Few prospects have ever traveled farther and on a stranger journey to the NFL than Purdue’s George Karlaftis.
Born in Athens, where he was a burgeoning star on Greece’s 16-and-under national water polo team, Karlaftis moved with his family halfway across the world to his mother’s hometown of West Lafayette, Ind., at 13 after his father suffered a fatal heart attack.
Plunked down in a thriving college football town, Karlaftis, who spoke mainly Greek to that point, adapted to his new surroundings and decided to make a splash in another sport.
A big splash. OK, a tidal wave.
Ironically, following that 5,500-mile global trek, it was Karlaftis’s first step that was the key to success in his next home.
One of the top edge rushers in this year’s NFL Draft class, Karlaftis has exceptional initial quickness at the snap to go along with a relentless motor, making it tough for offensive tackles to keep him out of the backfield.
The game was literally foreign to him (“I didn’t know what a first down was or how to get in a stance”), but coaches caught a glimpse of him freshman year and urged him to give football a go.
“My buddies were playing it,” said Karlaftis. “My coaches kind of convinced me at my school. I could see that I was physically dominant over my friends at West Lafayette High School. So I was like, ‘I’m going to try it out. It can’t be too hard. I’m faster, I’m bigger, and I’m stronger than everyone, so ...’
“That was the initial thing. I started playing it about a year later and I just completely fell in love with it.”
Relying on his athletic ability and natural instincts, Karlaftis took to the sport like a fish to water.
The long hours to hone his football skills weren’t a big shock to Karlaftis, who likened it to the work he put in training to play water polo.
“When I was 10, 11, 12 years old, I had to hold a chair with my shoulders out of the water and my chest out of the water for 10 minutes in a row,” he said. “That’s what I attribute my strong legs to.
“My training in water polo was very similar to being a student-athlete at Purdue. I’d meet right after school, probably did a half an hour of homework, and then from 5 to 10-11 p.m., I was at the facility working out. It was a very different childhood than a lot of people.”
He finished his high school career with 84 tackles for a loss and 41 sacks and was named national defensive player of the year at the US Army All-American Bowl. The 6-foot-4-inch, 266-pounder was recruited from coast to coast but decided to stay close to home and enroll at Purdue.
His blend of speed and power as well as a bevy of pass-rush moves — including the outside swim and swat, of course — allowed him to thrive in the Boilermakers’ scheme. He also has the ability to slide inside where his quickness allows him to beat bigger interior offensive linemen. This is the type of versatility many teams — including the Patriots — covet.
He never let the extra attention frustrate him.
“You’re trying to get to the quarterback by any means necessary,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s a double or triple team, single block or unblocked, you’re trying to get to the quarterback. For me, it’s a relentless approach. Just trying to get there, that’s about it.’’
In three seasons with the Boilermakers, he collected 30.5 TFLs, 14.5 sacks, and countless double teams. Karlaftis, however, is not a numbers guy.
“I don’t know what the official numbers are,” he said. “I don’t give a crap about the official numbers and that kind of stuff.
“The stuff we talk about internally more is like how you affect the game is the ultimate factor. How I was able to affect opposing offenses, how I was able to garner attention for myself.
“I had two or three blockers on me at all times, which freed up our other guys. I think that’s more significant.
“I think to a certain extent sacks are overrated. I know people like sacks and all that. I think the way you affect the quarterback, pressure the quarterback, and affect the game is more significant.”
The top defensive linemen available in the April 28-30 NFL Draft, with name (position), college, height, weight, and projected round.
Aidan Hutchinson (DE), Michigan, 6-6, 260, 1
Terrorizes offensive tackles with a lethal first step and violent bull rush that would make most matadors run for shelter. Has incredible strength and balance to get low and around blockers. Had a breakout 2021 season, in which he collected 14 sacks. and led Michigan to the national title game. Great bloodlines: His father, Chris, also was a Wolverine lineman. Majority of mock drafts have Hutchinson going No. 1 overall.
