JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Travon Walker played his best when the stakes were the biggest and followed that up with an impressive performance at the NFL scouting combine — and now he is the top pick in the NFL draft.
The Jacksonville Jaguars used the No. 1 pick on Walker on Thursday night, and they are counting on the former Georgia defensive end to be a key part of turning around one of the NFL’s worst franchises.
“I’m definitely prepared for it, [being] the No. 1 pick,” Walker said via Zoom. “I have to say there’s a lot of expectations behind that, but it’s just the game of football to me. I’m just going to continue to do what I’ve been doing, giving my all to the game of football because that’s something that I love to do, and I’m not making it more pressure on myself than it should be.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars later gave up three picks to move back into the first round to select Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, the 2021 AP Defensive Player of the Year. The Jaguars sent picks 33, 106 and 180 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 27th overall pick, which leaves the Jaguars without a second-round pick heading into Friday. Lloyd was a two-time First-Team All-Pac-12 selection and finished his career with 256 tackles and 15.5 sacks, including a career-high seven last season.
The Jaguars have now made two first-round picks in three consecutive years: cornerback CJ Henderson (ninth) and defensive end/outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson (20th) in 2020, quarterback Trevor Lawrence (first) and running back Travis Etienne Jr. (25th) in 2021, and Walker (first) and Lloyd (27th) this year.
The Jaguars have lost 10 or more games in 10 of the past 11 seasons and have made just one playoff appearance since 2007. It’s the second year in a row they have had the No. 1 overall selection and they’re still reeling from former head coach Urban Meyer’s dysfunctional 11-month tenure.
Walker played his best football of the 2021 season during the College Football Playoff. He had 10 of his 29 pressures in the two games, including a season-high seven in Georgia’s title-game victory over Alabama. He had sacks in each game, giving him a career-high six in 2021, after having only 3.5 sacks in his two previous seasons combined.
“We feel very strongly about him as a player that we are going to end up with a good football player,” Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said. “But it’s not going to be without a lot of work on his part.
“So the ceiling is up to him. We’re going to do our best to put him in position to reach that ceiling, but at the end of the day it’s really on these guys, these young men to come in, put in the time both mentally and physically, to reach the ceiling that they’re all capable of reaching.”
Walker played the majority of his snaps at defensive end last season and was a key part of the Bulldogs’ rush defense, which ranked second in FBS in 2.6 yards allowed per rush. He also played defensive tackle and outside linebacker, and the Jaguars plan to use him in the same way under defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, though Baalke said the Jaguars will start him off at one spot first until he gets comfortable.
“There’s a lot to like in terms of his skill set,” Baalke said. “He played all the way up and down the line of scrimmage, anywhere from a 0-technique all the way to a 7-technique. Played in the two-point off the edge, which he’s going to be used a lot in our scheme. That versatility, ability to stop the run, rush the passer, there’s a lot of work to do, but there’s a lot of talent to work with.
“… He’s proven he can do all the things that we’re going to ask him to do in our system and have the versatility to do it and do it at a high level.”
The 6-foot-5, 272-pound Walker turned heads at the scouting combine with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, which was the fastest among all front-seven players. He also posted a 35½-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 3-inch broad jump — numbers that helped him shoot up teams’ draft boards.
“You’re always looking for guys that rise to the biggest moments,” Baalke said. “He’s played some very consistent football all year long. This isn’t a guy that just jumped on the screen because he ran 4.51 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. He played some very good football throughout the course of the year.
“I think he got on the scene a little late because people weren’t expecting him to be in the draft this year. As he got better and as he became more evident he was going to probably enter the draft I think that’s when people started taking much harder looks at him.”
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Walker is the only player selected first overall in the common draft era who never made an all-conference or All-America team in college. Walker’s 9.5 career sacks are also the fewest by a defensive end/outside linebacker who went on to become a top-three pick since the NCAA began keeping sacks as an official stat in 2000. The second fewest belong to Dante Fowler (14.5), whom the Jaguars drafted third overall in 2015.
The hope is Walker will immediately help a Jaguars pass rush that was among the NFL’s worst over the past two seasons. It totaled 50 sacks — including just 18 in 2020 — during that stretch, which was fewer than every NFL team except the Atlanta Falcons (47).
Shortly after the pick was announced, NFL Network reported that Walker was involved in a car accident in Athens, Georgia, two weeks ago in which he hit a pair of parked cars. Walker confirmed the accident but called it a “fender-bender” and said that no one was hurt.
“Things happen,” Walker said. “It was nothing to be upset over. Just things happen. I’m a regular human being just like everybody else.”
The Jaguars are the fifth NFL franchise to have back-to-back No. 1 overall picks. The Cleveland Browns (2017-18 and 1999-2000) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976-77 and 1986-87) are the only franchises to do it twice. The Cincinnati Bengals (1994-95) and the Chicago Cardinals (1939-40) are the others with back-to-back top picks.
This is the 14th time in the past 15 years the Jaguars have picked in the top 10 and the eighth time in the past 11 years they have picked in the top five. Of the 12 players the Jaguars drafted in the top 10 from 2008 to 2020, only defensive lineman Tyson Alualu and quarterback Blake Bortles earned second contracts with the club. Offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and CJ Henderson were traded. Defensive end Derrick Harvey and running back Leonard Fournette were cut, and wideout Justin Blackmon was suspended indefinitely, before the end of their rookie contracts. Offensive tackle Luke Joeckel and defensive tackle Taven Bryan finished their rookie contracts but were not re-signed.
The Jaguars exercised the fifth-year option on defensive end/linebacker Josh Allen, whom they drafted seventh overall in 2019, earlier Thursday.
The Jaguars went 1-15 in 2020 — losing their last 15 games — to earn the top pick in the 2021 draft, which they used on Lawrence. He had a rough rookie season, throwing only 12 touchdown passes to go along with 17 interceptions — though he did set a franchise rookie record with 3,641 passing yards — while dealing with a mountain of off-field distractions, including multiple videos of Meyer behaving inappropriately in a bar with a woman who was not his wife. Meyer was fired on Dec. 16.
The Jaguars upset the 14-point favorite Indianapolis Colts in the season finale under interim head coach Darrell Bevell to finish 3-14, improving their record in the past two seasons to 4-29.