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Why Aidan Hutchinson Is Not a Lock to Be NFL Draft's Top Pass-Rusher

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2022

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 31: Michigan Wolverines defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) during the Capital One Orange Bowl game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Michigan Wolverines on December 31, 2021 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fl.  (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

While evaluating prospects, everyone has their own measure of upside, which is a subjective word that's tossed around a lot during the NFL draft season. A player's potential is in the eye of the team that's making the assessment.

Last month, after Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson declared for the 2022 draft, he had some buzz as the potential No. 1 overall pick. However, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, a front-office executive didn't highlight Hutchinson's upside but rather his high floor. 

"One NFC exec put it this way with Hutchinson: He might not be a home run, but he's, at worst, a stand-up double," Fowler wrote. "In other words, people around the league believe Hutchinson has virtually no risk of being a bust, a clean prospect in every way." 

This isn't the best compliment for potential top draft prospects. Within some circles, high-risk, high-reward players trump low-ceiling rookies who have a lesser chance of becoming a bust, and that's why some draftniks have dropped Hutchinson a few spots on their big boards.

Two prospects could leapfrog Hutchinson on draft day.

Bleacher Report released its post-Senior Bowl rankings Tuesday, with Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux (9.2) and Purdue's George Karlaftis (8.9) graded higher than Hutchinson (8.6).

B/R's scouts listed traits that distinguished some of the top defensive ends, and to them, Hutchinson didn't stand out in any particular fashion, which coincides with one NFL executive's thought that he isn't a "home run" but more of a solid all-around prospect. 

Based on B/R's rankings, Thibodeaux is the best speed rusher, and Karlaftis separates himself with power and versatility. 

Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux
Oregon's Kayvon ThibodeauxStephen Brashear/Associated Press

Talent evaluators who pay close attention to a pass-rusher's flexibility, bend around the corner (ability to get skinny in tight spots) and burst off the edge will likely favor Thibodeaux, who's exceptionally athletic. As noted, he's going to use speed to beat offensive linemen after a quick get-off out of his stance. Few 300-plus-pounders can mirror him with their footwork. 

In his most recent mock draft, ESPN's Jordan Reid slotted Thibodeaux to the Detroit Lions at No. 2 because of his moldable traits and potential.

"In this scenario, they'd get their choice of either of the class' top defensive ends," Reid wrote. "They could bet on the raw talent of Thibodeaux, who has more upside than the polished Aidan Hutchinson." 

From Reid's perspective, the Lions, who generated the fourth-lowest quarterback pressure rate (20.5 percent) and ranked 30th in sacks (30) this past season, need to swing for the fences and go for the home run hit at No. 2. 

Also worthy of note, the Lions employ a lot of odd-man fronts with stand-up pass-rushers using their speed and agility off the edge, which suits Thibodeaux's strengths. 

Derrik Klassen of B/R's scouting department went into detail about Thibodeaux's attributes and how Hutchinson's shortcomings could knock him out of the top five. 

"For me, Hutchinson is a good prospect, but I just have too many questions about his flexibility and fluidity in space," Klassen said. "The power, hand usage, and lateral quickness are all there, but it's hard for me to get behind a pass-rusher in the top five with that kind of stiffness. Thibodeaux quite easily outshines Hutchinson in that respect."

On top of that, we shouldn't overlook Thibodeaux's early production. He recorded 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks as a true freshman and subsequently landed on watch lists for the next season. In three collegiate campaigns, he accumulated 122 tackles, 35.5 for loss and 19 sacks.

Before a dominant 2021 season with 16.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, Hutchinson had 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks between the 2018 and 2020 terms. Perhaps Hutchinson's leg fracture in November 2020 that limited him to just two games that season prevented the pass-rusher from breaking out a year sooner.

Nonetheless, will Hutchinson build momentum from his one standout year, or was it a flash in the pan? 

Teams will dig into Hutchinson's pre-2021 tape to find out where he's improved and what hindered him early in his collegiate career to project his potential on the pro level.

ESPN's Todd McShay offered another perspective—one that's not so flattering about Thibodeaux but opens the door for other prospects to sneak into the top five.

"His ceiling is high, but the floor is lower than what you want for a top-five pick. And based on a handful of conversations, it wouldn't shock me if Thibodeaux fell out of the top five. Speaking of which, it was very apparent this week that the top of the draft isn't nearly as set as it normally is at this point. Picks at the top of the first round might be a little more based on team flavor than recent years."

Purdue's George Karlaftis
Purdue's George KarlaftisIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

Karlaftis' overall sack numbers don't match up to Hutchinson's or Thibodeaux's production, but as McShay points out, a team's preference could bring different factors into play on draft day. 

At 6'4", 275 pounds, Karlaftis can play in even- and odd-man fronts because of his power, quickness and explosiveness at the point of attack on both run and pass downs. Unlike Hutchinson, who needed years to blossom into an impact player, Karlaftis logged 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks as a true freshman for Purdue.

In addition to his versatility, Karlaftis has the technical skill of a polished prospect because of his hand usage, which compensates for average arm length. He can also go into his move set with a bull rush or inside spin to beat offensive linemen while in pursuit of the quarterback. 

When it comes down to movement in tight or open spaces, Klassen gives the edge to Karlaftis over Hutchinson. 

"Karlaftis has a better way of contorting his body to work through contact and tight spaces than Hutchinson, and I think Karlaftis is a good deal more nimble in open space," Klassen said. "Overall, Hutch can still be a Pro Bowl kind of player—I'm just not there on him being a slam dunk pick at the very top of the draft." 

Hutchinson may have to answer concerns about his flexibility with high marks in the agility drills at the NFL Scouting Combine. If he looks a bit tight below the waist, we could see more mock drafts with his name below Thibodeaux and Karlaftis in the selection order.

Nevertheless, we cannot take anything away from Hutchinson's breakout senior campaign. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy race, won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end), the Vince Lombardi Award (best lineman) and the Ronnie Lott Award (Defensive IMPACT Player of the Year).

Hutchinson should be a top-10 pick in April, though the perception of his questionable upside and flexibility may cost him the lead spot among pass-rushers.

                       

Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.

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