There’s an argument to be made that most of the pre-draft process in the NFL is nothing but angling and posturing. Teams want advantages over other teams. One general manager wants to know who another general manager has at the top of their board to be certain they can get their guy. One scouting department sends out one kind of message to try and persuade another scouting department.

Teams are often thinking three and four and five steps ahead to try and reach their preferred endgame. Sometimes players get caught in the crosshairs.

It happened a few years ago with Justin Herbert. The former Ducks quarterback was called “soft” and “immature.” He was unable to “win the locker room.” He was “potentially one of the biggest mistakes in the draft.” And those kinds of statements look to be fireable offenses now.

Who’s to say some of the more negative intel wasn’t coming from a team behind the Los Angeles Chargers, who drafted Herbert and haven’t looked back, who wanted Herbert to fall to them? Maybe. Maybe not.

This whole thing is a lot like chess.

Kayvon Thibodeaux likes chess.

He’s good at it.

“How can I set the game and dictate what the offensive tackle does so I can get what I want out of the situation?” Thibodeaux told a room of reporters Friday morning at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine.

The presumptive top-10 pick in next month’s draft will participate in on-field drills at the Combine, he said. But teams who are looking at him at the top of the draft order probably know all they want to know about the former Oregon Duck’s athletic ability. Thibodeaux was a three-time All-Pac-12 first-teamer and a two-time All-American.

What teams are wanting to know about Thibodeaux is what’s up top. What drives him?

Questions about his motor and his passion for football have popped up since the season ended. Viewed as a potential No. 1 pick last fall, now Thibodeaux is a guy ESPN’s draft experts caution is in danger of falling out of the top-five.

When Thibodeaux met with the New York Giants—owners of picks 5 and 7 in the upcoming draft—“they were kinda on me, they were giving me a hard time,” he said.

Meaning… what?

“I mean, just giving me a hard time. What’s gonna happen if I’m not the star coming in? Five games in, if I don’t have a sack  … the media’s gonna be down on me, I’m gonna be in the doghouse. How am I gonna hold that?

“I let them know I’ve been in the media since I was a sophomore in high school. So I’ve been trained for this my whole life and I know that most of it is entertainment, right? So I’m not really worried because whatever happens between the four walls of the team and the organization is what’s gonna dictate the future, and if I have five bad games, we’re gonna focus on that next week, how we’re gonna dominate the team that’s next.’’

This is a process that’ll serve Thibodeaux well. Listen to him for just a few seconds and it’s immediately clear who easily and fluidly he’s able to articulate what he wants you to know. “I am able to get every point that I want to get across,” he said. “Going in, a lot of teams are really gelling to me and they like the person that I am. I’ve been able to really sell myself, and not only sell myself but give them a chance to get to know me.” Yet another arena in which he’ll excel.

“The biggest thing I kinda want to articulate to teams is that I’m a student of the game,” Thibodeaux said. “I really love this game and this is something that’s done a lot for me. Football has taught me a lot, it’s helped me grow through my life, and it’ll be there until the day I die. For me, just letting teams know that this (football) is the main thing and I’m always going to keep the main thing the main thing no matter what else I do off the field. Football is my main focus.”

The criticism, the barbs at his motor, all the extra stuff, he says that doesn’t affect him. “I feel like everyone has a job,” he said.

The pre-draft process is about highlighting not just your strengths but also your weaknesses as a player. If there’s nothing, trust they’ll find something. 

“I know what I can do for a team,” he said. “I’m not really too worried about what people have to say as far as that, as long as the 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.”

The New York Jets apparently asked him how he’d feel if he wasn’t selected No. 1 overall.

His answer?

“It’s just all about what I could do to contribute to a Super Bowl, what I can do to contribute to a winning team and help cultivate a winning culture,” he said.

He surely knows a lot about that.

At Oaks Christian High School, Thibodeaux’s teams were 32-7 his final three years. At Oregon, his teams were 26-9 and participants in the Pac-12 Championship Game all three years.

Since the start of the 2019 season (his freshman year), only four FBS players had more than his 34.5 tackles for loss. In Oregon program history, only six players had more career sacks than Thibodeaux’s 19.

“I’m an L.A. kid and if you know the adversity I went through to get here and the things I had to sacrifice and the things my mother had to sacrifice for me to get here, you’d really understand how I feel in my heart,” he said. “When you talk about fire, you talk about passion, I can’t really explain it. I get emotional thinking about it because of all the sacrifices it took me to get here. I’m blessed to be here.’’

But just to get there isn’t enough. Thibodeaux has a lengthy list of things he still has yet to do. “Winning a Super Bowl, getting a yellow jacket, being Defensive Rookie of the Year (are all) on my list of goals,” he said.

Spoken like a pretty driven guy.

The criticism just seems to roll off his back.

You can bet the teams who passed on Herbert are regretting it today. “He’s obviously going to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time,” Thibodeaux said.

Chess moves, people. Chess moves.