INDIANAPOLIS — There are plenty of positions with intrigue in a draft class that doesn’t have an elite quarterback, but the offensive tackle group might be the most interesting with three top talents.
Fresh from a meeting with the team that may take him 1—the Jaguars—Evan Neal took to the podium looking svelte, which is noteworthy for a 6′ 7″ offensive lineman who says that he’s always been a big guy. But how big is he? And how big is too big for him at the next level?
Coming out of IMG Academy, Neal was nearly 400 pounds before shedding some 40 pounds as he entered Alabama’s program† He played around 350 during his Tide career and says that before the combine hesmarted down to 336 pounds, the lightest of his playing career by far.
Whether he’s 336 or 356, Neal’s frame holds the weight extraordinarily.
And his athleticism, well, let’s say his weight makes things like this split box jump even more outlandish. It makes sense that Neal’s favorite player is Hall of Famer Larry Allen, a famously athletic guy in a big body.
“I’ve never looked at myself as having a true weight problem for sure,” Neal said. “I felt comfortable playing at all of those weights, but I definitely feel like the weight that I’m at now is more optimal for me right now.”
Neal’s weight is part of the puzzle for a player as big as he is. It’s certainly not a death knell for his career, but big offensive linemen do have to learn how to be effective in the NFL against more agile defensive linemen. A knock on Neal comes when evaluating how he gets to the second level in run blocking.
“Even in the run game, at times my base will tend to tighten up on me and raise up and get high, and that’ll tend for me to fall off blocks and get thrown. Keeping a wide base and a strong base and better body control. I’ve been working with Duke Manyweather on that in draft prep. We’ve been doing different kinds of isometric holds and different core exercises to help overall body control.”
Neal has seemingly been bred for this moment. As a sophomore, he moved from Okeechobee High School to the IMG Academy, a school that specializes in a college-like environment that churns out talent. He then went to Bama as the nation’s No. 1 tackle recruit, and he starred first at right tackle then moved to left after Alex Leatherwood went to the NFL. Now he’s the next in a line of Tide LTs to head to the league. If he’s taken No. 1, he’ll be the first Bama player taken first in 74 years and the fifth offensive tackle taken 1 in the history of the league.
“It’d mean everything,” Neal said. “We have a whole lot of Alabama players that are worthy of having the No.1 spot, that’d be extremely special. The whole state of Alabama would be proud. The University of Alabama would definitely be proud for sure.”
NC State’s Ickey Ekwonu’s versatility does not simply stop on the playing field, where he was an All-ACC-level guard and tackle for the Wolfpack; he’s also talented off the field. There’s a chance that either the Giants or Jets could bring Ekwonu to New York with picks four, five or seven, meaning he might get a chance to head to the theater district and work on his other talents in his free time.
“I can sing bass to tenor,” Ekwonu said. “I actually sang a lot of tenor in high school because there weren’t a lot of guys who could hit those high notes. Definitely had a pretty good range.”
He said he’ll leave the live performances for training camp when rookies have to put on a show for the vets, but he did say he enjoyed musical theater when he was a kid in everything from The Jungle Book to 101 Dalmatians (he played Pongo, the lead).
“If I’m bored, I just like to start humming or singing a little bit,” Ekwonu said. “I was in the MRI machine yesterday and they had the speaker going with some R&B—some SZA going—sang a little bit for ’em. I’m sure they heard me about the mic.”
But make no mistake, when he’s performing on the field, Ekwonu’s more ferocious than Cruella de Vil.
As he looks to the NFL, he’d prefer to play left tackle. But, if he sticks at guard in the league, he knows he’ll have to focus on.
“Watching my film in 2020 when I was at guard, I definitely tried to add too much tackle technique when I was playing guard, so that’s something I would have to work on,” Ekwonu said. “I know I can play in a phone booth, but I’m really refining my technique at guard, making sure I’m more lateral in my pass sets instead of kicking back vertically.”
Cross’s run blocking in focus
As a total proportion of snaps played in his career, Charles Cross simply has not run blocked that much. Only 21% of his total snaps have been rushing plays, while his top two peers at tackle, Neal and Ekwonu, both saw rushing plays make up 42%of their time on the field. Cross doesn’t call the plays, and he played in an Air Raid scheme at Mississippi State that, by design, would rather pass short than run at all. He says he’s ready to rock no matter what people say about his run blocking.
“I’ll say go watch to them,” Cross said. “Go watch the movie. You’ll see.”
While he doesn’t have a large body of work as far as run blocking is concerned, there’s quality in the small quantity (his PFF run-blocking grade is actually better than his pass-blocking grade) and his natural athleticism leads you to believe that he can get the job done when asked to run block at the next level once he develops further.
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