,” said Pederson, who reportedly wanted North Carolina State left tackle Ickey Ekwonu. “It’s out (there). I just want to go on record and say it was never that way. I don’t know where that came from. One of the things I loved about our process was the communication and us being on the same page.”
Picking Walker wasn’t close to the slam dunk drafting quarterback Trevor Lawrence was a year ago. Critics argued that Hutchinson was the more polished product and pointed to Walker’s limited college numbers. He had 9½ sacks in three years in Athens, Georgia, including six during last season’s national championship run.
But Baalke and Pederson see a more versatile player in Walker, who logged snaps at defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker in Georgia’s vaunted defense last fall. His highlights include more than sacks; he stops the run, tackles speedy receivers in the open field and tips passes that lead to interceptions.
“He’s an athletic freak,” Georgia defensive coordinator Will Muschamp told The Associated Press. “I swear to God he could line up at middle linebacker and go be fine. I would take him at No. 1 and not even blink.”
The Jaguars did just that.
Once a two-sport star with NBA dreams at Upson-Lee High School in Thomaston, Georgia, Walker eventually settled on football and quickly became one of the most sought-after recruits in talent-rich Georgia. He signed with the Bulldogs and played college ball a little more than 100 miles from his hometown.
He bided his time as a backup during his first two years at Georgia – he made the league’s Freshman All-SEC Team – and really started to blossom as a junior. He started all 15 games in 2021, finishing with 37 tackles, including 7½ for a loss, and two pass breakups.
Muschamp first met Walker when he was 10 years old and now considers him one of the best kids he’s ever coached.
“There’s not a single red flag,” Muschamp said. “He’s the real deal now.”
Added Baalke: “He checked all the boxes throughout the process.”
The Jaguars plan to take it slow with Walker, letting him learn the outside linebacker position before shuffling him to other spots along the defensive front.
Jacksonville is the fourth NFL franchise with back-to-back No. 1 picks and is hoping to become the first for both to work out. Tampa Bay (1976-77, 1986-87), Cincinnati (1994-95) and Cleveland (1999-2000, 2017-18) all failed to find success both times.
The Jaguars believe Lawrence is on the verge of becoming a star and just needs more help around him.
Jacksonville signed tight end Evan Engram and receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones in free agency to help Lawrence. They also brought in five-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff to help revamp an offensive line that allowed Lawrence to be sacked 32 times.
Ekwonu and fellow left tackle Evan Neal were under consideration at No. 1 but improving the team’s pass rush proved to be a more pressing priority. The Jags still expect to use at least two of their 12 total selections to bolster Lawrence’s protection and potentially his receiving corps.
But for now, they feel like they took a big swing at improving a defense that ranked 20th in the league in yards allowed in 2021 and gave up nearly 27 points a game.
“I’m definitely prepared for it, being the No. 1 pick,” Walker said. “I have to say there’s a lot of expectations behind that, but it’s just the game of football to me.”
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