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Making the case: Evan Neal or Ikem Ekwonu?

Both offensive tackles are good players, but which is OT1 in this draft class?

2021 SEC Championship - Georgia v Alabama Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The New York Giants have positioned themselves to select one of the top right tackles in the 2022 NFL Draft. GM Joe Schoen and company invested what little money they had to spend in free agency on several veterans to improve the interior offensive line. The Giants now possess two top 10 selections (Nos. 5 and 7) in the upcoming draft, but which top tackle makes the most sense?

The debate is between two players - Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu. Mississippi State’s Charles Cross is a good prospect with upside but not similar to Neal or Ekwonu. Since the Kareem McKenzie days, the Giants have cycled through mediocre tackles on the right side; they’ll now have a legitimate chance to add a bookend starter opposite Andrew Thomas.

Let’s make the case for both players.

Evan Neal

Not many human beings carry 337 pounds as well as Neal, nor do humans have the type of smoothness and body control as the versatile Crimson Tide offensive lineman.

Neal played significant snaps at many positions for Alabama. He has 1,094 snaps at left tackle - a position he played in 2021. Neal also started left guard in 2019; he has 732 career snaps there. He has one career snap at right guard, and he was the starting right tackle in 2020 (765 career snaps).

He was also very effective at all the positions. He only allowed 36 total pressures and five sacks through 1,496 pass-blocking snaps. In 2021, he allowed two sacks and 15 pressures as the left tackle. He was a team captain, a semi-finalist for the Outland Trophy, and the Lombardi Award.

Neal is a smooth pass rusher with an excellent kick-slide and set judgment. He’s very explosive and a rare type of athlete at his size, with his length. Neal possesses fluid hips that allow him to recover or pick up late twists, and his incredibly light feet allow him to mirror speed rushers up the arc.

He does a very good job with his heavy hands; he varies his attacks and keeps defenders guessing. Neal has great grip strength, and he can finish blocks with bad intentions. He’s a smart player with excellent reactive quickness, and he adjusts to counter moves well. He’s a clean prospect in pass protection.

He’s also a good run blocker who generates good force through his hips into defenders. His commanding punch to stun compliments and assists his ability to drive defenders off the line of scrimmage. He’s also athletic and rangy enough to execute reasonably distanced reach blocks, albeit he’s not as dynamic as Ekwonu in that area.

Neal is a high floor prospect, but he can clean up some balance issues that showed up in his film. He leans into contact as a run blocker too often. He will bend at his waist, creating an exploitable liability with a high pad level. The issue also leaves him susceptible to push-pull moves. Ekwonu also has a better anchor than Neal, although Neal is a better pass protector overall.

Ikem Ekwonu

Mean, malicious, will eat glass and ask for more...these are all synonymous with Ekwonu’s play style. Few offensive tackle prospects come into the draft process with his level of strength and power at the point of attack as a run blocker. Not only does he have good size and great density, but he’s a good athlete as well.

Both players have large wingspans, but Ekwonu’s is more significant. Watching Ekwonu as a play side blocker on zone concepts was delightful; he would toss defenders around, chip and climb with successful location and finishing skills while also just imposing brute physicality against his opponents.

Ekwonu played half of 2020 at left guard (239 snaps); other than that, he had one snap at right tackle, and the rest was all at left tackle (2,023 snaps). A big question with Charles Cross’ translation to the Giants was centralized around his lack of snaps on the right side. Ekwonu has that same concern that must either be explored pre-draft or overlooked until after the draft in a “we’ll figure it out, let’s get our best five on the field” mentality.

Ekwonu only allowed 13 pressures and three sacks in 2021, which was considerably better than the seven sacks and the 25 pressures he allowed in 2020.

Not many top 10 selections had the opportunity to attend Harvard or Yale, but Ekwonu had that choice. He is an intelligent leader with a ferocious knack for finishing blocks with authority — one of the better run-blocking tackles to come through the draft.

Ekwonu is much more of a run-blocking threat than a pass-blocking savant. He’s raw as a pass protector; he over-sets and doesn’t have the great ability to execute precise pass-sets. He’s also raw with his hand technique; his hands are very heavy and violent, but the timing, placement, and ability to vary his punches were too predictable on tape.

Ekwonu’s hips weren’t as disciplined as Neal’s were up the pass-rushing arc. The technical issues seen on film allowed defenders to get hip-to-hip with him a bit too often. Neal does a much better job protecting that outside shoulder and staying square to his target longer, making the defender’s job more difficult.

Neal was much better at handling counter moves and keeping the pocket intact. I don’t believe Ekwonu is inept as a pass protector - there’s a lot to like other than his brute strength - but it’s not a Round 1 trait of his. Ekwonu’s power, quick feet, and anchor are all enjoyable traits that translate well to his ability as a pass protector, but he has to improve his block framing and hand usage.

Final thoughts

Neal and Ekwonu are similar in some aspects and different in others. Both players were team leaders who have a lot of upside. Both could realistically be top-five selections in the upcoming draft. And both could be effectively kicked inside if failing at tackle occurs; I don’t envision that happening, but it would more than likely happen to Ekwonu if it were to happen to one of these two tackle prospects.

Neal is the better pass protector with a higher floor. Neal’s overall hand technique, smooth feet, and crisp angles make him a more developed and competent pass protector. He can step in on Day 1 and keep the quarterback upright.

Ekwonu is a much more violent and effective run blocker than Neal, who is good in this area but struggles with balance when moving laterally. Both players finish their blocks with tenacity; Neal drives his defenders into the dirt, but Ekwonu attempts to put his defenders through the earth’s core.

Ekwonu is a bit better in space than Neal, who tends to lean into contact. Ekwonu is more controlled with his ability to locate and annihilate. Both players have the ability to wash defenders down the line of scrimmage with excellent power; Ekwonu has a bit more power at the point of attack than Neal.

It’s an interesting debate between both athletic players; I like both of their games and would be happy with either donning blue after the draft. If I had to select one, it would be Neal. I don’t make this choice solely because of his higher floor. Neal’s comfortability in his pass sets, size, athletic profile, ability to sustain pass-blocking snaps with excellent grip strength, and his propensity to dictate pass-blocking snaps with a varied approach are very appealing. He doesn’t just have a high floor; he also has a high ceiling. Ekwonu’s ceiling is high if he can rectify his issues as a pass protector.

The difference between Neal’s run blocking and Ekwonu’s pass protection is stark. Neal has some warts while run blocking, but Ekwonu’s issues in pass protection are more noticeable and exploitable. I still love his game, his toughness, and how he plays football, but I rank Neal higher.

There’s still a ways to go until the 2022 NFL Draft, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable that the Giants could land one of these two tackles if they don’t trade out of the five spot. I would be thrilled with either Neal or Ekwonu as an addition to the Giants.