The 2022 NFL Draft doesn’t have many players who are the prohibitive front-runners at their position. There aren’t any players who don’t have concerns, and few who’ve been draft darlings since high school.
This year’s draft does have very good depth and a lot of players with very intriguing traits. That’s opened the door for several prospects to push for contention at the top of their respective position groups.
NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu, for instance, has gone from a relatively unknown prospect at the start of 2021 to some evaluator’s top offensive tackle.
Icky Ekwonu has emerged as a favorite target in mock drafts for the New York Giants, thanks both to his versatility and his play demeanor. In fact, there is even some speculation that he may be selected in the first four picks. What kind of player is Ekwonu on the field?
Prospect: Ikem Ekwonu (79)
Games Watched: vs. Miami (2020), vs. Mississippi State (2021), vs. Florida State (2021), vs. Miami (2021)
Career Games Played: 31
2021 Games Played: 12
Best: Play strength, athleticism, competitive toughness, versatility, run blocking
Worst: Over-aggression, consistency
Projection: A starting offensive lineman with position and scheme versatility.
NC State’s Ikem “Icky” Ekwonu is a powerful, athletic, versatile, and aggressive offensive line prospect.
Ekwonu has a versatile frame at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, with 34-inch arms and 10 ¼ inch hands. His combination of frame and athleticism allows him to start at both guard and tackle.
Ekwonu is an athletic blocker with quick feet and easy movement skills. He has enough foot speed and agility to mirror speed rushers off the edge, as well as put himself in position to absorb bullrushes from powerful linemen. He has enough long speed to be an effective pulling lineman, does a good job of climbing to the second level, and is able to get out in front of receivers on screen plays.
He matches that athleticism with impressive play strength. Ekwonu features heavy hands and a violent punch, which is capable of knocking most defenders off their pass rush. Ekwonu combines a powerful upper body with a strong lower body, allowing him to anchor against power and sustain his blocks through the whistle. His lower body is also quite flexible and he plays with good natural knee bend and pad level, as well as a wide base.
Ekwonu is an effective run blocker who can execute both man-gap and zone schemes. He fires off the ball with good initial leverage, allowing him to get under defenders’ pads and move them off the ball. Ekwonu has the athleticism to get defensive linemen flowing on outside zone plays, work off double-teams and climb to the second level, or get in front of the play as a puller. Likewise, he has the power to generate movement at the line of scrimmage as a man-gap blocker.
Competitive toughness is the hallmark of Ekwonu’s game. He routinely blocks through the whistle and looks for work on extended plays. Ekwonu is a mauler of a lineman, and his demeanor borders on “bully”. He seems to relish hitting defenders and will often take them to the ground or give extra shoves as the play ends.
That said, Ekwonu’s aggressiveness has a tendency to bleed over into “over-aggressiveness”, which compromises other areas of his game.
Ekwonu has a tendency to carry his hands low and wide in pass protection, which can make his punch imprecise. That compounds when he tries too hard to strike defenders, sacrificing his balance and leverage. That leaves him vulnerable to defenders with the length, quickness, or technique to neutralize his initial punch. In those cases, Ekwonu is stuck with his hips high and weight out over his toes. Athletic defenders are able to quickly work past him, while technicians are able to take half-man leverage and neutralize his play strength. At times he can take his initial punch so far that he lunges at speed rushers or his feet leave the ground entirely.
Ekwonu’s tendency to take his aggressiveness too far can also open him up to holding or unnecessary roughness penalties at the next level.
Overall Grade: 8.2
Ikem Ekwonu projects as a starting offensive lineman with positional and schematic versatility at the NFL level.
Ekwonu has the power and athleticism to execute both man-gap and zone blocking schemes well. He also has the movement skills to play either offensive tackle position, as well as the natural leverage and play strength to move inside to guard.
His exact projection, however, is complicated by some persistent issues in his game. Ekwonu struggled against NFL caliber pass rushers off the edge, and had issues with players who have the speed or technique (or both) to neutralize his initial punch. He also has a tendency to fall back on his power and aggressiveness and let his own technique degrade, which only makes matters worse.
This isn’t a fatal flaw in his game, but it is an issue for which teams will need to account. The best outcome is that the team who drafts him will have a plan for his development, it will pay off, and they’ll be rewarded with a starting offensive tackle. However, that’s no sure thing and Ekwonu might be forced inside if he can’t rein in his aggressiveness or adapt to seeing NFL speed off the edge every week.
There’s a lot to like about Ekwonu’s game, and it’s easy to see scouts and coaches alike falling in love with him. However, they can’t be blind to the flaws in his game and how they could impact his transition to the NFL.