Kayvon Thibodeaux (DE), Oregon, 6-4, 254, 1
Another guy with a lightning first step that allows him to employ a plethora of pass-rush moves (the rip, the swipe, the stab, to name a few). Has boundless energy, and it rubs off on his teammates. His feet are always moving. Thibodeaux has strong hands and will rag-doll bigger opponents. Piled up 19 sacks and 35.5 tackles for losses as a Duck.
Travon Walker (DE), Georgia, 6-5, 272, 1
The term “freak athlete” is overused, though it is an apt description of this chiseled, muscular, and multidimensional playmaker. Walker lined up in multiple positions for the nation’s best defense and likely could duplicate that at the next level, where he could be slotted as an edge defender or an inside threat. Flashes power and closing burst whether he’s pressuring the pocket or chasing down runners across the field.
Jordan Davis (DT), Georgia, 6-6, 341, 1-2
A massive mountain of a man, Davis looks the part of an old-school, tough-to-move nose tackle but possesses uncanny quickness and athleticism for a man of his size. He can clog the A-gaps, forcing runners to detour — often into the arms of Davis’s teammates. He is strong like a bull, and once he gets his mitts on a ball carrier, it’s good night Irene.
Devonte Wyatt (DT), Georgia, 6-3, 304, 1-2
Shocker! Another Bulldog makes this list. Wyatt is versatile and powerful beast with exceptional lateral quickness that allows him to fill gaps up and down the line. He can anchor (go ahead, and try to move him) and he can move. Wyatt is a violent striker whether he’s knocking offensive linemen backward or knocking the stuffing out of backs.
George Karlaftis (DE), Purdue, 6-4, 266, 1
Spent his early years in Greece, where he was a standout on the country’s national 16-and-under water polo team. Attributes that training to giving him the discipline to be successful in football after moving to the US when he was 13. Stuns blockers with a powerful punch; his hands are like cinder blocks. Primarily an edge player, he could slide inside at the next level where his quickness could give guards fits. Had 30.5 tackles for losses in 27 games for the Boilermakers.
Jermaine Johnson (DE), Florida State, 6-5, 254, 1
Really came into his own in his lone year in Tallahassee, registering 70 tackles and a dozen sacks to claim ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Started his career at Independence CC (you may remember him from the Netflix series “Last Chance U”) before enrolling at Georgia. Had two nondescript years with the Bulldogs before taking advantage of the extra “COVID” year. Always takes the most direct route to the ball and will land some teeth-loosening hits.
Travis Jones (DT), Connecticut, 6-4, 325, 1-2
A big-bodied bruiser who used to be even bigger; he shed 30 pounds after arriving in Storrs to be a more streamlined and effective defender after playing offensive line in high school. Another throwback nose tackle, Jones is a classic stack-and-shed guy but will surprise with his speed and athleticism. The Huskies haven’t been relevant in a while, but Jones really turned heads during Senior Bowl week.
Perrion Winfrey (DT), Oklahoma, 6-4, 290, 2
This dude’s arms go on for days, and that wingspan allows him to wrap up tacklers up and down the line. Underrated explosiveness out of his stance with a powerful first strike, he can leave blockers shell-shocked. Had 17 tackles for losses in two seasons for the Sooners. Was a standout during Senior Bowl week practices and then earned game MVP honors.
Phidarian Mathis (DT), Alabama, 6-4, 310, 2-3
Hard-working interior bull can be very disruptive with his blend of size, speed, and strength. Excellent discipline, he rarely let a ball carrier off the hook. Played in 55 career games for Nick Saban and registered 24.5 tackles for losses, 10.5 sacks, and 6 passes defensed.
BEST OF THE REST
Defensive ends: Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State (6-2, 250); pounds); Logan Hall, Houston (6-6, 283); Boye Mafe, Minnesota (6-4, 261); Drake Jackson, Southern Cal (6-3, 273); David Ojabo, Michigan (6-4, 250).
Defensive tackles: DeMarvin Demarvin Leal, Texas A&M (6-4, 283); John Ridgeway, Arkansas (6-5, 321); Otito Otto Ogbonnia, UCLA (6-4, 324); Kalia Davis, Central Florida (6-1, 302); Matthew Butler, Tennessee (6-4, 297).