‘I’m me’ – How Kayvon Thibodeaux won over NY Giants with his motor, his mouth and his mind
EAST RUTHERFORD – In a quiet moment at his locker Tuesday, Giants All-Pro defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence was asked how his first impression of Kayvon Thibodeaux measures up to the player and the man he knows now.
“He’s a lot smarter than I thought he was,” Lawrence said with a chuckle, responding to the question from NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. “I’m talking football intelligence. You gain respect with how you work and how you hustle. That’s how you show who you are, and the veterans will believe in a rookie real quick when they see that from you. He’s shown that, and then on top of that, he doesn’t just know the game, he’s really smart about it and that takes his play to another level.”
So I followed up with Thibodeaux after practice Wednesday, asking if he thought he surprised people, even those closest to him, with how much he thinks the game, even more than he attacks it? His answer revealed the mentality and the motor of the Giants’ precocious rookie outside linebacker as the team sets its sights on Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff showdown against the top-seeded Eagles in Philadelphia.
“Definitely, especially with how I come off because my personality is so big,” Thibodeaux said. “And because I’m gregarious, it makes people uncertain about my intellect when it comes to football and the scheme, how it works. But I would say, just that, we talk about mindset, the ins and outs of the game, and then [how] that mindset when it comes to will power and that next level of knowing what it takes to be great. That’s what’s been keeping me going.”
Thibodeaux will certainly be a marked man when the Giants step inside Lincoln Financial Field, and no one should forget his vow last month when Big Blue played Washington in that time slot. He promised prime time loved him, and then went out and put forth a performance that brought comparisons to the greatest Giants of all-time.
Thibodeaux turned 22 last month, and he has not been bashful about his desire to carry on the legacy of the Giants’ pass rush icons that preceded him.
Lawrence Taylor. Carl Banks. Michael Strahan. Osi Umenyiora. Justin Tuck. Jason Pierre-Paul.
“The previous generations, you want them to feel like they passed the torch and we’re capable of carrying that on,” Thibodeaux told NorthJersey.com. “I’m me, going to always be me. But this is not just about me, it’s us. Dex. Leo [Williams]. Azeez [Ojulari]. We want to be special, and we have that opportunity.”
Thibodeaux has been somewhat of a grinder as a professional, learning what works at this level in terms of converting pressures into sacks. The quest has not changed: develop into the player the Giants believed he could be and change the way this defense is viewed.
That’s how influential the No. 5 overall pick team brass thought he’d become.
Thibodeaux’s maturation was a deep dive of sorts, however, because the Giants viewed his game as much more complete than solely a player who was going to be asked to chase down the quarterback. That would come, but defensive coordinator Wink Martindale saw a chess piece with a rare skill set to affect the game in a variety of ways.
“Kayvon’s just worked so hard at the little details in his game and improving those things, that those things show up not just in the fourth quarter, but throughout the entire game,” Giants outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said. “It’s that: he’s obsessive about the details. He studies as much tape as anybody, and it’s not just, ‘Hey, let me watch this game.’ He’s slowing it down frame by frame to see how the tackle’s setting, see where their feet are. So those details, and that work that he puts in, really pays off in those critical moments.”
Late in the fourth quarter of the Giants’ 31-24 victory over the Vikings, their first playoff win since Super Bowl XLVI, Xavier McKinney approached Thibodeaux on the sideline and told him he was calling “The Closer,” a nickname Thibodeaux earned back in October when his strip sack of Lamar Jackson finished off the Ravens.
McKinney and Thibodeaux each pretended to pick up a phone, Thibodeaux answered and the two went back on the field. Still, as much as his impact will be measured by sacks and pressures. He has four sacks, but also generated 40 pressures in 14 regular season games played. His 11.1 QB pressure rate was tops among all rookies who played at least 500 snaps, per Next Gen Stats.
“I think the closer mentality comes with that confidence and that swagger and really understanding his abilities, his strengths and weaknesses, and how he can use them at critical moments in the game,” Wilkins said. “But that’s something you can figure out with him just by sitting down and talking to him. He has the ‘it factor,’ that confidence, that drive. He wants to be in those positions where the game is on the line and he has the chance to win.”
The Giants are going to need a massive effort from Thibodeaux, Lawrence and Co. against the Eagles to have a chance at pulling off the upset. Thibodeaux will be battling left tackle Jordan Mailata and right tackle Lane Johnson, while the showdown between Lawrence and center Jason Kelce has the potential of being an epic clash.
Thibodeaux has opened eyes with his hustle, going all the way back to the Giants’ victory over the Jaguars when he chased down running back Travis Etienne. His play against the Vikings when he read and reacted to a screen to tight end T.J. Hockenson, snuffing it out perfectly.
Lawrence has emerged as the centerpiece of the Giants’ defense in a breakout season that has put him among the best at his position; but even he knows Thibodeaux has earned his share of respect as well with the way he has gone about his business.
“He likes to talk, and sometimes he talks too much,” Lawrence said of Thibodeaux with a laugh. “But there’s nothing but respect for a guy like Kayvon because of how hard he works, his intelligence on the field and obviously his talent. He just believes in himself. He knows who he is, and he has confidence in himself as a person and a player. He knows how to back it up. I don’t think he talks just to talk. He doesn’t talk wild or crazy, he just says stuff you might not expect a rookie to say. It can go unliked if it’s not real or genuine, or if he didn’t back it up.”
Lawrence paused before adding: “And Kayvon backs it up, there’s no doubt about that.”
This content was originally published here.