JARRETT BELL

Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux look the part of NFL’s next great pass rushers | Opinion

The Oregon and Michigan defensive ends, both expected to be top-five picks, made strong impressions at the NFL scouting combine

Jarrett Bell
USA TODAY
  • Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux solidified their cases to be top-five picks in the NFL draft.
  • Thibodeaux said he modeled his game after Von Miller, adding he can be Jadeveon Clowney 2.0.
  • Hutchinson showcased his athleticism and growth after recording 14 sacks last season for Michigan.

INDIANAPOLIS — Aidan Hutchinson had a rather convincing example when discussing the value of pass rushers during the NFL scouting combine. The Los Angeles Rams' victory in Super Bowl 56 and the manner in which Aaron Donald and Von Miller helped seal the deal in crunch time was fresh on his mind.

“I think that’s why pass rushers get paid the most or (among) the most, just because, you know, they have the ability to affect a game like that, like Von and Aaron,” said Hutchinson, the highly rated Michigan defensive end. “I mean, they really took over that game. That’s why they get paid.”

Every team needs a stud pass rusher to disrupt, dismount, rattle, thwart, sack or just scare the living daylights out of any given quarterback, which is one reason why Hutchinson and Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux are two of the most coveted prospects in the NFL draft.

It’s supply and demand, always an undercurrent to this draft business. And always a good thing for elite pass rushers.

“Both of those guys had outstanding college careers,” new Houston Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “Both of them are going to have outstanding careers in the NFL, along with quite a few others.”

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Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux (DL45) runs the 40-yard dash during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Smith, with his defensive background in tow, seemed genuinely excited that this draft is purportedly deep with defensive line talent. With the third pick overall and a new unit to build with the front as the envisioned engine, he’ll have a shot at selecting from the cream of the crop. And then some.

“If I’m a defensive lineman, I would love to come to a place like the Houston Texans,” Smith added. “We start up front. Again, it’s about the defensive line. We kind of read on the run, athletes getting up the field, making sacks and things like that. I think it’s a defensive line-friendly system.”

There was no need for a hard sell. Yet Smith’s recruiting pitch, perhaps reminiscent of efforts from his stints on the college level, was fitting nonetheless. The combine is surely the place to sell concepts, projections and big ideas.

It was also the place where Hutchinson and Thibodeaux could sell themselves, adding layers on top of their impressive college careers that lead you to believe that their unique first names might someday become household names in the NFL universe. 

“I think the biggest thing I want to articulate to teams is that I’m really a student of the game,” said Thibodeaux (6-5, 258 pounds), who tallied 19 sacks in 31 games at Oregon. “I really love this game. Football has taught me a lot, it’s helped me grow a lot through my life and it’ll be there until the day I die. So, for me, just letting teams know that this is the main thing and I’m always going to keep the main things. No matter what else I do off the field, football is my main focus and winning a Super Bowl, getting a yellow jacket, being Defensive Rookie of the Year, it’s all (within) my goals.”

Thibodeaux is widely projected as a top-10 pick, but typical of the pre-draft process, questions about his commitment, drive and consistency have surfaced amid the buzz. He contends that the criticisms don’t faze him.

“I feel like everyone has a job,” he said. “When you have a smart kid like me, you have a lot of positives, someone has to find the negatives. I don’t really look too much into it...I’m not really too worried about what people have to say as far as that, as long as teams and I can come to an understanding of who I am and how hard (I play) and the love I have for the game."

Hutchinson’s message to NFL teams?

"That they should take me because I’m a very good football player,” he said, “and I’m a guy who is very confident in my ability.”

Someone asked Hutchinson (6-7, 260 pounds) to reflect on what he sees as his greatest strengths.

“I think my greatest attributes are my instincts,” said Hutchinson, who tied for third in the nation last season with 14 sacks. “I’m a very intuitive player. And that comes with watching a lot of film, and I think it’s kind of just in me inherently. To kind of have that on the field, it allows me to make a lot of plays.”

Of course, there are other ways beyond the interview visits with teams to leave impressions. Both Hutchison and Thibodeaux made statements with their workout performances. 

Hutchinson, whose athleticism once raised questions, demonstrated an uncanny burst with a 6.73-second clocking in the three-cone drill that provides clues about his agility. His mark was the fastest since 2003 for a defensive lineman measuring taller than 6-5 and was more typical for a tiny slot receiver than for a defensive lineman. It was also the third-fastest at the combine, bettered only by two receivers, Calvin Austin III and Kevin Austin Jr. He also timed at 4.74 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

He left the combine legitimately in the conversation about the Jacksonville Jaguars' options with the first pick overall. He probably won’t last long. The Detroit Lions, with the second pick, could keep him in Michigan. And Houston (where Hutchison has family) probably wouldn’t let him slip past the third pick.

Thibodeaux made his mark with 27 reps in the 225-pound bench press, which was first in his group of defensive linemen. And he ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds, confirming again that he is plenty fast. Thibodeaux didn’t participate in all of the drills, apparently because the ones for defensive linemen and linebackers were spread too far apart on the combine schedule. He will wait until Oregon’s pro day to show his wares.

As for comparisons, some have likened Hutchison to Nick Bosa, although it’s reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt whose game he most admires.

“The way he rushes, how relentless he is, it’s very fun to watch,” he said of Watt. “And I think that’s why he’s so damn productive.”

Thibodeaux's model is Miller.

“Growing up, YouTube was a thing,” he said. “He has a clip of all 100 sacks of his, and I steal it.”

Miller’s prowess and skill as a rusher is surely something to emulate. Interestingly, Thibodeaux brought up another edge rusher, Jadeveon Clowney, when assessing where he wants to take his game. Clowney was drafted No. 1 overall by the Texans in 2014.

“Just be relentless,” he said. “You look back at Clowney, he was great but he didn’t have all the skills and the tools as far as pass-rush skills. Me, I feel like I can build off of him. I’m like Jadeveon 2.0. I feel like I have the skills and I have the hunger to keep going. And I’m going to steal pass-rush moves. If I see something I like, I’m going to add it to my tool box.”

After all, it’s all about improving — especially as tougher challenges await on the next level. Hutchinson can relate. He had a breakout year in 2021 — after producing zero sacks as a junior in an injury-shortened 2020 campaign. The learning curve has been a good thing.

“I think I’ve gotten a lot more mature and in my game, I’m a completely different player from what I was freshman year,” he said. “I mean, you can’t really compare 2018 Aidan to this Aidan now, because I’m completely different. I’m way more confident in my game and you know, I’m just ready to go.”

Like Thibodeaux, Hutchinson will go fast off the draft board, poised to potentially leave big footprints in the NFL.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.