NFL Draft Daily: The case for Evan Neal at No. 1


NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. After all, there are only 31 days until the 2022 NFL draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

For the second straight year, the Jacksonville Jaguars have the first overall pick in the NFL draft. In 2021, they used it to select their quarterback of the future and one of the most anticipated prospects in the past decade, Trevor Lawrence.

My message to the Jaguars: don’t pass up the opportunity to give Lawrence the support system he needs. Doug Pederson arriving is already a good start. Jacksonville spent big in free agency, but the upgrades they’ve made feel pretty marginal. Brandon Scherff is a really good addition on the offensive line, but the Jags overpaid for Christian Kirk and probably Foyesade Oluokun as well. They really need to crush it in the draft.

After franchise tagging Cam Robinson, the assumption has been that Jacksonville will now select Aidan Hutchinson No. 1 overall. Pairing the edge rusher from Michigan with Josh Allen would give the Jaguars a talented duo off the edge. However, I’m here to advocate for Evan Neal going first overall.

Jaguars General Manager Trent Baalke says extension talks with Robinson are ongoing. (Wikimedia Commons)

I talked about this idea a bit this week on my podcast. This has less to do with Hutchinson and more to with both Neal and the Jaguars future at offensive tackle. Lawrence’s rookie season was nothing shy of a train wreck. He threw 12 touchdowns and a league-high 17 interceptions while completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes. That included an eight-week stretch where he only had one touchdown. However, Lawrence was rarely the subject of scrutiny when it came to the Jaguars. Urban Meyer racked up controversy after controversy to keep the spotlight off the former Clemson star. By all accounts, it was a very toxic environment and Jacksonville did not allow Meyer to even finish his first season.

On top of that, his supporting cast was underwhelming at best. Fellow first-round pick and former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne suffered a Lisfranc injury that cost him the whole year. The receiving corps was often banged up and lacked a go-to playmaker. The offensive line left a lot to be desired as well.

The case for Neal requires a bit of projecting into the future. This is the second straight year the Jaguars tagged Robinson. I can’t see them doing it a third time and clearly they have some reservations about handing him a long-term extension. On the right side, Jacksonville also has a question mark. Jawaan Taylor is in the final year of his rookie deal and has done little to indicate he deserves an extension. According to PFF, he led the league in penalties for offensive tackles last season on top of allowing six sacks. So both of the Jaguars starting tackles could be gone next season and neither one is truly deserving of being the long-term starter.

That’s why I think Neal should be the pick. He measured in at 6’7.5″ and 337 pounds with 34-inch arms at the combine. In addition to being a massive human being capable of moving like a man 100 pounds lighter, he has experience at both tackle spots from his time at Alabama. He could easily play right tackle this season before sliding over to the left side in 2023 when Robinson’s deal is up. Jacksonville also has 2021 2nd-round pick Walker Little in the fold. If he can continue to develop. He could be in line to be the team’s starting right tackle with Neal on the left in 2023.

Put on Neal’s tape and you can see why he is special. He is rock solid in pass protection and can get to the second level as a run blocker. There is definitely room for him to improve his pad level and balance. If you want to see what he looks like going up against NFL talent, here is his film from the SEC Championship game against Georgia.

I have long been an advocate for building in the trenches, especially on the offensive side. Jacksonville has already invested some resources there this offseason, but they shouldn’t stop. Especially after Brandon Linder announced his retirement on Sunday, this unit still has room to grow.

There is one last piece to this that I think is important to consider. The depth at edge rusher in this draft class is impressive. Players like Arnold Ebiketie, Nick Bonitto, Drake Jackson, David Ojabo, Kingsley Enagbare, Cam Thomas, Josh Pascal and Myjai Sanders will all likely come off the board on Day 2. Jacksonville will absolutely be able to find a quality edge rusher to pair with Josh Allen with the 33rd pick in the draft.

I don’t think the same can be said for offensive tackle. The drop off from Neal to players like Darian Kinnard, Abraham Lucas, Nicolas Petit-Frere and Tyler Smith is much larger than the drop off from Hutchinson to the group I mentioned before. As great a player as Hutchinson may be, the strength of this class is at edge rusher.

If and when Jacksonville ultimately drafts Hutchinson No. 1 overall a month from now, I won’t crush them for making the safe and obvious pick. I will wonder a bit about Lawrence’s long-term protection and if passing on Neal will hurt his long-term development.

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