On one hand, it’s the same. On the other, it’s very different.
Just like in 2020, the 2022 draft class includes four offensive tackles likely to be selected in the top half of the first round. Just like in 2020, the Jets and Giants are in position to strike. Just like in 2020, both New York teams are trying to figure out how to protect young quarterbacks.
“Where it’s different is that year no one knew who the top tackle was. There was an argument for all four,” ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller said. “This year there is more of a clear-cut picture of, we know who the top-two tackles are. A big part of it is, what do you need at the position?”
Want a mauling run-blocker? How about the versatility to play tackle or guard? Look no further than North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu.
Want a sound pass-blocker? How about better body control and short-area quickness? Alabama’s Evan Neal is the target.
The scouting community is split on whether Ekwonu (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) or Neal (6-7, 337) should be OT1 on draft boards, but the consensus is that those two belong ahead of Mississippi State’s Charles Cross (6-5, 307) and Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning (6-7, 325).
Given six superlatives by The Post to assign to any of the four players, Miller chose Ekwonu for three (best run-blocker, most versatile, best finisher) and Neal for three (best pass-blocker, quickest impact, highest ceiling).
So, it would be a surprise to see a repeat of when Tristan Wirfs slipped to the Buccaneers at No. 13 — after Andrew Thomas to the Giants at No. 4, Jedrick Wills to the Browns at No. 10 and Mekhi Becton to the Jets at No. 11 — but became the first (and only, so far) to be named a First-Team All-Pro.
“I prefer Neal, but it’s really close between the top two,” said Miller, who publishes thedraftscout.com. “Neal is well-rounded and more athletic. It’s such a big difference in the pass game — and some of that is because of his length and being 6-foot-7 versus 6-foot-4. But Ekwonu is so powerful in the run game that he does remind you of Tristan Wirfs where it’s like, ‘This dude is a bad–s.’ ”
There are different conceivable ways for the top four picks to break that could leave the Giants at No. 5 with a choice between Ekwonu and Neal, with one or the other available, or with neither available. The Jets’ intentions at No. 4 are the key variable, but their moves in free agency and public commitment to Becton after a lost year suggest looking elsewhere.
The Giants also have done a “ton of work” on Cross, one league source said. Perhaps that is preparation for the No. 7 pick, after filling a different need at No. 5. Penning impressed scouts as a finisher with “tree trunks for legs” at the Senior Bowl, when he was on a mission to prove he could stand up to a higher level of competition than the FCS offers.
“If you are looking for the best pure left tackles, it’s Neal and Cross to the core,” a scouting source said. “They can all play right tackle, but Ekwonu is an elite-level guard. It’s not that he can’t play left tackle, it’s just that you are going to lose some stuff. If you take him before the other two, you fell in love with his A-plus character.”
Some teams will rule out drafting a guard that high based on positional value, but the Colts bet on Quenton Nelson’s talent and character combination with the No. 6 pick in 2018. Regrets? Nelson is a three-time First-Team All-Pro anchoring the NFL’s No. 2-ranked rushing attack.
Run-blocking is the question with Cross, who comes out of coach Mike Leach’s unique Air-Raid offense, in which he allowed just 16 pressures on 719 pass-blocking snaps as a “big, athletic freak” in 2021. Leach’s last first-round offensive tackle (the Eagles’ Andre Dillard in 2019) looks like a bust.
“Cross doesn’t even look like an offensive lineman in person,” Miller said after watching Cross, Neal and Penning train in-person. “They were doing shuttle runs, and he was outrunning tight ends. I was like, ‘This is one of the crazier things that I’ve seen.’ His 10-yard explosiveness is so freaking good. Get this guy around a good offensive line coach and he is going to take off.”
Maybe the 2020 class will have some competition at the top after all.