The New York Giants and Carolina Panthers each entered the 2022 NFL Draft with glaring needs at offensive tackle and top 10 picks (two for the Giants!). The Panthers had the sixth pick in the draft, sandwiched between the Giants picks at five and seven.
The Giants selected Oregon edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux with the fifth selection, leaving the Panthers with their choice of the top three tackles in the draft - Alabama’s Evan Neal, North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross.
Carolina chose Ekwonu - a physically gifted run blocker with some question marks in pass protection. New York selected Neal at seven, and the two are forever linked by the position they play and their high draft pedigree in the same year.
Both tackles started for their respective teams in Week 1. Neal started at right tackle and played 61 snaps. Ekwonu played 53 of the Carolina Panthers snaps at left tackle.
It would be unfair to measure both tackles’ performances on the same spectrum. Neal played against a Titans team that lost star edge defender Harold Landry III just before the season, leaving him to block mostly inexperienced or depth players.
Conversely, Ekownu dealt with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney; both are former No. 1 overall selections in their respective drafts, with the former being top three at his position.
Neal drew the easier assignment, but we can still glean valuable information regarding technique and other fundamental traits that could suggest long-term success or development.
According to Pro Football Focus’s grading system, Ekwonu and Neal were the two lowest-graded offensive tackles in the NFL, ranked 82nd and 83rd, respectively.
Ekwonu’s run blocking grade was ranked 39th, and Neal was dead last (of offensive tackles who played and executed a run block). Neal’s pass blocking was 60th out of 83, and Ekwonu was third to last.
Neal has some solid run blocking reps; it did, however, appear his feet were tangled up on several different blocks, leading him to the deck.
Offensive linemen trip over each other from time to time. To what extent is it preventable - I’m not entirely sure. Some would argue that Neal could be in a better position, with his feet underneath him and a lower center of gravity, that could prevent a trip, but that’s easier said in a computer chair than done when 300-plus pound men are scrapping at the line of scrimmage.
Evan Neal is #73; Ikem Ekwonu is #79
The Panthers barely possessed the football in their 26-24 home loss against the Browns. Carolina only ran the football 18 times, and star running back Christian McCaffrey had three carries in the first half. I expect McCaffrey’s workload to increase against the Giants - more than just the 14 touches Ben McAdoo schemed him in Week 1.
Ekwonu’s best attribute is his power at the point of attack, and Carolina should leverage that.
Ekwonu drives Isaac Rochell (98) off the screen on this split-zone rushing play. It appears wide receiver D.J. Moore (2) grazes Rochell’s foot, which could have led to the domination. Still, the positioning, hand leverage, and initial power of Ekownu were displayed before the contact. Also, I love to see Ekownu drive Rochell backward to open up a cutback lane if D’Onta Foreman (33) was so inclined.
We witness some of Ekwonu’s power here against Myles Garrett (95), who is aligned as a 4i-technique. Ekwonu steps, explodes low to high, and gets Garrett off the line of scrimmage. Garrett does a great job slowing Ekwonu down by locking him out and sinking his base; as Garrett is pushed back, he keeps Ekwonu at a distance and runs around the tackle, six yards removed from the line of scrimmage. Garrett puts himself in a great position to tackle McCaffrey, but the star runner jukes him out of his shoes.
Ekwonu makes clean contact with his outside arm on Garrett; he gets low and explodes into the point of attack, uncoiling his hips through the contact, but Garrett uses his length and pulls the rookies inside shoulder pad downward to completely shed.
Most of Carolina’s rushing attack went to the right side of the line of scrimmage. A D.J. Moore end around where Ekonwu just blocked down the line of scrimmage but hardly had to contact anyone and these two plays below were the only rushing attempts outside of Ekwonu’s A-Gap:
On the first clip, the Panthers run another split-zone on first-and-10 where the three-hole opens off the ACE block. Garrett goes to set the edge and attempts to win through the outside shoulder, effectively taking himself out of the play. Ekwonu does a good job just staying in front and using Garrett’s decision against him. The second clip is on a second-and-16 where Ekwonu assists Tommy Tremble (82) with his block on Taven Bryan (99).
