EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Evan Neal walked out to the practice field today inappropriately dressed for a hot and humid morning.
"I was out there with a sweatshirt on," he said. "Trainers made me take it off, though."
That's not to say Neal can't handle the heat, physically or emotionally. Actually, he relishes it. Neal was raised in steamy Okeechobee, Fla., a landlocked city in the south-central part of the state. He played collegiate football at the University of Alabama, where players are expected to perform to a level of greatness.
Neal's 2022 rookie season with the Giants included numerous impressive moments and games, but he is quick to admit he can play better. He missed four games with a knee injury and struggled in others, notably a September Monday night contest vs. Dallas in which DeMarcus Lawrence had 3.0 sacks.
Neal recently missed about 10 days while in the NFL concussion protocol, but he returned to the play the entire first half in the Giants' 21-19 victory against Carolina last Friday.
"It feels good to be back out there, get my feet back up under me," Neal said. "Thankfully, I was only out for about a week and a half or so, so it wasn't that much time, but it was just good to be back out there with the guys."
A recurring question in the Giants' training camp is whether Neal will follow the path created by Andrew Thomas, who had an uneven debut season in 2020 but is now one of the NFL's best left tackles, one whom the Giants recently signed to a five-year contract extension.
Thomas' most significant improvement was in his second season, which Neal hopes to emulate this year.
"I'm in Andrew's ear all the time, just talking ball, just chopping it up," Neal said. "He's a great resource to have in the room, for sure. I am thankful for him. I feel like all the guys in the room are thankful for having AT."
Neal said the advice from Thomas is "nothing specific. Our conversations are our conversations, but he is definitely in my ear, and I am in his ear. We definitely have a lot of dialogue, for sure, and I appreciate all the tips he may give me."
Neal's rookie year review included a directive that he get out of his stance quicker, which he has worked on since the season ended.
"That's the nature of the game at offensive tackle," Neal said. "Your get-off, getting to your spot. I feel like I did a pretty good job of that. I feel like it's been back to me finding a comfortable stance that I can get into and get out of. Friday night, I did that well but that's a preseason game, so I am not really going to harp on that as much. I have a lot more work to do. I have to continue to get out of my stance for the duration of the season, so I am going to focus on that."
Neal's quickness was instrumental in his most notable block in the game, which occurred on rookie Eric Gray's nine-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Neal smothered Panthers linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill on the play.
"It was a good block," Neal said. "I got to the second level, squared him up and I drove him to the end zone. Thankfully, we scored. But everybody on the play did their job. That's why it was successful. So yeah, it was a good play."
Gray's touchdown was one of many that stood out when the Giants reviewed the offensive tape.
"It's extremely fun to watch, definitely, but you don't want to harp on the good things too much," Neal said. "You want to focus on the corrections, the things that you can get better at. But it's always good to see when all 11 guys on the field do their jobs and good results come out of that."
The play was another in a series of indications that Neal will join Thomas in giving the Giants a pair of dominant tackles for many seasons.
"I feel like I have gotten better but like I said, I still have a lot more work to go, it's still preseason," Neal said. "We are just going to see as the year goes on. I'm going to continue to work on my craft, continue to get better every day and see how good I get."
Asked to name specific improvements, Neal said, "I feel like I got overall better at balance. I've worked on a few technique things. I've leaned out, got in better shape, better condition, for sure."
Offensive line coach Bobby Johnson also cited Neal's better balance as a key to his overall improvement.
"The balance, which comes from the stance thing, which everybody's seen via social media, but you've seen it in practice, too," Johnson said. "I think with that has come some confidence. I see that coming through just in his personality around the guys. So, it's really good to see a young guy start to mature, year one to year two, Joshua (Ezeudu), him, Marcus McKethan, the list goes on and on."
Johnson has high hopes for Neal this season.
"Like we talk about with Joshua, he's made some leaps from year one to year two," Johnson said. "Obviously, you know, he's missed some practice here recently. He's done a really good job improving some things that we talked about in the offseason."
The real test will be the regular season, which begins on Sept. 10 vs. Dallas – and DeMarcus Lawrence.
"Sometimes you are going to have bad plays, I mean everybody out there gets paid, everybody is elite," Neal said. "Sometimes you are going to give up a bad play. You've just got to turn the next page. You can't harp on the past because if you harp on the past, that will affect your play in the future. So just turn the next page and keep it pushing."
Which is exactly how Evan Neal tackles every day.
Catch up on all the action from Monday's training camp practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
*The Giants will conclude their preseason Saturday against the Jets, who will reportedly play Aaron Rodgers (in his first August appearance since 2018). Coach Brian Daboll said Rodgers' presence will have no effect on the Giants' plans.
"Really, I've got my team to worry about," Daboll said. "He's a heck of a player, one of the best to ever do it. All that other stuff, I'm not a storyteller or a writer, so I just try to focus on our football team getting better."
*Future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski recently said in an interview that he has no plans to come out of retirement, but if he did, Daboll is the one coach who could convince him to do so.
"He can't get me out of retirement, but he would have the best chance to get me out of retirement," Gronkowski said.
Daboll and Gronkowski were together with the New England Patriots from 2013-16, the latter three when Daboll was Gronk's position coach. But don't expect Gronkowski to show up at Giants camp anytime soon.
"I am close with Rob, so got a lot of respect, admiration," Daboll said. "Coaching him for four years, he's a good friend. We've talked, I'm not saying we talked about that, but he's a close friend. When you coach someone for four years and he's a very productive player for you and really a good person, we are from the same town, so wouldn't read too much into that."
*Players missing practice today included offensive linemen Tyre Phillips and Jack Anderson, wide receiver Cole Beasley, running back Gary Brightwell, tight end Tommy Sweeney, inside linebacker Cam Brown, defensive lineman Ryder Anderson, cornerbacks Nick McCloud and Cor'Dale Flott, and safety Jason Pinnock.
View photos of the New York Giants' 2023 roster as it currently stands.