There is only one NFL debut per player, and now that Kayvon Thibodeaux has his on his résumé, he has a greater awareness of what this NFL life is all about.
Thibodeaux was on the field for 37 snaps Monday night in the Giants’ 23-16 loss to the Cowboys, finally suiting up after missing the first two games with a sprained knee. The most significant lesson he said he has learned is that he is not a one-man band.
“I would say that you’re not Superman,” Thibodeaux said Thursday after practice. “There’s times where you want to be the reason we win, there’s times when you want to be the guy and you got to realize the game isn’t played like that. There’s 11 people for a reason. It’s a team sport for a reason. Just making sure you contribute as much as you can and to the best of your ability given the circumstances.”
The ability of the Giants to take a quantum leap forward on defense resides in heavier doses of Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari, the bookend edge rushers envisioned to be double trouble for opposing offenses. Ojulari (strained calf), like Thibodeaux, turned Week 3 of the season into his first game for new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. Both young players were quiet in their opening acts. Both are expected to be louder, starting Sunday against the Bears at MetLife Stadium.
“It’s nowhere to go but up with those two and I’m excited to see it,” Martindale said.
Head coach Brian Daboll said there will be no grading on a curve with Thibodeaux and Oljulari. There was an acknowledgment that there would be some rust to scrape away and the workload would not be as heavy as it will be down the road.
“When they’re out there and they’re ready to play, they’re ready to play,” Daboll said. “I think those guys are two young good players and knowing that it is their first game, they’ve been out a little bit. That happens with a lot of guys when they’re coming off injury, getting back in the flow of things. I have a lot of confidence in those guys and am looking forward to seeing them play this week.”
Everyone involved with the Giants is looking forward to that. These are the young studs who are supposed to transform this defense into something special and give the unit something it hasn’t had since the days when Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul roamed the playing fields. It is premature to put Ojulari and Thibodeaux anywhere in the vicinity of those Super Bowl-winning pass rushers. It is not, however, too far-fetched to view them as heirs to the sack throne. Ojulari, a second-round pick in 2021, set a franchise rookie record with eight sacks and Thibodeaux was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. There is a great deal invested in these guys, and with such an investment comes expectation.
Thibodeaux, back from a sprained knee, in his NFL debut played 37 of the 64 snaps on defense. He was credited with one tackle and his best contribution came when he reached up and deflected a Cooper Rush pass. Ojulari, returning from a strained calf, played 30 snaps and had one assisted tackle and drew two holding penalties.
“It felt good to be back out there,” Ojulari told The Post. “Just getting back on the field. Definitely could be better, for sure. I’m just getting back in the flow.”
Rushing the passer against the Bears is not exactly a frequent occurrence. No team in the NFL throws it less often. Justin Fields, in three games, has attempted only 45 passes. He is extremely elusive, yet he has been sacked 10 times. The starting tackles are a pair of 23-year-olds, fifth-round picks one year apart, in Larry Borom and rookie Braxton Jones.
Thibodeaux in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys, on a fourth-and-4 from the Giants’ 41-yard line, used an inside pass rush move to nearly reach Rush. The ball came out quickly, though, and the short flip to CeeDee Lamb went for 4 yards and a first down to extend a drive that ended with a field goal.
That play, Thibodeaux said, was part of his welcome-to-the-NFL moment.
“Coaches are really good at playing to their team’s strengths,” he said. “These are guys who get paid to draw up plays and run ’em and execute ’em.”
The entire scope of the NFL is what Thibodeaux was taken with, that he is not only lining up against an offensive lineman, but also is competing with a coordinator and entire coaching staff.
“People who do this and have been doing this for a living,” he said.
Fear not, though. Thibodeaux has not lost his swagger, even as he realizes he cannot wear the cape of a superhero.
“I still feel like I can make every play on the field,” he said. “It’s more of an understanding of how the game is played.”