Both Neal and Ekwonu have the potential to be devastating to defensive linemen with their combo blocks. Ekwonu and left guard Brady Christensen (70) do a solid job getting hip to hip in the play below:
McAdoo calls an RPO, and Baker Mayfield is reading safety Grant Delpit (22). Delpit steps down to fill, so Mayfield throws in the vacated area - simple RPO. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (28) also flies towards the line of scrimmage to reassure Mayfield to throw the slant. However, the big boys are run blocking up front.
Christensen initiates contact, and Ekownu displays his power by knocking Bryan well off-kilter before climbing to locate a linebacker. Ekwonu has to be careful on this play which was very close to being flagged for an ineligible man downfield - one of the drawbacks to the RPO.
Here’s a beautifully blocked power run with backside guard Austin Corbett (63) pulling off the backside of an Ekwonu/Christensen down block on the 3-technique. Ekwonu’s power removes Bryan from the line of scrimmage and provides Ekwonu a clear path to the linebacker; however, Christensen can’t maintain contact after Ekwonu drives his feet, and Bryan is able to find Christian McCaffrey (22) a few yards downfield.
This play isn’t as clean from Ekwonu and Christensen, who fail to get hip-to-hip and allow Bryan to split the double team. Christensen is trying to climb and locate Anthony Walker Jr. (5), but he can’t because Ekwonu never gets his hips swiveled to the front side of Bryan. If Christensen climbed, Bryan would have a clear path on McCaffrey. It’s possible Ekownu expected a cutback off his rear-end; if not, he needs to exercise better positioning on combo blocks such as this one here.
Here are Evan Neal’s run blocking snaps from Week 1. We’ll go over specific ones in detail below:
Evan Neal's run blocking snaps from Sunday's win against Tennessee pic.twitter.com/Tt8HJ85s7V— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) September 13, 2022
Neal is a high-floor player who also possesses a high-ceiling. Men aren’t supposed to weigh 350 pounds and be this kind of athlete. Neal’s a heavy-handed player who is conscientious, smart, and very coachable.
I pointed out a couple of plays where Neal found the ground after his feet were tangled in contact. As previously stated, that isn’t easy to always avoid, but sustainment and balance issues were scattered throughout his Alabama tape.
Neal is gigantic, and he tends to lean into contact while not always bringing his feet. Seeing an offensive lineman’s chest well in front of his feet is not great - it leads to balance problems. I love how Neal fits his hands underneath Bud Dupree’s (48) chest, but that uncontrolled forward momentum allows Dupree to sidestep and shed with a push of the outside arm and a run-defending rip move.
Neal is much bigger than the second-level defender he is squared up against here, and we see the push Neal gets on contact. But as Neal drives forward, he leans to sustain contact, allowing Dylan Cole (53) to slide inside and towards Saquon Barkley (26).
The Giants run a pin-pull concept where Neal must down block Jeffery Simmons (98) at the 4i-technique. Both the center and play side guard pull, so Neal has to prevent Simmons from penetrating which is difficult. Simmons fires off the line of scrimmage and dips his outside shoulder underneath the inside shoulder of Neal, landing the rip move and establishing immediate and dangerous leverage at the point of attack. Simmons explodes upward to raise the center of gravity of Neal and create separation from the rookie. Neal never gets control of Simmons, who gets into the backfield and trips Barkley up.
The Giants run a zone read that is designed to have two backside offensive linemen lead block for Daniel Jones (8) or one lead blocker in Matt Breida (31) leading the way for Barkley. Denico Autry (96) reads the pullers but stops at the mesh point to account for Barkley, so Jones keeps the football for a small gain on the Giants’ first drive.
Neal and Mark Glowinski (64) are the two pullers; Glowinski is tasked to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage who is left unblocked, while Neal is supposed to locate the play side backer or safety. However, Glowinski whiffs on the block, so Neal contacts Dupree and Jones enters the hole with no lead blocker.
Speaking of adjustment and processing, Neal does an excellent job picking up the penetrating linebacker after assisting Glowinski with Simmons on Barkley’s touchdown run. The blocking on the left side of the line is so superb Shao Khan would be jealous, but I do also love Neal’s block here. Not only is he aware enough to pick up Zach Cunningham in the B-Gap, but we see how he physically pushes Simmons into a location that allows Glowinski to execute a better block. Simmons attempts to use his quickness to penetrate.
