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Making the case: Charles Cross or Trevor Penning?

If the Giants miss out on the top two tackles, would MISST’s Cross or UNI’s Penning be a better option in blue?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Mississippi State at Auburn Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Giants are in desperate need of a right tackle. Andrew Thomas rebounded from a turbulent rookie season and vastly improved during his second year. He figures to be the future at left tackle for the Giants.

Outside of Thomas, there are no proven long-term fixtures on the offensive line. Mark Glowinski and Jon Feliciano were signed to patch the offensive line; the former is more than just a one-year fix, but both linemen will be 30 years old at the start of the season.

Matt Peart is still recovering from a late-season torn ACL, and Matt Gono shouldn’t be relied upon as anything more than just a swing tackle. A potentially healthy Shane Lemieux and Ben Bredeson will fight for the left guard position and possibly a draft selection or two.

Still unproven and uncertain, the offensive line is shaping up into a more competitive position group. Still, the glaring impediment to that hopeful reality remains the right tackle position.

The two ideal options for right tackle are Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu. Neal has 765 snaps as the Alabama right tackle, with 2,585 snaps total (1,094 at LT, 723 at LG). Ekwonu played most of his college career at left tackle and left guard.

These players would be excellent options for New York, but four teams pick before the Giants at No. 5. Realistically, neither Ekwonu nor Neal could be available at five. It’s also plausible to speculate that the Giants could trade back if the trade market dictates more value for that fifth pick with the availability of a quarterback like Liberty’s Malik Willis or even Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett.

New York has endless options and possible avenues to success. Two names come to mind in the scenario where the Giants do trade back - and are still looking at right tackle in the draft - Mississippi State’s Charles Cross and University of Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning. Let’s make the case for the two players.

Charles Cross

Both players have their pros and their cons. For starters, Cross has incredibly smooth feet, all the athletic ability necessary to play offensive line, and great length.

There’s a lot to appreciate about Cross’ game. Giants offensive line coach Bobby Johnson took the lead at Mississippi State’s Pro Day:

He was a five-star recruit - the fifth-ranked tackle in the 2019 cycle - by Leach’s predecessor Joe Moorehead. Cross is fluid as a pass protector; his pass-sets are smooth, he gains the necessary depth in his sets, he’s explosive, and he does an excellent job executing precise angles of attack up through the second level.

His hand technique - once contact is initiated - is impressive. He does a good job hand fighting and adapting while mirroring with his feet. Cross does well to frame his blocks, has a good anchor, and finds creative ways to win while blocking reach or scoop blocks laterally as a run blocker.

Cross is very patient with his hands - this is a pro and a con. The patience allows him to play balanced, not over-extend, and his adaptive quickness and athletic ability positions him well to handle counter moves.

However, the patient nature of his punch while pass protecting doesn’t always allow him to maximize his length, and it enables defenders to dictate reps. Overall, Cross’ upside as a pass protector is very high, and there’s a lot to like.

One primary concern I have about Cross is the forced prognostication of his transition to the right side. Cross was a left tackle. Furthermore, the transition for Cross differs from Ekwonu, who has one snap at right tackle, because of the Air Raid system Cross played in during the 2020 and 2021 seasons under Mike Leach.

Defenses in college play an Air Raid team much differently than teams who will run the football more than 200 times in a season. Cross will likely see different defensive fronts more often in the NFL, which could slow his development - especially with him moving to the right side.

Cross could also improve his overall strength as a run blocker. It’s something he didn’t often do in college, with only 357 run-blocking snaps through his college career. He could do a better job sustaining his run blocks longer. There’s not a lack of fight or competitiveness in Cross, but the projective metamorphosis for Cross away from the Air Raid and to the opposite side are questions worth investigating.

Trevor Penning

Players the size of Penning aren’t typically as athletically gifted.

Penning slipped through the cracks of Power-5 Iowa recruiting and landed at an FCS program in UNI. Penning gained more notoriety at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, where he consistently played with a massive edge and quarreled with several fellow players through the event. His pugnacious attitude was also evident throughout his tape, where he frequently threw lesser defenders to the deck.

Penning looks to finish his blocks with authority and will do everything to punish defenders. That glass-eating mentality is very alluring, and it’s the exact mindset I want in my offensive linemen. However, it will draw penalties at the next level - it’s the price you pay when you walk the unnecessary roughness line.

Penning’s play strength, size, athletic ability, solid length, anchor, and heavy hands give him the upside of being a quality tackle in the NFL. I loved his ability to finish blocks, but he typically won easily in this manner because of superior play strength; how translatable is that consistently to the NFL? Like Cross, he has little experience on the right side (only nine snaps at RT). Penning does have 96 snaps at right guard from 2018 and 2019.

I understand the appeal of Penning, but I did not see a super clean or efficient player. I was alarmed by his lack of consistent use of hands at the point of attack for his level of competition. He was a yellow flag waiting to happen, not just for his overly disputatious nature; Penning had 16 penalties in 2021, which would have tied Tulsa’s Tyler Smith in the FBS, but Penning plays in a lesser division.

Penning was tied in all college football (Division II and III, included) for the most penalized player. UNI was affected by COVID-19 in 2020, but Penning also had 12 penalties in 2019. He ended his college career with 34 penalties; Cross had 14 in his career, Neal six, Ekwonu ten, Tyler Smith (another undisciplined player) 24. Smith had 1,779 career FBS snaps, Penning 1,995 FCS snaps.

The hype that Penning receives as a top 10 selection is rich for me. People love the highlight reel aggressive finish ability. Still, the lack of hand technique, the propensity to allow defenders to get hip to hip, and the ways he won against FCS talent - with strength over technique - are concerns when he’s discussed in the top 10.

Final thoughts

Neither Cross nor Penning are sure bets in the 2022 NFL Draft. Both players lack experience at right tackle, although the transition for Cross - in terms of defensive alignments due to his snaps in the Air Raid system - could be arduous.

At the same time, Penning’s jump to the NFL - after struggling with his hand technique against non-NFL players - gives me apprehension. Both players are athletic; both are long, and both have upside.

I have Cross rated higher than Penning, and I prefer Cross despite my transition concerns (which have to be vetted). The Giants worked Cross out at right tackle during his Pro Day. They must feel confident enough in his transition to make this selection. I wouldn’t want it to be a “we’ll figure it out later” choice.

Adding Cross or Penning would ideally transpire after the Giants trade out of five or seven. I hope that Neal falls to the Giants at five, and Big Blue adds a versatile SEC-proven lineman with a high floor and exciting ceiling. The Cross vs. Penning decision isn’t a slam-dunk - and both players have concerns as the potential long-term right tackle for the Giants.