General manager Joe Schoen made edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux (No. 5 overall) and offensive tackle Evan Neal (No. 7) the first two draft picks of his tenure, looking for both players to be cornerstones for the future of the franchise.
Overall, Thibodeaux’s rookie season was better than Neal’s. Still, neither player had the impact that might have been hoped for in their rookie seasons. Thibodeaux had just 4.0 sacks in 14 games. Neal surrendered 8 sacks and was Pro Football Focus’s lowest-graded tackle out of 57 qualifiers.
Both players are hoping for steps forward in 2023.
“They’ve had a year under their belt. So, still got a lot to learn. Still young players. But again, they can draw from some of the experiences that they’ve had the previous year,” said head coach Brian Daboll. “As a rookie, you have no idea what’s going on right now. So, I’d say most players from year one to year two, there’s a little bit more comfort level.”
Before the 2022 season, Thibodeaux verbalized a lofty — and naive — goal.
“If I could average at least one sack a game or contribute five to 10 tackles a game, then I’ll be good,” he said.
Thibodeaux learned the hard way that compiling such lofty numbers in the NFL is not easy. He missed the first two games after suffering a preseason knee injury, did not get his first sack until Week 6, then did not get his second until Week 12.
“I left a lot of space to grow,” Thibodeaux said on Wednesday. “It got better as time went on.”
Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said last week that he sent Thibodeaux into the offseason with advice to strengthen his core and his legs.
How did Thibodeaux do that?
“It’s funny. So, my lower body it’ll never look bigger, but I’m as strong as anybody else when it comes to squatting, when it comes to lifting, when it comes to things like that,” Thibodeaux said. “What I started to learn was more of the application of my strengths. Starting to figure out how to use my leverage and use the things that I have to my advantage.”
Thibodeaux admitted Wednesday that he has a different understanding of what the NFL is than he had a year ago.
“I think it’s a different mentality,” Thibodeaux said. “When, when you haven’t played against, uh, NFL caliber guys, you don’t really know right? How big you are, how strong you need to be, how fast you need to be. But once you kind of get that down and you start to really learn the ins and outs of the game, which is kind of what I started to do at the end of the season last year going into this year, I think, you know, it becomes a lot easier.”
One thing Thibodeaux learned is that putting numbers to goals is not a good idea.
“I had a number on it last year and I figured out that, you know, the season is so long that you have to do it by game. So if I can make impactful plays like I was able to do and continue to, to win, I mean no one will ever remember, right? So as long as, as long as we win and as long as I continue to play well and play for my teammates, I think I’ll be good,” Thibodeaux said.
“When you go what was it, four or five games with no sacks. I mean, you start to realize like, wow, that number. I mean, forget that number. You start thinking forget the number and, you know, um, what can I do to, to just make a play?”
The Giants drafted Neal hoping that he would become a bookend to star left tackle Andrew Thomas on the right side of the Giants’ line.
Neal, though, struggled in his rookie season. He surrendered three sacks Week 3 vs. the Dallas Cowboys and gave up eight for the season. His overall PFF grade was just 41.8.
Neal spent some time this offseason working with former NFL offensive lineman Willie Anderson, refining his stance in an effort to be more comfortable and put himself in better position.
“We were just playing around with my stance, seeing what’s comfortable, what’s not comfortable,” Neal said. “A stance that I can be functional out of.
“I’m open to change. In this league you’ve got to be able to adapt. I’ve done a lot of things that worked for me in the past. I’ve done things that haven’t worked so well. So this is just another one of those things, me trying something new, just seeing how I could get better.”
Like Thibodeaux, Neal said having a year under his belt should be helpful.
“Nothing’s a surprise now,” he said. “I know what to expect. I know what an NFL level game is and I can go out there and perform and play well.”
Neal missed two games midseason with a knee injury last season, and there was speculation that he was never fully healthy after suffering the injury. On Wednesday, he did not offer that as an excuse.
“It wasn’t a factor,” he said. “I mean, a lot of guys get dinged up, get get banged up. I wasn’t the only one out there dealing with stuff.”
Despite the fact that it may not have met outside expectations, Neal said he was “proud” of his rookie season.
“Adversity is a part of everything,” Neal said. “Just how I battled with some things whether it be injuries, having to miss time and stuff like that. Playing through like bad games and things like that. I just liked the way that I was able to be resilient through it all. Finished the year strong, didn’t complain or anything. Just went out there every Sunday, you know, and gave it everything that I had. So I was really proud of that.”