How Bengals legend Willie Anderson is helping a young Giants tackle

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants right tackle Evan Neal invited 2023 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist Willie Anderson to New Jersey for a weekend of work in late March. This is how Neal was spending his first professional offseason: Trying to figure out answers after a difficult rookie season.

They sat in the lobby of Neal’s luxury New Jersey apartment complex devouring dinner and dissecting film from the first-round pick’s rookie year. It didn’t take long for Anderson, a former Pro Bowl right tackle who is now an offensive line coach, to know where to start.

“I saw that he was a left tackle trying to figure out playing right tackle,” said Anderson, who was a four-time first-team All Pro right tackle during his playing days with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Neal had played left guard, right tackle and left tackle during a standout career at Alabama. He was penciled in as the starting right tackle the moment he was selected seventh overall in the 2022 NFL draft by the Giants.

In Anderson’s opinion, Neal still hadn’t completely made the adjustment.

“It’s like being a right-hand boxer, and now we’re going to turn your left hand into your dominant hand,” Anderson said. “That takes practice. A lot of times it’s not going to look as good. I can still punch a guy with my left hand, it’s just not going to feel as strong. That’s what I immediately saw. He was playing left tackle and trying to figure out, ‘How do I adjust getting my feet together, getting my hands corrected, getting in the right stance?’

“I think it will take shape this year.”

The Giants know their offensive line needs to be better. They are banking on a significant leap from Neal in Year 2, and they drafted center John Michael Schmitz in the second round. Those are the two spots where they are hoping for significant improvement with All Pro Andrew Thomas entrenched at left tackle and last year’s starters, Ben Bredeson and Mark Glowinski, the favorites to start at guard.

Right tackle was one of the spots where the Giants had problems. Neal had a pass block win rate of 81.1% last season. That ranked him 58 out of 64 qualifying tackles with 11 sacks allowed. He also finished 80 of 81 tackles with a 41.8 grade from Pro Football Focus.

Some outsiders had even suggested moving Neal inside to guard. The Giants have no such plans. They envision a day where Thomas and Neal are a dominant tackle duo.

In the meantime, Neal’s rookie year left a sour taste in his mouth and had him searching for ways to improve this offseason. He saw Anderson teaching and working with players on Instagram, and his agent, Damarius Bilbo of Klutch, set up a meeting, which came with a blessing from Giants offensive line coach Bobby Johnson.

That initial three-day workshop between Neal and Anderson produced at least one major change: They made his stance more compact, moving his back leg in to provide better balance and power.

“I first saw his stance and I said, ‘That stance can’t be comfortable going against certain kinds of rushers,’” Anderson said. “I asked him if he had a problem with these kinds of rushers, and he said, ‘Yes!’”

Anderson didn’t want to specify the rushers that gave Neal the most trouble in fear of giving away too much information. However, Neal’s worst game of the season came in a September loss to the Dallas Cowboys when DeMarcus Lawrence finished with three sacks.

His new stance is designed to help him get out quicker and have a more compact base that will allow him to move side to side, and forward and back, more efficiently.

“Working with Willie was cool,” Neal said. “Just gaining a lot of his knowledge, him being a Pro Bowl player, we were playing around with my stance, seeing what's comfortable, seeing what's not comfortable. The stance that I can be functional out of and explode out of and stuff like that.”

The two are scheduled to have another session in the coming weeks. The Giants are in the midst of OTAs and have their mandatory minicamp scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of next week before breaking for the summer.

Anderson and Johnson have spoken on multiple occasions, including at Ohio State’s Pro Day the afternoon before Neal and Anderson linked up. They’re all on the same page.

“I’d say with each player, there’s little things that you try to tweak and coach on,” Giants coach Brian Daboll said. “And it’s no different with Evan.”

Neal’s willingness to change makes this a very different situation from Ereck Flowers, who was resistant to change early in his Giants career after being a top-10 pick in 2015. It more closely resembles Thomas, who had a disastrous rookie year before turning it around midway through his second season.

“The great ones bust their ass to figure it out,” Anderson said. “For him, that stuff bothered him. It bothers him the way it bothered me [as a rookie], the way it bothered Andrew, because I know Andrew well too and I know what Andrew did to work himself back.

“That’s what Evan has a chance to be. You’ve got a chance to be [a] top duo. Two elite freaking tackles right there. He has the ability. Just give him time and patience to figure out that side of the ball.”