Evan Neal or Charles Cross to Giants? Signs point to a tackle in NFL draft's first round

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The joke about the New York Giants being in [checks notebook] Year 10 of their offensive line rebuild is no longer funny. It is downright scary.

The Giants have been trying for a decade to get their offensive line back in order after it disintegrated following their win in Super Bowl XLVI. In the 2013 draft they began trying to restock the unit with the selection of Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh in the first round (19th overall).

It continues into next week's 2022 NFL draft, with the Giants scheduled to select fifth and seventh overall (April 28-30 on ESPN, ABC and ESPN App). Coach Brian Daboll said last month during the NFL's annual meeting that the Giants are "looking to add" to the position, and it has been widely speculated that if the Giants keep both first-round selections, one will be an offensive tackle. That is what ESPN's Todd McShay projects in his latest mock draft with Mel Kiper Jr.

"That's an important spot," Daboll added.

There are strong tackle options near the top of the draft. If you want NC State's Ikem Ekwonu (6-foot-4, 310 pounds), Alabama's Evan Neal (6-8, 337), Mississippi State's Charles Cross (6-5, 307) or Northern Iowa's Trevor Penning (6-7, 325), it will need to be within the top 12 to 15 picks, one source predicted.

It makes sense. Offensive tackle is a premium position, and there are a lot of line-needy teams.

As of right now, the Giants have Andrew Thomas, the No. 4 overall pick in 2020, entrenched at left tackle. The unproven Matt Peart, Matt Gono and Korey Cunningham are the top options on the right side. It seems a lock that a highly regarded rookie will be added to the mix with one of the Giants' five picks in the top 81 selections.

A survey of 13 evaluators ranging from general managers to scouts to coaches to personnel executives to draft analysts saw a clear gap between the top tackles. Neal received seven first-place votes and Ekwonu had six. But Cross did sneak in four second-place votes, and one executive considered him the best left tackle in the draft.

Neal is considered the prospect with the least risk. He's "athletic, strong" and can be plugged in immediately on the left or right side according to one offensive line evaluator. Perhaps the lone knock is that he's doesn't always keep his feet while attempting to climb to the second level of the defense, something that can be rectified with more experience.

Ekwonu is considered an "elite run-blocker," according to multiple sources. He improved his pass blocking enough this past season that he's believed to be in the running to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. And almost half the evaluators thought enough of his pass blocking that they ranked him as the top tackle in a good tackle draft.

Some with the Giants are especially high on Cross, according to multiple sources. The question is how much input they will have in this year's draft. Giants GM Joe Schoen was hired in January in the middle of the evaluation season, and like most new GMs who inherit an entire scouting department he's expected to make changes to his staff after the draft.

Cross is the "best pure pass-protector in the draft," according to longtime O-line scouting and development consultant Duke Manyweather. Cross trains with Manyweather, but it's a statement that was backed by several scouts who studied the first-team All-SEC tackle.

In a way, Cross makes the most sense for the Giants.

"Athletically, he's got everything you need," one scout said.

Manyweather insists Cross can play on the left or right side, even though he played exclusively at left tackle for Mississippi State. This is important for the Giants with Thomas on their roster. He had a strong 2021 season at left tackle, and it would make more sense for any newcomer to plug in on the right side.

Schoen has said the Giants are willing to trade back, likely with their eyes on adding some 2023 draft capital. The Carolina Panthers at No. 6 and the New Orleans Saints at Nos. 16 and 19 are tackle-needy teams the Giants must monitor closely in that scenario. The Saints in particular are said to have serious interest in Cross, according to a source.

With what the Giants are trying to do with their new offense, Cross and Neal seem like ideal fits.

"The job of an offensive lineman, particularly for our tackles, is ... to be able to keep the width of the pocket ... inside out, and get movement at the line of scrimmage," Daboll said. "Those are the two main things we look for in our offensive linemen. ... Some guys are better at one than the other thing, but at the end of the day, they have to be able to do both to be an effective player for us."

The Giants are prioritizing the ability of their offensive linemen to move in their new offense. All four of the top tackles in this year's draft do that relatively well. Penning ran the fastest 40-yard dash of the top linemen (4.89 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine. Cross has good feet, and Neal carries his weight with amazing ease.

It gives the Giants some pretty good first-round options as they work to make their line a strength again, as it was for their last Super Bowl team.