Look at Simmons’ feet once Neal makes contact; the defensive lineman gets slightly lifted off the ground. Neal assures Glowinski has control before he sticks his nose right into Cunningham. Neal establishes better command through force and with well-placed hands on the small of Simmons’ back and near the outside deltoid.
Who doesn’t love to see a rookie in his first ever NFL game help his veteran teammate out in a high-leverage situation?
Evan Neal and Mark Glowinski drive Denico Autry off the line of scrimmage pic.twitter.com/hYdHYYERHY— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) September 15, 2022
Jones quickly comes off the RPO to find Sterling Shepard (3) in the flat against off-coverage. Neal and Glowinski meet Autry at the line of scrimmage and drive him a few yards back and into the ground. We discuss Ekwonu’s power - and rightfully so - but watch Neal; yes, it’s a double team, but we see the pop on contact that Neal provides to Autry and just how much force he generates through the ground as he drives his feet through contact. This was an excellent combo block that ended up a pass. Just have to watch out for an ineligible man downfield.
Glowinski struggles to locate the second-level defender but does a good job contacting Autry and allowing Neal to execute and finish the combo block. Glowinksi’s second effort - along with Neal tugging the outside shoulder downward - turns Autry parallel to the line of scrimmage, where Neal assumes complete control and prevents the veteran from shedding as Barkley runs past.
Ekwonu wasn’t a polished pass protector coming out of North Carolina State, and drawing Garrett in Week 1 was a very assignment. Ekwonu surrendered four pressures and two sacks - both on back-to-back plays.
This is a second-and-6 play; Ekwonu’s first step is lateral, and he turns his hips right as he plants his foot. He gains no depth in his pass set, and he squares up to Garrett with a very easy path for Garrett to win high side. Garrett is aligned outside of the tight end, who fails to chip, and Ekwonu goes into full panic mode right at the snap to locate Garrett. His footwork and hip discipline are out the window at the snap, and he just scrambles to impede Garrett, but the star pass rusher easily makes him pay for his poor technique.
The very next play on third-and-12, Garrett beats Ekwonu again. Ekwonu’s feet are not crisp, and he turns his hips after his second step, failing to protect his own outside shoulder. Garrett bends through contact and forces Baker Mayfield (6) to fumble.
It was a rough two-play sequence from Ekwonu, but the first-round tackle struggled to stop speed up the arc all game.
Garrett uses a hard inside jab foot to stop Ekwonu’s lateral momentum and force him to punch; Garrett gets his inside shoulder on the chest of Ekwonu and leans into the contact, bringing his inside arm underneath while turning the corner. Mayfield gets the pass off, but Garrett was harassing and stressing Ekwonu high-side all game.
Carolina is in a double-Y set and Garrett splits the tight ends while Ekwonu fails to gain depth in his set. He reaches to make contact with his outside arm, and Garrett swats his hand away while easily turning the corner and getting his hips oriented towards Mayfield.
Ekwonu kicks out to a solid position at the snap to meet Garrett; however, he punches with his outside arm, and Garrett promptly swats, dips, and rips through Ekwonu’s outside shoulder to hit Mayfield. With possible inside help due to two blockers on the 2i-technique, one would like to see Ekwonu err on the side of caution since he struggled all game with protecting his outside shoulder.
Good eyes in pass protection on the play action were displayed here by Ekwonu. Christensen and Ekwonu execute the double team block, and the rookie flashed his eyes at Owusu-Koramoah. Ekwonu came off the combo and eliminated the penetrating linebacker from the play.
Here are two twists handled by Ekwonu and Christensen. Both aren’t handled in a textbook manner:
Here are all of Evan Neal’s pass blocking snaps from Week 1:
Evan Neal's pass blocking snaps from Sunday pic.twitter.com/R9Ecz8iI1q— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) September 13, 2022
Neal’s overall power was easy to perceive on Sunday. Here are two clips of him in pass protection throwing guys to the ground.
Pay attention to Evan Neal and nothing else pic.twitter.com/vE3jZvY7MW— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) September 12, 2022
Neal has his flaws, but I really love his range, length, power, and overall ability to maximize his use of hands.
Neal is patient and smooth coming out of his stance here against Autry. His initial punch is a bit high, but I love how he readjusts after Autry establishes control; Neal brings that inside arm underneath the inside arm of Autry while adjusting his own outside arm to gain the best control of the veteran.
