Offensive lineman Evan Neal started double-digit games at a different position in each of his three collegiate seasons while at Alabama. He opened 13 games at left guard in 2019, 12 at right tackle in 2020 and 15 at left tackle in 2021, highlighting the young lineman's true versatility.
It is because of this extensive experience at three different positions that Kyle Flood, the former Alabama offensive line coach who spent two seasons with Neal before becoming the offensive coordinator at Texas, believes the No. 7 overall pick can slide in at either tackle or guard spot.
"I think he can fit in just about anywhere…" Flood told Lance Medow on the Giants Huddle podcast. "He's a very unique combination of size, flexibility and explosion. I think that's why he can play both. When you play guard, you really need to be a short area explosive player to win the line of scrimmage inside. Everything kind of happens faster in there than it does at tackle. But at tackle, you have to have the spatial awareness, you have to have the length, you have to have the ability to stop and start your body in space, and he does that really well, too. Left side, right side, he can play either side. Guard, tackle, he can be a really effective player I think at any of those four spots. I think the Giants will find that as they work with him through minicamp and training camp."
Within the first week of arriving at Alabama, the position coach held one-on-one meetings with many of his players, including Neal. Flood told the incoming freshman he wasn't sure if he would play tackle or guard that season, as the Crimson Tide already had Jedrick Wills (2020 first-round pick) and Alex Leatherwood (2021 first-round pick) slotted in at the two tackle spots.
Despite being one of the top offensive tackle recruits in the country, Neal ensured his coach that it did not matter where he put him - all he cared about was getting on the field and helping the team win. So, it did not surprise Flood to hear Neal talk about playing anywhere on the line that during the pre-draft process.
"It was perfect, because that's exactly his attitude," said Flood. "I can tell you that was his attitude as a freshman in college, and it doesn't surprise me one bit that it still is his attitude."
The Giants have already said that Neal will line up at right tackle this season, with 2020 first-round pick Andrew Thomas staying on the left side.
In his 12 starts at the position in 2020, Neal allowed just two sacks, one hit and six hurries on 423 pass block snaps, helping him earn an 83.7 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
Flood believes Neal's previous experience at right tackle will benefit him at the next level.
"I think there's a definite advantage to it," the former OL coach stated. "I think somebody who has played at the highest level of college football at that position already has the muscle memory to go back and do it again. And I'm sure through his training getting ready for the combine, getting ready for the draft, getting ready for minicamp, I'm sure he's been doing things right side, left side, because Evan is always going to prepare himself to be as valuable as he can to the team. I'd be shocked if he wasn't already prepared to do that."
Ever since his introductory press conference alongside fellow first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, it's been clear that the 21-year-old offensive tackle is not the most talkative guy around. But on the occasions when Neal does speak up, Flood knows that everyone – teammates, fans or the media - around him will listen.
"I really believe he's going to have a great relationship with the people that follow the team and the media, and here's why," exclaimed his former coach. "He is maybe not as vocal or as outgoing verbally as maybe some of the other players you may have on the team, but he is not shy either. He's just very thoughtful, and he's very serious about what he does. Evan's a guy who has other professional athletes in his family that he has grown up being around that. That was one of the things I always appreciated about him, even as a freshman, that none of the moments were ever too big for him. He never really had that freshman moment, because I just feel like he was raised to be ready for those moments.
"I do think, obviously, there will be a transition going into the NFL, there's no question. Now you're playing against the best players in the world, not just the best players in your conference, so there will certainly be a transition. But he'll make that transition really smooth because he has been preparing himself to be a professional athlete for a long time. I will say this, he is certainly maybe a little more reserved in how he will speak at times, but when he speaks in that locker room and in that position, I promise you that those other players will listen to him. They know it will come from the right place."
Neal's father played linebacker at Tulane in the early 1980s. More notably, the Giants' rookie tackle has two uncles with NFL experience - Cleveland Gary and Jimmie Jones.
Gary was an All-America running back for Miami before being selected in the first round by the L.A. Rams in 1989. Just a year later, he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Jones was a defensive tackle at Miami and went on to win two Super Bowls in the 1990s with the Dallas Cowboys.
View some of the top photos of Giants seventh overall pick and former Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal.
Having this professional experience in the family has helped Neal prepare for a career in the NFL, both mentally and physically. The young tackle was very dependable while playing at Alabama, and as an offensive lineman, that is just about the best thing you can offer your team.
"The most impressive thing about Evan's game is his consistency," Flood explained. "He never needed the opponent. It wasn't about the opponent. It was about his level of play. You try to get every player to that space and you can't always do it. Some players just need the opponent to get them to play at the highest level and get the most emotion out of them. But that's not Evan. Evan plays to his level all the time. He does not need the opponent for that. To me, that's the most impressive thing about him as a player, is his ability to play on that consistent basis at a really high level, with great emotion. Those are things as a coach that you're constantly looking for or constantly trying to train into your players."
Neal started for three seasons at Alabama and the only game he ever missed was due to COVID. Durability and availability are paramount in the NFL, so those traits will serve Neal well at the next level.
"Evan is a guy that does not like to miss. He doesn't miss practice, he doesn't miss games," Flood said. "Even the game he had to miss because of COVID my second year there, he ended up starting the SEC Championship game without ever practicing because he became eligible after that window he had to sit out the day before the game. All he had was one walk-through and he had to play in the SEC Championship Game, and played really well that game. Evan absolutely can fight through discomfort, which in that league for a lineman, you're going to have to do that. But that's something he's already trained to do."
The transition from college to the NFL is a difficult one for any player, but it certainly helps when you have a familiar face to lean on, especially during the early days. For Neal, that face is Xavier McKinney, as the two played together at Alabama during the 2019 campaign.
"I think that always helps. 'X' was a great teammate," Flood said about McKinney assisting Neal. "For me as an offensive coach, 'X' was a lot of fun to compete against at practice. He just is a really great human being first, and certainly an excellent football player and somebody who you always want that guy in your locker room. I think that helps… And I'm sure those other linemen are going to kind of take him under their wings as well and kind of show him the ropes."
Despite spending most of his coaching career at the collegiate level, Flood also served as the assistant offensive line coach with the Atlanta Falcons in 2017-18. During that time, he helped lead two linemen to standout performances: left tackle Jake Matthews made the Pro Bowl in 2018, while Alex Mack was a Pro Bowler both years and a 2017 second-team All-Pro.
"I was fortunate to coach in that league for a couple years, so I got the chance to be around some good players. I really believe Evan's got a really, really high ceiling in that league," Flood insisted. "It's much more about the person than it is anything else. He's wired right, he has the right work ethic already built into him. I just think he's going to be great in that league."
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View the best photos from mandatory minicamp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.