This is the Sterling Shepard touchdown reception. Neal is very patient again with his method of attack against Rashad Weaver (99). If you look close, we see Neal catch the inside hand punch of Weaver and pin it to his inside shoulder while pushing with his own outside hand and reestablishing on Weaver’s midline. One of my favorite traits about Neal is how he varies his attack. It’s a different tempo, different punch, different location, etc. He’s crafty and smart for a rookie.
Ola Adeniyi (92) tries to club the outside arm of Neal, and it does nothing. Neal presses Adeniyi outside, giving the pass rusher more space to win up the pass rushing arc. Neal opens his hips, forces Adeniyi low as he turns, and rides the Titans’ defender around the pocket.
Neal didn’t lose that rep against Adeniyi, but his overall length and athletic ability allow him to compensate when he is beaten off the snap.
Neal opens his hips early and punches high against Dupree. The rookie gets no control, and the veteran just bends around the edge, but Neal can get enough of Dupree to just push him away from the pocket, allowing Jones to step up. Even when he “loses” reps, it may not affect the play.
Neal covers a lot of ground impressively to cut off Dupree, who is wide. Neal’s punch is high and telegraphed, allowing Dupree to dip underneath, but Neal’s athletic ability and length negate the technical struggle. Neal keeps his feet moving and pushes Dupree away from Jones.
Dupree thinks he has Neal on an inside move, but the rookie - with his hips and momentum in the opposite direction - is able to quickly shift his weight and square back up to the pass rusher. Neal over-pursued and gave Dupree a sliver of hope to win inside, but the massive tackle quickly shut those dreams down with great footwork and body control. Also, solid double-hand punch to start the play from Neal.
Neal oversets on this play against Adeniyi; his feet get way too narrow, and he anticipated instead of reacted. However, Neal shoves Adeniyi inside, and the power jumps off the screen. The force from the shove allows Neal to get back into position to eliminate Adeniyi as Jones rolls to his right, but the pocket was compromised by Adeniyi’s move.
Neal opens his hips a bit too early against Dupree, and the pass rusher uses a quick club/arm-over move to win inside. However, Neal uses his massive frame as an impediment to Dupree while spinning back inside to locate. Neal was assisted by Glowinski. We never want to see a tackle be spun around, but I find his ability to stay composed and balanced at his size so unique.
Neal, Glowinski, and Jon Feliciano (76) handle this twist from Simmons and Autry well. Neal rides Autry into Glowinski while noticing the play design of the defender’s path. Neal gets his eyes up and handles Simmons looping around. Neal also doesn’t allow Simmons to bend the edge and work the half-man; he stays square and in front of Simmons until the ball is out of Jones’ hand. The strength of Simmons with that final push at the end of the play is impressive.
The Titans’ run a simulated pressure up front. They rush four with David Long Jr. (51) as the disguised rusher, and Dupree drops into the middle hook. Neal opens to Dupree and realizes the play, so he helps Glowinski remove Autry. Neal is a quick processor and that was on display against the Titans.
Ekwonu and Neal’s Week 1 performances are difficult to quantify, given the difference in competition. Neither player is faultless, but Neal’s technique, length/athletic ability, and ability to recover make him a much safer player than Ekwonu. These same sentiments were acknowledged during the pre-draft process just a few short months ago.
Both players can be good in the NFL, but Ekwonu may need more work. Neal still struggles to sustain contact in the run game - he needs to play with his feet underneath him more consistently.
Week 2 is an important game for both franchises, and one of the sub-stories in that game is Ekwonu and Neal’s performances. The presence of Kayvon Thibodeaux would make that conversation much spicier. Neal will have his hands full against a very talented and quick pass rusher in Brian Burns.
It should be interesting looking at both of these players’ careers - throw Charles Cross in there as well - and seeing which player becomes the best. There’s more clarity developing on a similar conversation between the tackles selected in 2020. The four tackles were Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton, and Tristin Wirfs. Thomas and Wirfs are in a different category than Wills and Becton, albeit Wills is a solid player. Becton, unfortunately, can’t stay healthy, which has hindered his effectiveness throughout his short career.
Wirfs is a great right tackle, and he was elite as a rookie. Thomas is an incredibly good left tackle whose trajectory continues to ascend. It’s hard to be upset about the Thomas selection as he enters his third season. I think the same thing will be said in two years about Evan Neal.